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The Death of Christian Media

We have created a phenomenal subculture with our own media, entertainment, educational system, and political hierarchy so that we have the sense that we’re doing a lot. But what we’ve really done is create a ghetto that is easily dismissed by the rest of society. – Bob Briner, Roaring Lambs

I travel about 150,000 miles a year. I know it’s nuts, but hey, I have to keep the lights on somehow. The other day, I landed in another one of a million cities on another one of a million trips, and as the wheels touched the runway, I routinely reached for my iPhone. I had just been at 30,000 feet, jetting across America at about 600 miles per hour, and now, seconds after touching down, my 3G network was downloading e-mails, texts, and phone messages. It was simultaneously updating my Twitter posts and Facebook account. At the same time, it started downloading the rough cut of a TV commercial I needed to approve.

I remembered back to earlier in my career when I led a crew that took one of the first “portable” video cameras to the headwaters of the Amazon River in Brazil. (I say “portable,” but it was larger than most studio cameras today.)

It was about 1979, and after landing in a major Brazilian city halfway up the river, then renting a light plane for a 5 hour trip, then chartering a river freighter for a couple of days, my crew and equipment finally reached our destination by canoe.

We were deep in the jungle for six weeks—no letters and no phone. I wanted to send an e-mail, but it hadn’t been invented yet. Although newly married, I was unable to talk to my wife Kathleen for more than a month. If a nuclear blast had gone off somewhere in the world, I would have never known about it. I was in as remote a place as anywhere on the planet.

Thirty years later, sitting on an airplane runway, I realized just how far we’ve come.

It’s More than Technology

Ultimately, it’s not just about changing technology. It’s about how that change impacts behavior. My book, The Last TV Evangelist: Why the Next Generation Couldn’t Care Less About Religious Media, is built on one principle: We’re undergoing the most significant shift in our history since the invention of the printing press. But it’s not just about being able to watch a movie on your mobile phone or have a Facebook page—it’s about changing the fundamental way we communicate.

That communication shift has massive implications for how we share our faith with the culture.

It Has Already Happened in Music

In the July/August 2008 issue of this magazine, editor Scott McClellan wrote a feature story based on music producer Charlie Peacock’s assessment that the Christian music industry is dying.

The five most important issues Peacock put forward were:

  1. The major labels aren’t in danger of going under anytime soon, but they’ll be forced to depend on dwindling revenue from their song catalogs.
  2. The term CCM, or Christian Contemporary Music, will go away.
  3. Christian music that matters won’t have any affiliation with the Christian music industry but instead will be written, recorded, and released in the mainstream.
  4. Worship music serves a purpose within the Church, which guarantees its survival.
  5. The big names from CCM’s glory days (Michael W. Smith, Amy Grant, Steven Curtis Chapman, etc.) will survive, but many artists from the last decade will be left looking for a reason, roaming through the night to find their place in the world.

While, as Scott stated, the charges aren’t exactly blasphemy, they did set off quite a controversy throughout the Christian music industry.

David Sessions, editor of Patrol, an online music and media magazine (patrolmag.com) agreed: “The best thing that can happen is for people to forget entirely that they once specified whether their music was ‘Christian’ or ‘mainstream.’ That divide has been the single most damaging idea to Christianity in the modern world.”

Peacock echoed that indictment: “Anyone who has studied CCM knows that it’s frontloaded with a very specious strategy—that is, the creation of a youth-oriented music to counteract the undesirable youth-oriented music of the culture at large. [That strategy] probably looked righteous in the beginning but proved very flawed.”

Collide covered both sides of the issue, but the article does point to a deep divide in the world of Christian music. Should it continue to exist as a niche industry? Should Christians move more into mainstream music? Can the business model hold up? Should it?

In a feature story in Christianity Today magazine on the issue, music marketing consultant Mark Joseph pointed out:

“…The real question is, why should bands have to follow such a circuitous path in order to be in a position to be heard by the mainstream music culture? And for bands like Mute Math who do follow that path, it’s counterproductive to then be marketed as a Christian band. Think of it this way: Would a plumber advertise himself as a ‘Christian plumber’ if he wanted to serve both believers and non-believers? Perhaps, but then, many non-Christians with clogged toilets might not hire him because of that designation. But if he simply presents himself as a ‘plumber’—still intending to do a great job and prepared to discuss his faith with any interested clients—he’s likely to get more business, earn a better living, and interact with more non-believers. Using ‘Christian’ as an adjective— whether you’re a plumber or a musician—is little more than a weapon, used to beat back people who might otherwise be interested in the service or product offered, but upon hearing that it is ‘Christian’ are no longer interested.”

Joseph’s position is that it’s ultimately not a question of content, but marketing:

“[Christian music] labels need to understand that strong statements of faith, when combined with attractive and interesting music, are not automatic disqualifiers for consideration among non-Christian Americans – provided that the marketing and labeling doesn’t frighten them away before being heard. When that happens, they’ll have an opportunity to change the way they do business. When they learn to develop and market artists to both those who share their faith and those who don’t, functioning as ordinary labels that are part of the mainstream music business, they will eventually realize unprecedented profits—and create a positive environment for bands like MuteMath. When and if that happens, these artists will no longer be put in the position of feeling that they need to sue their labels or leave them. And the labels, instead of standing in the way of artists fulfilling the Great Commission, can instead partner with them in winning a hearing for a generation of talented, and devout, artists.”

Popping the Bubble

The music industry was blindsided by the shift. Now the question is how will Christian producers, filmmakers, and programmers respond to a similar shift in visual media?

On my cable system in Los Angeles, we have multiple sports, home improvement, beauty, shopping, movie, and even gay channels. So why shouldn’t there be a “Christian” channel? Fair enough. But while I believe there will always be a market for niche programming, I also have a problem with people who live 24/7 in what I call the “Christian Bubble”—which simply means people who live deep inside the influence of Christian radio, publishing, TV, or music. For an earlier generation, people of faith actually interacted with the surrounding culture. But 30 or 40 years ago, when we noticed the Christian audience was a buying audience, we stopped preaching to the world and started preaching to each other. As a result, now we have entire industries built around “Christian” radio, television, publishing, or recording.

Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. The problem happens when Christian media becomes our only source of influence. I have friends who only buy Christian music, watch Christian TV, or listen to Christian radio. They’d rather watch a poorly produced Christian movie than a really well made secular film.

So what’s the problem? People are free to enjoy whatever they want, right? The problem with living “in the bubble” is that we stop doing what Jesus called us to do. The Great Commission is about going into all the world, not just the Christian media world.

There’s no question that traditional Christian media is at death’s door. The telethons, “Jesus Junk,” wacky product offers, bad hair, and tacky furniture are as out of date as a mullet haircut. I’ve personally seen the panic as some of these classic radio and TV ministries begin to realize the light at the end of the tunnel is actually the headlight of an oncoming train.

But the truth is, our cry may ultimately be, “The king is dead, long live the king.” Christian media as we know it is dead, but a new form is rising.

A new generation of filmmakers, producers, and online content creators are radically reshaping how we express our faith through media. They will speak not to an audience that asks, “What’s in it for me?” but an audience that wants to make a real difference in the world.

This generation of communicators is working in the back rooms of churches, in garages, and in places you’d never expect. They have a message, and they want to shape their own story. They’re being led by innovative pastors who now have movie deals with secular studios, social media mavens, and documentary filmmakers more interested in telling the story of global poverty than preaching the prosperity gospel. There’s also a new breed that understands the power of hyphens, who divide their work between the Christian and secular worlds. For my part, I own a production and consulting company that helps churches and ministries engage the culture through media as well as being a partner in a secular TV commercial company that produces Super Bowl spots.

Are you consumers or real participants? — Graffiti on the Sorbonne, Paris, 1968

Be encouraged. The coming media revolution won’t stop the message; and for those watching the signs, it can help advance the message. But from this point on, how we choose to connect with the culture will make a dramatic difference in the effectiveness of our mission.

The new media generation is about stories and conversations, not sermons and lectures. It’s about popping the bubble of religious media and embracing the secular audience. To impact the culture, we need to engage, not boycott or criticize.

I’m calling Christian communicators to a movement. A revolution that will change the way we create media and engage the culture.

Christian media is dead. Long live Christian media. 

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Phil Cooke, Ph.D, is a filmmaker, media consultant, and founder of Cooke Media Group in Los Angeles, California. His latest book is “Ideas on a Deadline: How to Be Creative When the Clock is Ticking." Find out more at philcooke.com.