The emerging church is engaging a younger, mainstream audience. Are you?
Strewn over Web sites, books and research studies these days is the ongoing debate surrounding the "emerging church." Is it too postmodern? Are its adherents ignoring absolute truth? Are they compromising Scripture? Are they too contemporary and accommodating to the culture?
Interesting questions. Yet one of the issues few discuss is the impact media is having on the emerging movement, and how emerging pastors are using the media to impact the culture in new and innovative ways. As a television producer and media consultant to some of the largest churches and ministries in the country—many of whom are emerging churches—I've discovered significant differences in the way emerging pastors use the media, and the implications are fascinating.
The stakes are high. Recent research indicates the average family in America watches TV and surfs the Web about 10 hours a day. In fact, the Census Bureau just reported that in 2008, the average teenager will spend nearly six months of the year watching TV, going online or using a personal music player.
Given that environment, who do you think has the most influence on your congregation? You may preach and teach for one, two, perhaps three hours a week at most. In the meantime, though, your congregation is consuming around 70 hours' worth of various media. If pastors and ministry leaders don't grasp the significance of media influence, the church will begin a quick slide into oblivion.
When it comes to media, traditional pastors and ministries have typically focused their efforts on Christian radio and TV, with a limited use of the Internet. They've created vast media ministries and networks and, as ABC's 20/20 reported earlier this year, some have made a lot of money doing it. Those media leaders have simultaneously created a "religious media ghetto" by leaving mainstream media and forming their own media industry. As a result, many critics claim we're simply preaching to the choir and have minimal impact on a nonbelieving audience.
My online blog is based on the intersection of media, faith and the culture, and I regularly write about the positives and negatives of traditional religious media. Although I support it and believe we have every right to create programming for Christian audiences (just like sports, food, movie, music and other channels), I also believe we've poured untold millions of dollars into "comfortable" media for believers and have come up woefully short in terms of actually impacting the greater culture. But emerging church leaders have taken what some would consider a radically different route. For the most part, emerging leaders are part of the television generation. We all grew up watching what historians now consider the golden years of TV, and it has shaped our lives in remarkable ways. Music was another massive influence, and as computers evolved, we kept in step with the changes.
Perhaps that's why using alternative media comes so natural to this generation of leaders. Downloading video clips, listening to an iPod or navigating the Web aren't extraneous to our lives but absolutely integral. While traveling, I rarely catch the airline movie anymore, preferring to watch my favorite TV shows or movies on my video iPod instead.
So what exactly are these emerging leaders doing with the media, and what does it say for the future of the church?
• Radio and Television: Ask a traditional pastor about media and he'll likely talk about Christian radio or TV. But ask an emerging pastor and he'll talk about podcasting. Today millions of people are listening to audio and video podcasts, and for some such as Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., or Mosaic in Los Angeles, their audiences are huge. Joel Osteen's podcast is one of the most popular in the country, competing with the likes of ABC World News and ESPN. The length of a typical podcast varies; some consumers like 10 minutes to catch on the fly, though others prefer 30 minutes or longer for a commute to work. Either way, the advent of the video iPod has definitely put podcasting on the map. Today there are podcasts on religion, sports, media, music, celebrity gossip, comedy, history and more, and it's cheap enough that anyone can be a podcast producer.
Some podcasts charge for subscriptions, though most churches and ministries offer them for free. But don't think for a minute that doesn't have value. Osteen recently told me, "We've had more than 400,000 people register for our podcast, and although we offer it free, it's another avenue of visibility for the church. Between our traditional TV broadcast, my books and teaching tapes, and now the podcast, we have the opportunity to be where a diverse range of audience members are listening."
The word here is "ubiquity." In the branding and marketing world, that means being everywhere. The more impressions you make on your audience, the more likely they are to respond to your message. Don't be trapped into thinking you have to get a financial return on every media investment. Just being there matters.
• The Internet: For some, the Internet is seen as little more than a schedule of services or an online map to church. But as the Internet evolves, so should your Web page. Online donations, bookstores or sermon archives are just the beginning. Today's emerging churches understand the value of design and how to attract an audience with a compelling Web site that offers a contemporary look and feel. You should also be blogging, creating online communities, social networking and streaming video. (A great example is Mark Crow's Victory Church, which runs an online TV network at vc.tv.)
This is a digital generation, and some studies suggest young people prefer their digital space to their people space. Jesus went where the people were, and—let's face it—today the "people" are online.
• Entertainment: Traditional pastors and ministries leaders often view entertainment as lightweight fluff. But emerging leaders know that the local movie theater is "church" for the younger generation. By using short films, supporting film festivals and training young people in media production, emerging pastors are having a voice in the film industry that the church walked away from decades ago. Instead of building a comfortable religious media bubble, emerging church leaders are more interested in engaging the mainstream audience and taking the risks that encompasses. As a result, our movies, edgy Web sites, short films and other media outlets may take some heat from traditional church leaders, but they're also getting the attention of the nonbelieving culture. More importantly, they're starting a conversation that could eventually change the world.
Phil Cooke is a TV producer and media consultant in Santa Monica, Calif. He also writes a monthly column on the media for Charisma. For more information, visit philcooke.com.