One thing every church should consider but usually doesn’t

7 August, 2013 — 12 Comments

This picture below probably looks familiar to you. I first came across a more simplified version of it in high school when a teacher scribbled on the board two stick figures and a few arrows. This is the Shannon-Weaver model of communication from 1948. In this blog post I want to introduce the idea that this simple representation of communication needs to be considered whenever anyone inside the church tries to communicate anything outside the church.

Shanon-Weaver-model-of-communication-MikeCrudge.comIn other words, whenever the church attempts mission, evangelism, being missional, being incarnational, everything we do: the process of communication needs to be considered. I don’t just mean spoken or written, but actions and everything else we do.

With the communication of the church in mind, there’s a lot that can be said about the Shannon-Weaver model. Right now I will focus on the model itself and in future posts I will refer back to this as I apply it to the past, present, and future church.

Definitions of communication

There are many definitions for “communication” and according to Griffin 1 there is not yet one final and definitive way to define it. He does offer a helpful working definition:

“Communication is the relational process of creating and interpreting messages that elicit a response” 2

Tubbs 3 suggests:

“Communication is a subject so frequently discussed that the term itself has become too meaningful – that is, it has too many different meanings for people” 4

Tubbs is probably not thinking of the church world when he mentions how frequently communication is discussed!  I like the Shannon-Weaver model of communication because it keeps clear and simple what communication is.

Devito 5 says communication occurs when one or more people send and receive messages that may be distorted by noise, occur within certain contexts, have some kind of effect, and provide an opportunity for feedback.

The diagram explained

The diagram above illustrates basic communication theory. It shows the communication process that occurs when two people talk to each other.

The blue person on the left, the “sender” speaks, so in this case it is a verbal message sent to the red person on the right – the “receiver”.

The message is encoded and goes through a channel to be decoded by the red person.

Several things are going on:

The message travels through or along the channel which is subject to noise, in other words interference or distortion that could alter the message. In verbal communication this noise might actually be physical noise like a lawn mower or screaming baby, and this is called physiological noise, and the result of this might be what is called psychological effects, for example: an inability to concentrate on what is being communicated. Noise could be much more subtle than that, for example, when a person uses words in such a way that you do not understand the meaning, and this is called semantic noise.

After the message is sent there is the potential for feedback from the receiver which goes through the same process back to the original sender. In a verbal conversation this feedback might be verbal response, or it could be eye contact, facial expressions, or other body language or actions.

Successful communication

The result of any communication is revealed through the feedback from the “receiver” (the red person on the right of the diagram). It is not until feedback occurs that the “sender” can decide if the communication was successful or not.

Verbal communication is only one form of communication: many things communicate such as ethnicity, distance, history, relationship status, all these things are received and interpreted, perceptions are created, and responses are formed, with the potential for feedback.

Who are the communicators?

On the “sender” side of the communication process, in the diagram above it is a person. The sender could also be an organisation, such as clubs, sports groups, political parties, and while the “receiver” could be an individual person, it could also more broadly be seen as a group of people, or large groupings of people, cultural groupings – such as Cantabrians, or even New Zealand society.

Church as “sender”

In my doctoral research I have considered the church in New Zealand as the “sender”, and people outside of the church as the “receiver.” I will unpack this more in later blog posts as I add to the definition of “mission”.

In this post I have explained the basic idea around the Shannon-Weaver model of communication. This is because I think it is a very good tool to use when examining the communication of the church.

In this post I have tried to set the scene in terms of how we might think about the communication of the church.

I’d be interested to hear any comments you have in terms of thinking of your local church as being represented as the blue person on the left of the diagram:

Have you thought about church in this way before?

Image: The Shannon-Weaver model of communication, Mike Crudge.



  1. Griffin, E. (2012). A first look at communication theory. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
  2. (Griffin, 2012, p. 6).
  3. Tubbs, S. (2010). Human communication: principles and contexts. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
  4. (Tubbs, 2010, p. 8).
  5. Devito, J. A. (2009). Human communication: the basic course. New York, NY: Pearson Education, p. 12.
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  • Tim Bulkeley

    Mike, will you be considering how we understand “message”? It seems to me that both the model and the definitions above beg this question… especially when I think of either “the church” or “my church”.

    • Hi Tim. What I’d like to say is the actual message is an issue for the theologians, but I know that would be a cop-out.

      What I think you’re suggesting is multiple churches could have multiple and conflicting messages derived from the same “source”, and so the message itself is full or complexity before the communication of it is even considered?…

      • Tim Bulkeley

        Er, no. Sorry I muddied the water by mentioning “church”.

        I was asking: What do you for the purpose of this conversation think a “message” is? At one extreme you might think a message is a collection of words that communicates some idea, but then is the message the words or the idea. But, you might go further and allow non-verbal “messages” (e.g. as above giving a cuppa and toast “speaks” of love, or at least care). There is also the question of whether a “message” is intended, if it is not intended is it a message or something else…

        • Ah yes, I see. In the Shannon-Weaver model diagram the message certainly looks like words being spoken (via a speech bubble). I have a much more broad and spacious view of “message”, being more like the “idea” you mention.

          When I’m talking to groups I sometimes say “even the carpet in this room communicates something…”, meaning, someone once chose that carpet, there were reasons why it is the type, colour, quality, age, fashion, etc that it is… These things communicate something about the carpet/room/space. While most people probably don’t think twice about the carpet in a lecture room, if you thought about it and did some research, there will be a story there.

          As to intended or not intended: yes. I would say if a “reciever” picked up a message from a “sender” without the sender being aware of it – that is interesting and something for the sender to be curious about.

          • Tim Bulkeley

            Yes, the diagramme (which I’ve used too for years) makes it look as if the “message” is the thing that the sender intends to communicate. But as you say there are all sorts of other things that are in fact communicated as well. I think they are often (maybe even usually) even more important than intended “message”. I wish we had a name for them!

            E.g. during discussions of the recent marriage bill Christians often thought they were saying: Marriage is a building block of society, don’t mess with it, cherish and protect it. What most people heard (helped admittedly by a media that wanted this to be what people heard) was: We hate gays, God hates gays.” This reinforces the idea that God is a crabby narrow-minded rule-maker. A myth that churches have been unintentionally communicating for centuries

  • disqus_aUV4kk8nVj

    Having trouble here!! just posted a long comment that’s now disappeared!! As I was trying to say – great topic and I’ll be mulling it over but my quick reply to your question is “No, have never thought of my church as ‘sender’ before”. However years ago, when our monthly garage sales started (next year being our 25th – I was the one who put up my hand to get them started and still involved1) I felt strongly to stand by my desire to serve, for no charge our free cuppa and biscuits (which then became, and still is, cheese on toast and I’m told that tasty cooking smell is synonymous with our garage sales now!).
    Some in our church said we should make a nominal charge of say 50c but, in those early days of GST and ‘user pays’ I wanted us to be seen as a group willing to give the cuppa and refreshments expecting no payment in return.
    It gave, and still gives, me opportunities now and again when people are surprised or expect to pay for their cuppa and cheese on toast, to be able to tell them we give it with God’s love or because God’s love motivates us to want to do that. (I did start out saying this would be a ‘quick answer’ but those who know me are aware I could never do Precis at school and still can’t tell a short story!)
    That was the message I wanted people to receive from us as part of UHBC – don’t know for sure whether the receivers “got it” but I have to leave that to God, I think!

    • Hi Kate! I reckon in this example your gesture of hospitality is a well communicated message. Hospitality alone “speaks”, and perhaps there is no need for initial explicit words defining your motivation.

  • jonathan dove

    Looking forward to seeing this developed further…

  • manwithbowloffreshfruitonhead

    Hey Mike, I just had a thought, tying this in to the Weird People discussion, so the weird people are the ones who actually begin with the noise, because that’s where the problem lies, sort of ,cutting to the chase’

    • Hi manwithbowloffreshfruitonhead

      I see what you mean with the “noise” in the diagram. I think perhaps the “weird people” could be causing noise for some of the church/Christian “message”, but I also think that the so called “weird people”, as the “sender” in the diagram, are actually sending a different or incompatable “message”, or that it is being “encoded” in a way that is unhelpful. These two options are issues before “noise” needs to be considered.

      Just to recap here how I described “weird people” in this previous post:

      “…weird people might have an exuberant confidence, perhaps caused by a lack of self awareness. They might be weird because of extreme theological views – or simply incorrect theology. They might have eight children, or not own a television. They might just be… weird!”

      • manwithbowloffreshfruitonhead

        Yeah I guess there’s a need for people to communicate in such a way that other people understand, at the risk of everybody ending up sounding like Pope Francis,but it takes courage and humor to risk a little misunderstanding.

  • DrDon

    Mike – thanks for raising this topic. While I believe the context is essential for discussion (and teaching for understanding), it is a very large subject to be dealt with in this context. Yet I also believe that it is a very simple concept; and when one starts with an open mind, there is much to be learnt from the Bible about communication.
    I note that you have focused on communication between the church as “sender”, and people outside of the church as the “receiver.” There are many questions, such as: ‘who is the church; is it the so-called leaders (e.g. those who grab all the media attention and do all the talking), or is it individuals going about their daily life? What is the message that is being communicated, is it God’s message or is it ????? From discussions with many outside the church, what is and has been communicated is more to do with ?????
    I believe that we need to bring everything back to a clear and rather simple process. I consider God to be the sender and individual humanity to be the receiver. God is trying to communicate through disciples/believers his message of love and reconciliation (add restoration, spiritual formation, transformation, etc.). His church (not the human established church) is both the receiver and part of the channel through which God communicates his message of love. I believe that Jesus is our example and that he came to do three things through a life that demonstrated sacrifice and love – he went to the cross to secure salvation for all people, shared the good news of the Kingdom of God (physically and intellectually), and trained disciples to continue and multiply his work. All of this is contained within ‘doing his Father’s will’.
    The true church should be doing our Father’s will and communicating his love through sharing the gospel message to those outside the church and training disciples within the church. If we are not focused on these two things, then all we are is ‘noise’ which is distorting, confusing and altering God’s message.
    As for your final request (“to hear any comments you have”), I would love to be able to find a “third place” that is more meaningful than ‘noise’.