In the aftermath of the tragedy of 9/11, when the United States and the world were grieving, mainline denominations called for prayer, inclusion and reconciliation. In an ad near Ground Zero, The United Methodist Church proclaimed, “Fear is not the only force at work in the world.”
When the South Asian tsunami brought massive death and destruction to the people of the Asian Rim, the mainline voices said that it was not the work of a vengeful God. Instead, they said, God was in the suffering, standing with those experiencing great loss. The churches called on the world to assist, and people around the world did exactly that.
The voice of these denominations helps to shape public perceptions not only of themselves as denominations but also of God and the nature of religious faith. It is an important role in a world of harsh, extreme voices of exclusion and hate.
Yet, communication in most organizations is viewed as a back-office service function. When budgets are tight in nonprofits, especially religious groups, the first cuts are in the communications staff and their budgets.
For as long as they have been making these cuts, mainline Protestant denominations have been in decline, but they have not made the correlation that reducing communications capacity equates with abetting decline and losing their voice in the public conversation.
I frequently make this point when I speak to groups, and I often see heads nodding in agreement. But the reduction in communication capacity continues nevertheless.
Communications functions today are strategic assets, not back-office functions. The world is engaged in multiple conversations, and if the old-line religious organizations are not engaged as well, they become irrelevant. We know this, but somehow we tend to remain mostly on the sidelines.
The new media environment has undermined the old authority structures that allowed for a more definitive word to be spoken by religious denominations. Those messages could be pushed out. But the new environment is a conversation. The audience is not passively waiting to hear the word. The conversation takes it own direction, often framed by those with a self-serving agenda and ideology.
To the degree that they are aggressive and capture attention, they shape the conversation and move it forward. This is why I often make the point that communication is a strategic asset. The ability to frame the conversation in order to shape how society addresses the most important issues it faces requires more thought than merely assembling collateral materials, getting page views on a website or amassing Twitter followers.
It requires having a clear, engaging message with which to encourage interaction and conversation. The mainline voice needs to be heard because historically, in its various expressions, it has been a voice for justice for the powerless and vulnerable. It has been a voice for an inclusive community. And it has stood for humane values in a dehumanizing, isolating culture.
This voice is needed, but it won’t be heard without more careful strategic thought and adequate staff and resources to project it into the global conversation. I continue to make the claim that the voice of the mainline denominations is needed because it is a humanizing, reconciling and clear voice for peace, justice and a more holistic and humane global society.
Communications – our voice in the world – should be the last ministry that mainline denominations consider for reduction.