Back in the days of only 3 TV channels, there were a handful of monster sized media ministries: Oral Roberts, Billy Graham, Rex Humbard, and Jimmy Swaggart topped the list early, with Pat Robertson and Robert Schuller coming in a bit later. Then, with the advent of religious TV networks, more started growing: Rod Parsley, Lester Sumrall, John Osteen, Fred Price, and others. Today, the leaders are ministries like Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar, Ken Copeland, Joyce Meyer, TD Jakes, and of course the networks like TBN and Daystar that give most of them their biggest platform. But now, in the wake of this recent financial crisis, the question becomes, will we see so many religious ministries of that size ever again?
While a few will continue, for the vast majority I say no, for a couple of reasons. According to a July Gallup poll, 32% of respondents said they’re spending less across the board. More telling however, is that these consumers expect this cutback to be their “new normal pattern” for the future. Interpublic Group did a similar study and found that 75% have altered their purchasing in the last year. While some have traded down, most seem to have evolved into a completely new lifestyle. As one major advertising agency executive put it: “People are going to emerge from the recession completely changed.” With non-profit giving, the cycles can sometimes be different, but you can expect their giving habits to be dramatically adjusted as well.
The second issue is technology and changing generations. By 2010, Generation Y will outnumber Baby Boomers and 96% have already joined an online social network. It took traditional radio 38 years and TV 13 years to reach 50 million users, but iPhone applications hit 1 billion in only 9 months. Bob Garfield, author of “The Chaos Scenario” predicts that within 5 years, one of the major 4 TV networks will drop out, maybe two. By this Christmas, TV sets will easily allow consumers to watch broadband video and have imbedded links to the major online entertainment sites.
So what does all this mean for major ministries? While traditional media isn’t going away, you basically have two choices: Evolve, or disappear. If you’re having financial struggles right now, here’s my recommendations:
1. First, don’t be so quick to cut back or fire the people involved in your fund raising or donor development. The fact that your direct mail letters, promotional efforts, TV commercials, or appeals aren’t getting the old response isn’t necessarily because they’ve failed. The money and audience simply aren’t out there like they used to be. The truth is, in this circumstance, the employees, consultants, or vendors you think are failing, may be the very ones keeping you alive. This is a tectonic shift in the giving audience. You can’t compare your response today to your old response. That’s just a strategy for making yourself crazy. People are cutting back, and they’re consuming media in different ways. Get used to it.
2. Start re-thinking your size and your priorities. The ministry you had 5-10 years ago probably won’t be ministry you have from here on out. And if you don’t make the tough decisions now, the bank will make them for you next year. What are those areas of ministry that seemed like a good idea at the time, but you simply can’t afford anymore? Start cutting the fat, but here’s the secret to cutting: Don’t just cut to save money. Use cutbacks to begin shaping the organization that will emerge from this crisis. Re-think your staff, and focus on the most competent team members. Loyalty is nice, but if that’s all an employee can offer, then you simply may not be able to keep them around. Flush out office politics, and build a team of energetic, strategic thinkers. Stop comparing everything to the “good old days” and start re-envisioning your ministry in the context of a new economic and media world.
3. Change your attitude. I know times are tough, but walking into some major ministries today is like walking into a toxic waste dump. Leaders are hammering on their employees, which just creates distrust and resentment. Don’t feed the downward spiral. Be a real leader. Stop placing blame and start finding solutions.
4. Finally, remember that revolutions can be good things. While we’re living in a time of unthinkable disruption, we’re not condemned to be mere victims. Get over the embarrassment that your organization may be shrinking, or your lifestyle might be cut back. Embrace the challenge. Historically, times of great peril have often been times of great reinvention. We can lament the good old days, or better yet, recognize that perhaps God is shaking our old ways of thinking for an even greater purpose.
The world has changed. How we respond is up to us.