At COLLIDE, we’re all about churches using media … when it’s helpful and appropriate. Sadly, there are certain uses of media that are neither helpful nor appropriate (in my opinion, anyway). If you happen to find yourself using media in a way that’s unhelpful or inappropriate, keep reading. I’m going to do my best to convince you to stop.
Stop using media when you have nothing to say.
In Acts 4, Peter and John were seized by religious authorities, jailed, and brought before the Sanhedrin. The rulers and teachers of the Law wanted an explanation for how Peter and John healed a crippled beggar. Peter, full of the Spirit, told them about Jesus, whom the religious leaders crucified but whom God resurrected. Naturally, the Sanhedrin wanted to discredit Peter and John’s message, but Luke notes there wasn’t much they could say because the formerly crippled beggar was standing there with them. Yes, the beggar was present, and he was standing.
After conferring among themselves (as religious committees are known to do) the Sanhedrin decided to instruct Peter and John to no longer speak or teach in the name of Jesus. I love how Acts 4:19-20 articulates the apostles’ reaction:
“But Peter and John replied, ‘Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.’”
Peter and John weren’t speaking to be cool. They weren’t preaching to be perceived as missional or attractional. They weren’t teaching to justify their salaries. They weren’t communicating to earn the favor of God or men. They weren’t speaking to be seen and heard; they were speaking about what they’d seen and heard.
What had they seen and heard? The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The miracles, signs, and wonders. The beauty of the gospel. The power of the Spirit. The transformation of lives yielded to and redeemed by God. Peter and John had seen all of it, and they could not help but speak about it. They had a story to tell and, come hell or high water, they were going to tell it. They had to. They couldn’t help it. They had experienced God Almighty, and they would not, could not. be silent. That, my friends, is a place from which we should use media: when we have a story we can’t help but tell.
If you lack that sense of conviction about the message you’re communicating with media—if your story can wait—it’s time to put down the media and do something about it. Seek an encounter with God Almighty, seek an experience in which you see and hear things that are truly transformational. Then, pick up your pen and paper, open up your laptop, sign into your blogging client, put a fresh battery in your video camera, launch Photoshop, or do whatever it is you do to communicate, because you’ll have an urgent story to tell.
Until then, stop using media. The lack of conviction with which your media is created (or purchased) and presented may transfer to your audience, or fail to transfer anything at all. Even worse, you’ll be under the impression that you’ve done your job for the week, and your audience will be under the impression that what they just sat through is what they can expect from an authentic worship experience. For what it’s worth, I think you’d both be wrong.
Stop using media if condemnation is the best you can do.
Several months ago, Ryan Jarrell (our graphic designer) sent me a picture he saw on Facebook. It featured the back of an SUV decaled with the following sentiments in cute bubble letters:
“Are you having SEX and un-married [sic]? STOP. Fornication is sin. Sin leads to Death. Hell is a real place. Repent. JESUS will forgive, only if you stop. You have been warned …”
Also included were several Scripture references just in case a passing motorist had the opportunity to jot down those references and look them up later. And before you start in on me—no, I’m not pro-fornication. And no, I’m not against teaching on sin and its wages. What I am against is drive-by condemnation, bumper sticker evangelism, and half-hearted attempts at being set apart that involve slogans or bubble letters.
Stop using media—whether it be of the digital or stick-on variety—to try to convict people of sin. I’m not so sure that’s our job. Start using media to tell people about the grace of God through Jesus Christ. (Sin is part of that conversation, but sin is not where it starts or where it ends.) Start using media to tell people how much God loves them and desires a relationship with them, regardless of their sexual history. Oh, and one last thing: Please don’t use media on the freeway or at a stoplight. It could be a safety hazard.
Stop using media if you’re just trying to impress people.
Trying to impress people is an incredibly difficult proposition in the long run. On top of that, it’s not our calling, but let’s focus on the difficulty first.
Let’s think about how difficult it is for you, the church leader to impress the people that darken your doorways on Sunday mornings or some night during the week. First of all, unless you’re a megachurch with a serious budget, there’s probably a church in your area that is more visually dazzling and better acoustically-engineered than your church. They probably have more staff and better equipment than your church, so their media will typically be more “impressive” (at least on the surface). To compete with them (red flag!) and impress the people who are drawn to that church instead of yours (another red flag!), you’ll need to increase the resources you dedicate to “impressive” stuff such as glossy print pieces, Hollywood-esque sermon teaser videos, and flat screen TVs in the bathrooms.
If you manage to acquire the funds for all those things and create something genuinely impressive, a church across town will just raise their game accordingly and outdo you the next Sunday. D’oh.
Now, let’s imagine that your church is the most “impressive” church in your metro area, and you can maintain your king-of-the-mountain status. Guess what? The secular world has the means and motivation to make your operation look rinky-dink. The people you’ve been impressing will go see Avatar, Hannah Montana, or U2 in 3D and wonder why your services are so flat and bland. They’ll go see The Dark Knight in an IMAX theater and wonder why your videos are so ordinary and why their bones don’t chatter when your band is onstage. They’ll go to a Nine Inch Nails concert and wonder why your live experience is so 2005.
See, James Cameron, U2, Hannah, Christopher Nolan, and Trent Reznor want all the entertainment dollars your city has to offer, and they’re willing to pull out all the stops to get them. They’re willing to play the “impress” game, one-upping each other month after month, year after year as the crowds (and dollars) flock to whatever is the most impressive at the moment. And that’s all well and good for them. That’s the capitalist system we live in. But that’s not all well and good for the local church.
We don’t exist to compete for ADD-addled eyeballs and entertainment dollars. We don’t exist to win the “impress” race (hint: it’s a race that never ends, which means it can’t be won). We exist to facilitate the connection of people to God and each other. The last time I checked, the most impressive laser light show on earth couldn’t accomplish that purpose.
If you feel yourself caught up in a never-ending quest to impress people, consider putting all of your media toys back in the toy box. Then, only pull out the ones that honest-to-goodness help you connect people with God and others. The result might not be impressive, but it might be effective.
Stop using media when you think you can’t communicate without it.
Some people think that in order to communicate with our media-addicted world we have to use electronic media. We have to speak their language, and their language consists of Bruckheimer-esque explosions, guitar amps cranked to 11, and a never-ending barrage of visuals. Friends, that just isn’t true. Video, music, lighting, and projection are wonderful tools for communicating truth, but please don’t buy into the deception that they are requisite for communicating truth.
Is a church or ministry without a dedicated creative arts team dead in the water? Absolutely not. What about a youth ministry without a projector or an array of screens; is it destined to fail in reaching young people? Nope. How about a sanctuary without a sound system or lighting rig; is it foolish to think truth could be effectively communicated in that room? Not at all.
But we often think (and approach ministry) that way, even if we’re not ready to admit it. Want to reach young people? You’d better score some flat screens, some PS3s, and a rockin’ band. Want to reach influential, tech-savvy adults? Your videos better feature Hollywood production value, and your band better cover a Coldplay song. Please.
Deep down, people want meaningful truth, and they want to understand what that truth means for them. Teach them with words, images, relationships, and community. Teach them with love, grace, and authenticity. As an ambassador of Christ, you ought to be able to muster those things regardless of your media and technology budget. (And what if people want gadgetry and spectacle? Perhaps it’s your job to show them there are more important things in life and not to cater to their lust for entertainment.)
The next time you feel compelled to overhaul your media strategy and take it up a notch, consider going the other way. Consider taking it down a notch. Leave your projectors off, leave the electric guitars in their cases, and save that intense media presentation for another day. See if you can still communicate spiritual truth to the people gathered at your church without burning kilowatts like Clark Griswold in Christmas Vacation. See if the Spirit of God can move independently of electronics as you proclaim truth.
Maybe you’ll find that electronic media is simply a tool among many in your toolbox rather than your only hope for reaching the inhabitants of the 21st century.
Stop using media if you’re all hot all the time.
Before you bail out on this article because this point sounds weird, let me explain. Last year, COLLIDE columnist John Dyer wrote a blog post (www.donteatthefruit.com) that applied Marshall McLuhan’s notion of “hot” and “cool” mediums to church communication and service programming through the examples of the Watchmen graphic novel and the Watchmen movie. Dyer writes:
“A comic is ‘cool’ because it requires a reader fill in the sounds, smells, and details of what happens between the panes. In contrast, a film is ‘hot’ because it completely envelopes a moviegoer’s senses and requires almost no participation or thought to grasp what’s happening. Similarly, a sketch is ‘cool’ because the viewer needs to fill in the details, while a photograph is ‘hot’ because it contains highly detailed information. An article in USA Today is ‘hot’ because the information is predigested and requires little thought, while T.S. Elliot’s poem ‘The Wasteland’ is ‘cool’ because the reader has to work hard to fully understand it.”
Dyer goes on to ask the big questions:
“So what about Sunday morning? Should the things we do on Sunday morning—music, Communion, preaching—be ‘hot’ like the Watchmen movie (highly defined, intense, requiring little participation) or ‘cool’ like the Watchmen graphic novel (more muted, requiring the congregant to think and process)? Some of both? A continuum? What helps people grow more deeply in their faith?”
It seems that a big temptation for those with the budget and the inspiration is to be as “hot” as humanly possible, as if to say, “Sit back and relax, folks. We’re going to put on an awesome God-show for you.” Noticeably absent in this approach is any sort of invitation into participation and connection with God and fellow worshipers.
Personally, I think “hot” elements are great. But in order to be most effective, they must be held in balance with “cool” elements. My guess is that experiences that are truly transformative tend to be both “hot” and “cool” and, as such, engage the senses, emotions, experiences, and minds of participants. So, stop using media if you’re all hot all the time.
Stop using media just because culture has passed you by.
There’s a major highway in Dallas that recently had its speed limit raised from 55 to 65 in some places and from 60 to 70 in others. The reasoning behind the change had nothing to do with public safety, traffic congestion, or urban planning. The reason for the change was the simple fact that people were already driving 65 or 70 (or higher) on that stretch of road. In other words, the local driving culture passed by the bureaucracy years ago, and so the powers-that-be took down their antiquated, irrelevant signs and posted some new ones. They hope the new signs will give people the perception that the bureaucracy isn’t out of touch with today’s driver. I can’t help but wonder how shiny the new signs will have to be to communicate to drivers who’ve already demonstrated a commitment to ignoring signs.
Consider our local churches. If you’re convinced that the culture at large has passed you by, you may be right. Unfortunately, using that conclusion as an impetus to dive headfirst into media and technology won’t do much to change your antiquated status. Jumping into electronic media because everyone else is already there is like pulling into a crowded parking lot simply because it’s crowded. You don’t know why the people are there or what kind of experience you’re in for—you just want to see what all the fuss is about. The result is a bunch of church leaders with no idea what they’re doing or why they’re doing it, and they end up accidentally furthering the antiquated and irrelevant labels. Sure, they’re expending resources and attempting to represent the Church, but they’re not doing any good.
“Because everyone else is already doing it!” is not a good enough reason to dive into media and technology. Find a better reason than that. Maybe it’s that you want to facilitate and organize a community conversation. Maybe it’s that you want to communicate with people outside the walls of the church. Maybe it’s that you want to equip your members with resources so they can share their faith and their stories with their friends and family. Or maybe it’s something else.
Whatever reason you come up with, be sure that it includes what you’re going to do and why you’re going to do it. Until you can articulate that plan with your heart and mind in the right place, stop using media. Of course, I could be wrong about this point or any of the others, in which case maybe I should stop using media.