A Good Word 2020: Episode 2
Crisis: Keeping the Faith...and Sharing the Faith
In the second episode of A Good Word, a podcast offered by Baptist Communicators Association, Jim Veneman, BCA president, continues his conversation with Margaret Colson, BCA executive director, about church crisis communications, a topic that is extraordinarily relevant in today's crisis-ridden world. In this 18-minute episode, Margaret talks about the importance of believers practicing the spiritual disciplines, rather than "catechizing calamity," during times of crisis. She also acknowledges that many people will question God when a crisis, such as the pandemic, grips the world, and she shares an idea about how to respond to those tough questions as "God moments," or opportunities to answer the question and also offer a word of gospel truth. She reminds listeners of the words in 1 Peter 3:15, "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have." This is the second in a three-part podcast series focusing on crisis communications for churches.
Hosted by Baptist Communicators Association
Contributors: Margaret Colson, Executive Director, Baptist Communicators Association and Jim Veneman, President, Baptist Communicators Association
Upload Date: Oct. 16, 2020, 8:00 a.m.
Jim Veneman: Hello, I’m Jim Veneman. Welcome to our second episode of A Good Word as we continue our conversation with Margaret Colson, our BCA executive director. The other day we touched on some pretty big and important ideas—all going back to Margaret’s research in crisis communications in local churches. One of the thoughts was that a crisis is an unplanned opportunity to show the world who you are and what you’re made of. Margaret, that is a great thought, but right now we are tired. Our zeal is wavering. The pandemic crisis is continuing much longer than most of us imagined, and then we’ve had other crises piled on top of the pandemic. How do we maintain our faith in a crisis that just keeps going and going and going, or when we experience crisis upon crisis?
Margaret Colson: Well, Jim, that’s a million-dollar question, and I’m not quite sure I have the answer, but I will give it my best shot. My husband, who played and coached college football for a while, he has described to me in some detail—maybe sometimes too much detail! --how it feels to be on the bottom of the dogpile of a tackle. Just as you’re trying to crawl out and catch a breath, someone else jumps on top of you, pushing you back into the dirt. Now, while I can’t really identify with that totally, sometimes I can imagine that’s how we feel if crisis upon crisis upon crisis keeps trying to push us down. And, what do we do? In the words of Dan Darling, with NRB, who I heard recently, he said, “Don’t catechize calamity.” In other words, don’t obsess over catastrophe; don’t feed your mind 24/7 with the latest details on the crisis at hand.
To be honest, this is a lesson that I had to learn personally. In the beginning days – maybe weeks—of the pandemic, catching up on the latest pandemic news became overly consuming for me. I spent way too much time, way too much time--going from one news website to another to another to another to wring out every last detail that I could. It didn’t take too long for me to become discouraged and to experience undue anxiety in my life. I had to do something. I couldn’t just keep examining all the details 24/7.
Jim Veneman: So, Margaret, are you saying that we should not put undue focus on the details of the crisis? Do we need to know these details?
Margaret Colson: Well, of course, we need to know the details; that’s important … but I would say, within reason. With the pandemic, I had to set limits for myself; for example, I would only allow myself to look at news websites twice a day—once in the morning and once in the late afternoon. Now, I sometimes fudged a little bit, but I did try to set limits for myself. Instead of focusing on the negatives, I did something exciting! I took scriptural advice; I turned my focus to goodness, just as Scripture instructs us to do, and I memorized this Scripture over the past few weeks. It’s Philippians 4:8: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
Jim Veneman: Now, Margaret, isn’t that just simply positive thinking?
Margaret Colson: No, no, no, I wouldn’t say that. We can still be realists about what is going on in our world, in our communities, maybe even in our homes, but that dose of reality doesn’t have to consume our every thought.
Beyond thinking on anything that’s excellent in our lives, anything that’s worthy of praise in our lives, we can also practice the spiritual disciplines of Bible study and prayer. Of course, these are always vital to a Christian, but perhaps even more so in a time of crisis. Throw in a little Scripture memorization if you’re willing to. Also, as we all know, connectedness with other Christians is so important. Yeah, we’re in the pandemic still; we might have to put on a mask; we might might have to social distance. Did we even know what social distancing was four months ago? I sure didn’t, but we can still connect with other believers. As Christians, we are all human incarnations of God; we have to all support, encourage, love one another. I think in recent days many, many BCA members have found a new appreciation for the connections we have with one another, and those connections, I have found, are really invigorating in our personal and professional lives.
I was doing an assignment recently for The Alabama Baptist, and I spoke with a woman in her eighties who had been a missionary kid and then a missionary in China. Through her many, many years in China, she endured many unsettling experiences. Even now, she clings to a truth that her mother taught her probably seven decades ago. This woman spoke these words to me in Chinese, but, translated, the words mean, “Practice the presence.” Practice the presence of God even when crises are trying to engulf you; acknowledge His love and compassion, His presence, His sovereignty. Look at that word, “sovereignty.” Right in the middle of that word is the word, “reign.” We know, as believers, that God reigns.
Jim Veneman: But, how do we respond to others who are questioning the Christian faith because of crisis? How do we share a word of hope when everywhere we look we are caught right in the middle of crisis and a discouraged or a disillusioned person asks us one of “those” questions—“Why did God let this happen? Why doesn’t God make it stop? Where is God?”
Margaret Colson: Well, those are tough questions, but we can be sure of one thing. We can be sure that people are asking them! If you have a child—or if you’ve ever been around a child—when they get to be about three years old, they just pepper you with questions: “Why is the sky blue?” “Why do dogs bark?” “Why is it snowing?” Those are tough questions and somehow we find a way to answer those questions. And there is nothing wrong with the questions that people are asking about “Where is God in the midst of crisis?” Sam Donaldson of ABC News at one time said something that I just love. He said, “The questions don’t do the damage. Only the answers do.” So we need to be prepared for these tough questions with an answer—a word of hope, a word of gospel truth. I like to call these God moments, and the more that we anticipate questions that might be asked, the better prepared we are to respond to these God moments.
There is a lot of terrible, horrible, no good, very bad theology running around today, and I think it’s running around with a mask on because it’s trying to pose like it’s good theology. I don’t know; maybe it’s one of those COVID masks, but there is a lot of bad theology out there. What we as believers can do--what we as Christian communicators can do—is not to let that bad theology happen. Don’t be fooled, and don’t let others be fooled. We can each pull out our inner theologian—each of us has one--and intentionally look for opportunities to share a word of hope!
Jim Veneman: Margaret, that’s a good idea, but how do we put that into practice? What if someone asks you a tough question like, “Why did God allow this pandemic to occur?”
Margaret Colson: OK, this is something I picked up in my research, and I got it from a man named Brad Phillips who wrote The Media Training Bible. He says to try the ATMs approach, ATMs: A: Answer the question; T: Transition; M: Message; and for S, he calls it Sell, but actually it’s a call to action.
Here’s how that might work. Someone says: “Why did God allow this pandemic to occur?”
We could respond: “That’s a great question. (It is a great question.) To be honest, there is no easy answer. It’s a question that theologians have wrestled with since the beginning of time, absolutely the beginning of time. What we do know as Christians is that God didn’t cause this disaster to happen; He allowed it to happen because He gave humans free will and sometimes that free will leads to calamity. We also know that God is not somehow punishing us by allowing this crisis to happen. What we are focusing on right now in this crisis is that our God is compassionate; He is as sad as we are by what’s happening in the world; He is present with us in our suffering; and He can bring good out of every single experience in our lives. Let’s pray together that this crisis will come to an end very soon and that we will be able to learn what God wants us to learn as a result.”
Let’s unpack that response for a moment. In giving that response, we first answered the question—acknowledging that the question was tough but that it was legitimate. This shows respect for the person asking the question. We then actually made two transitions leading into two distinct messages. The first transition, with the words, “What we do know,” led into a focus on the message that God did not cause the pandemic, that humans have free will and that God is not punishing us. The second transition, with the words, “What we are focusing on right now,” led to the second message, highlighting truth about God. We concluded with a call to action, which, in this case, was a call to prayer. This response packed in so much gospel truth, which might not have been possible if the response had been off-the-cuff or unintentional in its focus.
Of course, the way you respond to a friend who asks that question or the way we respond to let’s say a media representative who might ask that question is going to be different, and your personality, of course, is going to dictate how you communicate the message of truth. But, the technique – the approach, the ATMs approach—is a great reminder and guide of how to communicate eternal truth when given the opportunity.
Jim Veneman: Margaret, what about the tough questions that might not be so theological in nature? Can the same approach be used?
Margaret Colson: Sure, there’s no reason why it couldn’t be used! It’s always helpful to anticipate questions that might be asked and to be prepared with an answer that not only answers the question that’s being asked but it also offers biblical truth. For example, let’s think about, again, the pandemic. During the pandemic, responding to questions about when churches might reopen or what a church might do if an outbreak occurs, church leaders can answer the question. For example, they might say, “We have had some positive COVID cases, and now our church is going to transition back to online worship services only.” They can answer the question, but they can also affirm that the church is not a building and that the church is ministering in its community, so you are answering the question but then you are also offering some gospel truth.
When answering the question, we, of course as professional communicators, know that we should avoid clichés. Religious clichés, of course, are totally the table because non-believers just get lost; they don’t have any idea what we’re talking about if we throw in the religious clichés. We all know examples; we’ve probably got a laundry list of examples of religious clichés. But, my goodness, what does it mean to be “washed in the blood” or to “walk the aisle”? If you’re not a Christian, you don’t have a clue what that means. Over these past four months, there are some words and there are some phrases that have become more cliché in nature just because of overuse, and those words include—again, you might make your own list here—but words like “unprecedented” and “out of an abundance of caution.” When people hear or read those words, that’s when their eyes begin to glaze over because they’ve heard them so often this year, and they might roll their eyes and say, “Oh no, not again.”
Jim Veneman: Now, Margaret, I can definitely see how this approach can be used by church leadership.
Margaret Colson: Sure! It can be a game-changer, actually! The Bible, in 1 Peter 3:15, says, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” The man who came up with the ATMs approach was not necessarily writing from a Christian perspective (I don’t know anything about his faith journey), but he sure hit the nail on the head about being prepared to share the message that you want to share! We all know who was the master at transforming every conversation into an opportunity to share gospel truth. That person was none other than Billy Graham. We can follow his example and do the same, especially when it comes to crisis communications. I heard a story about Billy Graham that every time he did a microphone check, much like we have done in preparing this podcast, Billy (as I like to call him!) didn’t take the traditional approach; he didn’t say, “Testing, 1, 2, 3, testing.” Instead, he took that opportunity during microphone checks to recite the words of John 3:16.
Jim Veneman: Wow. Well, Margaret, we’re going to go ahead and stop for today. But I would welcome everyone who’s listening right now to join us again next week for a little bit more information from Margaret that’s directly out of her research on crisis communications in the local church, and it’s really relevant. Those of you who have been here and heard what Margaret has said, I’m sure, are already thinking about instances where this would have helped you and would have helped those in local churches that you are aware of. Please join us again next week. Thanks again to Doug Rogers for making all this possible. Without him, we wouldn’t be hearing anything right now. We’ll see you all soon.