Clergymen should make a systematic study of how mass and personal communications influence religious behavior.
The Word of God will be presented more effectively if the relationship of radio, television, the press and periodicals, movies, drama, audio-visuals, preaching, literature, art, music, counseling, logic, symbols and semantics, and the meaning of words are understood.
Development of such a unifying perspective will be reflected positively in the output of pastors. There will be a marked improvement in the quality of sermons, parish newspapers and Sunday bulletins, and in press releases, advertisements, posters, handbills, letters, scrapbooks, histories, printed materials of all sorts, and arrangements of indoor and outdoor bulletin boards.
The minister who sees the interdependence of knowledge and technique, thought and speech will experience results. He will come to see that language not only expresses ideas, but words shape thought-worlds.
And in the process of speaking articulately, an individual must think clearly. He develops his concepts and then speaks or writes them.
The person who affirms that he has keen ideas, but cannot put them across persuasively is deluding himself. If he has the compelling thoughts, he will present them forcefully. Likewise, if he is skillful in conveying his message to others, he will develop insights that will make him an original thinker.
Acceptance of this view of the twofold role of language—that it both stimulates and conveys thought—will enable clergymen to discover two false premises: one, that a person always will communicate effectively if he possesses an abundance of knowledge, and two, that individuals specializing in techniques will be sophists concentrating on approach rather than message.
Once these untenable beliefs are removed, professional religious workers and laymen can develop an organized approach to church public relations. They will realize that every religious individual and institution inevitably has relations with many publics—and that a charted course is better than a spontaneous, haphazard one. Moreover, they will know that a church as a voluntary organization in a Christian democracy has an obligation to keep the people informed, because the general population has a right to know what is going on that affects the public welfare.
This view of public relations will be both theoretical and practical in nature, and will involve acquiring a perspective and basic skills. The development of this body of fact and opinion about religious communications will be advantageous to the evangelism program. It will keep a pastor from uncritically overvaluing the power of mass communications media, where otherwise, his tendency might be to feel that the interpretative work of mass media is the most valuable method for bringing the unreached millions to Christ.
There is a danger that the average churchman, caught up in the magic spell of the alleged power of mass media, will believe that the communications industry can do his evangelism job. It cannot. The most effective proclamations of the Gospel still come by way of pulpit utterance of the Word of God or in the personal visit of a dedicated Christian to an unbeliever.
What mass media can do—in interpretative articles, feature stories, and news reports—is to call attention dramatically to the vitality of religious forces. Indirectly, these press accounts can create a favorable atmosphere for discussion of theology. They can make the nonchurch member ready to listen to and consider Christian theology as it is proclaimed by the evangelist and pastor. But the initiative for directly confronting the non-Christian with the Gospel still is that of the church member; he should capitalize on the interest engendered by mass media.
Newspapers are increasingly recognizing that religion is significant in American life, and therefore makes news. Clergymen have a responsibility to meet informally with publishers and explore the relation of pulpit and press. These talks can reveal the mutual goals of both groups. But they cannot stop with general thought. Pastors need to inquire about the specific techniques of news gathering and reporting if they are to extend their ministry.
One self-improvement plan is to read some of the new books on different aspects of religious communications. Clergymen may also attend church news clinics. Some are sponsored locally within state areas, such as those promoted by The Nashville Tennessean. Others have been developed for state-wide or regional areas. The state clinics include those of the University of Missouri and Georgia Press Association, in conjunction with councils of churches. Regional meetings have been sponsored by Methodists and Southern Baptists. Where communities do not have religious journalism seminars, pastors should encourage newspapers to hold them. Generally, these are one day programs that highlight information, provide basic news tools, and stimulate interest in publicity.
Writers’ conferences have been arranged over short periods so as to provide actual training under supervised leadership. For instance, there is the Christian Writers Institute operated by the editor of Christian Life; the interdenominational program held by the American Baptists at Green Lake, Wisconsin; and the conferences at the summer assemblies of the Southern Baptists at Glorieta, New Mexico, and Ridgecrest, North Carolina.
When clergymen visit newspaper offices, they may often suggest concrete features to editors. At my own suggestion, my hometown newspaper carries a 300-word devotional message each weekday on the page opposite the editorials. This “Religion in Life” feature, written by ministers of Nashville and middle Tennessee, is designed to give readers a spiritual uplift at the start of the day.
Every Sunday for four and one-half years, I have visited a different church service. In a regular Monday feature, called “A Reporter Goes to Church,” I quote extensively from the sermon and describe the church, its history, and the background of the pastor. We have, of course, 560 churches in our county. Such a feature might not be feasible in small communities where there are only a few congregations. But even weekly papers of little towns would probably print, on a rotating basis, 150 to 200-word synopsis of a sermon.
For eight years, we have published a pre-Easter series on the faith of outstanding laymen, women, and youth. This year the theme was “Scripture I Have Lived By,” and the interviews explained how the Bible had made an impact upon individual lives. These personal testimonies proved so popular that they have been reprinted in booklet form.
In addition to features like the above, there can be regular accounts of religious events in newspapers and over the radio. Those with news value include election of officers and board members, changes in staff personnel, anniversary services, membership and budget growth, construction of new buildings, financial drives, visiting speakers, rallies, plays, seasonal observances, service projects, celebrations, field trips, formation of new groups, and evangelism programs.
Church events do not have to be sensational to get into print. But they should be accurate, complete, and timely, and tell who is involved, what happened, when, where, why, and how. Of course, a writer ought always to place the most important item in the opening sentence and paragraph.
Many denominational headquarters have prepared brief booklets on how to discover and report church news to the press (and parish newspaper). They can be had by writing to the officials.
James W. Carty has been ordained minister of journalism by the Disciples of Christ. Once an Air Force chaplain in Korea, he has been with The Nashville Tennessean since 1953.
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