Engaging CultureChristian Media

Will Anyone Pay for Religious Media in the Future?

From a fundraising perspective, Mary Hutchinson has been an enormous help to a number of religious media ministries.  Recently, as part of launching a new direct response company, she asked some interesting questions about the future of religious media – particularly who will pay for it.  If you think religious media shouldn’t exist at all – and I understand your position – this isn’t for you.  But if you’re interested or concerned about the future of religious media, I’d love to know what you think of Mary’s points:

— To air a Christian TV program, someone has to pay for it.  I remember back in the early 80s, a well-known television preacher explained to the crowd that they needed to send a gift if they enjoyed the broadcast.  “Water is free.  But you have to pay to have it piped into your homes,” he explained.

And so the Christian culture embraced giving to support their personal favorites.  Need a healing? Sow a seed with Oral Roberts.  Want to be told to walk the straight and narrow?  Jimmy Swaggart was where you sent your gift.  Want “Christian entertainment” —guests and music and banter?  That would be Jim and Tammy Bakker.  The programs were designed to meet the needs of the people paying for them.

Today, things are changing.  There are fewer older folks to support Jim, Jimmy and Oral.  The next generation—baby boomers—isn’t comprised of stay-at-home moms who channel surf across three channels from soap operas and game shows to their favorite preacher.
We as baby boomers have 200 channels on TV—not to mention the web—and we barely have time for a handful of choice programs during the week.

Most people in my generation are less concerned about souls and more concerned about the hungry.  Even so, it is easier to raise support for starving puppies than it is for starving babies.  Getting my generation to watch Christian television is a much greater challenge.

And here is the real issue—we are already paying over $100 per month for cable.  We don’t feel we need to “pay again” for what we watch.  Of course, we will spend the $4 for a pay-per-view movie that was on the big screen a few weeks ago, but it ends there.  Money is tight.  Time is tighter.  So where does that leave Christian media?  Many signs point to this being a highly creative generation.  They have tools to enable them to produce better, cheaper, and even faster.

So what does this have to do with the church or with Christian media?

In a few years, everything.  This generation will not only need to produce the Christian media that will be the next wave of evangelism—perhaps the last great move of God—their peers also have to pay for it.  But will they?  Can they?  What will motivate them to do so?  They will never fall for the Jesus Junk our parents did.  They have no use for 47 versions of the Bible on their shelves.  (If the Bible is important to them, it’s on their iPod.)

Phil and others here talk a lot about what Christian media needs as it moves forward—and I agree with all of it.  My question is this—who will pay for it?  What will it take to get the boomers like me to give?  And harder still, what will move the next generation to give?

I would love to see some creative ideas from people in their 50s, their 40s, their 30s and yes, their 20s.  I would like to hear what it will take for you to send some hard-earned money so creative people can develop great Christian media that changes lives.

Mary Hutchinson
Inspired Direct, LLC
60 Main Street, Suite 320
Nashua, NH 03060

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  1. This is why Zondervan recently paid US$4 Million for the Internet Site at Mars Hill.  Free Web casting is the way to go.  End of story. 


  2. American Idol shows us every year what people want with their "Idol pays back" endeavor. Most third world experts will tell you that the last thing people need are mosquito nets but Idol has found a way to tell us that this is a great cause to get behind and that by doing so we are saving peoples lives. It is working and they have taken money out of the hands of ministries by simply being smarter and taking advantage of the large stage they have to distribute their message.

    Phil and I have been pushing text messaging and now Twitter to churches for years but the church can’t see the value of it. Idol has no doubts about how this generation wants to communicate and what they will support.

    I don’t think the question is, "who will fund it"?, I think it is, "why will they want to fund it"?

  3. I’m a proponent of what Bill Cunningham calls the “Pulp” philosophy.  It’s a kind of combination of “know thy audience” and “get it done”.

    My personal plan as an up and coming web content producer is to create material that is highly targeted- but not always directly targeted towards the religious.  The goal for me as someone who grew up with, and understands the science fiction and fantasy crowd is to create content that is very good sci-fi and/or fantasy, but which also has the gospel embedded in it somewhere.  And not only to present the gospel, but to also have something to say about the Christian life to seasoned believers who may see it.

    Its a complex order to place on myself as a writer, but it sets up a sort of “three quadrant” mandate for myself when I set out to do something religious – something others involved in the general Hollywood culture might find amusingly familiar.  Sometimes I might produce something that isn’t particularly religious, but I will always return to making things that flow from the truths of Christ around which my life orbits.  And hopefully, it’ll show up in the work regardless.

    Will it work?  We’ll see.  BUT, I think that religious content producers need to pay attention to the fallout from the writer’s strike and the race to see if the web is profitable.  It’s true – the water’s free, but it’s gotta get from A to B somehow and the pipes ain’t free.  I think Christians working with media should try and get a spot at the front of the movement to figure out this new distribution model for the web.  A highly targeted short film can pack a lot of punch, and if you price it at .99 you might get people to buy a digital copy that they might not have spent any more money on in another format.  But the message goes out, and it is inexpensive so you might just make your money back and then some to put towards The Next Project.

    It’s worth thinking about.  There are some big name folks out there who are also trying to figure this stuff out, and the discussion seems to continally come back to knowing your target audience from the beginning and going after them whole-heartedly.  That’s kind of a built-in part of Christian media anyway.

  4. I would not pay for Christian television under an "entertainment" business model unless the content was entertaining. 99% of Christian content bores me to tears.

    I would not pay for Christian television under an "advertising" business model unless you can prove to me that the resources invested accomplish more for the kingdom of God (specifically the local church) than the opportunity cost of those funds invested elsewhere.

    Demonstrate that, and we can begin a sensible dialogue. Anything else is a money pit, and any fool can waste money. It takes a wise person to invest it.

  5. Truett…dead on. I find myself sitting in my local church asking that very question each and every Sunday. My church is a "missions" church. We take a second offering each Sunday for a missions cause, sometimes global, sometimes local. You might think I’m compelled to put at least a dollar into the plate as it passes me by each Sunday. I’m not. I ask the simple question "why should I give to this?" It’s NOT because my pastor says I should. I better be compelled to give. If not, I know that offering plate will go by me again next Sunday with another opportunity.

    My tithe is my tithe. Done deal there. But my offering? I WANT to give it away….to bless others. But I also want it to be put to good use. And for me to feel like that is going to happen…it takes more than a personal relationship. It takes proof of performance.

    For those pushing Christian television, I’m sorry. But having X number of stations in Y number of countries isn’t proof of performance. The product put on your network and how it impacts lives…and whether or not I’d suggest my co-worker tune in….(you get the idea).

    Truett….TRUER words…" I don’t think the question is, "who will fund it"?, I think it is, "why will they want to fund it"?"……are rarely spoken.

  6. Several points:

    First, what makes "Christian Television" Christian?  Is this a definition driven by christian culture or is this a faith definition driven by the audience it is intended to reach?  It is by the way just as difficult to define "family entertainment?"  No one really knows what that is!

    Second, web content is  where gen X and Y are.  But there has to be an understanding of short form content.  Want a radical idea?  How about a 5 minute, visually enhanced sermon with space for interactivity?  Possibility that a church will actually do that?  0!

    Finally, unless we deal with the racism in our (Christian) culture we will NEVER reach the culture at large no matter how creative our programming is.  Why are churches 10 times more segregated than the neighborhoods in which they reside (People of the Dream – Michael Emerson)?  Why is 11 am on Sunday morning (NOW MORE THAN EVER) the most segregated hour of the week?  People in America do not see abortion and the sanctity of marriage as battle lines in a culture war.  They see a church that does not understand its own history and can’t make any new history because of it …

  7. The short answer is those people who are inspired by the Holy Spirit to give.  A lot of what we talk about is entertainment value, ideology, theology, technigues, technology, etc.  But in every generation, the Holy Sprirt inspires men and women to announce the good news of the Kingdom of God using the tools available to them.  From preaching at the river side or in the city square, to art work gracing giant cathedrals, to street performers, to writers, musicans, producers and directors, the good news is being made known and people are responding.  With grateful hearts those who have discovered the treasure in the field, the pearl of great price, are inspired by the Holy Spirit to give. 

  8. Relationship, relationship, relationship. Raising support for any worthwhile ministry requires relationship. The reason Oral Roberts and other TV evangelists were so successful is that viewers actually felt they had a relationship with the preacher. And if the mail answering system was personalized enough, that relationship was strengthened. But Christian television no longer offers that same level of personalization. Broken promises, misused funds, greater scrutiny have all contributed. But the fact remains that relationship is the key to strong funding support. Those who find ways to incorporate social media into true relationship building will come out ahead. It still comes down to trust. Those who engage donors truthfully,developing meaningful relationships through actual care for the needs of the donors, engage them in there work, provide a good return on investment (low fundraising and admin costs)and report back to donors faithfully on the result of their giving are going to win the battle.

  9. I would rather see fewer ministries on TV and more quality, creative programming. What about breaking out of the "Paid Programming" model and starting selling ad time?  I know this would not work on most christian networks but i think we need to starting thinking along those lines.  I’m sure sponsors would love to buy ad time on Joyce, Joel and some of the other biggies.  Id much rather watch a spot for detergent any day then watch a telethon or a money pitch.  

    Why not shoot in episodes rather then 52 to 260 shows a year? Im more likely to give to a ministry that is trying various creative ways to pay for itself then coming to me to flip the bill.  Thats my opinion.  

  10. Think of everything Christians do as products and services in a huge multi-national enterprise known as Yahweh, Inc. All the churches, books, music, TV, radio, Awana – all of it are the products created and distributed by Yahweh, Inc.

    In a robust economy, and when demand for the product is high, there’s plenty of capital and human resource to do just about anything you want. The company splits off satellite units to spread news about the great benefits of using Yahweh, Inc products and service. Everyone does well.

    Come ahead a few dozen years and the economy has tanked. People who were buying the Yahweh, Inc products are not as interested, or perhaps they’ve moved on to products offered by competitors. Many of them have taken the products for granted because they’ve always been around. For whatever reason, Yahweh, Inc begins to see a marked decline in interest. Sales plummet, public surveys show a drop in future demand.

    When faced with a similar situation, one of the first questions that needs to be asked is: If we stopped doing something, what would the impact be? 

     General Motors is facing the exact same dilemma and they’ve decided to stop making certain cars. The idea being that NO ONE WILL MISS the car models they’re dropping.

    So the question is – how much Christian media could go away before anyone noticed? Isn’t a majority of the current media redundant and kept on the air because of pride or tradition? Folks will support relevance, they always have.

  11. There is a great discussion going on here. I appreciate the honesty and thoughtfulness everyone is bringing to the table..

    The good news (or bad news) is that this conversation is happening all throughout media (not just Christian). Paste Magazine announced to its audience a few weeks ago that it was in danger of shutting down unless people donated. To excite people to donate, they partnered with over 75 artists they have promoted and written about over the years to give away rare tracks of their music. Whether you donated $20 or $200 you received 75 new mp3s. A brilliant idea. 

    The undoubtable truth is that millenials simply will not associate any form of entertainment branded as Christian..especially the more they hear them talk about money. As a personal example, I am more likely to donate to a church I frequently attend in LA called Mosaic than a television ministry. I’m more inclined to do this because I know the sacrifices Mosaic make choosing to do church in the heart of downtown rather than suburbian outskirts, ministering to young,  unemployed, struggling artists, filmmakers, and musicians, as well as their passion to  restore people and cultures …whether in their neighborhood or in Uganda. All this I know because I see it unfolding in the life of this church (which happens to be very media driven), but I can count on one hand how many times I’ve heard them ask for money.


  12. For me to pay for something it would have to have some perceived value for me. Enlightenment, entertainment…something. Nothing I find on religious TV does that. For the most part it has degenerated to phony-haired, prosperity gospel heresy spewing hucksters. With webcasters like LifeChurch.tv and streaming media places like OnePlace.com, why would I pay to support low quality stuff that gives unbelievers another reason to laugh at us?

  13. Just a note to Phil to say, "Thank you" for providing a place to have these kinds of discussions. Without your dedication to Christian Media the world would be a much less interesting place.

  14. As the President and fundraiser for a major broadcast ministry, Mary’s insight is both intriguing and disturbing. I’ve been involved in Christian media for over 32 years and have never seen the donor climate change so quickly and dramatically as it has in the past decade. The "Golden Age of Giving" is rapidly giving way to "selective investments" in ministry projects. No longer is there a relationship necessary. Giving has become result-oriented. I know of a very wealthy individual who has never given a dime to religious broadcast ministries, but gives unbelievable amounts to local churches who are reaching people in their own communities. People today are not interested in "reaching the world." They want to reach the person next door, and will give gladly when their gifts become more than a transaction, but becomes an immediately-gratifing result-oriented investment in something their hearts resonate with. Figuring what that is will be a broadcast ministry’s greatest challenge!

  15. Great comments — but I do feel many are painting the next generation with the sins of the past.

    There is new talent coming up the ranks.  They have creative ideas and tools we "old folks" never dreamed of.  And they have a passion to reach the world for Christ with media.

     But they don’t have the money to produce on their own–and they will be entering a culture of "everything is free on the web."

    Where are the great ideas to help fund this?  It does need to be funded! (In my humble opinion.) 

  16. Mary,

    I think your right on, but the new talent has to look at people to invest in their idea just as any other business venture. They have to cast the vision, show us a little glimpse of the idea, and if peolpe see the relevence and how it can help, they will invest in it. Nowadays people want to see an quick return on investment. Whether it’s in ministry or a financial investment.

    Phil could spotlight a new idea each week on this website and give people an opportunity to give to that idea.

  17. So shall they fear the name of the Lord from the west , and his glory from the rising of the sun . When the enemy comes in like a flood , the spirit of the Lord shall lift up a standard against him . ISAIAH 59:19

    I personally challenge this generation to raise up a standard for Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Media . We must build a family of the best Christians in the media industry and concentrate our prayers , resources ,and efforts at total victory over our enemy who has dominated the industry because of our division . As we move forward and take possession of all that Jesus has already won for us , let us embrace our brothers and sisters who don’t yet know Our Lord Jesus and invite them to join our family and sit down together with us at the table that Jesus has prepared for us . Let us use our creative talents and abilities with the help of the Holy Spirit to Honor Our Lord Jesus and inspire generations to come with all that we create together. Let us call upon our brothers and sisters outsde of the industry to support us with prayer , sacrifice , and encouragement . We must begin NOW! 

      Please Lord Jesus bless us as we come together and embark on this great voyage with you. In Jesus’s name I pray . Amen .   

  18. Mary –

    I’m concerned with the premise of paying for Christian Television.  I think it presents a paradigm that runs counter to current trends.  Your comment about an “everything is free on the web” culture is more telling.

    Christian media ministries need to take bigger steps in embracing the narrowcasting of the web rather than strategic planning for less effective broadcasting initiatives.  In the words of Seth Godin, we’ve been paying for “interruption” media hoping that someone will suddenly see the light while they are flipping channels.  We lost that battle when people could program the TV to skip channels.

    Instead, we’re correctly talking about creating stories, creating content that actually ministers and even content people would actually “pay” to get otherwise.  But we’re missing the fact that it probably means another medium.

    Already, a number of Christian radio stations have shrinking listenership because their audience is literally dying off.  So what’s happening, radio ministries are going on line, attracting an engaged listener who is actively pursuing their content.

    And I’ve seen the streaming bills of major ministries – it isn’t cheap.  But the accepted “free on the web” model hasn’t been adopted by ministries.  We decide to stand on principle, that no one actually holds us to, in order to shun any type of advertising.  "We can’t have Thomas Nelson as a sponsor of our site because you know they published that one book that sort of contradicts our teaching."  "We didn’t like The Shack!" Christian publishers, Christian websites and Christian anything would love to pay you money to advertise to your visitors who are key targets for their demographics.

    Or provide a lot of free content and do a decent job of actually promoting and selling your products.  I appreciate that John Hagee has his prayer partners selling product.  While everyone was pointing fingers and thinking how dare he, they were getting additional ministry resources to those who needed it!  I’ve always been shocked that those who put the most stringent expectations on ministries or themselves and other Christian outlets!

    The age of the average television watcher continues to get older and older.  Why not be early adopters and make the change to online now?

  19. This is a great conversation. Thanks Phil for facilitating it. 

    Questions for the room.

    What would this *new* type of content look like to you?

    Would Christianity be the focus, or would it be about something different? 

    What qualifies as "entertaining?"


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