To avoid unwanted control by a sponsor who didn't understand his mission, Roberts paid for his own time, airing videos of his ministry events on NBC. It was 1954. Abundant Life had become the first Christian program televised nationally, and Roberts had invented paid-time broadcasting.
While the TV industry--and media in general--has evolved significantly since then, Christian television largely has not. Though Christian media leaders applaud Roberts for blazing a trail for the likes of Pat Robertson, Jim Bakker and Paul and Jan Crouch, they worry that the paid-time model hasn't kept pace with the times.
In the 1960s, advertisers began losing their stranglehold, and content was guided more frequently by viewer preferences, says TV and film producer Phil Cooke. Today, secular networks conduct extensive research to develop programming, while Christian broadcasters offer mostly interview shows and preaching programs--formats 20 years out of date. Like the Food Network or the Golf Channel, Cooke says, Christian television reaches a niche audience, often alienating the mainstream.
"We've created our own little world," he says, "and we don't affect the greater culture."
But that's changing. By developing a new understanding of media's role in modern-day evangelism, pastors and ministry leaders are seeking to engage the culture with relevant programming. Some of these innovators recently spoke with Ministries Today about the paradigm shift that must occur in order for Christians to make the media connection.
THE POWER OF A GOOD STORY
Did you ever see the Oscar-winning film, The Cider House Rules? Phil Cooke remembers the story well. It was "beautifully told, beautifully written, beautifully acted," he says, "but the most horrifying story."
The film tells of an abortion doctor's fight to offer his services. In a postmodern culture, Cooke says, John Irving accomplished more by writing this film than he could have had he launched a pro-abortion campaign.
"Facts go straight to the head; stories go straight to the heart," Cooke says. "Great films don't lecture; great films tell a powerful, powerful story. I'm not anti-preaching. I just think we need to open the box a little bit. We're telling pastors how to look at movies and tell a successful story. Jesus didn't lecture. He didn't preach. He told simple stories."
Most pastors aren't in the business of making films, but "opening the box a little bit" could directly impact their media ministries. Evangelism 101 dictates that Christians are to fulfill the Great Commission, find lost souls and save them. The scales are often tipped toward "harvesting," says Tim Downs, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ's Communications Center, but media is often best served as a device for "sowing" seed that will be harvested later--sometimes much later.
"In our zeal for the harvest, we have forgotten--we have deliberately devalued--the role of those who sow in our generation," Downs writes in his book, Finding Common Ground (Moody Press). "Because of the evangelistic success of the last 40 years, we have concluded that we have entered a state of perpetual harvest--the Last Harvest--and that the fields of our society will be forever white.
"In our enthusiasm we have declared harvesting to be our exclusive domain, forgetting that we have reaped the benefit of someone else's labor--the labor of sowers--and that we are also responsible to sow, or the next generation of Christians will have nothing to reap."
Norm Mintle, administrative dean at Regent University's College of Communications and the Arts, wishes communications students were viewed as missionaries to the culture and supported as such. Former executive producer of The 700 Club, Mintle hopes to raise up revolutionaries who aren't afraid to reach the mainstream on their own terms.
"We've got to lose the language barrier," Mintle asserts. "If you talk with any missionary, [you'll find] that they have adopted the norms of that society to reach that culture."
That's exactly the approach The Refuge Church of God in Christ in Chesapeake, Virginia, took. In 1999 the church opened its fellowship hall to Youth Entertainment Studios, a ministry that produces hip-hop music and video projects for inner-city youth. The teens, many of whom are unsaved, create music that is respectful, but not necessarily Christian.
Refuge pastor Joseph Williams says he wrestled with several theological issues before opening the church to such a nontraditional media ministry. He says he studied Acts 16:16-18, in which Paul cast a demon out of a fortuneteller. God challenged him to be grieved by the sin in the culture instead of offended by it.
The Bible says the woman grieved Paul, then he cast the devil out. "It seemed to me the Lord was saying, 'You're not going to be able to cast the devil out until you're grieved by what you see,'" he says.
Williams' burden for his community grew as he listened to the teens' songs. "I began to see what the young people were dealing with--the anger, the pain." Though the outreach hasn't brought mass conversions, he says, "we've had a number of them come to Christ. And those who haven't gotten saved are looking at life differently."
Experts say countering the popular worldview is ministry these days, but doing that requires Christians to present truth in a realistic fashion. Consider the church lady parodies on Saturday Night Live. Dana Carvey wore big hair, glasses from the 1960s and spoke in Christianese as organ music played in the background.
"That's what the world is used to seeing, and we don't have any credibility," says DeWayne Gates, concept director for Daystar Television Network based in Dallas. "We're seen as a joke."
Moving beyond the mainstream's view of Christianity takes an intentional effort. At Daystar, founders Marcus and Joni Lamb discovered that being real and dealing with issues that all people can relate to are key in breaking that stereotype.
"We try to do focus groups to find out what the issues are," Marcus Lamb says. "A lot of the needs are going to be the same. [We talk] about things they can relate to--fear, depression, divorce, relationships. These are things people are concerned about whether they're religious or not."
While Daystar conducted focus groups, Total Living Network (TLN) based in Chicago took their research one step further, securing the Gallup Organization to study their audience. Unlike many other Christian stations, TLN creates original programming, such as Encounters With the Unexplained, a mystery documentary that airs on PAX-TV and the Discovery Channel.
Though funding is a hurdle that keeps many Christian stations from developing original shows, such as biographies, documentaries and sitcoms, Jerry Rose, TLN president and former chairman of National Religious Broadcasters (NRB), says there's a more intrinsic obstacle.
"Most ministries are not interested in television; they're interested in building their ministries, and they use television as a vehicle for that," Rose says. "Most of what they do, they build it through TV. So what you have on your typical Christian television station is a lineup of ministries devoted to reaching Christians and [developing a constituency] within Christendom."
Rose says Christian broadcasters can reach the mainstream with relevant content, but they must listen to their audience's needs. "I have to look at...how I can do what the retail market does," Rose says. "They constantly ask: 'Who are you? What do you want?'
"What I think we do in the church is, we say, 'Jesus is the answer,' but we don't find out the questions. [The mainstream] doesn't respond well to...being told things. They respond better to being able to consider things."
For broadcaster Glenn Plummer, head of Christian Television Network in Detroit, giving his community something new to think about caused quite a stir. In 1995, almost as an afterthought, he mentioned on his show CTN Live that Christians shouldn't participate in the Million Man March, an event organized by the Nation of Islam to rally African American men to atone for past sins.
In Detroit, a bastion of the black Muslim movement, Plummer's comments were sharply criticized by Christians and non-Christians alike when the event went off without a hitch. "I maintained my position: Men can't atone for sin. They can repent for their sin...[but] Jesus made atonement for their sins," Plummer says.
He stepped out of the frying pan and into the fire when he began airing clips of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan claiming to be the Messiah. Plummer called Farrakhan's views "anti-Christ" and described him as a cult leader. Though threatened by some, Plummer says the exchange gave him a voice in Detroit's black community--70 percent of the population--that previously he didn't have.
Pastor of 600-member Ambassadors for Christ Church, Plummer says he once was told that if he was called to ministry, he was called to preach and eventually to pastor. But moving beyond that narrow paradigm has given him a broader reach.
Today he is the first African American chairman of the NRB. He and president Wayne Pederson hope to make Christian media more relevant, specifically by putting younger people in leadership.
SHIFTING THE PARADIGM
Making media ministry relevant doesn't have to create a generational rift. Norm Mintle describes "young" as a progressive mind-set, not an age group. He says many Christian leaders are "stuck in [old] wineskins, ivory towers, whatever you want to call it," and are unwilling to embrace new ideas lest they offend supporters.
For Phil Cooke, innovation includes creating MTV-style shows and films that portray realistic aspects of a character's life before finding salvation. He wishes large ministries would finance such concepts, but so far, he has found them unwilling to tread such edgy ground.
Pastors who realize that half of the adult population doesn't have any religious training are willing to take risks, Mintle notes, but they often lack funding. Some smaller ministries find creative ways to finance their projects, such as asking local stores to furnish their sets or clothe their pastor for a mention on the show, but reaching the masses requires more.
"If we want to get funding from the networks, we've got to be more subtle in our approach," Cooke says.
Subtle doesn't have to mean watered down. Mintle developed a program called The Rose, which featured short testimonies of people whose lives had been changed by the gospel. Not overtly evangelistic, the show was designed to direct viewers to the Internet, where they would find a clear gospel presentation.
The pilot was "intensely compelling," Mintle says, and won a Golden Rose of Montro Award for its artistry. He hoped it would air on one of the networks as an alternative to the Sunday morning news commentaries, but he couldn't find a Christian ministry willing to sponsor it.
"I think we have to start brand-new and fresh," Mintle says. "We have to shift the paradigm."
Though not as cutting-edge as Cooke and Mintle envision, T.D. Jakes' new program, The Potter's Touch, is hitting a chord with viewers. The show features Jakes with a small studio audience exchanging questions and comments about real-life issues such as marriage, parenting, finances and relationships.
"[Bishop Jakes] wanted to do something where he's not in his usual mode, preaching," says Walter Silverberg, director of television for T.D. Jakes Ministries. "Our feeling was that for every one person who has the nerve to get up and say [something], there's more who can relate. We're on the air, talking with people, dealing with issues."
Though the show currently airs on Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) weekdays at 7 a.m., Silverberg says they hope the program will look and feel secular enough to attract non-Christians. "There are whole groups of people who will never watch TBN," he says.
While few pastors have the resources of T.D. Jakes--who requires his media staff to make all of their broadcasts ready for CNN--there are ways any ministry can use media more effectively.
1. Stop looking at entertainment media from a negative perspective, Cooke advises. Instead, educate Christian parents about the positive and negative impact of media.
2. Engage the media. Develop a relationship with the local religion reporter. When a story breaks and he's looking for a quote from a local leader, you want your voice to be the one heard, not a non-Christian's, Mintle says.
3. Get to know your community. Jerry Rose suggests pastors learn the demographics of their local areas--the percentage of college graduates, the leading industry, the percentage of two-parent and single-parent families--to understand the people they're trying to reach.
4. Play to your strength. If a church has a strong music or children's ministry, for example, the media ministry should highlight that aspect creatively. "Different ministries have different specialties," Silverberg says. "Make a program that's geared toward [your strength]."
5. Don't be afraid of not advertising your church. A commercial on a local station doesn't have to end with "Come visit our church," Norm Mintle says. "We're constantly putting out seed...It's the Holy Spirit's job to make the seed grow when it falls on good ground."
6. Be real. You should look and dress mainstream, says Daystar's Marcus Lamb. And be transparent, Joni Lamb adds. "People don't perceive people in ministry as being perfect," she says, "and we shouldn't portray ourselves as perfect."
7. Write your ideas and consult your spouse. "I believe God has called the husband and wife as a team," Marcus Lamb says. "If it's a minister and he's having these desires to use the media, he should consult his companion to get her ideas."
8. Watch Christian and secular television to find the best approach. "Some of the brightest and most capable people are doing [secular television]," Marcus Lamb says. "Just change the message. We can learn from the world."
9. Be yourself. "It's OK to have a similar style, but you can't copy somebody," says Marcus Lamb.
10. Go to the movies and watch television. "Lighten up," Phil Cooke says. "[Congregations] listen to you for an hour a week. They watch prime-time TV 15 to 20 hours a week. Pastors need to know what's feeding their congregations."
With the cost of technology declining, media leaders say there's no reason local broadcasts can't be done with excellence. But what's more important is that ministers take time to listen to people's needs and service them through media. Making the media connection may not bring immediate fruit, but effective ministry includes helping change someone's perception of Christ and His message. *
Finding God at the Movies
Seminary professor Robert Johnston says pastors can learn a lot about life, culture and even theology from popular films.
Is it possible to experience God at a movie theater? If you ask Robert Johnston, a professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary, the answer is yes.
"Movies help you to 'see,'" Johnston writes in his book, Reel Spirituality (Baker Books). "They focus life for the viewer, giving us a richer variety of experience than would otherwise be possible...Movies cannot be dismissed as mere entertainment and diversion. Rather, they are life stories that both interpret us and are being interpreted by us."
A movie's story has the power to transform a life, Johnston notes. But Christians tend to take one of two basic approaches to critiquing films, responding either analytically or experientially. Those simply analyzing movies sometimes miss the broader meanings because of portrayals of immorality. But Johnston notes that human portrayals in films have strong theological connotations.
"The human and the theological, in fact, are so intertwined that to speak authentically of the one is to engage the other. Recall the words of Jesus when asked what was the greatest commandment? He responded that we should love the Lord our God. But then He immediately added, 'And a second is like it: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself"' (Matt. 22:39, NKJV).
"For Jesus, the supernatural and the natural conjoined. Stories that portray the truly human bind their viewers with the religious expressions of humankind. They awaken a holistic sense in their viewers, providing windows of meaning."
He adds that movies are vehicles through which God can speak, but listening to those conversations requires a discerning ear. Johnston asserts that after "assisting viewers to better see the religious import of a film, theological critics can go on to engage the film's center of meaning from their own theological perspective." Thus, Scripture and film can begin a dialogue that in the end will illuminate both.
For example, Johnston put The Shawshank Redemption, a story about two friends incarcerated in Shawshank Prison, in "dialogue" with the book of Ecclesiastes to discuss the importance of friendship. He drew on the spate of apocalyptic films such as Deep Impact, Independence Day and Armageddon in the late 1990s to discuss America's and the church's views on the end times.
Instead of avoiding all films or assuming that most films are subversive, with rare exceptions, Johnston encourages pastors to view films on their own terms and "let the images themselves suggest meaning and direction" for theological critique. Though theology is the final authority for life, he says, "people are best served in the dialogue between theology and film if the movie's vision of life is first received with maximum openness before it is brought to the bar of judgment."
Deep down, Johnston believes Christians are missing out on key conversations about God, religion and spirituality that popular films invite. Those engaging in these dialogues are often people without firm theological footing. People with sound scriptural understanding tend to devalue the ways God may use film to reveal Himself.
Though films must be viewed discriminately--an individual call based on personal and spiritual maturity--Johnston believes the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of caution, causing the church to "risk irrelevancy without its walls and complacency within." Writes Johnston: "We have boxed in God and the results are proving disastrous. New eyes are called for as we attempt to see God anew."
In Reel Spirituality, Johnston outlines several types of film criticism that may give pastors road maps to guide their own critiques. Genre criticism explores the relationship between a film's genre (Westerns, thrillers, action adventures) and the world around them. Thematic criticism identifies a movie's themes--forgiveness, redemption, triumph in the face of adversity.
Auteur criticism discusses the unique perspective a particular writer or director, such as Woody Allen or Steven Spielberg, brings to their films and the broader impact their views have on the culture. And last, cultural criticism studies the effect a film has on viewers--from influencing buying habits to behavioral norms.
In whatever fashion pastors choose to do so, Johnston hopes they will recognize the power of film and "bring film and theology into two-way conversation, letting both sides be full partners in the dialogue" in order to offer theologically sound perspectives on the movies shaping the culture.
Making Your Congregation Media-Savvy
Phil Cooke offers tips on teaching about media's positive and negative impact.
With increasing sexuality and violence in TV shows and films today, some Christians wonder if anything good can come out of Hollywood. Christian TV and film producer Phil Cooke isn't so pessimistic, but he believes Christians' approach to popular media could stand to be strengthened.
Namely, he'd like to see Christians stop avoiding entertainment fare and instead learn how to view media. He believes pastors could play a key role in educating their parishioners one day by offering classes on how to view media and leading discussion groups about popular films. In fact, he's focusing his doctoral dissertation at Trinity College and Seminary in Newburgh, Indiana, on that theme. Cooke offers the following recommendations for watching and evaluating entertainment media:
1. Understand the power of media. People look to media to learn cultural standards and behavioral norms, he says, so Christians must be part of shaping those views.
2. Don't get distracted by superficial things. "Look for the meaning behind the work," Cooke says. Though discretion is necessary, all TV shows and films don't have to be family fare. Some of the more offensive elements in popular programming do, at times, happen in real life. He encourages Christians to determine if the overriding message is redeemable.
3. Consult movie review guides by Christian critics. Cooke recommends Ted Baer's Movieguide and the Hollywood Jesus Web site, which discuss the objectionable content in films and their broader messages.
4. Encourage parents to watch questionable TV shows or films before their children. Madison Avenue spends billions of dollars on advertising on television and in movies because they recognize the power of media, Cooke says. Parents should, too, and take the extra time and money to protect their kids.