[This is a copyrighted work in progress.]
Bill's Communication Biases
I have worked in the general areas of communication-evangelism and media relations for two dioceses and with four bishops for nearly 45 years: first for 15 years in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Allentown (150 congregations and 260,000 communicants) on the staff of the founding bishop of that diocese, then for the past 30 years for the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem, with Bishop Mark Dyer, Bishop Paul Marshall and Bishop Sean Rowe.
During the course of this experience, I have developed “biases” that I continually critique. Using that construct, I hope to offer with some directness and clarity what I have learned about the theology, ministry and practice of communication in a church context and how I have appropriated this experience, emphasizing what has made sense to me and what has worked for me.
The following may serve initially as both an introduction and a hint of content to come. I intend to revise and expand this to be both a table of contents and a summary of the topics.
1. Christian communication is about proclaiming the gospel. (Communicate … your ministry. You are neither an independent journalist nor a house organist, but rather a communication-evangelist.
2. Every church is a small church that needs to extend its pulpit. (The church exists for those who do not belong to it.)
3. Don’t confuse evangelism with publicity. (Why do you want media coverage?)
4. Think not how/program but what/content… (There’s no “s” in communication. Communications is generally about tactics and a multiplicity of media. Communication, no “s,” is about content and strategy.)
5. The media are not out to get you. (Establish and maintain credibility, take advantage of opportunities, create opportunities, and be of some use to your media contacts.)
6. Over the long haul, the coverage you get from the media for what you’d like to accomplish will generally be in inverse proportion to the control you attempt to retain over the story.
7. God uses many media of self-disclosure.
8. You don’t have to be a technician to use technology. If you don’t know your way around online, however, you’ll soon be out of the information and communication flow.
9. Communication builds community. (Gather the folks. Tell the stories/mystery/secrets. Break the Bread. … as in Acts. 2:42)
Christian communication is about proclaiming the gospel. A communication ministry that does not proclaim the gospel, however sophisticated it may be, is not a Christian communication ministry. If gospel proclamation is not the reason for our communication efforts, what in the world are we communicating?
Communication as a church ministry makes no sense unless it supports evangelism, putting God’s good news before people, what God is doing in our world … putting that before people in such a way that they are invited to deal with the discipleship imperative: Follow me.
Church communicators and editors of most if not all denominations, dioceses and judicatories have often found themselves trapped in one of two paradigms. Each is problematic. Some define themselves as independent journalists. Some allow themselves to be defined as house organists.
Many talented professionals have labored under the illusion that they could divorce their concerns from the concerns of the church. Similarly gifted individuals have labored in the shadow of institutional power as promoters of the institution.
In an attempt to think outside of those boxes, I have tried to be a communication-evangelist. I’d love to find a term that trips more easily off the tongue.
I have tried to lift up three realities: (1) Church communication ministry is about proclaiming the gospel. The communication minister’s mission statement is: tell secrets. More about that later. (2) Communication is the basic ministry of every baptized person. It’s about the Word continuing to become flesh. (3) Even the largest churches are not big enough spaces in which to publish glad tidings. Because the church exists for those who do not belong to it, we need to find creative ways to tell our stories and to extend our pulpits.
With that in mind, I have worked over the years to develop, in addition to our diocesan newspaper, a few ministries that may be unique.
Several newspapers in various parts of our diocese, sometimes as many as seven, published monthly columns written by our bishop. The combined circulation of those newspapers that published the column regularly is 300,000. When all seven published the column, it’s about half a million. That last for about 12 years.
Several newspapers readily accepted and published columns, op-eds and letters to the editor that I wotte.
The largest regional daily newspaper in our diocese developed and nurtured regular consultation with the local interfaith community. Because I have outlasted several generations of editors and journalists at the paper as well as the churches, synagogues and mosques of people now involved, most people no longer know that this evolved from a presentation I made to editors and the interfaith community during the early 1990s.
Cable systems that reached into some 200,000 northeastern Pennsylvania homes had, at my request, carried live Episcopal teleconferences, including the Trinity Institute. The largest system produced and aired some of our events, including ordinations.
Several cable systems that reach into some 400,000 northeastern Pennsylvania homes carried on a weekly basis an “Interfaith TV” hour for which I selected and provided the tapes. The hour usually consisted of two half-hour programs professionally produced at national, regional and local levels by various denominations and independent producers.
Communication as a church ministry is about telling secrets.
Whenever we talk about God, we’re in the realm of mystery and sacrament, secret and sign, hidden yet revealed… a presence to be encountered in our relationships and in the signs of our worship. The Greek word, musterion, from which we get our word mystery (something hidden) was translated into Latin as sacramentum, (sacrament, sign, something visible).
Christian thinkers used both words to refer to the hidden presence of the real — the partially veiled and partially unveiled presence of God — to refer to visible signs (persons, loved ones, the church, bread and wine) that communicate something of God’s hidden presence.
When rightly used in religion, mystery describes “a reality, something visible, that suggests the hidden presence of God.” (Hold that thought.)
I once knew a preacher who punctuated with whispers.
When he was about to say something he really wanted you to hear, he leaned forward and lowered his voice. It was wonderfully effective. He leaned forward to whisper; people leaned forward to hear.
“Bob preaches like he’s telling secrets,” someone once quipped.
Each of us encounters God in God’s mysterion. We walk frequently along the edges of the divine mystery. If we listen closely, as we live God’s love, we hear secrets. And we “tell secrets” of God’s visitation… of how we were blinded by the light, of how the Christ within us recognized himself under the world’s disguises.
I once heard a Maryknoll missionary say something like this. “Many years ago when I came to work with the people in this faraway land. I came with the intent to bring God to them. I soon discovered that God was here before me.” He told them that secret, again and again.
“Of this gospel,” Paul says in Ephesians (3:7-10), “I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace … given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known …”
“The aim of communication for Christians,” William Fore wrote in his excellent book on television and religion, “is to help people interpret their existence in the light of what God has done for them as manifest in Jesus Christ.”
He went on to say that the Christian communicator does not ask, “How can I communicate the gospel in such a way that others will accept it?” He characterizes that as “the public relations question, the manipulative question.”
“Rather, our task is to put the gospel before people in such a way that it is so clear to them that they can accept it, or reject it — but always for the right reasons. Our objective should be to present the gospel in ways so clear and self-evident that the recipient will have an “Aha!” experience, so that the good news will make complete sense to his or her own inner world, so that the recipient will say, in effect, ‘I already knew that!’”
God is there before we get there. Communication-evangelism helps people discover the God who is already in their hearts... and then gets out of God’s way.
Years ago in Bethlehem, we had a large, movable satellite dish installed on the four-story bell tower of our Cathedral. I invited the local newspaper to send a photographer. He took the photo as a crane had lifted the dish seemed suspended from the sky and the cross on the roof of the adjoining cathedral church was visible through the mesh of the dish.
As I crossed a bridge into South Bethlehem, just before getting to Diocesan House, a version of that image continued to intrigue me. I used it to get focused, to get centered. It was a juxtaposition in search of a theology of communication. From the bridge, both the cross on the roof of the cathedral and the satellite dish on the bell tower came into view. Glancing at one, then at the other… I remembered the moment when one was seen through the other.
The cross of the Mediator, Jesus Christ, is a window into the heart of God. The satellite dish is symbolic of the many and various other media of God’s self-disclosure. “Long ago,” the Letter to the Hebrews begins, “God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways...” God still uses many media of self disclosure.
Where will God show up today? For whom might I be a clue? To whom might I tell a secret?.
A friend once said to me, “I think each of us preaches one sermon over and over: with words, by how we live our lives and by how we nurture our relationships.”
One story/image I discovered frequently replays in my head and in my heart. Because it’s open-ended, it’s ever fresh. It helps me also to recognize what’s happening when we do “tell secrets” of God’s visitation.
A little boy wandered into a sculptor’s studio and watched a master sculptor work with hammer and chisel on a large piece of marble. Marble chips flew.. It wasn’t enough to hold the interest of a little child very long. Months later he returned and, to his surprise, where once stood only a large block of marble there now stood a majestic and power Aslan-like lion. “How did you know,” he asked the sculptor, “there was a lion in the marble?” “I knew,” the sculptor replied, “because I saw the lion first in my heart. The real secret, though, is that it was the lion in my heart who recognized himself in the marble.”
Where I first read this story of the Christ within who recognizes himself unformed in the disguises of the world, it was used to illustrate the relationship between spirituality and ministry, between contemplation and action, between prayer and mission.
It suggests to me also the relationship between communication and evangelism … and that, for each of us as Christian disciples, our basic ministry is communication. It’s about God’s word becoming flesh. Incarnation continues. So, not only is communication in the church about proclaiming the gospel. Communication is also your ministry. Communicate … Your Ministry.
All rights reserved
Bill Lewellis, Diocese of Bethlehem, retired
Communication Minister/Editor (1986-2010), Canon Theologian (1998-)
newSpin weekly: www.diobeth.typepad.com; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; (c)610-393-1833
Be attentive. Be intelligent. Be reasonable. Be responsible.
Be in Love. And, if necessary, change. [Bernard Lonergan]
9. Communication builds community. (Gather the folks. Tell the secrets. Break the Bread … as in Acts. 2:42)