Why your church should geek out on design and media communications

In The Grand Overview, Theories

It’s good to question why you do what you do. Your thoughts determine all your actions, so it’s good to dig into all the reasoning that takes place in the dark recesses of your mind and produce something a bit more articulate.

So I thought I would focus the microscope on what has consumed my education, career and spare time since I went to university at the end of the 90s: design and media. More specifically, how they can be used to resource and build the church, and how they can be a channel of communication for the gospel.

Every church uses design, media and comms on some level. If you have a telephone in your office, if the preacher uses a microphone, or if you print out a weekly newsletter off the photocopier, your church is engaging with communication technology. And if you’ve ever used clipart, made a font choice, or had those hand-stitched banners hung round the church hall, you’ve also engaged with design.

The only question is how effectively.

Living in the 21st Century we have some pretty incredible tools. Tools that the old missionaries could only dream of. The question is whether we’ve grasped their full potential. Are we using them effectively as we seek to undertake the Great Commission?

Since 1995 the age of the Internet has radically altered the world around us. In addition, the digital landscape appears to significantly transition about every 5 years as technology develops. Most recently this can be seen with the expolsion of smartphones, mobile devices and the death of Flash. In short, it only takes your church to be lagging a little bit behind the times to be living in a significantly different world. So here’s my reasoning as to why we should push the envelop on design and media in our local churches, whatever size they happen to be.

 

1.
“I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel”
(1 Cor 9:22-23)

It’s been said that we’re now living in the third age of communication. We’ve gone beyond both oral and written communication, and have now transitioned into a visual culture. Images are king. As they say, ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ — so much is communicate in an instant by what you present visually. And you can’t unsubscribe.

We have all the tools available to do a good job. So the choice to remain unengaged is a choice that is seen immediately. It communicates your values, and even how much you care about reaching the world around you.

In Acts 17 the Apostle Paul visits Athens and effectively speaks their language. He references and contextualises his preaching to the culture of those around him. Perhaps the breakthrough moment for James Hudson Taylor in his mission to inland China was when he adopted the local dress and hairstyle. It seems simple but it was both controversial and revolutionary at the time. He eyes were opened to a blind spot, realising their goal was to introduce people to Jesus, not to being British. He became like them to win them. Sometimes we have to lay aside our tastes and preferences, our sense of tradition and ‘how it has always been done’. As Paul writes “I do it all for the sake of the gospel”.

The goal of the church is to speak the language of people today, not 15 or 20 years ago. Becoming fluent in effective use of design and media is really a matter of speaking the local dialect to the people around you.

 

2.
Technology advances the church

When you look back over history it’s not difficult to see how the advance of technology has played a major role in the growth of the church. When Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in the mid-fifteenth century he launched the era of mass communication. Books were no longer painstakingly copied by hand (by a monk, in Latin) but reproduced at an astonishing rate. For the first time new ideas could be published and shared. The significance of the Bible becoming freely and widely available can hardly be understated. People could now read God’s word for themselves and it ignited the Reformation.

The Great Commission has communication right at its heart. Any technology that provides a faster or richer experience can be used to share the gospel with greater immediacy, clarity and reach. We love to hear about the crowds that Wesley and Whitfield used to draw. Sometimes twenty to thirty thousand. But then someone invented a truck, someone else invited a microphone, and all of a sudden Reinhard Bonnke’s preaching to 1.6 million people on a field in Africa. In one session. Amazing!

God uses people to preach his gospel. But he also uses the technology we invent.

How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”. But it’s not just feet that we have today.

 

3.
We have been given five talents

The Parable of the Talents makes a fairly simple point: the more you’ve been given, the more God is expecting. Living in our Western 21st Century world, there has never been a people richer and more fully resourced than us.

In addition Acts 17 tells us that God, speaking of all mankind, has “determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him” (Acts 17:26-27).

God has determined exactly where people will live, and when. Nothing is accidental. We have all been carefully positioned in time and space to maximise the number of people that will find God. These people aren’t just down your street, at work, or in Tesco’s. They’re your friends on Facebook. They’re people who click links on Twitter, who are searching for answers and type their questions into Google.

Today our planet is the most populated it’s ever been. Perhaps the fact that currently 3.3 billion people have access to the internet is not an accident. Perhaps, by God’s grace, they live in a world where a gospel message can be heard, read or viewed even when there’s not a Christian for a thousand miles.

With all the tools we have available in this day and age maybe, just maybe, God’s expecting us to use them. In the Parable of the Talents, even the guy that got the least resources was expected to do something, and not bury it in the ground. We can all make an effort.

 

4.
God is a designer. Be like him.

Perhaps one of my favourite points. Look at the universe around you. God’s design skills are completely off the chart. I love all those science documentaries about how awesome and huge the universe is. And seeing the 12 week scans of my two children was unreal. Within an incredibly short space of time God had created a tiny human with the delicacy and complexity that surpasses anything anyone has ever created. And it’s living and breathing. God’s design is never static — every sunrise is different, every leaf is unique. If you want absolute proof that God the-designer-of-everything exists, look around you and have a baby. It’s insane.

Ephesians 5:1 tells us to imitate God. Yes, I’m taking this a bit out of context when Paul’s addressing our character, telling us to love and forgive etc. But every child wants to imitate their parents. My three year old daughter copies everything her mother does. She wants to be just like her. Doing the best design work we possibly can is one way the church reflects the glory of God.

 

5.
Your front door is not your front door

It’s your website. I’m not sure who coined that phrase but it’s a good one. What’s the first thing you do before you check out a new church? You visit their website. If it’s hard to find or you can’t find out really basic information like meeting times — that’s your first impression.

Your website projects the mood and tone of the church to people who have never been. Everything they see, and the way the site works will have an effect, creating an overall feeling of whether they’re more or less likely to attend. This forms the ‘user experience.’ Design isn’t simply about decoration, it combines both form and function: it’s the entire way somethings works, and how effective it is in achieving its objectives.

 

6.
You put a lamp on a stand

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
Matthew 5:14-16

Putting a lamp on a stand is a deliberate action. As the verse says, our good works need to be done in a way that people can see them, so that they might ultimately worship God.

I find this grates against my British reserve and our typical self-depreciating humour. We don’t like to be seen to be blowing our own trumpet. But at the same time we need to celebrate things, like the generosity within the church. We need to show that we care for the poor and love the communities we’re a part of. That has traction with people. It needs to be visible. We need to blog about it, capture it and share online in a way that points people towards Jesus.

The Internet is the place where information is exchanged. It is a very big stand, and our light needs to be on it.

 

7.
Media replaces nothing

One of the concerns I think people fear (including me) is that the bigger, slicker and more media savvy your church becomes, the more you rely on front-led presentation instead of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps you have less gifts of the Spirit in your meetings, or you do less things like old school evangelism by word of mouth.

Without question the dynamics of a small church are radically different from a larger one. The larger your church grows the more you experience something similar to the bystander effect — people are less likely to volunteer, give or participate. There is a tendency to believe everyone else has it covered, that they’re lost in the crowd and their personal contribution is insignificant as a small cog in a big machine.

By and by, larger churches will always to deal with that issue. There’s more spectators and people on the fringe. Another dynamic of larger churches is that they usually have more capacity to invest in design and media. And so it can be easy to correlate one with the other in an overly simplistic fashion. It can seem like a large church has sold out on some of it’s radical missionary edge that it had as a church plant, and replaced it with slick graphics.

But I think it’s good to remember a few points on this issue:

  • our goal with design and media is to be effective and fruitful, not necessarily ‘slick’. If it turns out that clipart and comic sans is what wins people to Christ, that’s what we’d do.
  • media arms the church. Evangelism is more than just talking to your friends. It’s talking to your friends and giving them a book. Or messaging them a link to a video addressing the very thing you were taking about earlier. Media, if done well, is a resource that equips people to evangelise in way that extends the conversation. It provides the next step and even instills confidence. Knowing that your church has produced good content on all the tough questions Christians get grilled with day-to-day means that even if you can’t get it right on the spot, you can always share a link later on. Our Big Objections teaching series, where we tackled the seven biggest objections our local community posted, has topped the charts of all our downloads every month for the last two years.
  • media resources the church. The great commission is to make disciples, not simply converts. The fact that a larger church has more rough-cut flaky Christians may be a mark of its success rather than its failings. If they’re sticking around and are on a journey, that’s a definite win. And you may not know their starting point. If we’re doing our jobs properly the church will be filled with former prostitutes, drug addicts and criminals. It will also be filled with unsaved church kids and very ordinary people who get dragged along by their spouse.

    Discipleship takes time, and accessible media resources create an archive of learning. If you can search by keywords, themes or scripture, you give people the capacity to dig out the content that’s relevant. And if it’s produced by you it should be 100% inline with all your theological convictions.

  • media takes a supporting role, not a leading role. It’s a tool to tell of all the good things God has done. To cast vision, to inform and to celebrate. It’s the thing that puts the thing on centre stage. A bit like your car windscreen, it’s something to be looked through rather than at. I get a bit uncomfortable when the balance is off and it feels like media is being used to engineer an experience, or make your worship leaders look like pop stars. It’s certainly a matter of taste, but you can get the balance right between using media rather than celebrating media (or creativity) in itself.

 

8.
Capacity for high-production events: drawing the crowds

This is the last thing I can think of right now (but by no means the final point!): being fluent in media opens up the door to events that are high on production and creativity, and evangelistic in nature. Our Strand of Gold Christmas events sees our church packed full of people who wouldn’t normally attend. Friends, family, neighbours and colleagues come to our event which is full of the creative arts including live music, drama, dance and video. We create promo videos and highlights videos and take photos which which get shared around online amongst literally thousands of people in our town. It’s a link in the chain which sees people on Alpha, and even gets mentioned in people’s baptism testimonies. Media has created new opportunities to attract and engage people in ways that didn’t really exist a few decades ago.

 

Conclusion

I hope you’ve found my opening thoughts on design and media helpful. If you’ve got any further thoughts I would love to hear them in the comments section. For me, this covers the why. Future posts will largely focus on the how — tutorials covering skills and technique, and logging our explorations at Kings on what we’ve found effective.

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