As I survey the landscape of Facebook groups, Discord channels, TikTok feeds, and those I follow on Instagram, I notice a trend.
Well, actually, the lack of a trend.
It is my opinion (so take that for what it’s worth) that today’s church is very concerned with putting out fires and not addressing the things that are actually causing the fires.
We have a PR problem in the church. Public Relations and the general population’s feelings toward the church are experiencing record lows. And boy, do we feel it.
Every time you turn around, there’s someone bagging on the church for one reason or another. And the hardest thing for Christians right now is that the majority of us feel that we kind of earned some of those stripes.
But I don’t need to really tell you that. You know it. You feel it. The question is what are we going to do about it?
What I’m not saying
Now, I’m not suggesting that churches start running a spin campaign designed to manipulate people into feeling good about the institution of church again. That would be insincere and besides, the 40-somethings and younger would smell that hot pile of marketing garbage a mile away.
I’m also not suggesting that churches aren’t already trying to do some of the things I’m going to suggest. I’m simply suggesting that there is no concerted, unified effort to quell the growing disdain for the church.
Last, I’m not suggesting in any way that the church is equal to Jesus when it comes to public opinion. In other words, getting people to like the church will mean they like Jesus too. They’re actually fine with Jesus. In fact, most of the non-believing people who felt the need to make videos about the church and church people really like Jesus.
It’s you and I they can’t stand. They don’t think we look like Jesus. And that’s a problem.
And we all know that the first step to healing and recovery is admitting there is a problem.
Solutions for the Church PR problem
First, you need to pull your whole staff together along with elders and leaders in your church and have an honest discussion about the answer to this question: Are we demonstrating who Christ truly is to our community in an accurate and compelling way? And I mean you better invite Gen Z to that conversation or you’re not going to really get the heart of the issue.
I bet you thought I was going to say “how does our community feel about us?” But that’s the wrong question. If you answer the right question first and work to make sure the answer is “yes,” then the community will feel just fine about you.
So here are a few things I feel (based on complaints I hear constantly on social media & from talking to my friends in church & maybe some things that I think too) that the church could focus on to address the current PR problem.
Train your staff on reporting sexual abuse
Right now, there are a myriad of issues with sexual abuse cover-ups & leaders who abuse their authority. Learning to recognize the red flags and how to report them responsibly shows that your church recognizes the threat this behavior poses to our integrity. This builds trust in your congregation and community. Bring in an expert or local Licensed Professional Counselor to lead the workshop. Do not lead this yourself.
Partner with Counseling Professionals and Make them Available
Right now in this cultural moment, so many teenagers (and adults) are struggling with mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, & suicide. Offering a clear path to get help shows your congregation and community that you’re willing to walk with them through the messy stuff because you care about them so much. Simply offering names and contact info of LPCs (Licensed Professional Counselors) builds trust with your people. It also demonstrates that you’re paying attention to what’s going on in the world rather than appearing disconnected, cold, or lacking empathy.
Practice Church Discipline on Staff & Membership Social Media
There are constant threats of violence, name-calling, racist remarks, and more happening on social media. And guess what? YOUR people are doing some of it. When you see your members posting violent memes or images/videos/text that does harm to the image of Jesus in the public eye, as a pastor it is your right and duty to reach out to that person and try to lead them to a better witness. You may want to create a system of accountability for how you do this, but your people calling for the hanging of public officials or civil war or bounty-hunting politicians or doctors need to be brought under the 1 Corinthians 5/Matthew 18 umbrella. I would honestly add something about it to any membership covenants or agreements you have new people sign.
Create content that shows you care and stop asking them for things
Creating content for social media, your website, or YouTube can be a daunting task for pastors because they didn’t get into ministry to become great at video editing or graphic design. However, if you haven’t learned to see these tools as opportunities to disciple your people during the week, it’s time to wake up. These are ways to demonstrate to your people that you care about them whether they attend your church services or not. Putting content out that helps, disciples, leads, and grows your people without asking for anything in return communicates the unconditional love of Jesus we’re supposed to have for one another. Also, it’s fun. You remember fun, right?
Put your budget money where your mouth is
I’ve always found Matthew 6:21 to be an interesting turn of phrase. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Church budgets will tell you what is truly important to your church with far more accuracy than your pastor will. If Children are important, we’ll fund it. If communication is important, we’ll fund it. If a mission trip is important, we’ll fund it. Take a look at your budget when it’s time to submit proposals and see if your money is actually going to fund ministry to where people are. Or is it going into things that are not as important to your congregation and community in this digital hybrid era of the church? If you’re not investing in digital ministry, find that money somewhere fast, because that’s where your people are (even your seniors).
Acknowledge your digital ministry impact
Say hi to those who are worshipping at home on Sundays with you, create content for them, create online communities, allow for digital sign-ups for groups and events, & for the love of all that is good, retitle your sermons on YouTube to be search-friendly. The world lives online. You may not like or understand that, but that’s the funny thing about reality: it takes no counsel from us. It just is. Just like Paul knew that those who were shaping the Greek world’s way of thinking hung out in the Areopagus (Acts 17) and went to address them there, you should be venturing into the Areopagus of social media, blogging, & YouTube to contribute to the discussion there. See it as a ministry, not a marketing or advertising tool.
Always be ready to address felt needs
In your community, there will always be a need for something you can coordinate or provide. Whether it’s coats, food, construction projects, or local mission trips, giving back to the community demonstrates that you’re there for them, not yourselves. A church involved in giving back to its community is known and loved by that community. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be about anyway? Mobilizing for these things can be messy and hard, but this is the essence of ministry.
It’s NOT all about the weekend
I once worked at a church where the pastor would often say “It’s all about the weekend.” There might have been a time when that type of philosophy would help you create an attractional model of church that people would find appealing, but not now. Those days are gone. Your people are more interested in the day-to-day interactions. Treating Sunday worship as a retreat instead of a boot camp is what attractional models got wrong about the church. They do not prepare your people for true Christian service, devotion, and love for their neighbors during the week because those virtues are only implied, not required. So, take money out of the Sunday programming and spread it out over the week to invest in your people where they are.
Why is this important?
How people feel about us will impact how they feel about Jesus. Thankfully, most people are able to separate Jesus from His people; but should it be that way? I don’t think so. What do you think?