In order to remain culturally relevant with your programming and productions, you need to consider following certain steps to not be lost in the mix. Producer and media consultant Phil Cooke breaks down these steps.
Commandment #1 – Understand The Power of Telling a Story – Most producers begin with equipment, but I always prefer to begin with how to tell a story. Ultimately, no matter what communications medium we choose, that’s all we’re doing – telling a story. A simple story about how God chose to become one of us and share His eternal plan with people who didn’t deserve it.
The great Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman said: “Facts go straight to the head, and stories go straight to the heart.”
It doesn’t matter the program format – preaching, music, documentary, variety, drama, whatever – every program is telling some type of story, and until that story is told most effectively, the audience is never going to be interested. When you study the life of Jesus, that’s just about all he ever did. He rarely lectured or preached – he mostly told stories. Stories that touched people, and changed their lives.
Commandment #2 – Make Sure your Financing is in Place – Most Christian producers are plagued with a lack of funds for television production and equipment. Television is probably the most expensive outreach your church or ministry will ever encounter, and poor decisions regarding financing can literally destroy an entire organization. I always recommend that you have six months of funding in the bank before you ever began a weekly media outreach. On most cable systems today, there are a minimum of 250 plus channels, so it takes between six months to a year of broadcasting before your program begins to establish itself with your audience. That means it could be a year or more before you receive any financial support from your audience – they simply need time to find the program! Therefore, it’s critical that you be able to fund your program during that first year, or your media ministry will never have the chance to make an impact.
Commandment #3 – Be in Touch with the Current Culture – I find a remarkable number of producers are out of touch with today’s culture. They don’t keep up with current programming and graphic styles, and I’m amazed at the number of Christian media professionals who never even watch television. If we’re going to make an impact in this culture, we have to understand what makes it tick. Just as Paul in Acts 17 used his knowledge of Greek literature and culture to establish a “common ground” with the philosophers at Mars Hill, we need to understand the music, literature, films, and television that this culture creates. Otherwise, they will continue to believe that our message is irrelevant and unimportant.
Commandment #4 – Don’t Think Everything Has to be Explicit – Don’t feel the obligation to tell the entire salvation message with each program. Learn to be subtle and win the audience with interesting and fascinating programming – then present the gospel. A recent informal survey with people that had recently accepted Christ, indicated that they had been presented with the gospel an average of seventeen times before they made a final decision. People need time to contemplate their decision. Make programs that plant the seed – don’t feel the necessity to “hit them over the head” with every program.
Commandment #5 – Always be open to change. The unexpected is often the most exciting and effective answer. In Hollywood, millions of dollars are spent every year on “pilot” programs – many of which never see the light of day. The major studios and networks understand that audiences are always changing, so they aren’t afraid to experiment and update programs and program ideas. Most Christian programs are doing the same thing they did 10-15 years ago. The most successful media ministries are ministries who aren’t afraid to change, update, and present a fresh, new approach to an ever-changing audience.
Commandment #6 – Have a Clear Focus – Have a clear purpose and focus for each program you do. If you’re producing a program on the theme of salvation, then every aspect of that program needs to point in that direction. The music, the greeting, the interviews, the message, the closing – even product offers and commercials. National advertisers understand this need and focus every aspect of their advertising campaigns on their theme. We can make a much stronger impact, if we follow their lead.
Commandment #7 – Don’t Forget Creativity – An advertising executive once said “Creativity is like shaving – if you don’t do it every day, you a bum!” Exercise those creative muscles… and do it on a regular basis. Don’t take the easy way out, either in sermon preparation or program production. Personally, I don’t buy into the theory that only some of us are born “creative” and others aren’t. I believe that anyone can be more creative – it just takes practice, and a willingness to forgo the “easy” way in order to be open to new and creative ideas.
Commandment #8 – Don’t Let Your Vision Stop at Preaching – Preaching is a wonderful thing, and there will always be room on Christian television for good, solid preaching. However, keep in mind that a church service doesn’t necessarily make the best television program.
When you’re in a church service or evangelistic event, you can feel the electricity of the crowd, you can see the emotion and intensity of the speaker, and you can experience the live event with the enthusiasm and excitement of hundreds or thousands of other people. However, when you watch that same event on television, you’re often sitting alone in a room, watching it on a “glass box” ten or fifteen feet away. You’re probably also having a meal, talking with friends, or reading a book or magazine. Believe me, it’s not the same experience. In fact, it’s such a problem, advertisers call it “cutting through the clutter,” which is the ability to create programming that cuts through all those distractions and makes an impact on the audience.
Remember, the secular networks spend millions of dollars to find out what audiences will watch, and if you check the latest prime time schedule, it’s filled with movies, episodic dramas, and situation comedies – there’s not a preaching show among them. The reality is – the secular networks are not necessarily biased against Christians – they just want to make money (and would probably sell their grandmother to do it). The secular networks profit from selling advertising time, and if they felt preaching and teaching shows drew an audience, they would have them in prime time. They know the power of story based programs, and fill the television schedule with that format.
Commandment #9 – Don’t Forget Research – I’m convinced one of the most neglected areas of media ministry is research. Do you really know who’s watching your program and why? That knowledge should greatly affect what you produce. Is your audience young or old? Educated or uneducated? Rich or poor? What about the racial make-up? You don’t have to spend millions and hire major research organizations for that information. It can be as simple as talking to your local TV station or cable network. They make a living selling television time to advertisers, and they have to know who’s watching at various times during the day. Ask them about different time periods and find out who’s watching. Then you can either create a program around that audience, or find the appropriate audience for the program you feel called to produce.
Commandment #10 – Don’t Underestimate The Importance of Branding and Identity – A “brand” is simply the story that surrounds a person, product or organization. In other words, “What do people think of when they think of you?” Companies like Starbucks, Nike, and Apple understand the power of an effective brand, and it helps them stand out from all the competitors out there. What makes your program different? How can you stand out from the crowd?
Radio and television are remarkable ways to reach the culture, but they are also tools that bring along the baggage of ego, vanity, financial wrongdoing, and a host of other temptations. Sadly, the history of Christian broadcasting is rife with multi-million dollar ministries that succumbed to these and other temptations, and it destroyed what in some cases were powerful, global outreaches.
Another personal concern of mine is the lax approach to correct theology and doctrine exhibited by some Christian TV personalities. In some cases, a pastor or evangelist may feel the desperate need to be sensational to create more viewers. In other cases, he or she has put their desire for celebrity above their desire to stay true to the word of God. In the worst cases, they continually push the limits of controversy because it makes the phones light up. (Ever notice how they always bring on the prosperity preachers to host the telethons?)
There is never an excuse for incorrect or abusive teaching of the word of God. Remember, false or inaccurate teaching to a congregation of a few hundred is bad enough, but that influence can be multiplied by hundreds of thousands or even millions on television.
Your job as a producer is critical, and I encourage you to realize just how important you are in a media-driven culture. Researcher George Barna has shown that a typical congregation will forget the theme of a sermon within hours after it’s preached – but they can quote lines from movies and TV programs for months. We are the storytellers of this generation, and that carries a profound responsibility.