About this time last year, I received a call from a youth minister who had just been hired at a local church. He was anxious to make a positive first impression on the church leaders, parents, and students with a big event to kick off the new school year.
This pastor talked to me about his ideas for promoting the event and wanted our designers to go all out with his promotions. He asked us to design the promotions with an “urban, hip-hop feel” that would also be “cool and edgy.” In short, he wanted us to help make this event look like the biggest party of the year and his new youth ministry to look like the coolest place to be if you’re a local teenager.
The problem was, this youth pastor was asking us to do false advertising. The image he wanted to portray of his event and the church didn’t reflect the church at all. Any teen that showed up to the event would see within the first 10 seconds that the church was neither urban, nor cool and edgy. Somewhere between driving through an upper-middle-class-suburban neighborhood and encountering the throngs of well-pressed khaki pants and golf shirts, the teen prospect would recognize something didn’t fit.
The same may be said for your online outreach efforts, if you’re not careful. Sure, you have a Web site and some social networking pages on MySpace or Facebook. Maybe you’re blogging or doing a weekly podcast, or perhaps your church has even started putting video on YouTube and dabbling in Second Life. All of these things are great, but are they reflecting an accurate picture of your church? Is your pastor who he claims to be on his blog? Is your church as progressive as it appears in your videos? If visitors only knew the image you portrayed through your digital outreach, and then visited your church in person, would they arrive with clear, accurate expectations or walk away scratching their heads?
It’s tempting to create an image of what you want your church to be, rather than what it is. Though your intentions may be pure, you’re not helping your prospects gain an accurate picture of your church. If you paint an inaccurate picture, then aren’t you guilty of false advertising?
Web 2.0 tools can be used to communicate anything you want, and therein lies the opportunity for inadvertent false advertising. Though you may want to make some changes, don’t show your community what you hope the church to be in a few years. Rather, show them all the great things about your church today. If your church needs to make changes, then make the changes within the appropriate avenues in the church, but don’t convey those changes until they’re nearly complete.
Years ago, my first boss used to tell us to undersell our promises and over-deliver our services. Nobody wants to be misled, and even when it’s done without malice, there can be an erosion of trust. As a church, you have an even greater responsibility to be accurate in everything you do, because one could conclude that if you’re willing to portray the church falsely, you might be willing to portray other things falsely as well.
As you venture into the array of new media opportunities for outreach, remember to surround it with authenticity. Be who God has called your church to be and then fully leverage the new technology to tell your community about it. Think of it as Truth and Accuracy 2.0.