By Patrick Scriven, Director of Communications, Young People’s Ministries
I had the opportunity last week to meet with some of the excellent folks who help to coordinate our United Methodist Volunteers in Mission (UMVIM) work in the Pacific Northwest Conference. Together they support the efforts of early responders, resource mission teams serving projects regionally and internationally, and connect us in smart ways with other denominational, religious, and civic groups engaged in the same work.
Wendy Riddle, a new member to the UMVIM leadership team, mentioned that she was surprised by how few of the people she spoke with at annual conference were aware of UMVIM. She wondered what more we could do to increase awareness of this good and important work.
This isn’t the first time a communicator has encountered a question like that. We are often quite aware of something I refer to as an empathy gap; a chasm between our perception of how important something is and the attention paid to it by the audience.
In church communications, I see this in a number of ways.
- The response to articles relating to the full inclusion of LGBTQ+ individuals in the life of the church dwarf those communicating other aspects of our shared life.
- Stories about specific ministries are most often read, shared, and commented upon by the people who participated in that ministry.
- Immediately after a disaster occurs, people are more interested in responding, even if the need isn’t clear, than months later when the need may be greater and better understood.
Now, the importance of LGBTQ+ inclusion to many isn’t a bad thing, just as it isn’t wrong to be interested in events one participated in, or to be moved to give upon hearing a compelling story of need. It is a fact that we only have 24 hours in a day, just as it a reality that many forces are competing for the time one might have to consume church news. This being the case, we all make decisions on how we’ll spend this time and prioritize those items we most closely relate to (for various reasons).
What I believe we ought to be more introspective about is how little we, collectively, tend to be interested and curious about new things that don’t immediately catch our interest. Does the allocation of our time tell us about our actual priorities or is it more indicative of lives spent triaging what we can of the world around us? Or both?
Are we noisy gongs or clanging cymbals?
Communicators have some tools to try to mitigate the challenges of catching people’s attention. Catchy headlines, compelling images and/or video, distribution across various media channels, keeping things short and on point, and making efforts to build trust with an audience; these are all things that can help. At some point, however, we are just another part of the problem. When the volume gets too high, it all becomes noise.
When consulting with local churches, I’m often surprised at the amount of ‘product’ they push out on a weekly or monthly basis. Some produce weekly bulletins, slides for projection, email newsletters, a printed monthly, social media posts, web site updates, blogs, and videos of the pastor’s sermon. It amazing that all this can happen and still no one is available to volunteer for next week’s youth group outing!
We’re dealing with the same problem of course, and in danger of contributing to a continuity of noise that people encounter throughout their busy lives. And, more often than not, we are simply a couple decibels added to the latest “modern day presidential” tweets by Donald Trump and the subsequent outrage they produce, entertainment, corporate and political interests competing to influence our opinions and behavior, not to mention the jobs that many never get to leave behind as their smartphone keeps them tethered 24/7.
And this all assumes an individual is fortunate enough to have the health and/or financial resources available to them to have much agency in deciding where they might allocate their attention.
What to do when we are surrounded by noise
In considering the challenge that communication noise creates, a lyric from the popular musical Hamilton comes to mind, “Talk less, smile more.” The advice is delivered by a fictionalized Aaron Burr to a young, and anxious, Alexander Hamilton. Like young Mr. Hamilton, we too are often guilty of filling space that might more strategically be left open for something else.
What might this look like, practically speaking? Let me suggest two possibilities, one corporate and one personal.
The question from Wendy that I led off with about UMVIM awareness is a good one. While it’s easy, and perhaps accurate, to suggest people simply need to do a better job of paying attention, an institutional adjustment may be needed as well. At the very least it should cause us to ask questions.
- Do we have the right focus, and sufficient leaders in place, to do all that we once did?
- As we launch new things, are we doing the hard work of letting others go to create needed space?
- Are our communication efforts as effective as they can be, or are we guilty of just shouting louder?
On the personal side, I’ve grown fond of a practice a number of pastors have incorporated into their regular worship service, though by no means is it universal. Toward the beginning of the service the pastor invites the congregation into a moment of silence where one might take a few deep breaths and mentally leave the things they brought with them behind.
While a moment of silence is remarkably difficult to accomplish when you have young children fidgeting on the pew next to you, such moments are essential reminders that we all need to slow down. It is a practice I find myself doing sometimes even as I sit at my desk working through my daily tasks, that and turning off notifications.
We need to develop practices such as these. When things are moving too fast, only the loudest and shiniest things can catch out attention. Truly important ideas and opportunities are too easily missed, and we all know that the number of likes or retweets something receives is a poor indicator of God’s heart. While they may seem deceptively easy, even the personal practices are hard to adopt; the corporate ones even more so, I suspect.
Summer is an excellent time to slow down and assess what truly matters. May God work with us so that our words, when spoken, are truly important. And let us smile more knowing that such efforts create space for the concerns of (and for) others to creep into our lives in ways we once might have identified as the work of the Spirit.