Lessons from a master storyteller for your church's digital presence

The Sermon on the Mount

He drew crowds. One was so large that he had to get into a boat and float away from shore in order to share with them. What drew so many people? Probably many things that go far outside my area of expertise, but a major one was that Jesus was a master storyteller. And the story is the most powerful form of communication.

What made him so effective, and how can you apply those lessons to your church's web site and social media presence? He connected with audiences.

He knew them. He grew up in the land where he taught and was part of the culture.

If you don’t know who you’re writing for, you can't be sure that your content will be on target. Before you type that first word, ask yourself:

  • Who do I want reading this?
  • What is their background, socially and economically? How old (or young) are they?
  • What are they interested in and what do they do for recreation? What kind of music do they tend to like?
  • What are the common problems that they face (especially those your church can help with)?

He went to where they were. He traveled from town to town, often speaking in locales where people gathered (although there are several occasions where they found him).

Do you know which social media channels your audiences use? You should be there, be active, and engage in conversation rather than simply making announcements.

His stories had familiar settings with familiar characters ... shepherds, widows, religious leaders, poor people. The people of Jesus’ Palestine would be very familiar with such folk.

He spoke their language. He didn't use religious jargon, he spoke using everyday terms.

Do your online efforts get mired in church-speak, or do you write using terms and phrases that everyone can understand, regardless of how religious they may be?

He used visuals … a child, a tree, a wineskin. Jesus used things at hand to enhance his message.

Your web site, blog and social media should include images and videos whenever possible, but be sure they’re relevant. And be sure you get permission for any copyrighted material … it'd be embarrassing for a church to violate that seventh commandment!

Per Sujan Patel, VP of Marketing at When I Work, “without question, there has been more than one article you’ve perused just for the pictures — or clicked on because it just seemed to ... stand out more than the rest. Good visuals that break up big blocks of text can be the perfect way to keep your audience engaged. If an idea gets complicated or confusing, infographics and simple visual aides can, well, aide you in your explanation all the more.”

He had a defined message, and it was consistent it with his mission, even when his supporters didn't grasp the full meaning.

It's difficult to tell a story when you're looking at nothing but the details ... promoting an event, posting a link to an article, thinking about your web site a page at a time or your social media posts one tweet at a time. Details are important, but keep your church's mission in mind. Think in terms of telling your story, of what your church offers, and use the details to support the larger view.

He kept his stories brief. You can read any of his stories out loud, in their entirety, in less than five minutes.

A story doesn’t have to be eternal to be spiritual. If a story can be told in one paragraph, or even a sentence, it’s still a story and can still have an impact.

Once you’ve decided what your content is about, make sure that every paragraph relates back to the central idea or 'story.' If it isn’t helpful supporting your mission, it might be worth throwing out altogether.

If your church doesn’t have a blog, start one. And don't make the mistake to think that you don't have much to blog about.

Tell stories about your members and regular attenders … why do they like your church? What drew them to your church?

Talk about events before they happen, while they are happening, and after they happen. For example, Sunday is Easter ... post about preparations this week, and include "sneak peek" pictures or videos. During your Easter service, post pictures of events to social media. Perhaps you could live-tweet the celebration. Then recap the weekend on Monday.

If you run low on topics, find out what questions visitors are asking your members or staff, and answer them in your blog. Promote events in story form, then re-cap them afterwards (with pictures!)

If you use social media (and you should!), post links to articles of interest to your intended audiences. And links to your blog. And your online sermons. And your event registration pages. And to your other social media channels.

A church may have a challenge in building its storytelling skills. You are not likely in a position to go out and hire a writer or a marketer, so you’re limited to your own staff and membership. Find the aspiring marketers, writers and artists. Play your strongest hand, build some skills, and start telling your congregation's story.

Jesus told his.

And you might say it went viral.