Christian MediaCreative Leadership

The Generational Transition We Face with Major Churches and Ministries

I believe Christian media is facing the greatest generational transition in the history of our culture. The first generation pioneers like Billy Graham, Oral Roberts, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, D. James Kennedy, Robert Schuller, Pat Robertson, Paul Crouch, and others, have either passed away, retired, or aren’t as intensely involved in their ministries as they used to be. The implications of this transition are more critical than many might believe. For instance:

— It means a transition in leadership styles. First generation leaders are often more creative, driven, and relentless. They are founders, and the incredible energy and passion it takes to create “lift off” for an organization leaves little time for anything else. As a result, most first generation leaders don’t value teamwork, have charismatic personalities that inspire great loyalty (sometimes with egos to match), and focus like lasers, sometimes at the expense of their own families. They know what they want, when they want it, and how they want it delivered. They are specific. As a result, their influence lives long after they’ve left the day to day arena. In fact, if the second generation leader isn’t strong enough to assert his or her authority and style, he or she could spend their leadership years living the founder’s vision rather than their own.

By contrast, most second generation leaders are more comfortable with technology, value teamwork, and legislate through consensus. They tend to be less driven, and rather than pushing so hard to create the organization, are able to re-focus management on expansion or new markets.

There are pluses and minuses to both styles, but because of the dramatic difference, organizations that are experiencing generational change often convulse under the stress. Managers and employees suddenly have to switch gears, adjust expectations, and change their thinking. Those that recognize the change adapt quickly, but others, stumble, and often fail.

— Another key aspect of generational change is the move from a personality driven ministry to a corporate style of ministry. One of the characteristics of the first generation of Christian media leaders was personality driven ministries. Largely, because pastors and evangelists were the first to seize on the opportunities in radio and TV early in the last century, they raised up organizations built around their personalities. But with the passing of that personality, some organizations are confronted with the need to change to a more corporate vision, where a single person doesn’t stand out.

That transition has huge implications for the brand, program structure, fundraising, management, and more. It can be done. Organizations like The American Bible Society, World Vision, and others have proven a broader corporate structure works. But how well many major personality-driven organizations make that transition has yet to be determined.

— The generational transition will also change the way we impact the culture. Think about the first generation of Christian media leaders. By and large these were brilliant men and women who were confronted with the incredible cultural changes that began in the sixties. Their first reaction? Confrontation. It was a logical choice given the timing and background of their ministries. The changes in society they saw early in their ministries was a real shock, and they reacted in logically expected ways: they confronted the problem. They complained, protested, and often boycotted in their well-intentioned efforts to make culture change happen.

But today, a new generation has grown up living with the cultural and moral changes that started decades ago. The only culture they know is an environment of more violent and sexually explicit entertainment, hostility toward religious faith, crumbling morality, disintegrating families, and more, and they’ve had more experience navigating that strange world. As a result, when a movie like “The Da Vinci Code” was released, the first generation leaders were more prone to criticize or boycott, and the second generation leaders were more prone to use it as a platform for sharing their faith.

As a media strategist, I never rule out boycotts, but I view them as a “nuclear option” – to be used only when nothing else works. On the other hand, as a producer working in Hollywood, I see firsthand the impact of engagement. Today, seven major studios have faith-based film divisions, and I’ve personally been invited to talk with some of them to help them understand who the faith-based audience is, and what they’re looking for from the entertainment world. Had I criticized or boycotted them, they would have never been interested in having that conversation.

Media change is here, and it’s happening whether we’re ready or not, and whether we like it or not. The key to success during 2008 will be creating a strong brand in the media marketplace, understanding how strategy impacts digital technology, managing smooth leadership transitions, and staying connected to your donors. It’s about presenting a compelling vision, and telling a story that can impact a generation.

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  1. Phil, I feel like I've just been back to school in an organizational leadership seminar.

    Brilliant entry and so well said.

    The only thing I can add is the need for organizations making the transition from founder to second generation leadership is the old addage, Success without a successor is failure.

    Whatever the basis of selecting the next generation of leadership, whether it is a family member or a groomed and targetted associate, any organization, ministry related or otherwise, that doesn't put some thought and planning into this area is just asking for problems.  If a ministry organization is based upon the talents and gifts of a particular ministry personality and the successors gifts are different, then the organization is going to have to change to some degree based on those gifts.  You touched on some of this earlier with the mention that downsizing may be a legitimate option as opposed to debt.

    It's not an issue of right or wrong.  It's recognizing the differences.  It's not just a spiritual issue.  There is plenty of room for prayer and faith and that is the first priority.  If an organization chooses not to adjust however in that type of change, it should at least be an informed faith with the board and leaders knowing what they are trusting God for.

  2. One transition that I haven't seen discussed is that of paid-content vs. free-content. Oral Roberts and the rest of the "first generational" ministers preached the Gospel without charge and often continued meetings just to meet their expenses. Later, along with the rise of the "seed-faith" teaching, came the influx of mass-produced teaching tapes, videos, etc. that has fomented the rise of ministry-as-corporation with corporate-like payrolls. The advent of the You Tubes, podcasts, etc. are sure to rock the economics of the corporate ministry model because the internet generation doesn't expect to have to pay for content (why buy a teaching series when I'm already subscribed on iTunes?).

  3. "Today, seven major studios have faith-based film divisions" – I assume Fox Faith is one; what are the other six?

  4. You touched on it Phil, but the bigger force at work is the cultural shift in all of Western society as we move from the idealistic generation spawned in the sixties into a more civic generation whose tipping point was probably 2003. If you think of a generation as a time period of about 40 years rather than your group of birth cohorts, then perhaps we are entering into an increasing disruption in societal norms much like the late sixties and early seventies. Some churches fought television and its evil influence. Others saw the power of the medium and used it.

    With the changes businesses and nonprofits will find that what worked for years is no longer working. The bright and nimble will move not just to new media, but to new strategies, tactics and messaging. Others will be overtaken by the creeping ice of irrelevancy as the glacier of a new generation once again proves unstoppable. Then in about 2043 the process will reverse as those still here see a shift back into an idealistic generation.

    The civic generational cycle spawns a culture that places more value on authenticity, relevance, and action. Motives for support will likely change from giving to get into giving to those who are really making a social and spiritual impact. These values have already been birthed in the emerging generation. They will teach us all if we will listen.

    Excellent post, Phil.

  5. If the media is the message to some extent and today's ministries rose not only on the personality of the first generation leader but also the extension of the Television medium which casts so much as "larger than life" not only is the question one of leadership transition but also to a great extent the waning of the medium in relative importance to new forms of technology.  Second generation leadership may have to adjust leadership style needs but at the same time, there may still be a lot of pioneering and innovation in these new mediums to maintain effective outreach or waning impact can become somewhat inevitible. 

    It might be easy to get confused by attempting to look at it in one light without factoring in that element as well.  What others are there as well?

    Phil, you and Chris are really opening my eyes in this field to a lot of things.  Thank you.

  6. Phil, sounds more like three points and a poem. 🙂

    Charismatic personalities have been iconic from the beginning of time…Abraham and David to Martin Luther and John Huss to the Wesleys and Charles Finney.  Much as some might desire, the "personality" of a leader is never going away.  We are programmed that way by our Creator.  The search and wait for the Messiah with His ultimate arrival, leads man on this eternal quest of "creating leaders."  Will their rewards be any greater(?)…doubtful…we just need mentors and role models to show others it can be done.  Then there are the originators, creators and inventors who are innately inspired and can do it all "on their own."

    "Second generation leaders"…their style…could be due to continued over-exposure to sex and violence, consequently accepting what the first generation saw as blatant sin.  Like some in the political arena they are more inclined to discussion than action.

  7. Interesting thought but I doubt it.  Remember, the "first generation" leaders were considered liberal by the generation that preceded them.  The Lincoln-Douglas presidential debates often lasted most of the day, and the sermons of pastors like Jonathan Edwards would sometimes go on for hours.  None of the first generation guys held up like that.  I just think leadership style changes with changes in culture, technology, politics, and the times.  Not that one is better or worse, (they all have issues) but we need to understand how they work to make our organizations more effective.

  8. Oral Roberts and other first generation guys did charge. Oral invented the "seed" faith giving and I saw WT Grant tell people he would not pray for them unless they gave $25.00. That was in the 50's

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