Christian Media is Stuck and Scared

Christian Media is Stuck and Scared

Let me introduce you to ‘Coolio’ the rat. What if I told you that this good looking, well groomed rat before you, running around on his ‘hamster wheel’, showing a glint of bravado in their eye is actually really scared. First of all they’re a rat, not a hamster, and second of all they didn’t realise that once you start it’s really hard to stop. But what if you could? Stuck doesn’t necessarily mean stationary, and scared doesn’t mean forever. But stuck and scared can mean you’re still running 100mph on the hamster wheel, going nowhere and frankly bored with the view.

For many Christians around the world, the advent of modern media started to transform their faith in the 70s. Before this, the distribution of faith-based materials was primarily in printed form, often in books with the occasional newspaper of some description in some areas. Communicators like Bonhoeffer were able to rally supporters through modern-day epistles distributed by fans, but the burgeoning mass media was not yet an open media lectern. Cost and distribution still controlled access until little by little radio and television removed some of the barriers for the public with a simple switch on of the home radio or television. Somewhere between then and now, you may have decided to start with a little play on the hamster wheel to see what all the fun was about.

 

We just made it louder

Fast forward twenty years and the 90s were starting to provide more stability to many media options worldwide. In the US, cable television had a strong foothold and local Christian radio was as American as apple pie. For a number of years, short-wave radio had become a mission tool yielding good results and yet untapped in all its potential. However, in Commonwealth nations such as the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, there were hurdles and turns to developing Christian Media that would have challenged even the Jamaican bobsled team.

Media as a method for evangelism has primarily been seen as an amplifier. While stadiums gave volume to the message of Billy Graham, radio, television and now the internet has given a volume knob to ministries, churches and evangelists with a mission to reach the lost and save souls. While there are many ‘elements’ in the production or delivery of that program or station broadcast, and the team that makes up the crew can be minor or significant, in general, it is a few who provide for the many.

And while we embraced the access to the airwaves, built studios and started ‘shows’, what we really did was just turn up the volume a little. We gave a voice to speakers willing to put a recording microphone in front of their pulpit and opened up a whole new industry of Christian merchandising to support the production costs associated with filming, recording, editing and distributing content.

 

Have we shared the secret?

Over 500 years ago in 1517, a wee hobbit in a habit called Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg. Primarily the case was being made against indulgences, the mechanism the church had to manage forgiveness and your payment for sin, and then, only through payment were the many able to access the ‘few’. Over the years the model hasn’t changed much. We’ve seen church leaders constantly in the firing line. Good leaders are tarred with the brush of the scoundrels but despite the reformation supposedly taking us to a model for the priesthood of all believers we still like a little hierarchy between friends and God.

There once was a day when cutting edge Christian Media truly was the ‘latest thing’ and the world was astounded. Gutenberg told us about printing and Bible’s flowed. The Salvation Army is still credited with the world’s first moving picture.

In a model where all people of faith are created equal, is there a place for all to share the gospel, to share their belief or multiply the impact of their testimony? If Matthew 25’s Parable of the Talents is considered then each servant had the potential to invest their gift and didn’t need to tithe it or submit it to a local ‘investment’ firm to see its reach expanded. But is there a failing both in the leadership and the Christian community that we actually like this disposal of responsibility to ‘others’ who can do it better than I can?

Do leaders of church, ministry and media organisations protect their platform at all costs out of mistrust for the random, untried, and worse, uneducated pew-dwelling plebs? Even talk around the local small church appears guarded when it comes to which visiting speaker or ministry is allowed to speak to the congregation. The doors of access are even more set when it comes to media outlets. And worse, is there a level of comfort for church attendees, radio listeners and TV watchers who have abdicated responsibility in terms of the great commission. Oh, and was it ever commissioned? Uhuh, you see this right. Do we sadly exist in a codependent community that has its relevance only to support its own vices and weaknesses? Has Christian Media lost sight of its heart mission, while still telling tales of the great exploits of its achievements, the war stories of days past and now we just talk in numbers, more and more numbers.

 

Replication on new technology isn’t Innovation

Media was once something to be disrupted, but Christian Media has missed it, again. The slow-moving animal, constantly second-guessing itself, is scared, and it shows. Fight or flight has kicked in and like many who are faced with fear, the amygdala has decided we better do something, but also let’s do what we know. Let’s repeat what’s worked before and broadcast something. Oh, and we need to use the latest technology, so get a new sound desk, camera, studio or compressor. Not a new method or thinking, just an old tool cloaked in new tech.

Today many media outlets who classify themselves as ‘Christian’ are still repeating the age-old broadcast model. The content has evolved, production values improved and quality of media channels are now on par with their secular counterparts. But what has truly changed in the delivery model? How does the Christian Media outlet view their assets, intellectual property and access content. Ultimately it’s something to be protected and controlled. While the delivery is drip fed through channels, the secret sauce is theirs for the locking up.

Programming whether for spoken content, music or group discussion is still in the hands of the few. The average channel or station will also have a ratio of just a few staff to many thousands of listeners or viewers. And within that staff make-up, an even smaller number are trusted and party to either suggesting content or making the final decision on what fits the format to ‘go to air’. Audience monitors are few and far between and smaller stations, channels or ministries simply emulate their bigger brother stations in the hope they don’t break the recipe that will work for gaining ears, eyeballs or funding.

If you review the use of technology, new communication channels, whether podcast, vodcast or social media delivery, you will see that it is fair to say the current media organisations are dressing up their innovative approach to media. Simply saying we’re up to date because we have the latest social media account or deliver another ‘repeat’ podcast of their morning show isn’t innovation. 

Ultimately the outcomes are actually framed in reaching more numbers by replicating the model or using the latest channels for old ways duplicated across more channels for marketing and fund-raising. In fact the more single channel outlets, whether live radio or one channel television, are losing audience to on demand alternatives such as the world’s second biggest search engine, YouTube, and so, they push repeats in recorded podcasts, or video versions, hopeful the top ups to a leaking bucket will retain some numbers.

 

With disruption we could have got personal, but instead we just got louder

In 2008 and 2009, AirBNB and Uber started operations. Over 14 years ago they disrupted the holiday accommodation and taxi markets with empowerment. What they didn’t do was emulate the big boys of their industry. AirBNB didn’t find a way to build a cheaper or more technologically amazing Hilton Hotel and Uber didn’t buy 1000s of cheap Chinese cars to make entry to the taxi market more affordable.

Instead they moved from control to facilitation. Empowering users to build their own business, using their own assets, and working on their own terms was the new economy. A ‘gig economy’ where you are trusted to set your price for the rental of that room under your house. A ‘gig economy’ where we believe you if you want to only drive for Uber on Wednesdays to Saturdays. We’ll even trust you that your car will look great and you’ll wear washed clothes, from this decade preferably, and your deodorant will be fragrant and work over 48 hours to satisfy and keep them happy 4.8 scored clients happy.

What if we could trust Christians? Regular, mixed up, fell over in sin, got back up again, went to Church, didn’t go to a building, might go to a home, believe in God, pray for carparks and missionaries, read a Bible, a verse, a book, Christians.

I wonder if they have a story to tell, a message to deliver? Or maybe they don’t but they’d like to share their journey, questions, or this week’s stumbling discovery with other people ‘just like them’. In a modern media collective world does Christian Media have a role? 

 

Show me where your treasure is and I’ll show you your heart. 

Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be. – Matthew 6 v21

In any organisation you will see money is the fuel that fires the mission. For some it’s a small budget, the smell of an oily rag stuff and for others it’s a multi-million dollar equation. And it’s not the volume that’s the point, it’s the location of the heart of your business, media organisation or ministry. When working on a business budget, it isn’t unusual to look at the percentage of budget that is needed to employ a team and see if it’s not too heavy, not too light, when compared to the output of the production of the company’s products or services.

But if you were to review your Christian Media organisation’s budget, what percentage would I see that you have applied to marketing, fund-raising and self-sustaining costs such as counting and administering your donations compared to facilitating the mission, fulfilling the vision or enabling new thinking?

On that point alone, organisations like Google allow staff to use 20% of their time to create. You won’t find many rats on hamster wheels in the hallways of Google.

In today’s business world, the Entrepreneur is the leader of the scary world where startups run with vision and faith. They fail, they start again, they make ‘no sense’ decisions and see if they ‘fly’. They run with a constant stream of new ideas and deliver MVP (Minimum Viable Product) solutions to develop the product in front of the end-user, listening to feedback to tune and create, always creating.

They are mad, but they are invested. What they aren’t is bored. For many organisations, an idea starts with Martin Luther style rebellion against the status quo. It’s often based on the needs of the people and not of the institution. 

In fact one commentator once said that an idea that solves a problem will attract people. As the people invest their heart, mind and sweat equity, it becomes a movement. Over time the movement needs structure and becomes an organisation. With history and lack of true innovation to embrace the new needs of the people, it becomes an institution. People don’t invest in institutions, they lack vision and so because of years of running the people will presume they can look after themselves. With this abdication the few again, protect the idea that once was, and transition from an institution to becoming a museum. The ‘idea’ is now shown on display, an icon, a tribute, as something that once worked, a long time ago.

 

What would a Newer Testament media environment look like?

When we looked at ‘Coolio’, the rat on the hamster wheel, we saw a dude stuck, scared and likely to spin out of control if he tried to take one step to the left or the right, so to be safe Coolio just kept on running. He’s a responsible little rodent and there’s no way this hamster wheel is going to stop on his watch. Who knows, the world, the lights, the food, may all be dependent on him driving those little dynamo legs to keep the wheels turning. He’d hate to stop and find out it was him who crashed the island. [Insert LOST TV series analogy]

Enter Jesus, Saviour, Master, Lord. Oh wait, also brother, teacher, rabbi, friend, drinking buddy, trainee carpenter, fishing business coach and travel companion. As God walked with Man, well 12 dudes with unseen potential, the world around them changed. Our New Testament picture of Jesus and living with his kingdom on earth, well it seemed that we gravitated towards the John the Baptist style of crusades and events. We may have lost sight of all the ‘life on the road’ real time meals and conversations. Sure he fed the ‘5000’ and did some awesome natural amphitheater “project my parable voice” events, but that wasn’t how the hours of living added up to be the main thing.

As you’ve read through this article, you may have said to yourself, it’s different. Media is media and conversations are conversations. You could believe there is still a place for broadcasting, telling people what they should do, act or how to live. I think it’s actually a missed opportunity based on not picking up on how people are living and conversing. Because of this we haven’t adapted how to use the tools of media today to allow us to communicate the Gospel outside of a dated broadcast model. The positions, assets and skills afforded to Christian Media are given as stewardship, and so with great power comes great responsibility.

A life learning from Jesus was walking and talking, dinner and arguments, yup, questions and more questions. Tell me the last time you listened or watched a program where the speaker just kept giving you more questions to deal with your questions. “You want answers!”, “I want the truth!” “You can’t handle the truth!” It’s not easy to have a Jesus conversation with a recording in a box, but you can with the people in your home, your Facetime, small group webinar, live video or coffee and tim-tams meetup.

How do we ‘make it known’ that this is the thing? What do we need to do to stop the ‘suck on the teat’ approach to Christian Media and open up the conversations. Could we facilitate these conversations and not only develop the ‘space’ for it to happen but teach disciples how to make disciples through lots and lots of conversations. As I said earlier, the responsibility of both the producers of Christian Media and the consumers of it are probably equally complicit.

While the spread of the Gospel was initially contingent on Paul and others visiting, finding and approving faithful men to start church communities, the life of the Gospel was in homes and conversations that carried on and forward. Our understanding of church is westernised to a 1 to 2 hour engagement on Sunday, often based very emphatically on I connect, I’m here, I might also be on Facebook, and then I disconnect for another 166 hours until next week. Our leaning on Christian Media is the same, reliable but not adaptable. I connect, I disconnect, I may come back when I need to be fed between naps.

Our life is a conversation, the media should be a conversation. Broadcasts are synchronous, scheduled, delivered. Conversations are asynchronous, happening, stopping, starting again. They may start in person, continue on the phone, in chat, in video and always ongoing. Conversations have diverse views, not just the broadcast party line. They allow for change, over time, after consideration, absorption and contemplation. Sometimes it’s ten seconds, sometimes forty minutes, always to be picked up later and never like a weekly episode called ‘Church’ or that show I watch or listen to at this particular time.

It’s been 30 years since you were enjoying the 90s, 35 years since Top Gun came out, and 50 years since the first email was sent and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather was released in cinemas. Oh, and if you’re soooo young that you read about these things in school History class, then can you believe Friends finished 18 years ago! Shouldn’t we now ask ourselves how much has changed and how much has remained the same. If the community has changed and the way we conduct and converse in life has as well, then shouldn’t the marketplace and delivery of Christian Media have changed too?

Let’s not just get louder, let’s get personal.

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