Engaging CultureMedia ProductionChristian Media

What Religious TV Must Change

Mary Hutchinson wrote me about a letter to the editor that appeared in this month’s “Charisma” magazine, based on an article I wrote in the last edition called “The Changing Face of Christian Television.” Mary said:

In the letters to the editor re: “The Changing Face of Christian TV” …there was a statement made by a reader that said: “Even though I would like to see changes, I acknowledge that you get what you pay for. If older people are the ones paying for TBN, then their church culture will be reflected on that network.”

Mary continued: I personally have struggled to help ministries do a new, creative thing, but the support base is hard to build. Notice that there is no Christian programming that is :
· new
· daily, and
· not supported by a megachurch.
Could a young Pat Robertson or Jim Bakker* raise the support needed to do something creative in 2007? I doubt it, short of a real miracle.

What I am seeing are fickle donors of the younger set who want expensive products for their “donation”. They want the creative flare in the presentation, but don’t grasp the concept that they need to support it in order to make it better and reach the world.

I don’t think there is any shortage of talent and creativity in the Christian TV industry. There is simply a shortage of funding to creative it and sustain it.

What does that say about all of us in the church?

(*Remember, when they started CBN and PTL, it WAS new a new and creative way to preach the gospel and reach the lost.)


I responded to Mary with:

I don’t think it’s a negative thing – I think it reflects a culture that’s used to getting their content free online. Napster did something really huge, and that’s tell my daughters that what they can get online should be free. Couple that with free broadcast TV and people today think it should all be free, and that’s why Google and others are trying to keep the advertising model alive.

Which means that we as faith-based programmers need to perhaps adapt to that model. Let’s ask: What would Christian media look like if we didn’t pay for it? Could we re-think advertising or other models to make it work?

I think that’s where we need to be thinking…

One other thing – in spite of all the Ed Young’s and Joel Osteen’s out there, they still make their money based on old media – direct mail and TV – or pay for it through their mega-churches. NO ONE YET is generating a significant income online or through other means to make it work.

What do you think?

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  1. The real core issue could be: would anyone not saved watch any form of Christian television?  is even the label of Christian tv too much of a turn off due to the many decades of wigs, hype & gold crusted throne room sets? 

    I think that Christian media can learn a lesson from George Lucas: he created a relatively low budget sci fi flick, kept control of his merchandising rights, then continuarlly fed profits back into his next films, and Lucasfilm, which continued to do a heavy amount of R&D into new technology.  Lucasfilm became the king of special effects & post production for a time. Today Lucas has his own empire, and is not dependant on the studio system which would try to control his vision.  (OK , so this might be the mythology behind Lucasfilm, but hey, just trying to cast a vision)

    So, take the latest TBN film. It's profited more than a few million — so can those millions go into R&D for new programming– sans the throne room sets, mascara & bezerk fundraising?  How much money would it take to fund a radical and emerging Christian network for two years, to get it off the ground, in order to attract advertisers/investors?  
  2. royzoner, I couldn’t agree with you more. I often wonder why we need Christian-specific content for Christians at all. Slightly controversial perhaps, but I personally don’t see a need to focus on entertaining Christians. I’m guessing most Christians who work in the media do so because they love the art of film or television making and feel called to work there to instigate change, not preach to the converted. If you are a Christian should you expect to be able to watch a program that is openly Christian? If you answer yes to that question, I would be interested to know what role in society you think television actually has…

  3. The problem with that thinking is applying it to all media.  So we should stop publishing Christian books, stop recording Christian music, etc.  I'm the first to eliminate the Christian "ghetto" out there, but at the same time I can see a place for TV programming to an explicitly Christian audience.  Christian networks don't do it much now, but I'd love better teaching programming, history of the church, theology, docs, etc….  

  4. I think there is one issue that has kept and probably will keep TV ministries from jumping on the advertising bandwagon: control.

    Like has been said: TV ministries are usually connected with a large church support system which allows the Pastor/TV personality to make final decision on the message and focus.  Most of these independent churches – if they have a board – are usually controlled by family members.  Whether this is right or wrong is beside the point – it's just a fact.

    If the church/organization has a stable setup and management for advertising it could work.  But as spontaneous (unorganized) and inexperienced as some churches are businesses that advertise could easily come in and start imposing changes or they walk (with the other advertisers they brought along).  This could be tough for a church to stand up to.  For instance, I've seen many churches with Christian schools tend to fall to the pressure of treating with privilege (forgetting wrongs) the children/students of the rich contributors.

    On the flip side of this: church members that own big businesses could have a spot, billboard, or underwrite the program (similar to PBS).  As an incentive the program could go on location to the business to illustrate a sermon with a mention of the business.  A cooking segment for a woman's TV ministry, for example, could be done on location in a sponsor restaurant taking a moment (while the meal is in the oven) to show b-roll shots of the facility, food served, and location.  Now this I've seen done successfully but it takes a dedicated staff for sales and organizing sponsor productions.

  5. Fair point to be sure. I was coming from a broader perspective of media per se, so in regards to ‘making it work’ my thought is that if the focus remains on supplying the needs of the Christian viewer it never will. Simply because that doesn’t address the root issue. If studios and networks are the central point of the dissemination of communication it would make sense to address how that information is distributed and then additional channels like Christian media would be the natural beneficiaries. Obviously not a short term goal! But, if the focus is shifted for a period on spawning a mass of Christian media practitioners (tv,film,radio,publishing,online) who over time develop their skill set and move into the top of their fields or into positions of influence, then you would be in a better position to not only affect the balance of what is communicated in general, but also open up more opportunities to see quality work done on history of the church, theology, docs etc. The best example I can think of to illustrate the point is Mel Gibson. If you have 10 or 50 people in that kind of position I think the problem of ‘quality Christian’ content would be a little easier to address.

  6. I had no idea that One Night With the King had a $20 mil production budget. But even if my TBN hypothetical example doesn't pan out, the mention of Mel Gibson by Farbs– that sure would work.  Or even the football movie by the church in Georgia, that has turned over profit as well.  

    I agree that there is a place for good programs geared toward a Christian audience, and good films & tv made by Christians that honor the gospel but are not driven by evangelism. And good teaching programs are always needed.   Here in the UK we are inundated with high-end well crafted documentaries that try to expose the falsehood of Jesus and the early church.  How great would it be do develop Apologist documentaries that would be an effective answer to this slanted material? 
    If it's the intent though to witness to people outside of the church, to bring people into Christ, which from what I see most Christian TV is about (exception: Joyce Meyer, Life Today, 700 Club, maybe a few others) then we are failing miserably, we just haven't created the material  that would capture the imagination of pagans, atheists, new agers and the rest of those needing to hear the Gospel.
  7. I would propose that "Christian television" should funtion in two ways. We should mirror the purpose of the church which is to feed the sheep and win the lost. The great comission is not fulfilled just by making converts, we must also make disciples. I believe that programming should reflect that concept. Teaching, talk, and ministry shows with a new attitude to build up the church. Then radically different programming to reach the lost.


    I beleive that the funds are there we just have to create a way to bring them in. That is the tough part…..but I believe it can be done….and done right. I like the comment about doing shows with sponsorship woven into the segments of that show. Our local cable company has done that where I live and it is interesting and tasteful. I also think that there are other ways of raising the money. At the end of the day, donors may still be needed if a new network was launched. A new network would not be as expensive as you might think….I have a friend who has done the research and it is very interesting.

  8. At the risk of considerable more wet noodles from Phil…

    I feel we as the church have the joy and the responsibility of paying the financial price for evangelism/Christian media.

    As said earlier, it should feed the sheep and win souls if  done right.

    But it is not to the world to pay for this, it is the Body.  And not just the wrinkled part …I know the young people (I feel old just typing that) are used to getting music and videos free, but it isn't about them.  Its about their friends that they want to see saved.

  9. OK – I'm game.  But how do we sell the next generation on the idea of paying for their media?  Especially Christian media?

  10. Welcome to my world.  That is my struggle every single day as my clients try to NOT play to the "old folks."  The result is then the "old folks" don't support it.

    I would love to hear from the under 30 crowd on what would compel them to personally support a Christian media ministry in a real way. 

    Be honest,  what would shake some meaningful  money from your wallet?

  11. I think take the word ministry out of it. Personally, I would consider supporting something in the vein of shows like (Amazing Race, Survivor, Prison Break, and SPORTS broadcasts). There is no better way to rope in an audience than to broadcast sports-a garenteed audience with something that's not explicitely Christian, even something small like niche sports. THen those non Christians are always tuning in to see if it's on! And maybe they will stay around and watch whatever may be on! Although for reality shows, there has to be a winner and loser-it has to be a competition, if "everyone" wins that's not compelling.

    Obviously, the younger voice isn't heard-look what's on-it's not the younger material. The other issue, I think is that so many people want to be involved in the actual production and making of Christian media and yet so few of them actually are able to-so you can kind of see the rift there. I think it just comes down to producing what the audience wants to see and right now Christian tv isn't the best at capturing the young audience. Obviosly the absolute LAST thing I want to watch on TV is a sermon or preacher, or DION SANDERS, or you get it…mega church stuff….obviously, that stuff pays the bills, but it's not going to get a channel surfer to stop and actually watch.



  12. I think we have to look at program content too. Like mainstream TV we need to take creative risks. We need to create comedies and dramas that have good acting, directing and story lines that are not predictable. The Christian media has created it's own stereotype and then Christians get offended when others mock that same stereotype. The comedies and dramas we do should not perpetuate that stereotype. We could have news programs that don't have a slant or agenda. Community affairs programs that present different points of view, even different Christian points of view. It would be nice to see Liberial/Democrat Christians have a forum. Also an Entertainment show that can spotlight Christian and non Christian entertainers could be popular. There is also no reason that there cannot be late night talk shows that targets an adult audience.
    Sure there are the shut-ins who want to see church on TV, but there are others who want to keep church and entertainment seperate. The audience would like to be entertained without having a message beaten over their heads. Instead of trying to create a good Christian product perhaps Christians in the media should just try to create a good product. 
    When Christians get together do they always talk about Jesus? No, they talk about politics, sports, current events, the movies, music etc. They also have different points of view and they are not perfect. All of that needs to be seen on the small screen.
  13. I agree with the need for greater variety. Also, there may be a greater need for believers to create quality programming for mainstream media. I am 31 and was radically saved at 16 because of preachers like the ones who are on TV. Shouldn't we as Christians also support ministry programming as well as entertainment? I see a need for both.

  14. Please don't misunderstand. There should be a place for that too but not as air time filler and I guess that would depend on who the TV preachers are.
    Those who peach morality and have affairs. NO!
    Those who preach against homosexuality and are themselves gay. NO!
    Those who make claims that SpongeBob SquarePants and Tinky Winky (The Teletubbies) are gay and are part of a plot to turn children gay. NO!
    Those who think that they are above man’s law. NO!
    Those who ban books like Harry Potter, Macbeth and Cinderella because they promote witchcraft instead of being thrilled that their kids are reading. NO!
    Those who boycott stores that hang a sign that says "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" for moral reasons. These same people have no moral problem with the "Merry Christmas" store’s employees, who may even be Christians, not making a living wage, not having medical insurance while they sell you merchandise made by children in sweatshops for pennies a day. NO!
    Those who in times of crisis blame the problem on gays, feminists, the ACLU and Hollywood/The Media for being morally bankrupt. NO!
    And a big, "NO!" to those who come to mind when you read "10 Random Thoughts About Religious TV".
  15. True story…

    I was in a third world country, deep in a slum, doing my "fly in, get stories, fly out" thing.

    My guide was from that country, an educated kind young man who worked 80 hours a week bringing food to the poor, the Gospel to the lost.  He could have left his country and made millions anywhere–he was that sharp, that talented.

    I asked him how he found the Lord.  He smiled and told me there was a preacher that he used to watch on tv, back when he was a drunk, far from God.  But he watched him week after week.  Finally, he told the Lord, it that man came to his country, he would go to the meeting and accept Christ.

     Weeks later, he read where the TV preacher was indeed coming to his country.  He traveled to the city for the meeting and asked Jesus into his heart the first night.

    That man is now a poster child for Matthew 25.  He does more for the Lord in a week than most Christians will do in a lifetime.

    The preacher he was watching on TV?

    Jimmy Swaggart

    My point …God's Word changes lives no matter who delivers it.

    Our job in this business –I think — is to present that Gospel in so many ways, with excellence and creativity, that even more will find what he found.

  16. Amen….Mary. You are totally right. I have been blessed to do a lot of international ministry and Christian TV is having a huge effect worldwide. As stated earlier there is need for change and evolution in the medium….but let's not throw the baby out with the bath water. Also, the American church is sadly very different from the church in other nations….many of our pet peeves become irrelevant.

  17. I think that some of you are getting off topic and the topic is "What Religious TV Must Change". The current model isn't working from a advertising, revenue and ratings point of view (The Nielsen's count viewers not souls). The feedback I seem to be getting sounds more like testimony or what not to change than what must change. I admit that my ideas were targeting a national and local market and broadcasting to the international market would operate on a different model.
    I look at some of these shows and think how they can be better. I look at some of these shows and think what else can go in this time slot. I know I sound like I want get rid of the dead wood. Well, that's show biz.
    I also am a firm believer that broadcasters have an obligation to serve the public interest and I feel that certain people in the religious media fail in that obligation. That too must change.
  18. Tony,Your right – The religious media does fall short- far short. The present media will die out when the aged boards who support them die. A perfect example is Norman Vincent Peale – I know someone that was on that board for years and it still exists but has no real witness to the world any longer.  Perhaps Phil can give us some inside info from his new employee who worked on Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. One of the main characters was a Christian working in the secular media who dealt with many problems because of her faith. This is a perfect example of a positive Christian witness in the secular media. That’s what we need more of – not the next Baker or Swaggart who the secular world think is a joke. We have to choose – Christian witness in the secular world or Christian TV. Which do you think God prefers?

  19. As a resident of Hollywood, I know Christians like Harriet Hayes (Sarah Paulson on Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip) who have a sense of humor and can laugh at themselves. I think Harriet presents a more positive portrayal of Christians than Ned Flanders (The Simpsons), Bree Van De Kamp (Desperate Housewives) or Angela Martins (The Office). I know Christians like them too. Again that is why we need to create comedies and dramas that have good acting, directing and story lines that are not predictable. The product needs to hold the interest and short attention span of a modern day channel surfer. How can some of the current ministry programs do a new show and have it look like a rerun from 20 years ago?
  20. I know the young people…are used to getting music and videos free…

    Mary – Here's a thought: Why don't you give the young people something they can't already get (free) and would be willing to pay for.

    Interview the youth in your church – the youth at the mall. Find creative exercises and questions to ask them about the needs in their life and how much is it worth to them and how much they could pay if you found a way to supply it. Like most successful businesses: find a need and constantly work to perfect a unique way to fill it.

    Here’s an example of something they might be willing to pay for: a series of Alcohol/Drug Free Concerts with some of the "positive-family-friendly-not-Christian-labeled" rock groups (some are Christians in the secular world or have a strong drug-free lifestyle). These would be some of the groups the kids are downloading for free. Have sponsorship by big business or national sponsors that are part of their tour. Give the artists the opportunity to share their positive faith (without preaching) or drug-free lifestyle with the youth pastor or a youth “personality” as the MC. Videotape the event and produce a TV program (and spots) for television stations (local/regional or national to international) and a website that promotes the next concert.  Include past concert highlights (with permission and clearance of course), exclusive TV interviews and music video clips.  Have that same youth pastor/personality host so there is a consistant quality and visible presence.  Like I said previously – anything like this will take a dedicated staff and a lot of hard work.

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