Media and Ministry
There’s plenty of talk these Days about media , and it has ministry leaders on edge. Budgets are tighter, but audiences seem larger and more demanding. With the immediacy of social media like Facebook and texting, and the interactivity of new media with its on-demand access, some question whether traditional media such as film, television, radio, newspapers and magazines have lost value and relevance.
While some argue extremes, two conclusions are well supported. First, ministries cannot afford to ignore the immediate and interactive communication avenues that social and new media afford. Second, traditional media remain relevant and effective when done well and with purpose. That, perhaps, is the secret to wading through the morass of media talk: staying in focus and identifying clear ministry goals that direct each media choice.
Adventist media has been around longer than the church organization. From the day James White began distributing The Present Truth and The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, to when H.M.S. Richards Sr. broadcast The Voice of Prophecy radio program in 1929, to the launching of Faith For Today on television by William and Virginia Fagal in 1950, Adventists have embraced media developments as a means of communicating a broad message to a worldwide audience.
Each ministry or media project emphasizes just one facet of the broader message. There’s simply no way around it. Only so much can be communicated in a 30-minute mission spotlight or a 45-minute sermon. The question is, what is or isn’t working? That’s the question people want answered before they commit budget slices or contribution dollars to a project or ministry.
There is growing emphasis on social and new media, because that wave seems to be cresting, and no one wants it crashing down around them. The concern isn’t unfounded. In May, the North American Division held a media summit called “The Media Imperative: Harnessing Modern Media to Proclaim the Gospel.” The invitation-only event drew church communication leaders from across the nation to Ontario, California, to examine how the church can better use new media outlets to reach untouched audiences sitting in front of laptops or pouring their hearts out in stunted prose on Twitter and Facebook.
Communication professionals and ministry leaders recognize how the mainstream appetite for information has been influenced by an electronic culture of immediate access. “Most people under 30 want information fast,” says Jeff Reich, founder of Laymen Ministries in St. Maries, Idaho. “I work with a lot of college students. Trying to hold their attention in a meeting for a solid hour is hard. But you go to YouTube, and the videos are 6 to 7 minutes long, and they address one idea or topic. They’re fast, they’re direct, and they can get 150,000 hits overnight. You just can’t ignore that.”
Dan Jackson, president of the North American Division, agrees. “Media is going to play a key role in the finishing of God’s work on earth—a vital role,” he says. “We have great walls in our cities that we can’t penetrate any longer with a knock on the door or a magazine in the mailbox. We have to find a way to get into the hearts and minds of our younger generation in particular, and we’re going to have to get accustomed to the discrete and intentional use of social media.”
He envisions young pioneers—a young H.M.S. Richards or George Vandeman of our day—making it their lifework to reach others for Christ using social media and training others to do the same.
Both Reich and Jackson agree, however, that we shouldn’t turn our backs on traditional media outlets as things of the past. “We shouldn’t discard everything we’ve used so far,” Jackson says. “Traditional media will continue to move on in one form or another, and we need to be intentional about how that happens. We have to sharpen it.” Reich and his team are trying to do just that by creating a broad variety of media products that speak directly to the modern mindset, whether in large cities or remote jungles. “Wherever I go, even in South Pacific Island villages,” he says, “I see people sitting in front of television sets or other electronic media devices. Many are skeptical about going to a rented hall and listening to a stranger talk. But they’ll watch something in the privacy of their own home—if it stands out from the rest of their media choices—and maybe they’ll write down a web page or an e-mail address.”
Media can’t replace the personal touch, he points out. But it can lead to a personal contact that ultimately leads to a relationship. You have to establish an element of trust before many people want to talk to you face-to-face, and Reich is convinced that the content of your media and the quality of production are issues of integrity and trust-building.
Asian Aid USA is an ASI member ministry that took a recent media risk without regret. Asian Aid was established 40 years ago in Australia. Its primary goal is to sponsor poor children and orphans in underdeveloped countries through the Adventist orphanage and school system.
The organization launched a division in the United States 6 or 7 years ago, but decided to relaunch on American soil 2 years ago with clearer objectives and a better marketing focus. According to the organization’s founder, Helen Eager, the main objective was “to make our organization grow and to provide better knowledge of what has been and is being accomplished.”
Asian Aid hired Terry Benedict, the visionary filmmaker who produced The Conscientious Objector, a documentary on the life of Desmond Doss. Benedict was given creative freedom to shape the Asian Aid project, but worked closely with CEO Jim Rennie to formulate project goals.
“One of the key objectives was to establish Asian Aid’s brand and credibility,” says Rennie. “We had a low brand awareness in the United States, so we employed a professional filmmaker who knows how to tell a story. We have powerful stories. We have strong content. But we needed to present those stories in a quality way.”
The team created Hope in Motion, a series of 15-minute episodes filmed on location in India and Nepal. Each episode followed the life of a child or person whose life has been changed by Asian Aid’s efforts. The series appeared on 3ABN, is available online, and has been reproduced and distributed on DVDs. The response was immediate and positive. Support for Asian Aid increased significantly, and Asian Aid representatives now have a high quality DVD product to hand to potential donors and supporters.
It’s important to have a strong business marketing and media management plan to determine strategy, Rennie observes. And that includes considering the costs of production and airtime, as well as choosing media outlets and time slots. But having a plan does not eliminate risk. What makes the difference is having a compelling story to tell.
Benedict agrees that creative storytelling is the key to media success. “It’s interesting how people have been having discussions about new media,” he says, “and to me that is about having a conversation, but what’s the conversation about? Everybody’s talking about technology, and nobody’s talking about content. You have to have quality content. Then social and new media can take place because there’s something to talk about.”
Marketing isn’t a bad word, says Benedict. In fact, message marketing is essential to ministry success. He convinced Asian Aid leaders simply to tell the story and not push for contributions, but trust that the media investment would come back around in terms of support for the organization. He was right. The Asian Aid stories are true, transparent and compelling. Discerning donors looking to lend support to credible organizations have responded accordingly.
“If one person invests in an organization that feeds children, you can feed children for a few days,” Benedict says. “But if you implement a message marketing plan, now you’re communicating with a lot of other people who can get involved and feed a lot more children for a lot longer. That’s the message marketing model.”
Benedict is quick to point out that storytelling was one of Christ’s primary communication tools. The challenge is to tell stories in an authentic way that does not come across as contrived or insincere. “We have to plant the seeds and let the Holy Spirit convict people’s hearts, moving them to action. That takes faith.”
The gift of storytelling is a spiritual gift, he says, just as Israelite craftsmen were gifted with special abilities to build the sanctuary. Good storytelling is based on sound biblical principles and doesn’t come through a committee. “Before media, there was Grandpa spinning a yarn,” he observes, “and some grandpas did better than others. God Himself is the ultimate storyteller.”
Other ministry leaders who have undertaken media projects agree. The vision for the series The Seventh Day, produced by Pat Arrabito of LLT Productions, originated when her husband, Jim, recognized the impact of the story of the Sabbath on his evangelistic efforts.
“I’d rather read a book than watch a movie any day,” she admits. “But so many more people are going to watch than are going to read. You can influence people to do more research by triggering their interest with a story.” Her next film project tells the story of Edward Fudge and indirectly deals with the issue of eternal torment. As with her other media projects, the clearly identified purpose is to reveal God’s character— who He is and what He is like.
A thoughtful, compelling media project has valuable longevity. Both Benedict and Arrabito continue to receive a steady stream of responses from viewers whose lives have been changed by watching The Conscientious Objector and The Seventh Day. Several years down the road, those videos are still in demand by a continuously growing audience.
Arrabito doesn’t think in terms of being a large or small project or ministry. “We didn’t start out with any money or resources. We’re just three people. We started out with a dream, and God has accomplished it. It’s not the size of the organization,” she says. “It’s the size of the vision.”
Undoubtedly, that holds true regardless of one’s ministry media strategy or message marketing plan. Whether communicating truth in 140 characters on Twitter or in 30 frames per second on television or video, the focus must be crystal clear and the vision eternal.