Faith Works 2-27-16
Church Communication Should Be Aimed Outwards
When you have lots of newsletter and bulletin articles full of acronyms, look out.
You're talking to those on the inside, and excluding those not yet in.
Alphabet soups and code words, in-group speak, church-ian language: it all says to visitors, non-members, new members . . . you don't really belong here.
Acronyms are not all created equal. Chi Rho, CYF, Week of Compassion . . . in my own faith tradition, these are names that get flung around in e-mails and on-line posts from our regional office, let alone within our own social media and print materials like newsletters and Sunday bulletins.
Someone in our church recently came up to me and said "I've been wondering why you keep saying 'Christian Women's Fellowship' instead of making it simple and saying CWF when you make announcements from the pulpit, and somehow this week it hit me: we have lots of new people who don't know what a CWF is, if you don't tell them!"
She was exactly right. I get frustrated with our denominational calendars and posts that say "Chi Rho" which, even when the context is pretty clearly "youth organization of some sort" doesn't communicate which age level (it's 6th, 7th, & 8th graders). Likewise our senior high fellowship, usually just called CYF.
And while "Week of Compassion" isn't an acronym, it can confuse those who've never dealt with it. "Hey, why are we talking about the 'Week of Compassion' in April when that week was in February?" You need to explain what the effort behind that deceptive title is, unless you can just safely assume the people sitting there on Sunday are the same ones sitting there last week, and last year, and they'll be exactly the same next year.
First, that's almost certainly not true; second, if it is true, that's a whole 'nother problem.
Some of my United Methodist friends say, not to be competitive, but no one does confusing acronyms casually dropped into church conversations like the clergy and leaders of the UMC. Perhaps, but I'll let them confess their own sins!
So communication efforts need to always be facing out. Anytime I'm putting a flyer, an article, a Facebook post together, I try to imagine how this reads to a person who's never been involved with our church or my denomination. It does mean a certain amount of spelling out sometimes, but it's important. It's necessary. And to not do it creates an invisible barrier that is no less real to visitors, new members, the less deeply involved; it says "you don't know the code, you're not on the inside, you're on the outs." Don't tell people that the DMF through the CCF is returned to the CCIO which is how our GF giving to ODO reaches the RO.
(And like that last line, if you go back to spell it out and realize "no one really wants to know this, anyhow," that should tell you something. Either rephrase it or drop it.)
It's one of the most common . . . complaints? No, not complaints, since hardly anyone will say it, but when you see studies that go and find church visitors and ask them why they didn't return to a place they tried out for worship, it's a common piece of feedback you hear: "Everyone was talking in code."
Some of it is the language of churchianity: it's not that you can't say salvation or redemption or doxology, but you need to be mindful of the importance of teaching as you talk, caring in your communications. Unless you just intend to speak to an in-group (and how is *that* evangelism?), there's some cultural translation that is called for.
It can also be your own culture that creates the code: narthex is a word I struggle with, since it's useful, but somewhat mysterious, and we have lobbies and vestibules and entryways, but just one room at the entrance to the worship space (which can be called a sanctuary, a nave, the auditorium, etc.). And there's the very internal stuff, like the "Harriet Circle" or "out at the church lodge." How does a new person learn what those are?
For we who've been going to church, and sometimes one church, all our lives, the answer would seem to be "ask someone." But that comfort level comes only with time, and you can give a great gift by putting people in that position as infrequently as possible.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he has been found guilty of jargon in the past, but is currently on probation. Tell him some church words you've found puzzling at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.