There are two things worth stating at the outset. Christian media is expensive. And most of it doesn’t work.
We want to reach the unreached. But we only support shows that reach ourselves.
Yes, we’ve all seen the marketing campaigns from media ministries and we’ve heard the sensational stories. And, of course, people who work in media are good at blowing our own horns and we have, by definition, a megaphone to do so. But here’s the deal. Most Christian media is made with one audience primarily in mind: donors.
Don’t believe me? Then flip on a big name Adventist TV show and watch. First, watch the program as an Adventist. Not bad, eh? There they are, a group of older guys in suits, giving out the message in a very comfortable, time worn manner. But now imagine you’re a non-Christian.
First think about the names of the shows. Imagine if secular TV kept regurgitating shows from the 50s like Lassie and Gunsmoke. How well would they connect with the modern audience? And yet, the biggest name Adventist media ministries are all making shows with names coined in the glorious but dusty past.
Then look at the design. I can’t remember the last time I saw an Adventist TV ministry that didn’t look like it was on a set from 30 years ago. Safe, secure, middle-class, suburban. And boring as mouldy bread.
Why so excessively safe? For that you have to understand the secret of fundraising. There is a giving curve. When people are young, they don’t have much to give. As they progress in their careers, disposable income increases—so giving potential goes up. But do you know where the real fundraising paydirt is? It’s the 55 years and older demographic. Why? Because many have paid off their mortgages and waved their kids off into the world. How do you get money from them? When it comes to media, you make the kind of media they are comfortable with. And so, we do.
But imagine you’re living in a city in the South Pacific. Imagine you’ve got aspirations to progress your life. You’re smart. You’re motivated. You’re connected with the modern world. What about any of our “legacy shows” comes close to connecting with you?
Well, that doesn’t matter, because the secular audience doesn’t fund the show—its primary audience, by necessity, is the 55+ Adventist couple who are in their best donor years.
And so it is to you, dear donor, that I write this column. Because how you decide to employ your resources makes all the difference. If you decide to invest in media that appeals to you, that is your right. But let’s not kid ourselves. When we do that, we aren’t giving to spread the message. What we’re giving to is creating media that makes us feel comfortable, and that we wish appealed to others. And yes, like collateral damage in war, there will be some impact on non-Adventists along the way. And those people will be highlighted in fundraising letters—implying the exception is the rule. It isn’t.
And if you don’t believe me, come and sit in my chair. Because I’ve written fundraising letters for an Adventist TV ministry. And every time I have, my first challenge is to find good stories. And what’s shocked me is how few good stories there are. Our legacy media ministries are proving successful at absorbing substantial resources, producing high quality fundraising materials, and reaching ourselves. What they are not excelling at is reaching our modern society in any substantial way. I wish it were otherwise, but it’s not.
Something has to change. We need a very different approach to media ministry. But we can’t fully do that. And you know why? Because Adventists only support the kind of shows Adventists like. Do you see the paradox? We want to reach the unreached. But we only support shows that reach ourselves. We can change that.
We need to give to reach the future, not replicate the past. We are desperate for new, fresh, engaging programming. God’s blessed us with a community brimming in talent and ideas. But the bulk of our donations are wrapped up supporting legacy programs aimed primarily at ourselves.
If we want to reach the world with media, we have to financially support innovative, faithful programming. Why? Because if there are enough of us who actually want to reach the unreached with media, we can do it. It’s up to us.
James Standish is Communication director for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the South Pacific.