Is The Pioneering Age of Religious Media Over?

The Crystal Cathedral has officially closed escrow and the iconic glass sanctuary designed by architect Philip Johnson is now a Catholic church. But the sale represents much more than how one media ministry lost it’s way. Looking at many of the classic and pioneering media ministries of the last 50 years, very few are recognizable anymore, and as a result, I believe that era is definitely over. Oral Roberts built the most successful media ministry of his time, and the massive financial response built a university. But it became apparent that a second generation of leadership couldn’t sustain it. Today, his son Richard has left the university and the ministry media outreach today is a fraction of the size it was at one time. Now, thanks to new leadership like Mart Green and Dr. Mark Rutland, Oral Roberts University is experiencing a rebirth and explosion in growth, but only because it’s in fresh, new hands.

Scandals crippled the media ministries of Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker, both of which were extraordinarily large and influential in their day. Strangely, James Dobson left the Focus on the Family radio ministry he built into a national powerhouse for a different radio ministry with his son. D. James Kennedy’s Coral Ridge Minsitries didn’t make plans for a successor at all, and now, after struggling for years, has recently rebranded under a much different name.

While some suffered from scandals related to sex, and others from money, I think the two greatest challenges were:

1. They were obsessed with a family member following in their footsteps. Everyone wants a son or daughter to follow in their calling, but if they’re not qualified, you’re only setting them up for failure. Sure, give them a shot. Let them compete. But everyone’s different, and if they don’t have the talents, vision, or leadership skills that made the first generation successful, then it’s time to start looking elsewhere. Don’t let your well intentioned love for family damage the work God has called you to accomplish, and destroy the lives of your children.

2. The second mistake is not realizing how the culture had changed. In many cases, these original media ministries were remarkably creative and innovative. Drive-in churches, prime time TV programs, massive stadium events and crusades, global satellite linkups, and more.
But once the organization became successful, the very innovation that launched them was banned, in favor of less risky strategies.  Some stuck slavishly to the original vision, style, and techniques, even though it was obvious the audience had moved on.

Fortunately today, there’s a new generation of pastors and media leaders in the church who have learned from the victories and mistakes of a previous generation. They integrate their family with well qualified team members from the outside.  They’re not platform centric, and understand that compelling stories are more important than individual platforms. As a result, you’ll find them at typical religious media events, but also at secular film festivals, Hollywood, and anywhere short films and web content is finding an audience.

The first generation broke through. Billy Graham and Oral Roberts broke the color line in their live crusades. Oral Roberts made the first deal with a major TV network – NBC – for prime time specials. Jimmy Swaggart funneled millions of dollars toward overseas missions. Pat Robertson started buying TV stations. Jim Bakker began in youth programming but didn’t end there. Paul Crouch built TBN – the largest privately owned network in the world – period.

Today, those achievements are rarely remembered, largely because of the cloud of dubious behavior many exhibited, and also because the culture they ignored has now moved on to something else.  The question for today’s media leaders is: What will they say about you 30 or 40 years from today? Will you have held fast to your calling, or fallen by the wayside? Will you grow too successful to keep taking risks? Will you become less bold because you have more to protect?  Will you be producing projects to make a difference or producing projects to raise money?

Print out this post, put it in a safe place, and check it again 30 years from now, and let me know how you do…

Any other areas about these passing ministries that I left out?

 

This entry was posted on Monday, February 6th, 2012 at 9:54 pm and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

  • http://twitter.com/jongardner1989 Jonathan Gardner

    “Print out this post, put it in a safe place, and check it again 30 years from now, and let me know how you do…”

    You might need to check even more often than 30 years. Say every six months or so.

  • Pd

    I agree with the point and yet people are still getting
    saved on tv and radio. The cool thing is there is
    new media, Facebook, live web streams, that
    are popping up now. Who will come up to stand
    In the gaps now? Here I am, send me.
    Pastor David McGee
    Ps God is creative, let’s be more like Him!

  • http://www.lightquestmedia.com Chris

    Is the pioneering era over?  Yes.  Life has
    cycles.  Culture has cycles.  What was hot yesterday may be cool or
    even dead today.  What’s hot today
    was unknown yesterday.  The
    ministries you listed came to prominence out of obscurity.  A few have adapted and remained.  Most have declined or disappeared.

     

    In their ascendancy, they rode a wave of new technology and an emerging cultural
    wave of idealism.  Today’s media
    technology is not only advanced but highly fragmented and the emerging wave of
    culture is realism.  And most
    legacy ministries have not adapted.

     

    It is the natural order of things.  Birth. Life. Death. 
    Survival depends primarily on the ability to adapt.  Culture changes.  Perspectives fluctuate.  Society morphs.  Voices that adapt remain.  Those who cling to past glories fade.

     

    Many lessons can be learned from history, but only a few
    will learn and embrace the difficult message history teaches about long-term
    success.  That’s why businesses,
    ministries, and other organizations rise, peak and fall.  History tells us that what created
    success won’t often sustain success. 
    Continued success means adapting, which means CHANGE.  And embracing change, truly embracing
    change is painful and requires a mind and an outlook that is not crippled by
    insecurity.

  • Kathleen Sindorf

    I don’t think we should EVER stop pioneering, taking risks, plowing new ground! As Christians in the media, we need to keep checking our motives to be sure our ministries are about Christ and not about us, but how amazing it is that God continues to use broken, imperfect people like all of us to communicate his truth! None of us are worthy to be his messengers, but we fall…and we get up…we fall…and we get up. And hopefully the world will see that despite us and our flaws, God is real and that he loves them!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=500051250 John Ondo

    I think pioneering is what it says, getting out in front. Unfortunately, Christian media tends to wait before jumping in, and when they do, its too late. I think we have new pioneers now in moblie media, at the front I would say is the You Version App. The new frontier are Apps and developing new media for mobile. Crusades will come back and God will raise up new Billy Grahams again when that time is right. 

  • Truett

    So strange to read this after having this very conversation with Larry Huch’s people last week. They are already seeing the future without Larry at the helm and currently there is no thought of who will take the reins if he is gone. Great article. Yes, some will be stretched in their ability to forgive you but there is nothing but truth here. As you say, the inability to change and reinvent is what is killing and has killed these big dinosaurs.

  • MJ

    I think you covered this territory very well Phil. They’ll
    always be new ideas; God gives fresh inspiration and creative plans to his
    people for the now. I don’t see repeats of the past religious media ministry icons; the
    public is more guarded and ministers are scrutinized far more now than in
    former days. When God gives us an idea, it’s up to us how we implement it and,
    emphasis is – finish it in the end that counts.

    The largest Christian network in the world has been falling
    by the wayside for years and continues to do so. Falling is a process, and
    during this process, people are still being positively impacted through
    the network. But, if no changes are made, the wayside will come and death will
    occur. However, the Founder of the network has said that if he can, he’ll run
    the network from his grave…. So we’ll see how that turns out. The founder also
    acknowledges that he gets much criticism for having only three members on the
    board (all family), but his defense is, “God only has three people on His board’.

    God does use us imperfect people even as we are falling by our own folly. Unfortunately, falling takes others down with us through non Christ-like behavior. There
    is a season for everything, and the season for unaccountable-to-no-one massive religious media ministries will to come to an end at some point. But birth to new ideas will always come. The wise learn from the follies of others and finish well in the end.

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  • Jack

    Very good and important thinking.  These questions must be asked today, and in each generation.  Keep up the good work, Phil.

  • Jim

    Your comments are spot on, Phil.  God takes in the world from His perspective from the Heavens.  We Christians need to step back and get the view, given our limited capacity, from 30,000 feet and see where we need to be in a new, technology driven, society.

    I am excited to be a part of a company called Truli Media that is creating the latest and greatest platform (electronic pulpit) to deliver the next generation of seekers and Christians content and social media. We are called to proclaim the King and take His message to edify the masses of the world using the very technology others eschew as threatening. 

    It is not a threat.  It is a new opportunity to serve Him and be bold in our faith.  Take Him to where the masses are and help them to  discover what we already know.  Technology changes rapidly and Christian media leaders need to adapt or let the messages of immorality drown out the message of redemption through Christ.

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  • http://antoinerjwright.com Antoine RJ Wright

    If we are looking at pionnering as some sort of institutionally derived paradigm, yea, sure. And good riddens…

    As Dr. Philip Johnson alludes to in his many postulations about the movement of faith’s dominate cultures to non-USA/English-speaking areas (south and east), we see innovation happen in more personal, dynamic, and culturally redefining (before and after economic impacts) means.

    Looking for pioneers in the same place won’t expose much new once what was novel has become normal. We should turn our eyes to what’s not normal, asking what’s happening against what we’d expect.

    Of course, from a guy who’s been spouting mobile ministry for the past 8 yrs or so, this is the kind of perspective that should be expected. See you all on the other side of change ;)

  • Ron

    Very good article, Phil. I want to say too that Robert Anthony, the son, has written a good book in which he shares his feelings about the past three years of turmoil, “When You Are Down to NOTHING, God Is Up to SOMETHING” (FaithWords) Due out March 28, and Church Executive magazine expects to run an interview with RAS. It hurts me terribly to think what that ministry could have been, even as media and the culture change, but never was able to be. So much potential, so little management smarts.
    Ron Keener, Editor
    Church Executive

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  • Finally Free

    This may get me in trouble, but I worked for a ministry where where #1 and #2 ring true.  I think when the workers become no more than cogs in the great wheel of the ministry the trouble starts.  Survival of the ministry becomes paramount. Thinking becomes rigid and asking questions gets punished.  I don’t know the future of this ministry – God can do incredible things, so I don’t mark it down as hopeless.  But I do know it’s a brittle facade of what it used to be.

  • Anonymous

    Is the pioneering age of religious media over? Only if Christians enspired to use media are unwilling to get out of the boat to go where Jesus leads. And where is that? That’s unique to the individual and organization. But wherever it is, it is never safe in a worldly sense; always original in a creative sense; and profoundly meaningful in a spiritual sense. No new directions for religious media? No way. All it takes is a remnant willing to lay it all on the line.

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