Christian MediaEngaging CultureMedia Production

Why Criticize Christian Media?

I’ve been getting some obvious and not-so-obvious criticism for some of the recent opinions I’ve shared on this blog and in magazines on issues like Christian television, fundraising, Jesus junk, and more. Some are of the “who are you to judge” variety, others have misunderstood my arguments, but others are great people who simply disagree with me. Good enough. I love disagreement, and hearing both sides of any argument is always a good thing. But after some consideration, I thought it might be a good idea to write down some of the things that motivate my ideas, exactly what I believe, and what I’m trying to accomplish.

Some have wondered how I could criticize something I do for a living. Why not? I want religious media to be the best it can possibly be, so I want all of us to be called to a higher standard. Do I hate faith-based media? Absolutely not. I write these things because I love what I do.

So perhaps if you knew more about my motivations, it would help clear the air. Better yet, it might help us continue the conversation on an even higher level. To that end, here are some thoughts:

1. The stakes are way too high not to have this discussion. We live in a media-driven culture, and if people of faith are going to make an impact, we have to consider and understand the power of the media. Other activist organizations know this, and have seen the power of for the Democratic party, and other media driven ventures as well. The media matters, and to ignore that fact is to begin a short slide into oblivion.

2. We’ve got to be truthful about our projects and their impact. It’s been said that the Hollywood studios make the fake look real, but Christian media makes the real look fake. For decades, Christians have produced a great deal of radio, TV, and movie projects that frankly has been embarrassing. We admit it behind the scenes, but few have been bold enough to go public with our shortcomings and failures. If we can’t have a honest discussion about how we can do this better, the world will continue to view us as out of touch and irrelevant.

It’s not about judging or evaluating people. It’s about judging and evaluating the quality of our work. We need to provide that evaluation in-house to save our perception out there in the world. In the Church media family, we have a few crazy uncles. It’s about credibility, and the need to be transparent in our quest to connect with our audience.

For instance, many TV evangelists, “Jesus Junk” TV offers, prosperity teaching, private jets, bad hair, flawed theology, and extravagant living damages our credibility to the world. It doesn’t matter that those guys help your TV or radio station during telethon time. Do you really believe they’re doing the right thing? Do you really believe that the only way we can finance Christian media is with this stuff?

3. Which is why we must value media strategy. In most cases, I don’t question motives, intention, or integrity. But I often question strategy. The decision to protest or boycott a movie may be driven by all the right intentions and motivations, but it might be a foolish strategy. Communicating in a mass media world is different that communicating in the pre-mass media world. Digital media adds even more new layers into the mix. How we communicate, what tools we use, and how we present our message is a question of strategy. In a post-Christian culture, strategy becomes a tool that is absolutely critical in the expression of our faith. No matter how powerful our message, it doesn’t matter if the audience isn’t listening.

4. The medium is the message. Marshall McLuhan was right. The medium we choose impacts the message in a significant way. We’ve always been deluded into thinking, “The method changes, but the message doesn’t.” Not true. Experiencing a church service live isn’t the same as watching it on TV. Putting your sermon on a cell phone doesn’t convey the same impact as it will in the church. The extensions, changes, and limitations of different media impact the message being sent, and to think otherwise, damages our ability to communicate. We need to spend more time thinking about which medium is an appropriate way to communicate a particular message, and then how to use the unique characteristics of that medium to make it more powerful.

5. Style matters. Biblical truth packaged in a dumpy looking TV program will usually fail. Of course God can speak to people through the worst circumstances. He spoke through a donkey and can cause the rocks to cry out in praise. But for us not to enhance Biblical truth in a way that will make audiences more receptive is wrong. If you’re producing programming in a 3rd world country with limited equipment (as I’ve done many times), I believe God will honor that. It’s not about having a big budget and lots of great equipment. But the truth is, the package matters. Pope Julius could have painted the Sistine Chapel a nice solid color, but he made the decision to hire Michelangelo and let him do his thing. We’re all the better for it.

6. It’s time to be honest about our message. The Bible tells some pretty dark stories, and yet the mantra of most religious media organizations is to be “family safe.” So how do we tell the explicit stories of rape, murder, incest, war, disease, suicide, sex, torture, and more that fill the pages of the Bible? Job went through some pretty dark stuff. Israel’s king sanctioned murder and committed adultery. Paul was imprisoned in a sewer. David paid his dowry to Saul with 200 Philistine foreskins.

Not exactly Veggie Tale material…

If the world is going to believe our story, we need to stop sanding down the rough edges and be real. Authenticity is the cry of this generation, and they have a natural repulsion to our dumbing down what it means to be a believer in Christ.

For instance, we’ve got to stop evaluating movies simply by the number of swear words, acts of violence, scenes of the occult, or nudity. When it comes to kids, great. But we also need to realize some of the most powerful movies tell their stories with the same honesty as the Bible does – honesty, that can often offend.

Let’s worry less about being “family safe” and more about being real.

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  1. If I'm not mistaken, Marshall McLuhan said, "The medium is the message."  While I understand his reasoning and in the secular marketplace his idea packs a punch, I don't see the same application for the preaching the Word of God.  While media is important in propagating the Gospel, it is a Gospel that we preach.  Gibson's movie made a lot of money and had a lot of press, but I didn't read a single report of anyone becoming born-again from seeing it.

  2. Actually, a small percentage did make a decision for Christ as a result of viewing the Passion, and because of the huge numbers who watched the film, that percentage represented a lot of people.  I'm not sure of your point, since I mentioned McCluhan's quote in my article.  But from my perspective, media is media.  God can certainly transcend anything, as I stated before, but to deny that the medium doesn't change the message in significant ways is to deny reality.

  3. McCluhan actually went further than your paraphrase.  McCluhan, by stating that "the medium is the message," was actually stating that it was the medium, itself, that affected society, and not the content it carried.  McCluhan postulated that the content of the medium had little effect on society, e.g., it doesn't matter what content is on the television.  To the Christian, and to the world for that matter, the content is the message, not the medium by which it's carried.  While you're right that media is important, it seems to me that the current American Christian culture (especially Christian TV) has more or less adopted McCluhan's premise.


    By the way, I enjoy your blog. 

  4. Thanks for your important insights, Phil.

    One of the biggest reasons to have this conversation is because it is 
    reclaiming the spirit and intent of Paul's letters.   In I Corinthians 5:12-13,
    he clearly suggests we keep our criticisms and judgments focused upon
    ourselves, to 'in house' church conversations.
    In fact, plenty of journalists criticize us so strongly just
    because we aren't doing the job ourselves.
    (for example, see Jeff Sharlet's recent debate with
    Christian literature/historian Alan Jacob's as it plays
    Keep up the crucial and hard work.
  5. "If I hate it, then it is bad."

    How many of us think that way?  We have our own standard of what we think is good/bad/interesting/boring …and measure everyone else's work against that.

    Make room for the fact that same Christian media that makes you want to toss your cookies is actually reaching some people, and entertaining others.  There is a place for false eyelashes and pink hair (though not for me!).

    If it is Bibically sound and drawing an audience, then something good is happening. 

    Meanwhile, yes, find new and better ways to deliver the Good News to a larger audience.


  6. Phil, I am encouraged to see a desire on your part to create real dialogue along these lines and invite open comment.  I caught one of your talks a long time ago at an ICVM conference when the CBA was held in Atlanta.  Its good to see you are staying the course. Knowing your connections to the TBN empire, is their any chance for change there?  In my mind they set the standard for Christian television as the greatest offenders of the 6 points you listed above … do you agree?

  7. Unfortunately the false eyelashes and pink hair is what mainstream America sees in their mind when you mention Christian television. If Phil Cooke was the face of Christian TV everyone would be better off. Until then Christian television has a stereotype as it's mascot 
  8. Perhaps my point was not made well…

    I agree with everything Phil and the others here are saying about the need for better/cooler Christian media.

    Yes, I have been bored, embrassed, etc watching too much of what Christians are doing on TV,  

    But I do think there is a place for all types of Christian media…stuff I like and stuff I hate.  The secular media world has many flavors, why shouldn't we?  Why toss out what we personally don't like –disregarding  the fact that it has brought countless to Christ?

    Let's not be snobs…that's all.

    Whatever there is an audience for deserves its place if it is teaching God's Word.

  9. Here's an interesting thought. When I read Mary's line "disregarding the fact that it has brought countless to Christ" it made me think. Do we really have definitive proof that people are being brought to Christ through traditional Christian media? Everyone assumes it, but what proof do we have? Plus, apart from individual networks or ministries giving us numbers we can't corroborate, what if a network or ministry would give ramdom access to names they believe accepted Christ as a result of their media, and let an objective 3rd party contact them to verify? It's not to discount or embarrass. Actually, it would serve to finally put the issue to rest. After all, don't we need to objectively know if an outreach is working or not? What are your thoughts on the issue?

  10. Good question, Phil.

    I have done one-on-one interviews with dozens of people over the years who have found the Lord as a direct result of Christian media.

    These include people who were watching Joyce Meyer, Garth Coonce, Jim Bakker, Paula White and others.

    I had no reason to think these people were not telling the truth.  The flakes I passed over.

    Efrem Zimbalist, Jr found the Lord watching TBN, (for you guys south of 40, he was a famous Hollywood type in the 60s and 70s).  I interviewed him in person at Bakker's ministry.

     He was one of many who said they stopped because they were amused.  Though the folks on TV were nuts, but then the Holy Spirit opened their heart and God used this "bad TV" to win souls.

    He used a jackass once to do His work, is it crazy to think He has used Christian TV?

    Because I have met these folks and looked in their eyes and heard their story, I am a bit protective.  I don't personally like most Christian TV.  But I have seen God use it.

  11. Agreed.  However, I'm not sure where that leaves us.  Do we leave Christian TV alone?  Do we continue to improve it?  Do we walk away and try something else?  I'm not sure "Though the folks on TV were nuts, but the Holy Spirit opened their heart and God used "Bad TV" to win souls" is much of a compliment…. 🙂

    Even though God can overcome our finite efforts, I hate throwing obstacles in the way of God working in people's lives… 

  12. It leaves us striving to do better …deliver better Christian media with better results, and doing so without trashing what we don't like. Can we leave alone what is there and working in its odd way while pushing forward for better on our own projects?

    What you want to to is noble, needed and appreciated. I just think you can do it without tearing down the best efforts of others who are less creative and skilled.

  13. I especially agree with your sixth point. I can’t bear those interminable “Focus on the Family” type reviews that seem determined to rob a film of its power by diluting violence, etc where it is contextually justified.

  14. I heard a statistic said only 13% of a cable network audience in Indonesia prefer TBN to another cutting- edge christian channel (87%). It’s a proof that even in “poor” country the audience give more attention to “medium” / “packaging”. Not to mention the tough competition with secular tv channel.

    I think what Phil tried to emphasize is if Christian media improve, we can grab more audience, the scope of our ministry is broaden and the impact is deepened. I’m very positive if most christian TV change the way they deliver the message, they will reach more people for God.

  15. Phil,

    You touched on a question I have had for quite some time, where are the stats that support the idea that Christian television is an effective evangelistic tool?  With as many churches in this country who spend as much money as we do in equipment and programming, you would think there would be more research done in this area.  About a year ago I went looking, but the closest I could find was some polls that Barna had done a few years back, but it looked more at the rise in media usage by Christians than it touched on the effectiveness of media as an outreach. 

    Yes, I know personally people who have been touched by Christian programming, and I'm not knocking it – I've invested 20+ years to media ministry, but when you think about the millions of dollars some churches are investing in the media, it would be comforting to know more research has been done to answer that question.  I would assume securing the likes of Barna would be out of the reach for most churches, but might be a possibility for say the NRB.  What do you think?

    By the way, I enjoyed hearing Erwin McManus and Leonard Sweet at the Reach Conference!  Thanks for your efforts.  I'll admit though, I had to get the CD's and listen again because I know more than a few things flew by me from Sweet the first go round.

  16. The Bible says that Daniel was one who had an excellence about him. Should we not all strive to be "excellent" in what we do. There doesn't seem to be an excuse for poor technology these days.  AND, I personally know of several people who re-dedicated their lives to Christ as a result of watching "Passion of the Christ." One had relapsed into witchcraft, was on drugs, and was living with someone, not her husband. God GLORIOUSLY delivered her as she renewed her walk with Him, after watching that movie.

  17. Very powerful & true. May God Bless & direct all in the Christian media. However, the truth is that the packaging is important in the world we live in. I believe that if Christian men & women use their God given talents the correct non-judgemental way, they will blow away the imitators. The world is hungry for the truth. Jesus used the market place many times to get His message of truth across. Where is the market place today?

  18. Stumbled across your site and this interesting discussion as I write a paper for an Art Critical Theory class wherein I’ll discuss a little “medium is the message”.

    I was a Christian for a short time in my teens. I am now an a-theist; I don’t deny the existence of God, I just am not convinced. Most importantly, I’ve resigned from the debating society and have a very strong live-and-let-live sensibility.

    Maybe someone could clear up something for me? Isn’t there a Great Commission to carry the gospel to all the corners of the world? I have some knowledge of the Bible, but don’t remember this question being addressed: Are you supposed to make them believe? Or, just carry the message?

    My sense has been that you are required to carry the message and that’s all. Someone can’t come to Christ without knowing about Christ, but are you supposed to clobber him with it? Personally, I’ve heard the message and would have trouble with someone who kept trying to convince me. It seems to me, and maybe I’m wrong and this is my question, that the appropriate response at that point would be to say, “I’d love to talk with you about Christ any time you would like,” and then let it go.

    With this in mind, I wonder about the above discussion. If people are honestly called to the ministry, prayerfully following God’s will, then what difference how it actually manifests? If God is in charge, of what use are Arbitron ratings? Plus, there’s the huge factor of planting the seed, heh? Maybe all the Jimmy Swaggert that I watched in the 1980’s will bear fruit, but not in any identifiable way, in the 2020’s? Who can know?

    I believe that there is no way to know the impact of Christian Broadcasting. You can identify some subset, such as Arbitron, and talk about that, but it’s not really meaningful because there are so many impacts of which you cannot be aware.

    Maybe this is where faith comes in? You pray to know God’s will for your life, your ministerial work, your media outlet and leave the results in his hands without worrying about how your “product” is coming across. You just leave it in God’s hands.

    Sorry so long, but I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. I am asking real questions that I am curious about; it should be obvious that I’m not a troublemaker, just a thoughtful guy.

    By the way, McCluhan misquotes Shakespeare and draws a conclusion from the quote which makes me doubt everything he says. Plus, “The Medium is the Message” is really impenetrable, rambling, undefined and consequently frustrating. I’ll spend the part of my paper where he has to make an appearance by attacking him.

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