01 February 2024

To know our audiences—and to serve them

Northwest Yearly Meeting, 2013; photo was first used on this post.

As the 20th anniversary of this blog approaches, I've been looking at some of my recurring themes. One of them is the importance of communicators knowing and serving their audiences rather than themselves.

If you, dear reader, are concerned to communicate with a particular audience—whether it's inside or outside your organization; whether it be someone who is wrestling with addiction or other personal demons, or someone you'd like to introduce to Christian faith, or a potential contributor to your charitable campaign—maybe something here will make sense to you. I'm writing to anyone who cares about effective organizational communication, and I also invite your comments and corrections.

As part of my own background, during the first four years of this blog I was working for a marketing firm, Crane MetaMarketing Ltd (now Crane + Peters). It was a wonderful opportunity to learn what deeply researched, ethically grounded marketing and branding could do for communicators. I don't apply these lessons very systematically in these posts, but I gratefully acknowledge the values and skills I learned in the Cranes' nest.

What follows is nothing new. I'm just linking to some of the posts (and occasional rants) I've already done on this theme, hoping that something here might be interesting.

Publishers of Truth (August 13, 2009)

We Quakers have been publishers and pamphleteers from the very start. But maybe our priorities have changed.

In the 1600's, we issued calls all over the English-speaking world and beyond—to know Jesus personally, and as a result, to change worship, church government, stewardship of resources, and social ethics. There was passion, wonder, discovery, urgency, and fearlessness.

As we live with the results of the 19th-century divisions among us, the stuff we put out often reflects where we are in the complex geography of today's Friends. We evangelical Friends write more about Jesus (and with less emphasis on metaphor). At the universalist end, there's a lot of speculative material, and much that emphasizes how to be more quakerish. There's a lot of material in the middle, but so much of it, from whatever source, seems to be, well ... tame. I think a lot of it is intended just to fine-tune us, to make us more sophisticated or more well-adjusted within our present categories.

Some of this material is great. But two related elements often seem to be missing. The first is the excitement and urgency of a movement that once believed it was bringing something new and crucial into the world, that lives and destinies depended on getting these new experiences and insights expressed persuasively. As William Penn says in one of his tracts, "Hear and be entreated for your soul's sake!"

The disappearance of this element isn't necessarily a simple or entirely bad thing—that original fire might have been 90% inspiration, but surely there was a danger of arrogance and narrowness. We were, after all, claiming the very mantle of the apostles themselves! But has all of that confidence completely evaporated, and (aside from misplaced arrogance) what have we lost as a result?

. . .

The second missing element is the expectation of an external audience. We issue timid mating calls to try to attract people as much like ourselves as possible, and nobody else. We pander to prejudices—some of us saying "we're really just another safe, Bible-believing, evangelical denomination (water baptism on request)" and others, "don't worry, we won't intrude on your private spiritual space; we're all on various paths up the mountain, and we just like each other's company." There are a few Quaker books out there for non-Quakers, but with some exceptions they seem to portray us with an aura of quaint unworldliness and a uniformity we no longer have except in isolated pockets.... —I don't dare give examples lest I step on toes.

There's an in-between zone—for example, pamphlets for inquirers and newcomers. The series that Paul Anderson wrote for Barclay Press is good, but the vast majority of that genre is narrow, prim, derivative, overly intellectual, and often still fighting modernist-fundamentalist battles that are now largely irrelevant to spiritually hungry people.

Here's my complaint, in summary: Our publications and public communications generally seem directed at enhancing our personal sense of righteousness (however our branch of Friends defines righteousness) without a guiding vision of global relevance. I'm sure someone will tell me that the the context is there; it's just implicit. I will respond that if the non-Quaker can't detect it, they can be forgiven for believing it's not there.

What set off this train of thoughts was a question that has been raised in one of the committees I'm on, concerning choosing Friends materials to translate. It's not the first time I've been involved in discussions of translating Friends publications into or out of English, but this time I just had a brief but shocking intuition: what if the material we publish and distribute gives an impression of a tiny, fastidious, legalistic, joyless, rootless group of theoretically progressive philistines? Do we resemble anything so much as 19th-century middle-class spiritualists, gathering for seances? Do our evangelicals really take Jesus seriously, or are they just stuck on the old-time cliches because that's the safest thing to do? When will the liberals acknowledge Jesus again as prophet, priest, and king among us, and get rid of all those sophisticated post-Christian excuses for avoiding his claims on us?

In all fairness, I don't think that we Friends have made a corporate decision to project a tiny and timid message, if any at all, to the world. But where is the forum to discuss widely what kind of message we should project?—not a message about us and how wonderful we are or how safely innocuous we are, but about the world, the state it is in, its bondages on people's lives and souls, and what God demands of us?

(Full post.)

Publishers of Truth, part two (August 20, 2009)

Aside from academic stuff, the Christian publications I find most useful begin with the audience member's situation, either as an individual or as a part of society—in either case, facing a significant challenge. The author then tries to show how biblical insights, Christian disciplines, the author's own personal experiences, or the lives of fellow Christians, can shed light on the reader's situation. In many cases, such expressions have an emotional appeal as well—ranging from "your eternal destiny might be at stake!" to "God has hope for you in your addictions" to "Stop this injustice before more people are exploited or killed!" Sometimes the author even dares to claim a God-given insight specifically for that situation.

Please let me know whether you've found Quaker books, pamphlets, videos, anything, from recent years, that do this. I'm not saying they don't exist—if they do, I'd like to do my bit to give them more visibility. But too often we are not audience-centered at all; we're too busy describing ourselves and our ideas. Whether our motive is to make Quakers simply glow in the dark, or to one-up somebody else, internal or external, it's all about us.

It can't be just about us any more. Either God wants to reach the world through us, or we are just a boutique option for a spiritually drifting niche market, and our fellow creatures in spiritual or social agony should look somewhere else. If there's some other way to put it, convince me! In any case, I can't believe that the best we have to offer is to describe ourselves yet again, or to theorize on silence, "minding the light," simple living, earth care, from a position of serene safety.

There is a place for self-description; our hard-earned heritage deserves loving stewardship and persuasive advocacy, especially as we continue the important work of spiritual formation within our community and the empowerment of newcomers. I'd like us to build on that strength, going forward with honest attempts to speak God's prophetic words to the condition of people who don't have the safety margin to enjoy our self-descriptions, internal arguments, and theories. And if such people have a word to say to us, let's find ways of making that connection. Is more of this already happening than I realize? (Perhaps beyond the North Atlantic zone of Friendly affluence?)

(Full post.)

"Please don't go." (December 28, 2006)

Am I becoming a Quaker curmudgeon? Here comes another newsletter from an international Friends organization I care about. Let's see ... four pages of tiny print, with God mentioned once (in the mission statement) and absolutely no reference to Christ or Christianity. And how are we asked to support the organization? By sending money and getting our meetings to send money; evidently no prayer is needed. In contrast to the lack of divinity, the words "Quaker" and "Quakerism" are used at least a dozen times. But the overwhelming tone is that of a secular nongovernmental organization.

Years ago, when my job required me to read lots of these sorts of Quaker newsletters, I had a similar experience. A newsletter from the Quaker Council for European Affairs sent me over the edge when I realized that there was not a word in it about the spiritual motivation behind the excellent work it described. Being an experienced Quaker bureaucrat myself, after cooling off I had to admit that I knew the temptation to publicize what was on my desk rather than visualize and speak to a human audience about what was in my heart. Furthermore, as Right Sharing of World Resources staff (which I was at the time), I was aware that most of my daily reading and much of my advocacy work was in a context and culture set by large and competent secular organizations, and I began to recognize that I probably had a subconscious desire to be credible in that community.

I also realized that many Friends activists assume that their readers already understand the motivations undergirding their work, or can pick them up between the lines. But that's not how communication actually works, except perhaps among others already in the activist culture. So we think that our newsletters are spreading the word about our valuable work, but they're actually giving a cold shoulder to anyone who doesn't already share that culture. Everyone else can actually be forgiven for thinking that what we DON'T say must not be important.

I wrote a letter to QCEA at the time, but I can't remember getting a response.

Our income doesn't increase, because we're not connecting with new people, not communicating a motivation they can identify with. We communicate our programs, not our passion. We speak in the language of budgets and proposals and policies and the latest "thinking" about how to make lives better, but the common-sense reader needs to see how their own response can confront oppression, not how clever we are in using their money. And it may be natural to us to say "Quaker" and "Quakerism" over and over and over in our literature and Web sites, but without any reference to a living spirituality or the wider Christian context, we begin to give off a very cultish smell, as if we were representatives of some kind of rarified independent religion.

The newsletter that set me off this time (not from the QCEA) shows no ability to connect with any audience other than one primed to salute at the word "Quaker" and at listings of activities combating social ills. There's not even a symbolic, token linguistic nod at the majority of Friends who are at least nominally evangelical. My first, most ornery response: I guess our Christian faith must either be inconsequential or an embarrassment; it is certainly not a source of motivation worth mentioning. The intended audience obviously doesn't include me or people like me. But I know the writers, who are wonderful people, and I know that the reality cannot be that bleak: perhaps it is just that common tendency to forget the audience in favor of the desk, to emphasize the quantifiable and familiar "whats" and "hows," and leave out the why.

Why do I fear that I'm becoming a curmudgeon? Because a day earlier I received a mailing from an evangelical Christian organization, for yet another curriculum to train counselors in the church. Why must I always immediately scan such material to see if there's any evidence of women and of racial diversity in leadership? (Often not, even in 2006, soon to be 2007!!!) Why do I immediately check for evidence of at least minimal gender sensitivity in language? Why do I get so discouraged when there's no mention of systemic violence or societal sin? Why do I bristle at bouncy happy-talk that includes no serious analysis or self-criticism, and treats me like a naive idiot?

So, honestly, when was the last time I got a newsletter or appeal letter from a Quaker or other Christian source that actually satisfied me?

. . . See why I worry?

(Full post.)

Meditations on sectarianism (October 11, 2012)

A few years ago I tried to draw a distinction between evangelism and proselytism.

Evangelism is the persuasive, experience-driven communication of spiritual truth, combined with an invitation to experience a community formed by that truth. Without the invitation, evangelism is never complete, but without hospitality, the community is not truly accessible. If being a Friend is not simply a matter of happy historical accident, the reality must be as available as the theory.

In a world full of competing loyalties and oppressions, evangelism must be rooted in God's love for all creatures. Practically speaking, it must have the recipient's best interests at heart; it must be truly liberating. Proselytism, on the other hand, simply aims at a transfer of the listener's affiliation from one spiritual home to another (ours); in the worst case, it serves our interests, not theirs.

We Quakers do not proselytize. We are not trying to sell our spiritual community at the expense of another's: our responsibility is strictly limited to informing people about our faith and experience, and making the doorway accessible to those who want to test and see whether what we say is true. Furthermore, as a teacher, I believe that I have the responsibility to (as Douglas Steere put it) "confirm the deepest thing in another," and if that deepest thing is his or her Orthodox faith, I will do nothing to weaken it. If anything, I'd seek to make it stronger!

Keeping that doorway open, however, remains crucial!! Without the refreshment—and the scrutiny—of new people, we run the danger of stagnation, of becoming a chaplaincy for a small self-absorbed group. There's a question that some Quakers seem to pose whenever we suggest putting more energy into evangelism: "If we get new people, how do we know they are really Friends?" I love the way Jane Boring Dunlap of Wilmington Friends Meeting in Ohio responded to that question in a discussion: "Why do we assume that new people would be dumber than we are?" On a sadder note, I remember how some people in the old Elektrostal Meeting (when it existed) asked me, "Why is it so difficult to become a Friend? Aren't we good enough?" Yes you are!!—Friends are nothing more exotic than Christians who simply want to clear a way to the Source.

What did that unexpected visitor see when he burst into our [Moscow] meeting, with its quiet circle of Russians (and Judy and me), and the candle and Bibles on the table in the center? Maybe in this complicated age of gurus and special knowledge and ever-more-fragrant varieties of Gnostic elitism (and you find them here in Russia, too), a group of people sitting in reverent silence might at first glance resemble a special rarified group of adepts. No, no, no! We gather neither for self-confirmation nor for self-enhancement; we gather to meet with God in full reliance on the promises of Jesus Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit. Do you want to meet with God in friendly company and in simplicity of faith? That's the sole basis of our warm invitation. In the realities of today's Russia, it's more important than ever that we remain completely transparent, faithful to our essential simplicity—and accessible.

(Full post.) (Be sure to read comments, too.)

With many thanks for your patience, here are a few more links along these lines:

Signs, part one, part two, part three, part four.

Do we realize how we sound?

A good Quaker is hard to find.

Publishing truth—ethically.

In light of our Camas Friends' 2024 Word of the Year, "Repair," here is Becky Ankeny on God's Repair Shop.

Kristen Du Mez remembers Letha Dawson Scanzoni.

What fiction can reveal about the fragile fabric of societies: Aminatta Forna on Sierra Leone, the former Yugoslavia, and wider implications.

Kake, Alaska: A Quaker apology.

Hearing aids may take some getting used to, according to Nancy Thomas.

Introducing Dorothy Donegan.


Martin Kelley said...

Genuine chuckle at "no ability to connect with any audience other than one primed to salute at the word 'Quaker' and at listings of activities combating social ills." It's true of a lot of our communications, probably even a good percentage of mine, alas.

RantWoman said...

Johan, thank you for your continuing faithfulness to a leading to write and to write all over the place. Editing your offerings is even less within my ken than editing my own. I go around saying I have a versatile God who gets things done all kinds of ways. A chronicle can stand on its own with messages left for people to revisit time and again. So please keep writing.

Johan Maurer said...

Rantwoman, hello from your faithful reader. Thanks for your kind words.

Martin, I remember with great appreciation your comments on the official Quaker press at the time of the Christian Peacemakers' kidnappings, and Tom Fox's death. Also, when I began 20 years ago, your words of encouragement may have been among the very first I received.