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Communications is integral part of church’s mission

The Rev. Larry Hollon shares his experience and passion for communications ministry.

Give Larry Hollon a cup of coffee and the New York Times, and he's as happy as a kid in a candy store. In fact, his craving for information about whatever's happening around the world was sparked when he was, indeed, just a kid.

As a little boy in Oklahoma, he huddled beneath the covers late at night listening to shortwave radio stations in Cuba, Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union and other parts of the world – ticking off each one in order to earn a scouting merit badge. But he gained far more than a badge. He discovered a vast world beyond his small corner of it -- an intriguing world reachable through the power of communication. Just like that, he was hooked.

His eager interest in global goings-on grew and fueled an intense desire to tell the stories of those affected by poverty. As a journalist and producer, he traveled to dozens of countries to make known the plights of those suffering due to hunger, disease, natural disaster and civil war.

Today, he's an avid consumer and creator of media -- a blogger, photographer, social media enthusiast, early adopter and bona fide news addict -- who heads communication efforts for the whole of the 11.5 million-member United Methodist Church.

When the United Methodist Association of Communicators recently named Hollon Communicator of the Year, we checked in with him to see what's on the horizon for the church, communications-wise.

Q: As conversations take place regarding the restructuring of the church, how do you think the role of communications affects the future health of the denomination?

A: Communication is such a strategic function today, there's scarcely a corporation, government entity or nonprofit group that doesn't recognize the value of strategic communications. It has to do with how an organization presents itself to its constituency and the broader public, as well as how it's perceived by its target audiences.

The importance of the church's strategic communications function has never been greater because we have a far more noisy communications environment. In human history, there have never been more people trying to communicate or who have the means to communicate. Not to be strategic in our communications is to be left out. It's as simple as that.

Q: In what ways is United Methodist Communications being strategic to achieve the church's goals?

A: We're listening. We're doing research to understand what people are concerned about and what faith means to them. One of the things we know from research is that, as a society, we have developed the skill of tuning out. The more messages you send, the more likely it is you will be tuned out. So, we have to be relevant and compelling in our messaging.

We have to give thought to what our messages communicate in terms of how they reflect upon the church, explain the church and enlighten people about the church – as well as how they match people's interests and serve to be of real value to both audience and sender.

Q: How do you strike a balance between digital and traditional communications?

A: We're using new media in connection with face-to-face personal relationships. I don't diminish face-to-face communications. They are fundamental, but they should supplement the new media to become part of the comprehensive expression of ministry that the church has to engage in today.

People are using social media. They are utilizing email. They are reading blogs. If we aren't present in this wider environment where people are, then we are not communicating with them. Therefore, we become irrelevant to them.

We've made great strides in leading the church into the digital age. There are churches at virtually every skill level. At the highest end, we have churches like Van Dyke Church in Tampa, Fla., that have created online Christian communities with participants from around the world. But there are still parts of the U.S., Africa and the Philippines where Internet is either not available or not at a stage of development that makes it a real tool for people.

We're helping churches with resources and skills training for web ministry and social media, but we're also exploring and testing alternative technologies that might better serve underserved communities around the world.

Q: You've mentioned relevance. How do we connect with people in ways that are relevant to them?

A: Here's an example. Recently, a health fair was offered to residents of the Segundo Barrio neighborhood in El Paso for a Rethink Church event. The important thing for me was that the announcement of the health fair was made in a couple of ways. One was radio because much of the neighborhood are listeners of a local Spanish-language radio station. The second was fliers that were posted on utility poles throughout the neighborhood. It was reaching people where they were in the neighborhood, on the street. And a couple of thousand of them showed up. In fact, so many community members volunteered to help with the event that they outnumbered the church members.

The communications method and the way it was conceived in that project is a perfect illustration of how communications supports programmatic efforts, discipleship and Christian mission. It's not something that's separate. It's an integral part of the mission of the church.

Q: What's the direction you hope to see over the next four years?

A: I see us continuing to emphasize the creation of a global communications network with our colleagues around the world. I see us continuing to be at the leading edge of using new technology, in particular staying abreast of the use of social media for telling the church's story and stimulating conversation about Christian faith among United Methodists and seekers. And I see us continuing to create and aggregate content related to faith and spirituality, and sharing that content so that people can get vital relevant information about Christian faith and the perspectives of The United Methodist Church on important issues we face in the world.