In my communication role for an international, inter-denominational mission organization, I have the privilege of providing communication training for new missionaries who are preparing to serve cross-culturally.
Most of the men and women I speak to are trained to do medical work, theological education, children’s ministry, etc.—only a small number are trained in communication and/or are seeking to serve in a specific media/arts-related role. Their assumption is often that the “average” missionary has only minor communication responsibilities (i.e., sending ministry updates to supporting churches and individuals) and that the rest of the work of communication is to be done by trained “professionals” (however few or far between they may be).
My desire has been to help these men and women to see communication as an integral part of mission and to see their role in it. I believe these are two of the primary challenges for the Church today as it seeks to communicate and do mission faithfully in the context of our globalized, broadband-connected, post-everything world.
Thinking Theologically about Communication
In order to think theologically about communication in mission, we first must work out our missiology, our theology of mission. We have come to understand mission as being God’s mission, the missio Dei. God is a missionary God, and we are called to be a mission-centered Church.1
However, the reality is often very different. Many churches today are still sending people out—whether it is into the mainstream workplace on Monday morning or into a cross-cultural situation overseas—as if Jesus is in their pocket, an exclusive item they have to offer to an otherwise “godless” world. Even some of the language we are accustomed to using is indicative of this misconception: “God has chosen you to take the gospel to the unreached people living in darkness ….”
In order to think theologically about communication in mission, we first must work out our missiology, our theology of mission.
If we understand mission first and primarily as being God’s mission, then we can trust that he is already at work in the world and in the lives of those we encounter along the way. Bishop David “Zac” Niringiye of Uganda “pictures Jesus already at work in the mosque, inviting us to the mosque to make disciples there. … We are invited to participate with him.”2
So our role is simply to participate in what God is already doing, and these are the stories we are called to tell—the stories of what God is doing in our own life and what he is doing in the lives of others (e.g., our co-workers at the office, the people we are living among cross-culturally, etc.).
Communication vs. Marketing
One challenge to this understanding of communication is the fairly recent focus in our churches on marketing and promotion. Like other aspects of the evangelical Church, this model has carried over from the corporate world and been widely adopted by many churches which are seeking to be relevant in our market-driven society.
My friends at the Center for Church Communication, producers of the popular Church Marketing Sucks website, have done much in recent years to agitate and advocate for more “effective and authentic” communication. They say, “Churches have the greatest story ever told, but no one’s listening. … That remarkable story is lost thanks in part to poor research, little or no planning, bad clip art, cheesy photos and ignorable ads.”3
The goal, they say, is for “the Church to matter,” but the emphasis has remained primarily on producing better-designed, higher-quality promotional pieces—and relatively little focus has been given to rediscovering and reimagining mission. As a result, we are still left with the dilemma of feeling as though our communication is self-centered rather than God-centered. Disconnected from a deeper purpose, our work in communication becomes laborious—simply another task on our “to do” list.
I recently spent time revising the “communication” section of my organization’s manual, and in some places I replaced the words “promote” and “promotion” with “communicate” and “communication.” I did this not because I oppose all marketing and promotion. There will always be upcoming events to promote, and my work in Internet ministry taught me that “if you build it, they will come” simply does not work on the web (you still have to promote your ministry website to get people to go there). Rather, I based these changes on a desire to reorient us as mission around the ultimate goal of communication.
The Ultimate Goal of Communication
While a particular communication piece (e.g., newsletter, website, etc.) should have a specific (perhaps even measurable) goal, we must avoid the pitfall of viewing all communication as primarily utilitarian. As the Church of Jesus Christ, there is in fact an ultimate goal to all of our communication, and it is the same goal as mission itself—the worship of God. As John Piper has written, “Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is. Missions exists because worship doesn’t.”4
Through our participation in God’s mission, the gospel of Jesus Christ will be communicated to men and women from every nation, tribe, language and people, and by grace they will become worshipers of the one true and living God. Our communication about this redemptive work of God in the world should inspire others to worship him as well.
Our communication about this redemptive work of God in the world should inspire others to worship him as well.
Even our prayer requests are ultimately a call to worship because, as Bishop Niringiye has written, “The purpose of prayer is aligning ourselves with God’s will, in order that we may fulfill God’s purposes, for God’s glory—living in God’s mission—in Jesus’ footsteps.”5
There is a powerful “kingdom vision” presented in the story of Pentecost in Acts 2 wich is helpful in keeping this understanding of communication and mission central. We read that the Holy Spirit falls on the followers of Jesus who have gathered in Jerusalem, and they hear each other speaking in their mother tongues. Notice the topic of their conversation: “They’re speaking our languages, describing God’s mighty works!” (Acts 2:11, The Message, emphasis mine).
The ultimate goal of communication is God’s glory, and the ultimate subject of our communication is the magnalia Dei, God’s mighty acts.
Everyone Is a Communicator
If we accept these premises about the goal and subject of communication, then it is not difficult to see that the work of communication should not be relegated to only the “chosen few” who are professionally trained. No, communication is a responsibility that we all share, and our globalized, hyper-connected world is facilitating this “everyone is a communicator” philosophy like never before.
In his book The World Is Flat, Thomas Friedman writes, “It is now possible for more people than ever to collaborate and compete in real time with more other people on more different kinds of work from more different corners of the planet and on a more equal footing than at any previous time in the history of the world—using computers, email, networks, teleconferencing and dynamic new software.”6
Friedman describes how this “flat” world is impacting nearly every sector of culture and society, including his own field of journalism. A new breed of “citizen journalist”7 (or “networked journalist”8) has arisen, armed with an arsenal of electronic tools such as the Internet, blogs9, and streaming web video.
This revolution in media is fundamentally subverting the “gatekeeper” role of the mainstream media and ultimately changing the editorial and business models for newspapers and magazines, as well as television networks and movie studios. Just one example is Gannett, the publisher of USA Today and ninety other daily newspapers in the US, who rechristened all of its newsrooms as “information centers” in November 2006 and reorganized its staff from traditional metro, state and sports departments into seven desks with names like “data,” “digital” and “community conversation.”10
Introducing Kingdom Journalism
What are the implications of this “flat” world for the communication of the Church? I would argue that, just as in the mainstream media world, there will always be an important role and an ongoing need for professional communicators. But there are simply more stories of God’s redemptive work in the world than the professionals alone will be able to tell.
May God be glorified as we describe his mighty acts in our lives, in our communities and around the world.
That is why it is exciting to see more and more men and women in ministry using new technology to “describe God’s mighty acts” in words and images. As citizen journalists and citizens of the Kingdom of God (Luke 17:20), these new pioneers of communication and mission are really “kingdom journalists.”
Missionary blogger Jim Cottrill tracks over 320 missionary blogs on his site Missionary-Blogs.com. I am personally tracking more than seventy-five RSS11 feeds of SIM missionaries’ blogs and online photo albums. A number of organizations, such as HCJB Global and Compassion International—and individuals, such as world missions advocate George Verwer—have started uploading digital video to hosting sites like YouTube.com. These new media tools have opened up exciting new opportunities for communication—for more stories to be told and more perspectives to be heard.
There are, of course, dangers that go along with this proliferation of media and messages. Each church and organization will have to develop guidelines for communication and set the boundaries of what is advisable and safe. But we need to encourage and equip more communicators in our churches and ministries and not allow the fears of potential pitfalls to hinder them from telling the stories that need to be told. This is yet another part of the adventure we are on as we are all called to kingdom journalism.
My hope and prayer is that our churches will reconsider (or perhaps consider for the first time) the ultimate goal of our communication and the role each one of us has to play. May God be glorified as we describe his mighty acts in our lives, in our communities and around the world.
1. Bosch, David. 1991. Transforming Mission. Maryknoll, New York, USA: Orbis Books, 370, 389-393.
2. McGregor, Malcolm. 2006. “What Kind of People Does SIM Need?” Serving In Mission Together magazine, Fall.
3. Center for Church Communication, About page.
4. Piper, John. 1993. Let the Nations Be Glad. Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA: Baker Academic, 17.
5. Niringye, Dr. D. Zac. 2006. “Finding Our Place in God’s Mission.” Connections. November.
6. Friedman, Thomas. 2005. The World Is Flat. New York, New York, USA: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 8.
7. “Citizen journalism, also known as ‘participatory journalism,’ is the act of citizens ‘playing an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analyzing and disseminating news and information.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Citizen_journalism
8. Jarvis, Jeff. “Guardian Column: Networked Journalism.”
9. “A blog is a user-generated website where entries are made in journal style and displayed in a reverse chronological order.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blog
10. Howe, Jeff. 2006. “Gannett to Crowdsource News.”
11. “RSS is a family of web feed formats used to publish frequently updated digital content, such as blogs, news feeds or podcasts.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RSS