Ernest Hemingway likened writing to an iceberg. The reader sees, of course, only 10 percent of the mass, while 90 percent is found below the surface. And it’s the 90 percent that can (spoiler alert!) sink an enormous cruise ship. The power in storytelling is what you can’t see, that which is under the surface.

The same can be very true of all communicating – since all effective communicating is effective editing. Hemingway knew the true magic of storytelling was what went unsaid. As it applies to all communication, if you don’t have a cutting room floor full of material, you haven’t edited properly.

This concept is pretty straightforward, but I’d like to explore a few practical ways this impacts how churches communicate to their congregation, and a few adjustments that can be made to strengthen that communication.

Preaching

I’ll start here, because when we talk about communicating, the person in the pulpit (or on the stage) is typically where our minds go first.

Full disclosure: I’m not a preacher. I’ve been on staff at a couple churches and have been part of a teaching team where I shared some teaching duties. I do preach in churches from time to time, but I’m not currently on staff at a church.

If we think about our church services as a representation of God to our city, and our city to God, then how we preach matters a great deal.

Great communicators of the Gospel all share an ability to zero in on a passage, story, or concept, and explore how it impacts our lives right now – both individually and within a community. We’ve all heard the sermon that’s actually an entire series of sermons packed into one talk, which ultimately fails to resonate due to a lack of focus. I face that temptation every time I’m invited to speak in a church. Since I don’t have the opportunity every week, I feel like I need to get as much as I can packed into 30 minutes, and it’s incredibly difficult to distill the content down to a clear point. As we learn from Hemingway, though, the magic in storytelling is what goes unsaid.

A couple questions to consider if you preach sermons:

  • When I am done, is there room for discussion or questions?
  • When I am done, are people looking for more?

If not, you haven’t left enough on the cutting room floor.

Environment

A church’s environment is all about communicating without words. Think: realtors baking cookies in a home before a showing or a hotel with a scented lobby. There is an incredible amount of scientific data that directly relates an environment to an emotional reaction. It’s not an issue of whether or not you want to elicit an emotional reaction with your environment – you are, and you can’t get away from it. Rather, the question is: what kind of reaction are you facilitating?

It’s not an issue of whether or not you want to elicit an emotional reaction with your environment – you are, and you can’t get away from it.

Are you ignoring this reality, or are you, like the hotel owner and realtor, being intentional to ensure your environment aligns with the vision of your church? This is a question to consider for several reasons – the primary reason being the fact that the environment of your church sets the stage for worship and frames your beliefs about both your community and God. Regardless of the style of your worship setting, the environment you create (or neglect) is a clear reflection on your beliefs and expectations.

A couple questions to consider as you analyze your environment:

What are we drawing people’s attention to in our lobby and sanctuary (do you call it a sanctuary or auditorium – which also says something about your concept of church)? A focus on relationships and community building is communicated with the presence of a coffee shop in a lobby. A focus on reflection is found in a quiet building lit by candles and soft lighting. These things all go unsaid, but reflect your intention with corporate worship.

What do we want people to remember as they leave?

What do we want people to remember as they leave? A funny video illustrating a main point will stick with people and drives home a practical application approach to scripture. A service that uses each element as a step closer to the Eucharist will help people leave with an understanding of the primacy of Christ.

Content

From websites to flyers and from blog posts to curriculum, the content you produce speaks about what matters to your church community and church staff. I’ve seen churches with great communicators protect their pulpit and only allow seasoned and proven preachers deliver sermons, but then leave signage, bulletins, and web content up to an intern – as if one is taken in and the other isn’t. Of course we know that isn’t the truth. The sermon is undoubtedly the most resourced piece of communication in most churches, but we are amiss to think that the sermon is where the church’s communication begins and ends.

I’ve seen churches with great communicators protect their pulpit and only allow seasoned and proven preachers deliver sermons, but then leave signage, bulletins, and web content up to an intern.

Web and print content needs to be viewed through a consistent lens, and the messaging must always align with the vision of the church. If content fails to align in this way, the result is a scattered and confusing voice. The church I attend, The Gateway Church in Des Moines, Iowa, does a fantastic job of this, and maintains not only a consistent look but also consistent language. In the church’s newsletter, on their online social network, and from the pulpit, you see and hear a consistent message. The vision of the church becomes clearer with each encounter, and it’s easy to understand where we fit in as it relates to living out the vision of the church in our city.

A couple very practical questions to consider before you get back to your work:

  • Does our content have a consistent look (do we have a style guide)?
  • Do we use consistent language when communicating our vision across platforms?

Communicating is more than speaking into a microphone to a crowd. We are constantly communicating, and becoming more effective starts by becoming aware of what we are communicating. From there, it’s clear what needs to be adjusted to ensure consistent, effective communication is taking place in every area we engage with people.