The Power Of Telling Your Church’s Unique Story | James Blount

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James Blount of Burnt Hickory Baptist Church shares how they created a digital ministry, how to lead that ministry and the power of your church’s unique story!

Podcast Transcription


Jason Hamrock: Well, today on the podcast, I have James Blount. James is the Communication Director for Burnt Hickory Baptist Church, it’s a really large church outside of the Atlanta area. And today we’re talking about all kinds of cool things, from what they’re doing in terms of creating a digital ministry, to how to have a conversation with your leadership team, and leading in this space. And so there’s a lot of good fruit that you’re going to gain from our podcast today, I hope you enjoy.

Jason Hamrock: Well, hey, I’m here with James. James, thanks for joining me today.

James Blount: Jason, man, it’s fantastic to be able to hang out with you, and talk a little bit about what you guys got going on, and things that we’re doing. And it’s really cool to be able to learn and hear from other churches. We spent a whole lot of time asking, and seeking, and trying to learn, not just to steal ideas, but to to make us better. So one of the things that we focus on, you know, our vision may not be the same as another church, but their approach, and mindset, and tools, that they’re using are something that we can take inspiration from. So, man, I appreciate the opportunity.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah. Yeah, you bet. Well, so just give me a quick recap of all of things, you’re the Director of Communications, so what are all the things that you get to oversee and do at Burnt Hickory?

James Blount: Oh, man. Well, I kind of see my role as being like our brand champion. So I try to help craft our identity that God’s given us, into the written form, into videos, into storytelling, and to social media. And then I’m always preaching back to our staff, and through that to our people, back the vision that God has given us through our pastor. It’s a lot of fun to be able to to explore a lot of different arenas of creativity. So our digital worship guide, which is the the COVID replacement for the bulletin, and I have a graphic designer, Ashley, that helps us design all the parts to it.

James Blount: But one of my favorite things to get to do, is I get to help produce our Sunday morning live worship experience and one of our services. And then I also get to shoot amazing stories, just about every week, where we’re finding out ways that we as a church are living out our vision of bringing hope to people. So that’s one of my favorite things, when you get to sit down and start shooting a video, and then the person, like, relays this heavy, really cool, aspect of what they’re going through. And it just hits you, you have like this emotional explosion, and I start crying, and they start crying. And, you know, I love, I still can’t believe I get to do this for a living, I love being able to proclaim the gospel through creativity.

Jason Hamrock: Well, you know, you mentioned storytelling. And I want to have you talk a little about the room you’re sitting in, and why you guys created this room. But storytelling is an amazing tool, not only to encourage and motivate your congregation, but boy, it can do some really cool things to connect with people that are outside the church who do not have a relationship with Jesus. Therefore, they probably don’t have a whole lot of hope, you know, into what they could become, what God has in store for them. And so that it makes it more of a challenge for them to go, you know, I just, I don’t know. But then if they see this story of a changed life because of what God has done through your church, that should give people motivation and hope outside the church walls. And so using stories to share it with unchurched people, it’s got to be a really focal point for you guys, huh?

James Blount: It really is, we’ve realized that that’s really the most, one of our most important tools that we use in communicating to our church. Both to us internally, church, as well as the community that we live in, is through that that idea of creative storytelling. And they’re not, my goal in capturing one of these is always to showcase what is the life change that happened in this situation. And you’re right, it’s really cool to be able to show somebody finding hope in Christ through the storm that they’re in, and people watching it, engaging with it, and realizing that person is just like me. I’m emotionally going through some of these same things, or I’m physically going through these same things, and to be able to find hope and healing in the same way that that person did, it’s really powerful to watch.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah, and we started talking before we got into this podcast, a little bit about this idea of churches kind of going all in with digital, and really getting leadership, the leadership team, on board. Right? And COVID totally caused that to be put on steroids, in a good way, right, so everybody could be focused like that. And you’re sitting in a room right now that’s pretty much a result of the last eight months or so, talk to us a little bit about what you’ve been doing.

James Blount: Yeah, so it’s kind of crazy, like COVID, really…It’s Just kind of cliche, I hear a lot of leaders say this, but COVID has really been one of the greatest opportunities for the church to regather, and refocus back on what its vision is. Because the things that they measure success by, a lot of those things have been, the carpet’s been pulled out from under you, so you’ve got to rethink what does a person engaging really mean, and it looks totally different now than it did six months ago. And so one of the things when I first came to Burnt Hickory two years ago, in the back of my mind, I knew I wanted to take our live stream video experience and really turn that into an additional service venue. So we really wanted to treat it as a group of people that gather and worship with us, they just do it remotely, not in the room. And so I always dreamed of this online pastor role that would really like champion this audience to the rest of the staff, and to be able to interact and engage with them separately. You know, because you have these announcements that are specific to people in the room, but we also want people to go through our next steps process, but it may look totally different. You know, having somebody pray with a with a pastor in the room about accepting Christ, is totally different than if somebody has a question on line.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah.

James Blount: And so I dreamed about this person in my mind, and then COVID hit, and it all of a sudden became real to all of us. We realized, oh, this is something, this is where we’re headed. This is the type of new thinking that we need to participate in to really allow us to be able to shepherd and lead people like God has called us to, just in a totally different arena. And so I’m sitting in the online pastor suite, which we’re still in the middle of construction of. We had started updating our video suite gear, and production room construction, all kinds of stuff in January. We were in the middle of building the suite when all of this happened, and so we kind of went, all right, let’s take all the old equipment we pulled out, we were trying to think like, how can we bless another organization? And then we quickly realized, like, we’re going to need to stream both of our service styles, so we have a classic and a modern style worship service. So we actually took all of that equipment out and put it in our second venue across the hall, because we realized we have to start streaming this.

James Blount: So that doubled our production but we knew there’s a lot of people that worship with us and that’s their love language, their heart language is more classic style of worship. And so we’re like we’ve got to accommodate that group of people, they want to worship with us too, and we don’t want to leave them behind. So we basically doubled our video production suite, we built this particular room right here, a little small, 10 by 12 room that will actually be able to cut away live to an online host and be able to interact to answer questions and take people through our are our next steps process while they’re online. And digital church is, digital church for us is not, it’s not the end result. It’s like if you met a person you’re dating on Facebook or online, you don’t want to meet their parents over Zoom. And you can’t have dinner through Facebook story, you want to meet in person, like that’s the goal. So our digital is, yes, we’re trying to engage people as much as we can, but eventually we’re trying to get them to come and be in person with us. Maybe not in full worship service, but in our life groups, which is where our actual mission of the church is carried out on a weekly basis.

Jason Hamrock: So it sounds like you guys are wanting to obviously go deeper into online as an on board to perhaps in person, or at least if they’re far away, they could find a local body to connect with.

James Blount: Yeah, yeah. Digital has been great for us to to keep our people engaged, engage new people, and I still think it’s an extremely powerful part of how we’re going to continue proclaiming the gospel. But, yeah, man, we have really missed people being able to interact in personal relationship. Which we’ve slowly been able to accommodate back, we’re now doing three on site services with very limited seating as we’re trying to maintain the social distancing aspect of that. That’s been really exciting, so we have an RSVP system that people have been able to reserve their seat ahead of time and come join us, to make sure we’re not over filling the space. And it’s been really refreshing to see people that have not been able to worship together with their church family in months, to see them now come in and participate in it has been, it’s been a lot of fun.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah. So what are some things that you’ve learned in this, kind of in this season where you’re, you know, you’re trying to get better at this digital thing? Or at least, I kind of look at it in the fact that, you know, when COVID broke, it caused every church to have to go online, which is great. And you guys, like many, many other churches, really upped your game with creating the service as almost like an episode. And now that you start to get back to in person, what’s that look like for you guys? And what have you, what are some takeaways that you’ve learned on what to do, or what not to do, as communication director? And how are you going to get more people back into seats?

James Blount: Yeah, so it’s an interesting conundrum to be able to try to push a lot of excitement around having in room capability to be able to worship. But in that same time, we don’t want to leave people behind who don’t feel safe congregating. Or for people like you mentioned earlier, that live a little further away, we don’t want to abandon them as soon as we start having services back in the room. So one of the things has really been, has been as a staff, looking at every single part of ministry that we do, how can we adapt those things and help each other across the table, be able to keep people engaged when you don’t have that one on one relationship in person? So everything from missions, like missions looks totally different right now, because you can’t get on a plane and fly to Kenya. You’ve got to think through, how can I still support and love people without being able to go in men’s ministry, women’s ministry, children, students, they’ve all had to adapt and change. Like students, they came up with a great digital parent guide, for parents to be able to like, remember and know what their students are learning in their worship services and groups. And then it has like a daily reminder on the phone that’ll pop up and tell them, hey, here’s the things that we were discussing, here’s something you can discuss over dinner tonight with your kids. So little things like that, we’ve seen how we can keep connected with people. And everyone has had to learn how to adapt and change, everybody has become digital experts on our entire staff over the past couple of months.

Jason Hamrock: And that’s a good thing, right?

James Blount: Yes, very much so. It’s helped us grow substantially in understanding that we can look so much further than what we were at continuing to carry out our vision that God has given us.

Jason Hamrock: Yes. So speak to some of the of the initiatives that you guys are going to be staring at over the next season as we get into the last quarter, we’re in the last quarter of the year and into 2021, what’s some of the things that you guys are focused on?

James Blount: Really, it’s been an interesting transition watching. Let me start over that one. Things that I think I’m looking forward to are watching a lot of our staff be able to adjust the things that they used to rely on as is in person events, finding new ways to create virtual events. And also be able to take things that we used to congregate here in a large group, how can we split that up and be able to do those smaller in more remote places? So our life groups are a little bit different than a lot of churches models are. We love that our groups are a little bit bigger, they’re more like typical Sunday school groups because they’re able to be big enough to dare to be able to do big goals, accomplish big goals. And so they’ve had to learn how to become hybrid, and so they have some meeting in person, and some online at the same time. So one of the big initiatives for us right now, is to be able to come alongside those groups with technology and accommodate them so that they can have people watching the Zoom lesson as well as people participating right there. And them all be able to, like, interact with each other at the same time. So that’s a big one, updating a lot of tech gear around the building to be able to help ministry to happen remotely and in-person at the same time.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah. I mean, I think that’s…Yeah, you’re kind of forced in that direction, right? Which is a good thing. There’s probably some sacred cows that you guys are going, yeah, we can get rid of those because we don’t want to do those in the future. But it was really hard to stop doing them, and now this is kind of giving us an opportunity to kind of move in a different direction, and be more lean and mean and focused on a digital outreach opportunity. You know, taking all the ministry stuff and just making sure it’s available for anybody, everywhere.

James Blount: Yeah, yeah. I mean, our entire quote assimilation process, the whole thing that we want people to do alongside us, is take a next step. So every interaction that we have, is A is accept Christ, B is be baptized, C is connect to a life group, D is discovered membership. So we’re always pointing people to the next step that we want them to dive a little deeper into, and being able to take a look at that whole entire process and really mold it to accommodate additional avenues where we’re not able to engage with people the same way we used to. So our whole discipleship process is turned on its head, but in a good way. It’s been able to, you’re right, it’s been able to to help us see what things work, what things don’t work, and we’ve been able to to adapt, and change, and grow, and become a lot more efficient at that.

Jason Hamrock: What are some of the, what are some of the tools that you guys are using right now that are helping you in this initiative to be a better engaging online church?

James Blount: So one of the things that we learned, we used to just stream the Sunday morning worship experience, and you only got to see the modern one because that’s where most of the camera equipment was located at. And so there wasn’t really anybody monitoring a chat, it was just kind of free for all, and we’d just let it go out to the public domain and people would watch it as they see. And so understanding that now we’ve really got to change and communicate to people in the middle of the service, not in a distracting way, but to be able to accommodate and help people take a next step. So one of the things is when we shifted online providers, we have a chat system now. And so we have that host person, which by the way, all our staff have been taking turns filling this host chat room role. And they’re being able to create these moments in our in our system where they will pop up with the option of online giving, or do you have a question? You know, it’s really kind of helped us refine a lot of things that we were doing in service, that person is able to help those folks watching online be able to do the same thing remotely. So being able to monitor four different arenas online Sunday morning is a handful, We’re on YouTube, and Facebook, and the app, and on the website, and a lot of different places. And so so being able to, I think the next step for us is figuring out how to unify that, so that no matter which platform you’re on, somebody with a question or, you know, a praise about something, that they would be able to be seen by everybody, no matter which arena that you happen to catch the live service in.

Jason Hamrock: So, when I talk with churches it’s always about trying to figure out how to reach more people, how to reach families, and some are more specific on reaching younger families. How do you grow younger as a church? So are there some things you’re doing right now to communicate that younger families are welcome, and you’re actually growing in that area, and what does that kind of look like?

James Blount: It’s interesting because we are a very multigenerational church, we have something, literally, for every age group and age bracket. And so for us, really, it ties back to the vision. One of our values is we love each other like a family, we love fiercely like a family, because God first loved us. And we always package that in the caveat of saying your family may look totally different, you as an individual in your collective family, but us as a community together we are a family. And so being able to bring it back to that, and then using those storytelling pieces that we showcase. It’s really easy when you have a multigenerational congregation to be able to go, I want to get a story from a 14 year old who just accepted Christ. Or I want to hear from this person who was a founding father, and a member of the beginning of our church, I want to hear them speak about what excites them about the next generation. And so, really, we haven’t had to focus and be specific because of who we are intrinsically, I think that’s been the glue that’s inside of that, is that’s who we are. We tell the stories that are in our midst, and that continues to reflect a multigenerational church.

James Blount: But I kind of fell back to, like Simon Sinek always says, start with why? That’s going to be my go to in being able to transcend any age bracket in communicating, really starting with who God has called us to be and what he’s asking us to do. And I think if you’re able to compellingly answer those questions, that piece of communication is really going to transcend age brackets, if you will. So, yeah, that’s that’s kind of been our approach, we’re always going back to our vision, and things just seem to fall into place when we’re trying to talk through it. But like I say, all of our different ministry leaders have shifted the way that they’re engaging, to be able to… Like students knows that all their students congregate on Instagram, and so that’s their platform that they’re using, even though that may be some of the same messaging that we’re sending to the parents who are on Facebook, as well as the grandparents who get the worship guide. So we know it’s the same messaging, we may use a different tool to reach them. But yeah, we’re not like targeting, we’re just being who we are, which is what God has called us to be in a specific place is a church about building families.

Jason Hamrock: Well, what I hear is, you know, from your leadership, you know, the vision, what you’re trying to accomplish, you know what to say, and then you know the platforms on how to effectively connect with those different age groups, if you will. And what a great, as a brand manager, you know, what a great opportunity for you. So I guess I’d encourage, if you are a communication director listening to this podcast, and you don’t have that clear picture, You know that something James was saying is just your leadership needs to kind of direct that, what that looks like. Otherwise, you’re kind of, you’re taken stabs at it, and hoping that something sticks.

James Blount: Or it’s built off of personal preference, and that’s, man, that’s dangerous.

Jason Hamrock: That’s right, yeah, you totally misaligned with the leadership, and the direction of the church. So it’s really good advice.

It is, that is a really good point. A clear vision, laid out by your pastoral leadership, is very vital to carrying out everything. It answers all the questions of whether we should host an event, all the way to how should I word this email.

Jason Hamrock: Exactly. Yeah. Yeah. And you know, we live in the digital space at Missional Marketing, it’s always about landing pages, or ads that are being sent out, or whatnot. Right. So it’s having that clarity allows everybody to do their job effectively so, that’s good. So, would you mind sharing some thoughts about working with Missional Marketing? Like, tell us a little bit about what we get to do for you guys, and how that’s helping.

James Blount: All right. So yeah, man, it’s been really exciting having you guys come alongside us, and really help us understand the reason why we’re putting out the content that we are on our website. And helping us create goals to engage people, you guys have been helping us with that for many, many years. You’ve been managing our Google grant, and we’ve seen tremendous growth in people coming to the website and finding us, and being able to engage with us all by just making small changes on the things that we were already putting out on our website. Simple things like I meet with you guys about once a month, and we would kind of talk over the campaigns that we’re we’re running. You guys help us out with a lot of social media campaigns, and Google campaigns, and being able to really craft that messaging specific across those different platforms. Because they’re reaching different people, different demographics, and being able to help us be more of a success with our digital presence. Even something as simple as being able to clean up our local Google SEO so that people could find us easier on maps. I mean, it’s something that sounds super simple, but I’m really glad you guys have expertise in it, because I love storytelling, but I’m not a coder at all.

Jason Hamrock: I hear you, I’m the same way. It’s probably because I’m a former communications director as well. You getting into the details of SEO, I know how it’s done, and I’ve learned a ton, but I’m still not the guy that pulls the levers and pushes the buttons, that’s not me. I’m more like you, going, oh, we could communicate this message, and tell this story, and lead these people this way. this is awesome. You know, I need to have other people make it actually happen.

James Blount: Yeah, yeah. That’s another great principle, diversity in skill sets. Man, if everybody thought the same way that I did, boy we’d be in trouble. So I love having as many people at the table to help collaborate, and I think a little bit differently than a lot of our staff does, but I need them to help balance my creative brain. And they need me to help communicate effectively, the things that they’re trying, the big initiatives that they’re trying to do. So yeah, man, you’ve always got to have those two balancing forces, they’re not in opposition, they help strengthen each other. You know, like Iron sharpens Iron, man, it’s a beautiful concept.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah, absolutely. Well, James, thanks so much for some insight into what you guys got going on. And it sounds like you got some really exciting things happening. And it sounds like alignment is really falling into place, which is really cool because you need that.

James Blount: Yeah, If one thing you could walk away with today is speaking to other communication directors, other churches, go after getting that vision clearly. And I promise you, it will help you align things so much easier. It’ll answer a lot of the personal preference questions that people raise about should we or shouldn’t we do this, or what’s really the theme of this? Really, it all falls back into vision.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah, well said, well said. Thanks again, my friend, I appreciate you.

James Blount: Yeah, thank you, Jason, I appreciate the opportunity.

Jason Hamrock: All right, take care.

James Blount: All right, you too.

Jason Hamrock: Well, James, I appreciate your insight. Wow, did we learn some things? Right. And there’s a few things that that we definitely pulled from this conversation today, but probably the biggest one that comes to my mind is this idea of making sure you’re having conversations with your leadership team, or maybe you are the leader, and aligning and making sure you’re on point and on purpose for telling that story, sharing this story about what it is you’re known for. What kind of church are you known for? You know, it’s interesting, if you were to go into a church and ask, hey, what are we known for? Usually you’re going to get our mission statement, right? And it’s something around connecting people to Jesus, and I’m 100 percent on board with that. However, if you ask the community outside, the people that don’t go to your church, but live around you what your church is known for, it’d be interesting to see what kind of response you get. I would almost guarantee that it’s not going to be in sync with what you think your mission is on point to do. I guarantee there’s probably a disconnect, and that’s not a good thing.

Jason Hamrock: What I am really excited about when I talk with churches, and they say, yeah, yeah, we’ve got this nailed down, we know the exact Bible verse that we kind of hang our church on, and we know this is exactly what we want for people who go to our church. And they’ve got some kind of a slogan, and everything is shared, and everything is done through that tagline or that slogan. We’re talking like events, preaching, it’s on the website, it’s on social media,and it’s all aligned. That makes things really real easy for communication directors, or people that, you know, website developers, or social media people that are posting. Because when we understand what we’re known for, and we can identify with that, boy telling that story gets excited and gets kind of fun. And so if you haven’t got to that space as a church, I highly recommend you do. What a great opportunity right now to be able to take some time and figure out what are we really known for, and then what do we want to be known for, and are those things aligned? Is it crystal clear to our congregation who we are, what we’re about, and does that fit outside for what people are looking for? And I think that that would be a really healthy exercise for you to go through.

Jason Hamrock: So if you’d want to have that conversation with me, I do a lot of that with churches. We consult with churches, our team does, and we help churches navigate this space because it really bleeds into then how you do this online, right. and making sure that what you’re saying relates well. And so we’d love to have that conversation with you, and learn more about your culture, and help you navigate, and get to a space where you can articulate what you’re known for.

Jason Hamrock: In the meantime, God bless. I hope you’ve learned something from today’s podcast. Until next time, take care.

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