When I look back on our time with Open Doors Church, Cavite, Phillippines recently I am reminded of the words in Acts 2: “All the believers were together and had everything in common…they ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of the people.” As with the early church, there was a group of people who lived near to each other and were frequently in out of each other’s houses. They ministered together, attending the prison, school, youth and prayer times, as well as constantly preparing and eating food together. They did it with great cheerfulness and fun too. Vast tables were laden with fish, rice, vegetables, bread and fruit and we seemed to be constantly eating, feasting morning, noon and night!
Despite only being with them for four days we had a wonderful insight into the life of the church and its ministry. Being met at the airport we were greeted by a huge banner with ‘Welcome to Vinu and Julie, Guy and Heather’ printed brightly and hearty hugs and smiles. We quickly realised that we were part of this family too, not bystanders but each one of us joining in and playing our part.
The first morning we were taken to Bulihan jail where all four of us had the opportunity to speak to the 60+ male prisoners crowded into the hot rooms. Despite seeing photos from Andy’s previous trips we were still taken aback by the incredibly cramped conditions behind the steel bars and the quiet anticipation as row after row of men sitting cross-legged and waiting. The church has faithfully visited each week sharing worship songs, testimonies and food, earning the respect of the prisoners and the staff alike who have commented on how their presence brings peace and calm to the inmates, even if for a short time.
On the second day, we were taken to the local Burol Elementary school where each of us was expected to go and teach a class. It’s been a while since I’ve stood in front of a group of school kids but I thoroughly enjoyed my lesson about Samuel hearing the voice of God. I was amazed at the attentiveness of the children and their delight in the simple games and story I brought. The staff too although slightly more distracted, listening to Guy speak to them about leadership and we felt they really welcomed the input of this little church.
In the evening we all took part with our testimonies at the youth event where youngsters from 10-20 years old gathered for worship and teaching. The music seemed loud in the quiet neighbourhood where many of the church members live, but nobody seemed to mind and the youngsters were thrilled to receive prophetic words over their lives. Us older ones took
ourselves off to bed afterward but the young people stayed sitting out in the street, eating, chatting until gone one in the morning! Sunday was spent with the whole church with Guy and Vinu sharing the teaching together and Julie and I got a temporary rest and just listened! They spoke of the vision and values of the Commission family and then welcomed the elders and the church into that family. Guy likened it to a small branch on the bigger branch of Commission and the large tree of Newfrontiers. They were all very excited about this development. We then spent some time praying for the long queue of adults and children who patiently waited. Healing was anticipated as many had serious health challenges. It was a huge blessing to be able to partner with Vinu and Julie into this new nation. We shared stories, doubled up with the preaching and presented a helpful visual aid to the relationship and sense of family that works within our network of churches. Their perspective was very insightful too as the Indian and Phillipino culture has some overlap. I think we also challenged their perspective about hierarchical church leadership as they saw us laughing and teasing each other.
One woman admitted to being overwhelmed at being described as a sister and yet this is what we are, families together across the world, on a mission, each with their own unique call and culture, equal in our standing as brothers and sisters in Christ. We look forward with anticipation to seeing this relationship develop. Our prayer is for leaders to be raised and lives touched by the gospel among this warm and friendly community long into the future.
Your church probably has two responses to the notion of engaging with the media. It’s either extremely nervous, or it simply sees local newspapers and radio as tools for promoting events.
That’s the typical attitude of most UK churches, according to Natalie Williams of Jubilee+ and Kings Church, Hastings. She led a media day for Commission churches in November, inspiring us to see the media, particularly our local newspapers, in a new light.
Natalie knows what she’s talking about. Having trained and worked as a journalist, she spent much of her career building positive relationships with the media and influencers.
One of her first post-journalism roles was getting the media to publish good news about crime, on behalf of a police force. (Just to be clear – she wasn’t trying to sell the virtues of crime, but to share stories that helped reduce fear of crime).
The result is a wealth of experience in working with the media to promote ‘good news’. Positive news has a positive impact on the community.
So, there’s a challenge for us: how can our churches work with the media to make people feel valued, respected and safe in the places where we live?
Journalists are not your enemy
As part of her introduction to the day, Natalie wanted us to understand that most journalists are keen to do good, especially at a local level. Most want to tell stories that inspire and encourage others. Surely our churches can be a rich source of uplifting tales of lives being changed for the better?
Don’t confuse the motives of journalists with those of their editors. Bad news draws a crowd and editors use shocking headlines to create sales, whether it’s in a paper, on radio or online. But this doesn’t mean journalists are always looking for a negative angle on a story.
I’m frustrated that lots of front-page headlines on my local newspaper include words like ‘chaos’, ‘horror’ or ‘crisis’. But once you’re past that, much of the content is more upbeat. Local media thrives on the highlights of life in our communities: community group activities, school events, achievements by our near neighbours and more.
Natalie’s advice to churches is to start reaching out to local journalists. Find out who’s responsible for reporting church news and invite them for coffee. Open the conversation with the question ‘what can we do for you?’ and see where it goes.
Local media is more than a free publicity machine
The reality is, most people aren’t very interested in what your church has to say.
We can lose sight of this because the internet has made it really easy for us to publish our own announcements and stories, through our own websites and social media networks. But these messages only go to people who already like you and have chosen to listen in.
The challenge for us is to reach out to new audiences, to engage those outside the church’s own communication channels. Getting a message to these people means using the media they choose to consume.
Don’t assume that the so-called ‘traditional’ media is becoming irrelevant. Local newspapers and radio still speak to significant audiences and still command respect. The messages they broadcast have the power to influence many lives.
All of this means we should stop thinking of them simply as a route to free publicity. How about thinking of local media as potential partners in serving our community? While not all journalists will share our faith (don’t forget that some do), most will share some of our vision for shaping a secure, stable environment where people to live.
By coming alongside our journalists and providing them with stories, we can help change the tone of local news. At the same time, we can help people see local church as a force for good, and more importantly, as a source of hope.
You won’t often, if ever, get the chance to preach Jesus through local media. But you can help draw people to a place where they can encounter the power of the gospel.
Top tips for engaging with local media
Here are three takeaways for church leaders from the Commission media day:
- Consider investing just one hour a month in talking to local journalists.
- Ask them what they think makes a good story and use that to find stories from your own church.
- Don’t ask what the journalist can do for you; ask what you can do for them.
This is the first of several articles based on the Commission media day.
It’s by Andrew Knowles of Weymouth Family Church, Dorset. Andrew is leading a team that’s helping Commission churches improve their engagement with the media.