Scott chats to Derek about a question from one of our listeners, Clint, up at Grace Church in Buderim, QLD:

“What makes a good church bulletin? Is it for newcomers or regulars? Should you print the bible reading, order of service, church life notices, contact info, etc.? How big should it be? Do you need them anymore? What’s a good site for Clipart?” 

Why does this question matter?

The reality is it can seem incredibly mundane, but I’ve never come across a church that doesn’t have some version of this. And so while this question may not be up there with “what must I do to be saved,” it is one of those questions you have to grapple with if you lead a church. My goal today is to give a framework for thinking about church bulletins, so that it can save you time, so you can spend more time doing things and getting people to the point where they’re asking that question, “what must I do to be saved?”

So where do we start with bulletins?

We start at the same place where we start with everything here. That is: what is the purpose of this? What is the purpose of the bulletin, the newsletter, the zine, whatever you want to call it? What’s the context you’re working in? And who is this for? When you print this thing each week, and you spend hours on it each week and then reprint for typos, who is this thing that you’re spending all that time for?

Clint asked “is it for the outsider, is it for the insider?” Is that the right question to be asking?

That’s exactly the right question. I’m not going to tell him what they should do. They need to decide for their context what it’s for. If you get the answer to that right, you won’t automatically get this part of it right, but you’ll narrow down the choices so you’re closer where you need to be.

I think the problem sometimes is that this isn’t the first question that we ask. We go to design. So you search, you know, “best church bulletin design” on the Google, and it pops up and you think “that looks amazing! I could do that!” And then you do it, but it’s just 8 hours out of your week each week. You replicate the design, and it’s not doing anything more.

So, in the words of Louis Sullivan, “form follows function.” You need to know who this is for, what’s it for, before you can answer the question of whether it’s good or not, and whether it’s for the insider or the outsider.

Can you give us some examples? What about an older traditional congregation, say they’re meeting at 8:30am, compared to a millennial service?

You are always in these things thinking about both the person who’s there and the person who might come, at every point. But for an 8:30am service, the thing that you produce each week would look very different from a millennial service.

For an 8:30am congregation – where they’re singing hymns, they might want the words on the page, they might even want the music on the page – your bulletin is going to look very different. So you’re actually thinking about the audience. You’re thinking about who you’re trying to reach. You might actually be trying to reach people who are 75-80, so you need to produce something accordingly for them.

For millennials, they’re probably consuming a whole bunch of their content online. Social media is huge for them. So there’s a sense in which you would adapt what you print for that week for them. But you still need to produce something I think.

You need to think, is this a congregation that wants something they can flick through and read and take home – which can take a lot of time – or is it just something I’m using to supplement other key forms of communication?

So why should you have something?  

Here are 3 reasons:

  1. To help people who are new. To put it in their hand to help them orient what’s going on. Now, even for millennials, I think, if you’ve got an app that might help, that they can download, you’ve got things on the screen, they might not automatically go and download the app, they might not have come across any of your social media just yet, your screen will flick between different things. So putting something in their hands, which helps them know what you’re on about, what the next steps are for them, is absolutely key. So you’ve got to have then: who are you, what’s your vision, what would be their next steps.
  2. It’s also to help orient people about what’s going on in the life of your church. You don’t need to tell them everything. But you want to put the highlights in there. What are the key things for them to know what it is that you’re on about?
  3. It’s one more way to get your message across. It’s one more thing that you can put in peoples’ hands, in all the communication techniques you’ve got, in order to help them know what you’re on about and how it is that they can take that next step.

What programs should you be using? Should you be using Adobe tools? Or is Word good enough?

You’ve got to decide what’s good for you. Is Word good enough?… No, I want to draw the line, I want to have some standards. I’m not sure that Word is good enough. You’ve got to decide what’s right. You’re going to have someone in your congregation who can do this stuff well. And they’re probably going to use Adobe stuff. But you don’t necessarily have to. But the templates links that we’ll put in there often are for Adobe things. The nice thing about those templates is they’ll give you a whole range of nicely formatted, thought-out things that are by people who are graphic designers, so you don’t have to be.

Once I’ve thought about my purpose and my audience, how do I decide what goes in it? And, importantly, do I have a perforated tear-off slip?

You love your perforated tear-off slips… A perforated slip can be really helpful. But I want to take this at 40,000-feet, not at 2-feet level.

So, yes, you want to have some way in which people who are new to you can communicate back to you. Or, can know how you can get in contact with them, and how they can get in contact with you. So I would say, because I realise I’ve been abstract to this point and want to be specific: You have to work out with your bulletin how it fits in with other forms of communication.

Don’t crowd it with lots of ads. I saw a church bulletin on the weekend and it had… I kid you not, it was made in Word, it had so many text boxes all over the place, it was so crowded. It was like, man, this is a busy church. And I looked around at the 25 people in the room and went, wow, that church bulletin conveys a lot more busyness than what’s really there. Like a rug place: closing down sale! Stars everywhere. You don’t want that. You don’t know what to believe in that. You have to think, I have other channels of communication other than this, so I want to make this one count.

Do you put the Bible reading in there? Do you put a space for sermon notes?

You can. The key is to think, what do people digest? You know, what are they actually digesting, rather than what do I want them to digest?

You can put 80 announcements in there, and the bible reading, and space for sermon notes, but if no one is using them at all, there’s no point in having them in there. Whereas, maybe if you cut down 80% on that, and just put 3 highlights, or 2 highlights and a next-steps and a perforated slip because I know you love them, you would get a much better return.

What about dropping in a whole bunch of notes? This church on Sunday I went to, it was like a cavalcade of mailers. I had the newcomer invite, I had the advertisement for a theological college, I had another thing on a missionary they had in their church. I had all these extra bits and pieces in my bulletins.

It’s white noise. It’s things people can use to be distracted by. It’s not something you can use to communicate something necessarily. It’s white noise.

With bible reading and sermon notes, obviously, one of the key things we want when people come into church is we want to preach the word faithfully, we want people to hear that word, and reflect on it in that moment and afterwards with people, and then afterwards with themselves as well. I’m not a note-taking person. Jacqueline is, she takes notes and all that. But there may be some better ways to skin the cat, rather than just having a blank page that you put in there.

Newcomers and non-Christians normally won’t take sermon notes. They’re digesting what they’re hearing. It’s all a bit strange. They’re looking around at what other people are doing. The sermon notes most of the time are for believers. So perhaps you could think about it a little bit differently. You might actually give people who are regulars at church – now this can seem like a financial cost – you might give people who are regular to the church a diary for a particular sermon series and they can take it home and keep it. Which will save you printing a blank piece of paper and then losing it. They’ll write stuff that’s helpful, and then they’ll lose it and not be able to refer back. Now, if they’re just doing it to concentrate at the time, that’s fine. But maybe they want to come back to that stuff. So there are other ways, other than doing it in the bulletin. The bible reading can appear on the screen. If it’s helpful for you to have it, and you want to put it in people‘s hands, you can put it in your bulletin. But if you feel like you actually want to drive people to a physical bible, then don’t put it in. Think about what is it you want to achieve in that.

What part does design play?

Heaps, heaps. But you don’t have to come up with the design necessarily. You don’t have to be a designer. There are lots of nice designs out there, and there are lots of churches who do it beautifully. But you want the design to draw people towards where you’re hoping they’ll be, rather than leaving them at admiring the design, but being confused as to what it’s for.

What’s the one thing that people should be taking away when it comes to church bulletins?

My one thing is this: let your audience and purpose shape your decisions about bulletins and newsletters and zines, whatever you want to call it. Not the greatest and latest designs other people are tweeting.

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