Christian Media

The Biggest Mistakes Christians Make in the Media

Years ago, at the National Religious Broadcasters Convention in Nashville, I presented a standing room only workshop on the “10 Biggest Mistakes Christians Make in the Media.” Sharing all 10 will take too much space, so here’s my top five.  I’d love to hear yours:

1.  We’ve Forgotten the Power of Creativity. It’s interesting that God introduced himself to us in the first chapter of Genesis as a “creator.”  But for people made in His image, we’ve really dropped the ball.  During the Middle Ages it was Christian artists, writers, and sculptors who led the world in creativity.  But today, we’re more likely to simply rip-off the secular culture.  In fact, I had one pastor tell me that the word “copyright” actually means “your right to copy.”  I walked through a local Christian store the other day and the shelves were filled with “Testamints:  The Breath Mint with a Scripture,” a Cross USB computer drive (because Jesus saves?), and a “Jesus Died for MYSPACE” in Heaven” t-shirt. And most Christian TV and radio programs?  Don’t get me started.

2.  We Don’t Understand Perception. In today’s distracted world, your message matters, but we can’t forget how you present it.  Most cable TV systems have 300-500 channels plus there’s billions of websites and social media apps, so our media choices are pretty much unlimited.  In my experience, most people with a remote take only 2-3 seconds to decide which TV channel to watch.  In that context, it doesn’t matter how anointed your message is if they don’t watch long enough to hear it.  The bottom line is that in this cluttered age, how you’re perceived is the key to someone making a decision to listen to your message.

3.  We Don’t Speak The Language of the Culture. Just turn on a typical Christian radio or TV program and you’ll still hear a language the secular world doesn’t even begin to understand.  Phrases like washed in the blood, justification, sanctification, born again, prophetic anointing, impartation, should the Lord tarry, pray through, personal relationship with God, and more litter religious media.  But I’ve scoured the scriptures and just can’t find any place where Jesus used Christian “lingo.”  Jesus spoke the language of His culture.  After all, does anyone at your office stand around the water cooler and say things like, “Bob, after work on Friday, let’s go to the local bar and have a mighty time of fellowship?”  Want to get your message heard?  Drop the lingo and speak their language.

4.  We Don’t Understand The Power of a Name. In a cluttered media world, names matter.  I have a lot of choices, so why should I take the time to hear your message if the name of your church, ministry, media program, or book doesn’t engage me?   Traveling around the country, I’ve seen churches like Hooker Church of Christ, Runs Baptist Church, Colon United Methodist Church, and Cooter United Methodist.  Other churches named Hygiene, Sleeper, End Times, and even King James Bible Baptist. (I’m not making this up.)  I’m sure these are wonderful churches attended by terrific people.  But how many outsiders have seen those and other similar names and just passed on by?  (Probably with a chuckle).  Corporate America spends hundreds of thousands of dollars hiring companies to find just the right name for products and companies, and they do it because a great name can covey meaning, confidence, and trust.  Want people to take your church, ministry, book, or other project seriously?  Take a closer  look at the name.

5.  We Don’t Recognize the significance of a Niche. Ask a typical pastor or ministry leader about his mission and he or she will tell you something like “To reach the world for Christ.”  It’s a noble sounding mission, and hard to argue with the intention.  The only problem is that it’s an impossible goal and only sets you up for failure.  When you study the life of Christ, you realize there were plenty of people who walked away from his message.  So if Jesus didn’t reach everybody, then chances are, neither can you.  So the question becomes: Based on your specific calling, talents, and area of expertise, who’s the group that’s most likely to respond to your message?  Figure that out, and start with them.  The world understands the power of niches. When I was a kid in the 60’s there only a handful of major  magazines in the country.  Today, there are literally thousands covering all kinds of subjects.   A few years ago, my wife Kathleen and I bought a classic 1967 convertible Mustang.  Shortly after, I realized there were 17 different magazines published just for classic Mustang owners.  The world is focused on reaching target audiences, because with very few exceptions, that’s what works.

After writing my book “Unique: Telling Your Story in the Age of Brands and Social Media” I would often ask pastors and ministry leaders:  “If I held a gun to your head and said you could preach only one message for the rest of your life, what would that be?”  Some will answer “God’s grace.”  Others respond that they would teach about forgiveness, Bible prophecy, worship, leadership, or family relationships.  What’s your greatest passion?   It’s not that you only teach on that one theme, but that theme becomes a filter that everything you teach passes through.  Figure out yours, because once you do, people will notice.

The key is to start with the smallest niche possible and work out from there.  The woman who’s won the most Grammy Awards in history isn’t Celine Dion, Beyonce, Barbara Streisand, or even Aretha Franklin.  The number one Grammy winner of all time is bluegrass sensation Alison Kraus.  Why?  Because she found a niche and mastered it.  As a result, she’s become internationally recognized as the best in the world in that niche and is now known everywhere.

Master your niche, and the world will notice.

The media matters.  After all, what does it say about the culture in which we live that the recent Egyptian uprising was led by a Google employee?   If we’re going to share our life-changing message with a culture desperately in need, then we would do well to master the techniques for getting your message heard, and understand the power of today’s media.

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  1. Took lots of notes in this class at NRB, GREAT presentation Phil! The words “figure it out” and, the illustration you gave regarding your pastor, Jack Hayford …”if you cut him he would bleed worship” has haunted me day and night. I know what I would bleed… but haven’t figured it out, but I will! My mind has been racing & been praying about this since the NRB weekend ….. thank you, you have been very helpful to me.

  2. Great Stuff. Every point seems to be based off basic business marketing ideas. I know there are plenty of church consultants that help with those concepts, but is it taught in seminary schools? Any Bible college graduate who wants to be a pastor should be trained up in how to represent themselves and their ministry to the Body and how to do that to those outside the Church. We are at the point where so many are generations removed from Church culture; Christianise might as well be speaking in tongues to the unchurched.

    1. That’s a great point. I do wish seminaries taught these principles to a new generation of pastors. To not understand issues like perception, branding, and other things today would be a significant obstacle to getting the message out…

    2. Along these same lines, I would like to hear a follow up post from Phil about how to convey these ideas to your leadership. I feel I normally sound like a know it all when talking to older wiser church leaders being a young 25 year old designer.

  3. Thank you Phil for this eye-opener! It does matter how we present the matchless Word of God in today’s world. I truly desire that every pastor must read this post, evaluate their ministries, find their own niche and do a smart job in doing what they are called to do!

  4. Good points Phil…as always. I would like to give a different viewpoint on point 5 if you will indulge me. You actually used a tagline as your example that is similar to one we have used for many years, “Reaching the World”. And yes we were probably using it long before we should have, but for our ministry it is an abreviated mission statement, not a niche. I love how Acts 1:8 puts it, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere–in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (NLT)

    God’s master plan for all of us is: Utilize my power and tell everyone everywhere about my Son. We endeavor do it at our church/ministry through preaching, with a niche that is Spirit-filled living and understanding your enemy. Everyone needs the power of the Holy Spirit and everyone needs to be free from demonic strongholds. How does that begin? Through a relationship with Jesus Christ. So, there it is our God given directive and I believe a challenge for every Christ follower and the body of Christ as a whole. Some focus on Jerusalem, some Judea, some Samaria but the corporate goal is the ends of the earth!

    As you said, many walked away from Jesus during His ministry here on earth and that is a very sad but true fact. However Jesus was not a failure because He did not convince them all.

    Paul described the list of different niche’s he tried to reach in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. He closed out that section of scripture by saying, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” (NLT)

    God said tell them all, what they do with it is up to them.

    Thanks Phil for being an honest voice!

  5. I have a problem with “speak their language”. Don’t get me wrong, I detest approaching people with Christianese and presuming that they will understand it (too many church people don’t know the full meanings of propitiation and so forth themselves). However, I do not want to pretend to be what I am not. Plain language is best.

    By the way, there are constant updates to the Bible, and many are approaching irreverence. What next? “And the Lord spake unto Noah, saying, “Yo! God be like rilly rilly ticked and stuff…”

  6. Yes, Phil, why don’t you give us the other five points??? I’m sure we’ll all read them as eagerly as we did the first five! C’mon, pretty please? 🙂

  7. Nowadays, As philcooke said, Gospel in media needed to be preached in simple words. only, people who are traditional Christians must need more deeper religious thought. Look Jesus Christ, when he came to the world, he spread gospel using short stories or fables that makes a revolution even on a common man!

    1. I ran into this site today, two years after this post. This post caught my eye. Talk about patronizing! Oh, the poor simple people, talk to them with simple words! Ugh.

  8. All of your great points seem centred on more effective communication but I think that there are many examples of great communicators that: 1. Confuse effectiveness with truth ; and 2. hold lightly any responsibility for the outcome of their communications.
    Keep up your insightful and thought provoking articles.

  9. Great list but it seems to only focus in increasing effectivity.

    Seems like there are many great communicators that: 1. Confuse being effective with the truth; 2. Taking responsibility for the outcome of communications seems to be taken very lightly by some church leaders.
    Another thought provoking article – thanks.

  10. Phil, I like your style. Read the book “Ideas that Stick” with the perspective that this is how Jesus presented His message. Every pastor could benefit from it. Not to mention his “yawning” flock.

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