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Those Who Live by the Media Sword, Die by the Media Sword

Ever wonder why such a high percentage of national profile media ministers crash and burn?  Why those in whom millions of people put their trust, eventually fail those same people?  Certainly it’s a tribute to the temptations of money, power, and fame.  Those are easy answers, and certainly a significant part of the puzzle.  But the real truth is, so many end in failure, because they didn’t understand the real power of the media itself.

The last generation of major TV evangelists tried to make a bargain with the media, like the classic deal with the devil.  They accepted the national platform, the accompanying fame and celebrity, the money, the book deals, the jets, and the influence, but when it came to their personal lives, they wanted privacy.  But they didn’t realize that when you kneel at the throne of the media, you can’t have it both ways.  Early in my career I worked for a major TV evangelist that was a wonderful person.  He had a huge impact on my life.  But he was old school.  He would never let me photograph him around his jet, or at his second home in a resort town.  He didn’t want anyone to know about that because he knew it would hurt his image as a preacher of the gospel.  That worked for awhile, but during his career, the media changed – as he abruptly discovered.

Others since have tried a similar path.  They gladly accept the money, fame, and influence, but assume that when it comes to their eccentricities, their marriage troubles, their sex addiction, their house at the beach, their girlfriends, their private jet, or any other personal struggle, they can keep that quiet.

Whatever you do, don’t make the mistake of thinking I’m out to get these guys.  Because many of them are delightful people, and some have actually been clients.  Many of them are my friends and are terrific men and women. They’re not trying to rip anyone off, and they are passionate about their calling, and the seriousness of their message.  I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to know and work with a great number of them, and fortunately, some understand what I’m talking about and have avoided a disaster.

However, for the rest, the only chink in their armor, is that so many don’t understand that the media is unforgiving, cruel, and relentless.

So what’s the solution?  Is it just to shy away and forget about taking your message to a national audience?  I don’t think so.  But you do need to understand that today, there is no escaping the media’s far-reaching tentacles.  Especially in a world of social media, where it’s always turned on, and the conversation happens 24/7 with millions of people worldwide.

The only real answer is transparency.

If you want to keep parts of your life private and away from the public, then don’t seek a media platform.  Just stay away from the exposure, because you can’t limit exposure.  But if you choose to take your message to the national stage, then live a transparent life.  Live the kind of life that can bear up under media scrutiny.  Because people are shooting video, recording audio, and connecting online every moment of every day, and sooner or later, your double life, your eccentricities, or your excesses will be exposed.  In a Facebook and Twitter world, word travels fast, and there’s no going back.

In a digital generation, the “always on” media can destroy a reputation in seconds.

It’s not a threat.  It’s the nature of the media.

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17 Comments

  1. I could not agree more. When I started in this business I worked with a wonderful man who also didn’t understand that he could not be on TV all around the world and have privacy. Back then there was no internet, but the week he laid off 300 employees and bought a tricked out houseboat, he was shocked to find it on the front page of the local paper.

    Every year, it has gotten worst. With tweets and cell phone cameras, your secret is a push of a button away from being everywhere.

    It is not a matter of if you deserve whatever you wish to hide. It is a matter of if people knowing about it would do more harm to the Church.

    The Church today enjoys a certain element of financial privacy from the IRS and other government officials. That is threatened with every high dollar perk that would raise eye brows.

    Accountability is key.

  2. I would agree and suggest the definition of “media” and “celebrity” has expanded a bit as well.

    A recent college grad looking for a job can have frat party photos on Facebook pulled up with a Google search of his or her name by a recruiter. A candidate running for local office can be linked to videos on YouTube in a less than flattering light. The examples are limitless.

    I think the key is simply walking the talk. Bill Hybels wrote a great book, “Who You Are (When No One’s Looking)”. It’s about being consistent in behavior and character when it doesn’t seem to matter. [Because it does]

    As Mary mentioned, mass distribution is just a click away. The world has become more transparent and so those with strong character will be like a breath of fresh air.

  3. Thanks, Phil
    I am a reporter for a large metro daily newspaper who reads your column on occasion.
    The issue of transparency is, as you pointed out, the key. I’ve reported on some of the big-time preachers and their lifestyles, and reported on Sen. Charles Grassley’s investigation into tax issues of some of these people. Why is it several of them, including some of the most famous, refused to turn over ANY documents to the senate Finance Committee re their income, worth, assets or anything? It is because, as you point out, they know the damage it would do to their “ministries.”

  4. This was very insightful and true Phil.
    “The only real answer is transparency.”
    And isn’t that what Christ has called us to in the first place? The cost can be so great…but not living in the light will always cost us…and those we love…more.

  5. WOW!!! Spot on Phil!!! Can’t enjoy the upside of media without accepting the demands it places on both public AND private life! Thank you!

  6. I’d add, “Live, act, and speak as humbly as possible, always preferring others over yourself.”

    The media has a hard time with that.

  7. This reminds me of the answer one of the Golden Girls gave to another’s question of whether the dress made her look fat. The classic answer: “It’s not the DRESS that makes you look fat…it’s the FAT!”

    Your point of clergymen needing to walk on eggshells because the media is ready to pounce, and reveal the nasty fat of their real lifestyles, misses the mark: It’s not the media that makes them look nasty…it’s the nastiness!

    The teaching of righteousness and the circumspect life, whether you have 3 million followers, or three…absolutely requires you to BE what you’re selling…media or no media!

  8. Is it right for christians to live beyond thier means? God blesses His children to be stewards, not live in million dollar houses. When average people see extravangant lifestyles of televangelist this harms their testimony regardless of how they justifiy it. by our lives, we are the biggest hinder to our testimony and dont realize it and end up hindering the christian faith.

  9. This is good Phil! I have to fight the impulse to not smack some of the ministers I know who are in the media light who I know are playing on two fields at the same time. I want to ask them what they’re thinking??! It’s a long way down and rarely do they come up again without remnants of egg still on their face. Our faith is tested in poverty and wealth, in obscurity and notoriety. I don’t judge; I would only pray that I could withstand the temptations that come with fame and fortune. That’s why character, accountability, the (reverential) fear of God & humility has to be constantly practiced. Anyone of us could slip and fall, but who wants to do that in front of the whole world?! Everyone loses at this game and God will not be mocked. Like you said, transparency is the only answer.

  10. God can use a monkey to save another one for Jesus. We Christians, we should never be “devil-fooled” into allowing humans to define who we are. We seek God’s leadership, protection, and approval. When it comes to issues of God’s kingdom (will and purpose), He is in control, NOT the media. What the media thinks about me is NONE of my business! What God thinks about me ia ALL that matters!

  11. The first clue? Wanting to hide something you have or do because you fear others people “won’t understand”. What you really fear is that they WILL understand. The uncomfortable reality is that we are most often aware of our sins while we are committing them. None are exempt, not even preachers.

  12. Phil
    Very live issue for us right now. I am on staff with a church of about 250/300 people in England, (which sadly is a decent sized church by UK standards). We are in a quiet, conservative rural city, but the church is edgy, ambitious and growing fast.

    As a part of the growth strategy, we now film our preaches and put them online. We have a top class website, with lots of filmed creative media presentations. We are very active on Facebook. Two weeks ago, the local dominant newspaper printed a whole first page and half of the second page article titled; “Church or Cult?” (By the way, the answer is very definitely church). They followed up the next week with a page 3 article that revolved around one slightly loose statement that our senior pastor had made in one preach that was online, where he appears to suggest to our young singles that they seek spiritual counsel before starting a relationship, possibly even rather than parents if they have not done so well themselves. So the article was titled; “Turn to church not family for help-video urges youngsters”. They also ran a further article aimed at linking and smearing a not for profit company that rents space in the church building and employs some people from the church. As a consequence of these articles, we now face a Facebook hate, (or at least really don’t like us) group, and an online petition to force the local government to stop any funding to the not for profit org.

    Our leadership meeting next Monday will include a discussion about how we respond and maintain or change our behaviour in the future, in light of these developments. I cannot believe that we will draw back into our cave, stop putting things online or come off Facebook. It has been a tough 2 weeks, and it looks like it will be at least another 2 or 3 before the dust begins to settle. I believe that we simply have to understand that much as the article was unfair, (and it was atrocious), we engaged with this medium first, and it comes with the territory. The upside? With 2 services each Sunday, our average attendance was running at 374. The Sunday after the article we had 408. The church as an organisation is more unified than it has ever been, including some people that had kind of drifted away coming back, furious that such accusations had been made. Time will tell what the full implications are and impact is, but as I said, this is a very live issue for us right now!

  13. I’m about to be quoted in an article on CNN.com about why people keep following the celebrity preacher caught in scandal. The reporter and I had a vigorous discussion. I explained that part of the problem is the preacher puts himself/herself in the position of being The Proof of his/her message, and then they can’t grow. They certainly cannot be transparent, and in most cases, they have never come to the place of maturity where they could willingly humble themselves and admit they aren’t The Proof. They aren’t mature enough to be able to lay it all down, give up every last material possession, in order to show their surpassing desire is to know Christ. They like being The Proof, and they will defend their right to be The Proof, and when it starts to become very hot and they can’t just claim “the devil is attacking me,” they jump right off a cliff and flat-out lie. They aren’t mature, no one holds them accountable, those around them are afraid every good teaching they’ve received won’t be true, and they can’t bear to be humbled.

    Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if one of the folks being investigated by Grassley had said, “Just to show you the stuff doesn’t mean anything to me, I’m going to divest myself of it all and just start over?” None of them could do it. They’d give you 50 reasons why God wouldn’t want them to do it. They are dearly in love with the media beast and they’re as bad as politicians when it comes to creating an image instead of a life. This grieves me no end.

  14. Phil, you are right on in that the answer for Ministers is consistency in message and lifestyle along with transparency and there are many that need start living that way.

    However the media for the most distorts or outright lies to put forward a story that will put Christian Ministries and Ministers in a negative light. The enemy is out there to kill, steal and destroy so even when there is consistency and transparency being lived by Ministers there are still people out there with negative motives so I caution people about judging ministries and ministers by what the secular media reports.

  15. The fact is that while they are many honest persons preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ, far too many see the “Church” as a means to fame and fortune.

    The media, as far as I am aware, do not go looking for those honest persons who are preaching the gospel, since most of the times these have none of the trappings of the rich and famous. The ones whom the media “discover” and later expose are usually the charlatans and frauds.

    Unfortunately, an unsuspecting public does not know this and are given the impression that all who name the name of Jesus are the same. The media itself do not seem to get it, that the man with multiple houses, the jet and the book deals doing the talk show circuit, is seldom the one who has “taken up the cross” to follow Jesus.

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