I recently had a great conversation with an older member of a fast-shrinking congregation. She was looking for resources on how to improve communications within her congregation and she was finding precious few resources … could I help? Sure, I could help. But before we went further, I asked her to tell me what she meant by “improving communications” and her response was almost exactly what I expected.

The Intra-Church Communications’ Axiom: Whenever someone in the church claims the church needs to improve its communications, it’s not about communications. It’s about control.

Once upon a time, when the church peacefully coexisted with culture (Christendom), having seventy member boards and lots and lots of committees didn’t hurt anything. Ministry decisions could move much slower and because there was typically a strong denominational ethos in the congregation, there was at least some sense of shared values. Trusting leadership was seldom an issue. First, the leaders rarely made decisions that were contrary to the congregation’s expectations – there was no need to because “everyone” was on the same page. Second, because membership on the boards and committees were so pervasive that anyone who was anyone, and a lot of not-so-much anyones, served together, there were few surprising decisions that needed to be made. The church as an organization existed to a large extent to preserve a Christian culture that existed both within and outside the walls of the church.

That was once upon a time. We no longer live in the fairy tale land where the culture naturally knows the metastories of faith and church members naturally know and share the congregational ethos. The church as an organization largely chose to try and preserve a Christian culture … and when the culture outside the church moved on, the focus subtly shifted to maintaining that culture within the church. The focus for many who could remember the shared culture of the past was to try and fiercely hold on to the realities of back then.

The world moved on. The focus of the church either has to change from being caretakers of a past culture or it has to move on to serious evangelism and discipleship that’s at least as dedicated to behavioral change as it is in intellectual change. As you’re no doubt aware, most churches in North America are still struggling over this change of focii and it’s creating a lot of distrust in the leadership. Suddenly ministry and tactical decisions have to be made with lightning speed in order to reach the folks who are immersed in culture-change-on-steroids. Suddenly church leaders are making decisions that are counter to the ethos of old and the folks who “remember when” don’t understand. Some are never going to understand because the culture is so contrary to their worldview that “getting it” may well be beyond them. Others won’t understand because they don’t like the changes and they’re not going to like the changes and they really don’t care about understanding – they just want to recapture what they once had.

Today, church boards by and large are smaller, much smaller, than what they used to be. Churches today with literally thousands of members are regularly served by boards of five or seven. They’re making critical decisions that are steering the church on a course of ministry that isn’t always popular with a vocal and sometimes powerful minority. And these folks want to know “why” the changes are being made. They pine for a culture where they were included in virtually every decision … and every decision was largely in keeping with their personal understanding of ministry. So this group is asking for communication’s tools. But contrary to what it seems, the reason the vocal few demand communication’s tools is to find a way to reassert the control they are losing or have lost. They miss the “good old days” and they want them back.

They’re not coming back. Those church leaders who spend their time trying to appease the demand for improved intra-church communications will soon discover that there’s no such thing as improved communications. The communications many want is for the church leadership to listen to them, not so much to hear the wheres and whyfores about the decisions being made. Most churches are pretty good about letting their congregants know that there are changes coming, what they are, and why they’re coming. What they don’t do well, according to the vocal few, is listen to the voice of the “church,” i.e., them. But going back or slowing down isn’t going to help the church in the short run or the long run.

So, church leaders, when you hear the demands to improve church communications, remember that it’s not what it seems. You’ll never be able to appease the demands and be faithful to evangelism and discipleship to the unreached in your community. You can’t go forward by going backwards.