Over at the ever-useful CMS website, Emily Carlton observes:
Throughout the New Testament, Jesus used parables and simple stories to explain complex concepts. It was a brilliant move—Jesus’ crowds contained mostly illiterate people who lived in a culture with a strong oral tradition. That meant the crowds knew how to listen and re-tell stories.
Visuals can help people receive the good news of Jesus.
Today’s culture differs. Oral traditions are minimal. We’re flooded with ads, marketing, content, and images on a daily basis, so much so that we tend to tune it all out. We usually aren’t great listeners, either. But we are incredibly literate when it comes to visuals. In fact, a study conducted by MIT neuroscientists in 2014 found the brain could recognize and identify images seen for as little as 13 milliseconds.
The Numbers Don’t Lie
The MIT numbers might seem shocking, but other surveys and reports support the findings.
If you manage social media at your church or study the affects of sermon-related visuals on church attendees, you probably have qualitative proof to support the above numbers. If not, the numbers should still demonstrate just how important good visuals are to human learning, understanding, and recall. As church communicators, we can’t overlook that fact. Visuals can help people receive the good news of Jesus.
What Can the Church Do?
Fixing a church’s visual learning problem isn’t as easy as slapping some pictures on the screens. Studies show that visuals aren’t well received when they clearly employ stock photos, aren’t directly related to the content being shared, or are stretched or pixelated in some way
Carlton is spot on. We indeed live in a visual culture. And this isn’t a bad thing, necessarily–it’s an opportunity. We can ask, as teachers, preachers, and communicators interested in forming missionary disciples, how do we ensure our ways of communicating resonate in our visual culture?
Earlier this year, at the Notre Dame Preaching Conference: Alyce McKenzie offered this lecture on the topic. And, I think one of the finest modern examples, is John Bergsma‘s use of stick-figures to unpack the Bible…check it out here and here. Bergsma’s illustrations are memorable, simple, and impactful–I’ve used them with preschoolers, elementary school children, and adult seminary students–all with great results! 🙂
Do you have any great examples or best practices in visual illustration? Share in the Comments!
Quite a few ministries, organizations, and even large nonprofits or businesses would quickly say (with a sigh!), “ugh, our communication is bad…we need to communicate better around here.”
The problem is, that’s hard to take action to improve, because it’s so vague. Bad. Communication. That’s it. A short phrase that can become an apologetic substitute for improving organizational health and effectiveness.
Here’s a list (certainly not exhaustive, but a start!) to help us as ministry leaders think beyond “bad communication.”
How’s Your Communication?
Is there an abundance of two-way communication between leaders and their teams? Is this communication building two-way trust? If not, consider why. Is it the frequency? Content? Medium? Interpersonal relationships? Etc.
Are two-way communication and dialogue present during planning, preparation, implementation, and assessment? Some organizations have a temptation to only dialogue during planning, or wait until implementation for dialogue. The reality is that two-way communication should be present in all stages of running a program, process, event, etc.
Does dialogue with teams and subordinates actually help senior leaders increase their understanding of the situation/environment of ministry, resolve potential misunderstandings, or assess how things are going? If not, senior leaders need to change their questions and style of communication so that two-way communication isn’t a “box to check,” but actually impacts the organization.
Are leaders and team members learning from one another when they have two-way communication? [If not, what looks like a true dialogue is really still “one-way” communication where the leader imparts information to the subordinate.]
Does two-way communication create new solutions or ideas that are jointly developed by different members of an organization? Because that’s the point 😉 right? Not just talk, but talk that yields better solutions/ideas than would have existed without dialogue.
Is dialogue, collaboration, and two-way communication (vertically and horizontally) part of the culture? Is it something people sense and “breathe in” when they enter your organization? Is it rewarded and encouraged?
Does two-way communication lead to consensus and resolution of conflicts? If not, why?
Do communications lead to new understanding/awareness? Or, is it simply transmitting information.
Do communications create shared ownership or issues and solutions? If not, why?
Do leaders themselves know the mission and broader messages? Do they share information that provides greater context, sense of purpose, and reasons behind decisions? Or, do leaders simply share the minimal details of what a team member “needs” to do their job at the moment?
Does increasing communication reduce anxiety and rumors within your organization? If not, why?
Is communication timely enough so that both leaders and team members can adapt to changing situations? Or, is it often shared too late to be of value or impact?
Does two-way communication leave team members feeling more motivated to support the organization’s plans and mission? Appreciated for their input? Or, is it just “occupying time” in their day to go listen to “the boss.”
Here’s a test: is the person in your organization who’d be your replacement communicated with enough that they’d be prepared to step in, if needed? Are they close? Or, are they so under-communicated with that it’s laughable that he/she could smoothly step in, in an emergency?
Are leaders out and about, frequently, to listen, coach, and clarify–even beyond those they “formally” supervise? Do leaders share what they hear and see while “out and about” with other key leaders as a part of decisionmaking? Or, are leaders rarely seen/heard by ordinary members of the organization?
Does communication within the organization lead to people feeling more cared for, on a daily or weekly basis? If not, why?
Can team members share honest opinions with leaders, without fear of negative consequences? Or, do leaders hold grudges or subtly penalize those who provide feedback?
Do leaders actively listen to all perspectives when seeking information on a topic or concern? Or, do they avoid “difficult” information that doesn’t fit the mold?
Do leaders communicate the why, most important tasks of the organization, and the desired outcome of current efforts? Or, is everyone seemingly working on a different sense of priorities, without a shared understanding of purpose?
Do communications from leaders express not merely tasks, but the realm of what’s possible for a subordinate, how far a team member can/should take the initiative, in a way that still supports the central vision for the organization?
Do leaders check to make sure subordinates, team members, and everyone understands the mission, vision, and top priorities for the present? Or do they assume, “if I said it” or “if I communicated it once,” it’s been received and clearly understood by all?
Do leaders provide guidance and tasks to subordinates in a way that tells them the results to be achieved, but not how to do it–maximizing individual freedom and initiative? Or, do leaders micromanage in dictating exactly how a task should be approached.
Is the information and content communicated within an organization actually linked to decisions, and decisions then to actions? Or, is it just “talk.”
Is communication unconstrained and continuous? Or, do people feel as if there are only certain times, places, and occasions when two-way vertical or horizontal communication is relevant for the organization?
If you find yourself answering “no” to any of these prompts, then start probing deeper into how you can change that one, outcome based indicator of communication within your organization. And then 😉 come back and read the list to find another indicator to improve.
How often do we have conversations in ministry and wonder, was I imitating Christ?
Yes, it’s an impossible standard. But, by examining the way we converse with others through the lens of “customer service” can help us relate to others and communicate more like Jesus did during his earthly ministry. A mentor once suggested these questions:
What is it I’m trying to communicate?
What do I hope to get out of this interaction?
What would Jesus do in this conversation?
What’s His heart for the person?
Last month in Example #1 we looked at a public scene, Jesus’ first synagogue sermon. Today we’re looking at a more private example, Jesus’ one-on-one conversation with Peter in the presence of a few others, while fishing (Luke 5:1-11).
Jesus begins his conversation with Peter, “Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch” (5:4). The intention of Jesus’ words is to empower. To build. To encourage the experience of success. To encourage one who has been disappointed before at this task.
Now, how might this intention have come across to Peter? He replies, “Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing, but at your command I will lower the nets” (5:5). “Master,” a title for an authority figure one is obligated to recognize–not the phrase a follower or true-believer would use. It’s almost a bit begrudging. And before Peter gives his “yes” (where Peter reminds Jesus again that he’s only doing this to honor his “command”) he subtly reminds Jesus that he (who is actually a trained and experienced fisherman) has already attempted this.
But ultimately, Peter was open to the positive intention of Jesus’ heart. Peter assumed Jesus’ good will and gave him a chance. Peter chooses the path of taking upon himself Jesus’ yoke (Lk 7:36-50), which means he’s yielding control to Jesus, letting the ball stay in Jesus’ court for at least a moment–even if he hasn’t fully bought in to the direction this is headed.
We see here that Jesus continues to move forward. What Jesus wants to communicate is deeper than “winning” this first exchange with Peter. Jesus shows some tactical patience here, to let the situation develop further, rather than assuming his entire message needs to be heard and understood right away.
This works for Jesus because his actions then evoke trust. After the miraculous catch of so many fish their nets nearly break (5:6), Peter drops to his knees at the feet of Jesus and exclaims, “Depart from me Lord for I am a sinful man” (5:8). Lord is a title of expectant trust. A “lord” provides and protects–quite a shift from Peter’s initial acknowledgement of Jesus as merely Master.
Trust is now present in the conversation. While we might hope for many things, many good intentions to come from our conversations with others–trust is a baseline. Trust makes those other hopes become realities. This example shows that while what Jesus aimed for in the communication has happened–it didn’t merely happen because of his words. He did a miracle, an obvious one (to Peter). Jesus earned trust, and because of that his message was heard and acted upon, as Peter (plus James and John) leave their belongings on the shoreline, and become Jesus’ followers.
Jesus had a firm hope for Peter at the start, but he allowed the conversation to develop. Jesus didn’t push back on Peter’s initial response, but moved forward to earn greater trust. Jesus’ heart was for the potential in Peter from his first words of encouragement, through Peter’s rebuff, right through to Peter’s final acceptance and entry into a trusting relationship with his Lord.
As leaders, evangelists, and/or missionary disciples, we’re all in customer service.
Now this is strictly a metaphor, because as Christians we’ve got nothing to sell (in fact, we’re sharing the free gift of God in Jesus Christ) and aim to foster, not consumers, but empowered, Spirit-filled Christ-followers. To use the metaphor, how’s your customer service?
Sometimes it’s easy to fall into the habit in ministerial leadership or evangelism of thinking only of the “big wins.” But what of the small, everyday victories of a person satisfied, known, heard, and loved? These too are vitally important, as these moments reveal the fruits of the Holy Spirit in us, our ability to participate in God’s self-giving love, and our growth in virtue.
How does Jesus model this for us?
Example 1: Jesus’ Public Preaching Debut (Lk 4:16-30)
Not long after his baptism in the Jordan and temptation in the wilderness, Jesus is given the opportunity for some liturgical preaching in the local synagogue. After the proclamation of the Scripture (which turns out to be from the prophet Isaiah), he declares: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:21). The assembly hears “gracious words” and Luke reports (literally, in the Greek) that they “witnessed him [Jesus]”–they fully experienced the moment (Lk 4:22). Many English translations give it a positive spin (i.e. “they spoke well of him [Jesus]”), but we see this isn’t quite the case since the hearers want to get rid of Jesus by throwing him off a cliff, and Jesus himself turns to the proverbial wisdom, “no prophet is acceptable in his own country” (Lk 4:23-24).
What can we learn about Jesus’ “customer service”? His hopes for communication here? His heart and concern for the people and situation he enters into?
First, Jesus has Good News. Jesus has a Yes–glad tidings to the poor, liberty to captives, sight to the blind (Lk 4:18–19;Is 61:1–2; Is 58:6).
But, even when we have a new yes to share, we shouldn’t expect to immediately please everyone. Sometimes in ministry, this can throw us for a loop, causing us to become defensive, cynical, or disheartened–because we’ve got something good, something needed, something that should bring joy and excitement–yet we experience rejection or discord.
Take-away #1: Jesus doesn’t change or soft-pedal his Good News. Though his “gracious” words aren’t well received (because they are grace for the “wrong people,” you know–those outsider, non-believers with a totally different culture) he still shares them.
Take-away #2: Jesus is okay with the fact that his communication for the better leads to “wondering,” confusion, and/or uncertainty. In ministry, we’re being unrealistic if we expect simple agree or disagree responses from those we communicate with. Those who wonder or express confusion aren’t enemies of the cause–they might be in transition, or on the way, if we as communicators continue to reach out to them. If we avoid setting fixed boundaries of “supporters” and “road-blockers” within our organizations.
Take-away #3: Jesus doesn’t verbally, personally confront those who disagree. He expresses the reality of the situation–that challenging words are generally not well received close to home, to those with the greatest perception of “loss” from a change of the status quo–but does not attack anyone personally. Jesus’ heart is for the future conversion, in purely human images, a “customer service” oriented toward the long-term.
Those who heard Jesus’ sermon that day, they might not have been ready for Jesus’ love for them. Yet, Jesus’ interactions with them reveal that he wants to hear them, nonetheless. Jesus wants them to experience being known, even if they’re not ready to accept or agree. It’s a level of “customer service” (to put it mildly!) we can all aim for as we communicate vision, strategy, and more in our ministries.
So your parish has a vision, and maybe even a catchy vision statement–now what?
Vision that’s not communicated broadly falls flat. Because the point of vision is that it guides everyone. Not just the elite. Not just leaders. Everyone.
How to communicate broadly in a Catholic parish?
The Sunday Homily.
I can hear the mental excuses now. All the reasons why your parish can’t communicate vision in homilies, how the people won’t like it, how it can’t be planned, there’s not enough time, etc. But, none of the excuses override the critical importance of preaching the vision, frequently and repeatedly, to the broadest parish audience.
I remember catching myself saying once, ‘But I spoke about that in a homily last year.’ It is foolish for us preachers to think that most parishioners are going to remember something we said two weeks before, never mind a year before. In truth, if the sign on the bus is to be plainly recognized, we must speak about vision over and over again. In the last three years, I have committed myself to preaching some form of visioning homily at all the weekend Masses every three weeks. I am convinced that this is necessary (Divine Renovation, 255).
Sometimes it can be tempting to think, it’s in the bulletin right? We’ve got a sign up? The staff knows? It’s on the website? But that’s not enough, “there are no shortcuts when it comes to communicating vision: it takes time and intentionality” (DR Guidebook, 60).
Let’s start with the practical:what is a visioning homily?
not simply information, but the inspiration and motivation “to desire that preferred future and be wiling to make the changes necessary” (DR Guidebook, 60)
“A homily that attempts, in some way, to address the question of why are we here, where are we going and why we do the things we do, or are trying to do the things we are trying to do” (DR Guidebook, 62)
“Preaching about the mission of the Church and the future of your parish in a way that all your parishioners can hear and understand” (DR Guidebook, 62)
Does it really need to be repeated so often?
Answer: Yes. Here’s why: “If a parish is becoming truly missional and is innovating, there will be ongoing change within the parish. Change must always be explained in light of the vision” (Divine Renovation, 256). Most people don’t love change. By communicating the vision frequently (as Fr. James Mallon does, roughly every 3 weeks) the parish helps each and every person know and understand how concrete changes and decisions fit into the big picture, and help guide the efforts.
Okay, I’m ready. But what goes into a visioning homily?
Drawing from Divine Renovation (pg. 256-257), here are the key elements in a visioning homily, with examples from a visioning homily (Groundbreaking 05: Vision, April 24, 2016) at Church of the Nativity in Timonium, MD.
Answer: why are we here? Remind the listeners why the parish exists, what God has called you to, what your mission is. For Church of the Nativity, it’s growing disciples while growing as disciples. This gets mentioned twice in the first four minutes (at 1:50-2:08 and 3:50-4:04).
Name: what’s not right at the gut level. Scratch the point of dissatisfaction that people are experiencing. Help everyone feel the need. For Church of the Nativity, it’s that it’s “hard to invite people to come people to church when there’s no place to park and no place to sit” (4:30-4:45). This is something tangible. Lots of people in the parish may have experienced this…tentatively thinking about inviting a friend to Mass, but wary of doing so because of the seemingly crowded experience.
Explain: why the current situation or past models won’t work. This might include some transparency or vulnerability. Or showing how the parish has “done its homework” in trying to address the point of dissatisfaction in the past. Aim to be clear and honest about how a particular [old] way of doing things isn’t working, but without blaming people, staff, specific groups, etc. Since Church of the Nativity is addressing how to accommodate growth, the leaders share what they’ve done in the past or tried (different times, off-campus sites, etc), and how these solutions don’t effectively lead toward the parish’s vision (1:00-1:22).
Inspire: capture imaginations, invite people to dream. Encourage everyone listening to join in the “imagine if…” for the parish. What could it be? This is a time, not for information, but to make our hearts leap, make even the most change-averse person in the pew have a momentary optimism about the future. In the example from Church of the Nativity, Brian Cook reminds the community of pieces of plywood the parish had “filled with the names of all your friends, family members, co-workers…people you’re praying for, that one day they’ll come to church and meet their Heavenly Father…this project is about making room for them, all of them” (5:30-6:00) and continues to spur the imagination as to the wider significance of the parish’s direction, that “This new building can stand as a hopeful sign that intentional growth is still possible…that God is still using the local church to change lives” (6:10-6:41).
Share: the plan for how we’re getting to where we’re going. This part is the most intuitive. We like to talk about what we’re doing. But remember, this is just one of five key elements. Without the other pieces, this part of a visioning homily can quickly become a litany of information, rather than the transformation that’s at the heart of vision and change leadership. Church of the Nativity puts it concisely: it’s about “creating empty seats at optimal times” and that phrase is used at least four times in the 7-minute vision-casting portion of the Sunday message (remember, repetition works!). The “how” is that as the parish responds to the call to “invest your treasure in the Church” this will result in hearts “connected to the Church” and the “growth in faith that comes somewhere outside of your comfort zone.”
A well-crafted visioning homily weaves these elements together, independent threads yet repeated and interrelated. There’s a logical flow from reminding who we are, to identifying and understanding the “situation” (Name & Explain), to inspiring, and only then speaking the plan.
A visioning homily doesn’t need to take a lot of time. While this entire message from Church of the Nativity is “long” (20 minutes in total) by most Catholic standards, the vision casting portion is solidly within the first 7 minutes. Visioning homilies can be done in any Catholic parish on a regular basis.
The other lesson from the Church of the Nativity example is that a parish need not have a singularlyincredible, awesome, best-preacher-ever to communicate vision. Brian Cook, Tom Corcoran, and Fr. Michael White (the 3 speakers in the Church of the Nativity message) are ordinary folks, just like you. They stumble on their words (as we all do). It’s not always the most beautiful language. And think about it–if you’re preaching on vision once every three weeks, not every one is going to be your personal best. The point is, they commit. They do it. One doesn’t have to be an especially-gifted dynamic preacher to communicate vision. Check out their book, Rebuilding Your Message (and related podcasts) for practical tips on how any disciple of Jesus Christ can grow as a communicator.
Do you have a great visioning homily to share? Post a link in the Comment section to help us all grow in this essential area of parish ministry.
p.s. Download the “Groundbreaking 05: Vision” example I used here. All vision casting elements are present within the first 7 minutes. I’m not sure how long beyond March 2017 the download will be available, but all key excerpts are in this post–viewing is optional 🙂
Try these two (which happen to be the most significant things any parish can do to increase generosity):
Talk about spirituality and money regularly in parish life, about how all our resources are ultimately God’s and what this means for our lives as disciples. Do it once a month. An example in a sermon, part of faith formation, a testimony–integrate it so it becomes “normal.”
Stop talking about your church’s needs and bills (or worse, bills from the diocese or national collections). Start talking passionately about spiritual growth, Gospel transformation, and missionary impact.