October 12, 2016

What Does That Announcement Say, Anyway?

One of the best trainings I’ve had for parish ministry was the year I spent as assistant copy editor for my high school yearbook. My job was to write short, snappy, sometimes witty, often engaging captions and stories. Doing so became a fairly straightforward craft, and I learned this has its own internal logic: jump in with content, maybe a quick opening line, make sure there’s a verb up front, and say who’s who.

Every week I spend time, perhaps more time than I thought I would, organizing, revising, pitching, and writing copy. I’m not talking about blog posts or sermons, articles or reflective pieces. I’m talking about ‘blurbs’ for the bulletin, newsletter, website, and social media posts. I’ve come to believe that this is an important skill, and one that should require some investment on the part of church leaders.

So what does that announcement in your bulletin or newsletter, on your website or Facebook page say, anyway? Here are five suggestions for refining the message.

  1. What’s the point? And does it have to do with the mission of the church? I’m tired of seeing “Such-and-such Organization hosts this-and-that…” Stop ‘hosting’ things. Start naming what type of Christian mission this serves. Worship? Justice? Formation? Pastoral care? Look, even ‘fellowship’ is a part of the mission of the church. Freely name what specific purpose this serves.
  2. Who? Organizations no longer speak for themselves, and I don’t think the name of an apparently monolithic, institutional identity carries much water. Instead of “St. George’s Church,” what about the youth group? Senior ministries? Acolytes? Young adults? Music ministries? Who is doing what for what purpose? Best yet, let them stand up on a Sunday morning and put faces with words.
  3. Where’s the action? In many announcements, we barely find an active verb until, maybe, the fourth or fifth sentence – and people stopped reading after sentence number 2. Move active verbs into the very first phrase of the very first sentence, words like: “enjoy”, “serve”, “connect”, “learn”, “engage”, and on and on.
  4. No one cares how many years this has been going on! By the way, the “168[1] Annual Crab Cake Dinner” sounds, to me, like those are really old crab cakes, and I’m not eating there. Period. Talk to today’s people today.
  5. Could someone figure out your Christian theology from the announcement? What does this say about how you are in relationship with God in Christ? What does the announcement say about the values of this congregation, and how some particular people in this specific community are actively seeking to “restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ”?

I have other concerns, though these may have more to do with my personal preferences. It should go without saying that acronyms and churchy words are deadly for readership: “E.C.W.” should be written as “Episcopal Church Women,” for instance (not to mention defined by way of a specific mission; see No.2, above); plus, it wouldn’t hurt to refer to “the vestry” as “the leadership body of the congregation” in the same paragraph or, even better, put the latter phrase up top and let the reader determine that “leadership body” = “vestry.”

Another personal preference is for announcements that start with open-ended invitational sentences. In our print publications, we use bold-face font to kick it off, and lead the reader into the paragraph. Consider, for instance, the difference between (A) Come for church and stay for breakfast, or come for breakfast and stay for church! A fellowship breakfast is served every month… – and – (B) Parish Breakfast. A fellowship breakfast is served… (I admit, however, that the problem with my style is that it’s generally wordier than the alternative.)

My last personal preference has to do with white space / image space. Pages of black ink on white bulletin paper, no matter how snazzy the blurb, will fail to engage a reader if there isn’t also sufficient attention given to margins, indentation, use of columns, font styles, and font-size(s). In our bulletins we use a hanging indent for announcements – so that the bold-faced first line stands out from the body of the announcement, ensuring more white space around the text. I’m also impressed by bulletins with text boxes of various colors and shapes and shades, too, but the amount of labor invested might not always meet a greater return.

While these last three points are little more than my own personal preferences, I encourage church leaders to pay closer attention to the five suggestions for refining the message. I think doing so is critical to communicating the mission of the church; in most cases, we’re focusing on all the right things: worship, formation, justice, fellowship, and pastoral care.

We need, however, to speak more broadly, more robustly. We need to speak as the church, the Body of Christ. Eugene Peterson says, after all, “Church is an appointed gathering of named people in particular places who practice a life of resurrection in a world in which death gets the biggest headlines.” (Practice Resurrection, p.12) In our writing and announcing, how can we broadcast the specific ways individual people, and groups of people are practicing a life of resurrection? How can we describe the resurrection work of particular people, not an institution? How can we better focus on what God is doing in this one community through the individual gifts and callings of particular disciples of Jesus, whom Peterson calls “named people”?

To get our “news” to sound more like God’s “Good News” may only require just a bit of focus and refining.

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