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.