Archive - April, 2006

Archive File

This is an archive file for possible future
uses.
The explosion of new media doesn’t necessarily
mean that the mainline should abandon traditional media. When I talked about
this with Jeffrey Buntin, Sr. of the Buntin Group, a large ad agency in
Nashville, he made an insightful observation. Perhaps it’s not traditional
media that is dead, but the <i>traditional uses</i> of media that
need to change. I think this is a helpful insight, not only for U.S. but also
for global audiences.<br /><br />

That Nasty Word, Marketing

The use of the word “marketing” continues to
be unacceptable to many in the mainline because they identify it with
manipulation and commercial exploitation.
(I am posting a series of thoughts on the disengagement of the mainline denominations from mainstream media over the past thirty years that results in the absence of the mainline voice from the public dialogue. This is the eleventh installment.)

By the year
2000…advertising
and public
relations will
no longer
be dirty words
for mainline
churches.
General Secretary
Roger L. Burgess
United Methodist
Communications
1990

Unfortunately, Roger, they still are. And so is marketing, and branding. The lack of strategic planning for integrated messaging takes shape in many ways. Research and strategic planning are sometimes denigrated as catering to the lowest common denominator, betraying a prophetic mission, or simply caving in to the whims of the audience.

There is a fundamental misunderstanding of marketing afoot inside mainline groups. Marketing and branding are viewed as manipulative tools of commerce lacking theological integrity. We have the gospel, I was told recently, we don’t need marketing or branding. However, marketing can be informed by the gospel. When conducted properly, marketing is a relationship built on listening, identification of needs and problem-solving.

David Wolfe (Ageless Marketing) says that the vision of marketers must change from being hucksters to healers. He tells marketers that the future will be disorder.

I would add that we are experiencing disorder as institutions don’t serve us well; government is unresponsive; politicians don’t lead; some religious folks behave scandalously; and some corporate executives are greedy beyond belief.

Wolfe says enlightened marketers today describe their role as “healers.” Rather than pitching unwanted goods or services they listen to their customers and offer solutions to the problems they identify. Sometimes, however, I think it’s futile to press this explanation on some mainline folks.

The use of the word “marketing” continues to be unacceptable to many because they identify it with manipulation and commercial exploitation. which are antithetical to the gospel. Too often, this results in messages that are not as relevant as they might be and not delivered in a focused, integrated way to greatest impact. This mutes the voice of the mainline.
I wish, for example, that instead of turning away from the country music audience the mainline denominations had addressed addictions, healthy family relationships, money management and civics for the common good from within the culture of the music instead of merely critiquing it and diminishing those who seek some relief in it and through it.

Open Hearts, Open Doors, A Church for Others

The promise of Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open
Doors takes on new meaning when it’s lived out by a church in a former communist
country that lives the promise by becoming a church for others–a church in
service to the poor, the imprisoned, the ill and the abandoned.

This is written from Varna, Bulgaria where I’m attending a meeting of the Connectional Table, a coordinating body of the global United Methodist Church. We just concluded an evening of remarkable music and storytelling about the church in Bulgaria.

For centuries Bulgarians have experienced occupation and oppression for more than a score of years. From 1948 to 1990 Bulgaria suffered under the yoke of communist rule and Bulgarian Christians had to go underground to survive. Building were confiscated and property appropriated. Worship and public Bible study put people at great risk. Individual Christians were imprisoned, and no doubt, some were killed.

There were so many moving stories and musical performances tonight in The United Methodist Church building in Varna that I must to think about them before writing in order to do them justice.

But one small moment stood out for me. Our host Bedros Altinun explained that during the cold, hard winter of 2006, the church in downtown Varna offered warm shelter and hot food for the city’s poor in a land that knows poverty. (I was told unemployment runs as high as forty percent in some places.) Throughout the cold winter the church provided hot food and warm shelter for those who had neither.

“We are a church for others,” Bedros said.

These people who have themselves known what it’s like to be set aside, abused and punished for their faith are now expressing their faith by reaching out to those set aside, abused and suffering in the land that so recently abused them.

And then he said, “We are a people of open hearts and open doors.”

For those readers who don’t know this promise, it is the promise of the people of The United Methodist Church made through a media initiative about how newcomers are welcomed in local congregations in the United States. A promise. Not a catchy slogan, nor a tagline, nor a media gimmick. It’s a church going into the world and inviting those who are hungry to come and eat, and those who are cold to come and warm themselves. It’s the way we should welcome every person as an inclusive community.

The profound theological content of this promise was never more clear to me than on this night.

It’s My Turf, Get Off Of It!

Turf gets in the way of collaborative media
production. Turf protection is self-defeating.
(I am posting a series of thoughts on the disengagement of the mainline denominations from mainstream media over the past thirty years that results in the absence of the mainline voice from the public dialogue. This is the tenth installment.)

My experience as a communications officer at an international agency in this era (1980-1990) led me to conclude that turf issues also undermined effectiveness. An organization in decline moves into a regulatory and control phase that is more than stultifying, it is self-defeating.

Communications policies in the organization where I worked were not about externalizing information for the good of the audience. They were designed to control and restrict the flow of information, primarily because this was perceived as necessary for survival.

In the absence of an integrated, strategic plan, turf battles occurred over who could release information and about what could be released. This was essentially a defensive, reactive posture to the media and internally it was about control.

But even then new media were breaking down the gatekeeping function. Others, using various media quite effectively addressed our core audiences, often describing us inaccurately and misleadingly. We lost control of our own messaging. If you don’t tell your own story, someone else will, and you may not like the telling.

Secondly, the tendency has been to see the media primarily as a means for advocacy. Advocacy is a critical function but it deserves a more considered and careful approach than it gets, especially in the present environment. To advocate for the poor and disenfranchised, as in the recent immigration demonstrations, is essential and appropriate. It deserves a proactive, strategic approach.

As we seek to understand the teachings of Jesus and follow in the Way of those teachings, the mainline can frame ideas and support important interpretations of faith–the earth is created of God and we are commended to tend it with care, the people of the earth are a global community challenged to overcome mortal enmity, each person is a child of God and everyone should get a fair shake in the global economy, we should care for all children and provide them with education and health care to grow in mind and body.
We believe that followers of Jesus are called to live compassionately, for justice and in service. We believe the world is God’s Creation and, therefore, a good place, and that life is given to us as a gift to be lived with meaning and purpose. We believe that science and theology are complementary rather than mutually incompatible (The Book of Discipline, The United Methodist Church, para. 160. E) and, therefore, we don’t have to check our minds at the door of the church.

These are but a few, and they aren’t radical and limiting, they are inclusive and expansive. That’s the strength of mainline religious communities, they call us to stand with each other, and for each other. They teach us that there is a common good. They have much that is appealing when they articulate these propositions in a way that makes them understandable and inviting. But unless we all want to go down together, we can’t continue to say internally or externally, “It’s my turf, get off of it!”

Why The Mainline Can’t Rock And Roll

The mainline is not able to produce media
because it is institutionally and systemically not organized to make creative
media.
(I am posting a series of thoughts on the disengagement of the mainline denominations from mainstream media over the past thirty years that results in the absence of the mainline voice from the public dialogue. This is the ninth installment.)

The article in The Nation by Dan Wakefield notes a lack of consistent, integrated communications planning among mainline groups.

Stewart Hoover writes that denominations are structurally and institutionally bound by constraints that inhibit media production.

1. Production is a creative process, it cannot be done by committee, but this is precisely how denominations make, or defer, decisions.

2.
Production requires money. Denominations have looked at communications as optional. Production expenses often are considered excessive. Hoover says when they do move forward, it’s common for mainline denominations to load expectations “far beyond the wildest fantasies of commercial advertisers and producers,” and experience great disappointment when they are not met. It’s a set-up for demoralization and defeat.

3. He also contends that in the 1980s the mainline denominations lacked a clear purpose for their broadcasting activities. Was it to create awareness? Evangelism? Advocacy?

4. Equally problematic, they lacked clarity about the audience. Should they try to please their current constituency who pay the bills, and those leaders who make the decisions, or attempt to reach those uncommitted and unaffiliated?

Why can’t the mainline rock and roll? We don’t want lead singers in the band. We want everyone to sing backup harmony. When was the last time you bought a music CD to listen to the backup parts?
For these and other reasons, it’s a challenge to get the mainline voice into the public dialogue through media. It’s easier to produce bulletin inserts.

They Warned Us, But We Didn’t Listen

There were mainline leaders who cautioned
against withdrawing from the media, but they were not listened
to.
(I am posting a series of thoughts on the disengagement of the mainline denominations from mainstream media over the past thirty years that results in the absence of the mainline voice from the public dialogue. This is the eighth installment.)

There were leaders who cautioned against this withdrawal. Among them were Dr. William F. Fore, associate general secretary of the Communications Commission of the National Council of Churches and an internationally-recognized analyst and producer. His byline often appeared in TV Guide, at that time the major publication covering broadcast television for mass readership. Dr. Everett C. Parker of the United Church of Christ was a tireless, effective public policy advocate for an open, inclusive media, winning as often as losing his challenges to the Federal Communications Commission.

The Rev. Dennis Benson, who continues to produce for radio, said in 1990, “The future media terrain will feature life which is both radically different and very much the same. Huge technological and social shifts will flood every person?s life. The present church?s non-efficient building, awesome hierarchies dedicated to clergy and irrelevant worship and programming will serve only a few or disappear entirely. A new Christian spirituality will replace today’s denominational religion. The intermix of omnipresent media, isolated individuals, and convulsing society will be transformed into fresh faith expressions by Jesus Christ for the age.”

His prediction is more than prescient. Much of it is right on target describing the current state of culture, spiritual search and religion.

But even with these acclaimed leaders, effective programs, and valiant misfires like VISN, the mainline retreat picked up steam. I’ll say why I believe this happened in the next post.

Burning Brightly and Flaming Out–The Once-Present Mainline

The mainline once burned brightly with media
efforts but then flamed out when funding did not sustain these
productions.
(I am posting a series of thoughts on the disengagement of the mainline denominations from mainstream media over the past thirty years that results in the absence of the mainline voice from the public dialogue. This is the seventh installment.)

The mainline had a presence in major media at the end of the 1960’s and into the seventies.

The Presbyterian Church hired the preeminent satirist Stan Freberg, son of a Baptist minister and one of the most creative minds ever to venture into radio, to produce a gentle, cutting edge spot needling people about attending worship. The Mennonite Church under the leadership of David Augsburger produced a series of radio spots about human relationships that garnered wide airplay and offered a humane and spiritual understanding of human interaction. The Methodist Church produced (prior to union with the Evangelical United Brethren which resulted in a name change to United Methodist), an award-winning national radio talk show that pioneered nationwide toll-free call-in. The show, Night Call, won significant national awards and demonstrated the viability of this untried format. It required the development of new equipment as well as programming. The church’s communications agency held sixteen patents related to the show. But it ran out of money and was dropped after a run of barely a year.

An ambitious attempt to operate the ecumenical Odyssey Channel, which became VISN, which became Faith and Values, outside the economic model of sponsored media was doomed from the start. Funds to run the network were never secure and the denominations, gutted by staff and program cutbacks, could not sustain quality programming. Odyssey and its successors proved conclusively that the mainline could not operate in the marketplace as it existed at the time. The funding model was unsustainable and the channel was eventually sold.

Like asteroids burning brightly and flaming out when they hit the atmosphere, these efforts marked highpoints in mainline engagement with media in the 70s and 80s, and equally important, they were among the last major efforts to sustain on-going national presence.

Only the Lonely

Broadcast religion cannot offer the depth
and multidimensional experience of faith communities in local
congregations.
(I am posting a series of thoughts on the disengagement of the mainline denominations from mainstream media over the past thirty years that results in the absence of the mainline voice from the public dialogue. This is the sixth installment.)

As the society began to move toward a more media-driven lifestyle, people also began to experience atomization (individual isolation) and dislocation. Dr. Stewart Hoover of the University of Colorado wrote in 1988, “Robert Bellah’s studies of contemporary meaning and values identify an anomie and thirst for communities of meaning even in ‘secularized’ classes and social groups.”

After the tumult of the sixties–civil rights, the war in Vietnam, student protests–many people felt their world and the values of the civil society were coming unglued. This was followed by layoffs and re-structuring in basic industries which evolved, in turn, into the de-industrialization of the U.S. economy. These were (and are) unsettling times.

Hoover says for some, a minority to be sure, the electronic church under the management of television evangelists served a unifying, stabilizing function even if it did not serve up community in the face-to-face traditional sense.

Thus, it’s unfortunate that as media were contributing to isolation and loss of community, the mainline denominations, whose strength is inclusive community and social justice, were withdrawing from public engagement. Whether intentional or not, the mainline churches handed the public dialogue, and the opportunities for ministry with various audiences, over to the most vociferous and pungent right-wing religious broadcasters.

Religious broadcasters may offer balm when people feel aggrieved but Hoover says they don’t offer community, at least not in the same direct, personal way of faith communities. The limits of the broadcast medium also limit the personal interaction that is a strength of faith communities in local congregations. Televised religion, by the nature of the medium, is not as multidimensional and personal.

Mainline denominations offer more. They offer a body of knowledge (faith and values) and face-to-face community with outlets for creative action. In a consumer society that reduces us to individual wants and needs, the mainline claim is that Christian faith is about more than being a mere consumer. Life can be more than the passive experience of disconnected individuals sitting in front of a flickering screen. The life of faith is an invitation to live fully and to engage with others. It’s about fullness and wholeness in community. It doesn’t have to be existing as if we are only the lonely.

The Sounds of Silence

The mainline denominations’ lack of presence
in the multi-media world today results in the sounds of
silence.
(I am posting a series of thoughts on the disengagement of the mainline denominations from mainstream media over the past thirty years that results in the absence of the mainline voice from the public dialogue. This is the fifth installment.)

Characterizing a mass audience as Joe Six-pack is a risky thing under any circumstances. As Stewart Hoover wrote in 1988 (Stewart M. Hoover, Mass Media Religion:The Social Sources of the Electronic Church), there is no mass audience with needs awaiting a mainstream message. There are target audiences. The mass audience, along with mainstream culture and mainline media, is fragmenting in the world of multiple media options.

I take it as a sign of hope that some in the mainline are recognizing how powerfully we are influenced by this media-driven culture. It is imperative that mainline groups participate in the marketplace of ideas, not merely for their own self-promotion, but for the good of the public dialogue and to represent the full range of thought that makes for a humane and just society.

The competition for people?s attention has escalated enormously with each new form of technology. The mainline was slow on the uptake to understand this, and perhaps doesn?t fully appreciate it even today. The challenge mainline denominations face today is to adapt to new forms of communicating with the attentiveness, care and skill necessary to reach target audiences, a challenge not unlike that faced by traditional, responsible evangelicals two decades ago. However, this is enormously more challenging today because we live in a world of unlimited media options.

Teens and young adults are using text messaging, iPods, Internet streaming and searches, email, websites such as MySpace.com, television, radio and music from a variety of places including CDs and DVDs. They are creating their own media.

Gen Y and Gen X are similarly using multiple media, but not as many as the younger generation. Boomers are media savvy and are on the Internet, cellphones and various digital media. Builders are less inclined toward media but many are, indeed, using email and broadband.

The issue of effective communication in this environment is multifaceted. Which media should carry what message? To whom? For what purpose? How does the sender pull the audience and not push a message? How does the message break through the clutter?

It?s also about understanding how these generations use media differently, and they certainly do use them in different ways for different purposes.

This world of amazing variety and congestion requires listening, understanding and translating messages into language that speaks to people where they live.

To do less or to ignore this complicated reality is to drop your messages into a dark hole from which nothing escapes but the sounds of silence.

Your Momma Don’t Dance and Your Daddy Don’t Rock and Roll

The reasons why mainline denominations don’t
produce compelling media.

There will be no more steel guitars and fiddles, if the people don?t know what they?re worth. It?s the last country tune beneath the last country moon for the last country people on earth. Tom T. Hall, Hallnote Music, BMI/Acuff-Rose Music

I was teaching a course on popular culture and the media at a United Methodist seminary in which we examined country music as a means to understand the concerns of working class people. I contend that this music, like most other music, illuminates audience concerns. The audience wouldn?t listen to it if this weren?t true.

In this seminary class a staff member responsible for mission programs from a national denomination expressed in clear, sharp language how she would not participate in a discussion of country music.

?It?s the music of the foot soldiers (blue collar, working folks who listen to the music on the radio) of the neo-Nazis. I will not waste my time with this,? she said.

She stood and made a dramatic departure.

The Last Country Song written in 1979 by Tom T. Hall, captured a haunting sense of decline among people who define themselves as ?country.?

It?s a powerful message concurrent with the decline of basic industries in the U.S., the rapid move from small towns to cities, and the decline of rural life, which is to say the loss of a whole culture and the de-valuing of those formed within it. To hear these lyrics is to hear of a people feeling forgotten, left out, and left behind.The tragedy he captures is their sense of loss of self-worth.

For a more contemporary version of these themes listen to (Happiness) Can?t Buy You Money, or Get Drunk and Be Somebody by Toby Keith on his newest release, White Trash With Money.

I?ve heard this audience characterized as Joe Six-pack and I?ve heard all the criticism of this music; some of it is misogynist, some chauvinist, some glorifies drunkenness, and a bunch of other negative themes. Not all of it, of course, but the music gets measured by its worst attributes and this makes it a difficult sell to suburbanized mainline folks.

The question is: who is best positioned to interact with this audience, provide useful information and understand the concerns that motivate them, one who is producing programming to reach them, or one who won?t even listen? How will we understand what?s beneath these behaviors, fears, frustrations and self-destruction?

My concern is that too many mainline leaders have considered the mass audiences the ?great unwashed.? I?ve heard this diminishing term used many times by folks who would gnash their teeth at racial or ethnic epithets. Joe Six-pack is a catch-all phrase that characterizes predominantly working class and blue collar folks.

For years, I fear, the mainline has sent a message, perhaps unintentionally, that it was not concerned about these folks, and worse, they ought not to rock and roll the way they do.

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