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Out Of The Bubble

Mal Fletcher
Added 01 December 2007
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Becoming The City On A Hill

(This is the major body of a speech made by Mal Fletcher to the Christian Broadcasting Council conference, UK, in November 2007)

Download the Podcast version.

Sixty years of marriage is, by anyone's standards, a wonderful achievement. In celebrating their sixtieth wedding anniversary recently, the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh gave us a powerful testimony to the enduring benefits of trust.

They may be the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh but they’re as human as the rest of us. They must have had to work hard to build the trusting commitment they enjoy today. And their example feels inspirational in a world where we see so much divorce.

Sadly, on the very day of their anniversary, we were to learn another, less pleasant, lesson about trust: about how it might take years to build, but can crumble in a moment.

The British government announced that 25 million people have been exposed to the risk of ID fraud, through the mishandling of sensitive data CDs. Now, I have no political axe to grind -- the same thing may have happened eventually no matter who is in government; especially as we move closer to becoming a surveillance society. But all the pundits seem to agree that the first casualty in this debacle was not financial, but moral. The trust of a nation in its government has been badly damaged and he government will have to work hard to win it back.

Now, for those of us involved in the media, the issue of trust has been prominent for months. A string of embarrassing revelations has brought into question the competence and accountability of media producers and broadcasters.

It started with the infamous 'phone-gate' debacles; then we had questions about the misrepresentation of a man's death in a euthanasia documentary. Shortly after that, we saw a misleading promotional clip featuring the Queen, made for the ‘Monarchy’ documentary on the BBC, no less.

As a result of all this, we've had the chief executives of every major broadcasting body making statements about the need to rebuild trust with their audience. ITV executive chairman Michael Grade said this in a speech to the Royal Television Society:

    ’Trust is not sufficiently valued by all today's programme makers… I sometimes doubt there is even a basic understanding of its importance and value… trust is the most precious commodity in the old media armoury as we move into the digital world of plenty.’

He went on to talk about the even greater importance of trust as we move into what I call the world of ‘WikkiMedia’, where content comes from unauthenticated sources.

Everyone may be talking about digital switch-overs by 2012, but some things will never change – like the godly qualities that inspire trust; the qualities that make us trustworthy.

This is where those of us involved in the independent Christian broadcast sector have an important and even prophetic role to play.

In the Christian worldview, trustworthiness is a virtue based not first in human nature, but in the nature and character of God. Perhaps more than any other media community, we can model trustworthiness to a generation that has seen so little of it. In the process, we can put ourselves at the centre of an important cultural conversation.

Our organisation, Next Wave International, hosts an annual summit for European church network leaders, called the Strategic Leadership Consultation. One of our guest contributors last year, in Spain, was Joel Edwards, Director of the Evangelical Alliance, UK. He made this great statement: ‘The Church can only come into influence when it is willing to enter the cultural conversation with curiosity.’

Now, I need to preface what follows with this: I am speaking into a predominantly western context. My comments are made from and for a part of the world which considers itself to be post-Christian, but is in reality, I think, pre-Christian again. It thinks it knows the gospel – and has rejected what it thinks it knows.

To reach that kind of world, church must find out what the culture is discussing, come alongside, and enter in with something positive to say.

Sometimes, I think, those of us from the charismatic or Pentecostal wings of the church forget that the same Jesus who said, "Go into all the world and preach the gospel…’ also said, ‘You (the church) are the salt of the earth, the light of the world; a city on a hill cannot be hidden.’ We’ve been given a cultural as well as a salvation mandate.

Why did Jesus use the word ‘city’ as a metaphor for the church? Perhaps it’s because the church is, in microcosmic form, what the city could be if it lived under kingdom values. (For more on this, see The Church of 2020, by Mal Fletcher, NWI Books 2007.)

For many independent Christian broadcasters and producers, the most urgent strategic question seems to be: ‘How many cities can we preach to?’ But just as urgent is the question, ‘What kind of cities do we want to speak into; what kinds of cities do we want people to live in 10-15 years from now, and what will you do now to set that in motion?’

The head of the British Army, General Sir Richard Dannett, reminded us not long ago that whenever a spiritual vacuum exists in a nation, something will move in to fill it. In some places, that something is radical Islamist fundamentalism; in others it is rampant consumerism and the increasingly hyped new atheism.

That’s because culture is not just a product of political, economic or social factors. The very word ‘culture’ suggests that there is a spiritual component in the identity of the people. A region's culture is, at least in part, based upon its underlying cult; its religious practices and worldview.

In Europe's case, that worldview has always been a mainly Judeo-Christian one. For almost 1500 years, Europe was the global centre for Christianity and more or less synonymous with Christendom.

A prominent Dutch sociologist recently claimed that post-modern Europe is ‘the least religious region on earth’. Yet despite efforts to paint Europe as purely secular, this part of the world is as religious as it ever was.

I was told recently, on very good authority, that one of the requested elective subjects among Britain’s independent secondary school students is Religious Studies. People are as hungry as ever to find answers to the deep questions of the human psyche: ‘Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? DOES ANYONE OUT THERE LIKE ME?’

So, this is not the time for us to retreat into bunkers of Christian cliche, where we speak only to those who will send money to hear what they already know.

Nor is it time for us to become God’s moral police. Salt, after all, doesn’t criticise what is lacking in the food it flavours and preserves. In Jesus’ time, the absence of refrigeration meant that large blocks of salt were stored beside blocks of food. Through contact with the food over time, the salt preserved the food’s goodness and flavoured it in a pleasing way.

Through close contact with the world, we preserve righteousness in it and flavour it in a way that is pleasing to God.

This is our time to engage the broadest possible cross-section of the population; putting not just ‘religious broadcasting’, but evangelical Christianity back into a prominent place in the media city.

This issue of trust is important because it provides us with a platform for doing this.

Now, there are many attributes of God that make him trustworthy. Allow me to give a close up shot of just three. If we in Christian media can apply these consistently, we can enter the cultural conversation at a point where it is desperately seeking a new standard.

1. Holiness

We find God trustworthy because he his holy.

In the 1980s and early 90s I was the pioneer national director of a Christian outreach movement known as Youth Alive Australia. At the time, my homeland had one of the highest teen suicide rates in the world. Within a decade, by God’s grace, we saw many hundreds of young people come to Christ in large outreach events in every major city. The crowds were way too big for church buildings, or even city halls, so we used major sporting and concert auditoria across the nation.

After one of these events, a union-employed stage security guard asked for prayer so that he could accept Christ. Our team asked why he had made this decision. He said: ‘I’ve worked with all the big name bands; but I’ve never seen young people drawn to anything like that!’

His response underlines the impact of an encounter with a holy God. God’s holiness may leave us feeling morally challenged, but it also draws us to him. His holiness neither bores us, not drives us away.

Like the angels described in Revelation 4:8, when we’re in his presence we can’t take our eyes off him and we find ourselves reduced to one word: ‘Holy!’

In our culture, holiness means boring, bland and colourless. But when you apply the word to God, it means that he’s so much more than you were expecting that his presence knocks the wind out of your sails – and the words out of your mouth!

In scripture, God’s holiness refers to his moral transcendence and his awesome attractiveness. God is the ultimate example and of all goodness; our measure of all that is wholesome, authentic and attractive.

Holiness speaks of a higher and more attractive standard for life. By representing a holy God, we Christian media producers and broadcasters can set a higher standard for our mainstream peers. We can raise the bar as to what is considered good, wholesome, authentic and attractive.

We might start in the area of finance and funding. When it comes to how we seek funding, I think we often set a lower standard than our mainstream, secular peers.

Why do we claim, in our fund-raising, that we want to speak to unbelievers, when many of our funding techniques drive unbelievers away in droves? Why do we preach a God who is worthy of our faith, who can provide beyond ‘all that we ask, think or even imagine’, when our telethons make it seem that God is powerless to help, unless we lay it on thick?

Why do we proudly say that we are not ‘in it for the money’, when we continually hire salesmen-like fund-raising specialists who sometimes manipulate scripture – albeit unwittingly perhaps – in order to raise cash?

For us, holiness means that the ends can never justify the means. Whether we admit it or not, the techniques we use reflect something about the God we serve to those who do not know him. Marshall McCluhan was right: ‘The medium is the message.’

Why was Israel chastened by God through the Old Testament? Largely because, when it misbehaved, it gave the world a caricature of God. When Israel stepped out of line, it practised a form of spiritual ID fraud. It took God's true identity, skewed it slightly, and used it for less than godly purposes.

We must avoid doing the same thing again; especially when you consider the enormous power electronic media has for shaping people’s perceptions. People often tend to believe what they see on a screen more than what they see playing out in front of them.

In 1987, when American televangelists were making headlines for all the wrong reasons, Billy Graham drove an 11 year old car, lived in a house that was a glorified log cabin and gave away the royalties to his books.

Throughout his long ministry career, he has attempted bold things, yet he has remained cautious where money is concerned. He has never run into debt, preferring to cut back on expenses whenever he was running behind on donations. He has practised fund-raising, but has never pleaded for money.

He has always taken money seriously – it’s hard to do too much without it. Yet he has always valued one thing much more highly that money: a good name (see Proverbs 22:1).

I have often heard it said that whoever solves the problems of funding will change for the better the way Christians ‘do media’. Perhaps we need a summit meeting for major producers and broadcasters with the goal of finding alternatives to current funding methods.

Let’s face it, we’re facing a major shake up of Christian media anyway. The emerging generations won’t fund something they don’t watch. A few years ago, the average donor to America’s largest Christian TV network was a 68 year old woman. This model can’t sustain itself forever!

Another area where we might set a higher standard for our mainstream peers, is accountability. One of the big questions the public wants to ask the media today is this: ‘To whom are you accountable -- aside from yourselves?’

As the ‘city on a hill’ we can set a higher standard in terms of media accountability. We might start by strengthening our accountability to the local church.

We say that the local church is central to our vision and strategy, yet -- and this applies especially to those of us in TV -- we regularly turn into minor celebrities people who’ve demonstrated very little commitment to local church.

Some of them regularly draw resources out of positive local church work and, far from using them in a true mission sense, sow them into real estate and other areas which have nothing to do with extending the church's reach in society -- and certainly not in our society.

Being accountable to local church means a whole lot more than putting more church pastors on TV, or radio. It means that we spend more time talking not to but with key local church leaders. It means we listen to the challenges they face and explore creative, media-friendly ways to help lift the profile of the church in the wider community.

Our job is, in part, to make the local church look good! In short, we should get on with building Jesus Kingdom, and stop building 'Christianised' media empires.

I say this as someone who has been involved in Christian media production since the 1980s; first in radio, then television and the Internet. Most of us got involved in media production because we wanted to take the gospel where it's never been -- we wanted to be involved in a new kind of world mission.

By any definition of the word, ‘missions’ involves investing with no strings attached into projects that we don’t control. Mission through media will mean placing ourselves at the service of the church; rather then demanding that it supports us in our grand schemes to take over the world.

2. Relevance

Mohammed Ali once reportedly boarded a plane and, while the pre-flight checks were made, reclined in his seat with its belt unfastened, sipping a Coke. Eventually, the stewardess asked him to buckle up as the flight was about the depart.

Yet a few minutes later, she found him sitting in exactly the same position, with his seatbelt still unfastened. She said: ‘Sir, you must do up your belt; we’re about to take off.’

Ali grunted: ‘Ma’am, Superman don’t need no seatbelt.’

‘Sir,’ she shot back, ‘Superman don’t need no plane!’

Sometimes, it’s a good idea to be aware of our surroundings, to listen to the world around us. There is danger when you lose touch with reality.

People can’t trust someone who’s lost touch with the reality around them; someone who insists on playing by different rules to everyone else.

We find God trustworthy because he has made himself relevant to us. He will always be relevant to us, firstly because we are made in his image and secondly because he answered Joan Osborne’s question, ‘What if God was one of us?’ He came as one of us, submitting himself to the rules by which we live.

God is relevant, but we in the Christian media are often out of step with the culture we are called to serve and shape.

Of course, in one sense being out of step is a part of being prophetic. You can't be politically correct and prophetically correct at the same time. The gospel is not ‘hyper culture’, but counterculture. It is not an extension of what is already there; it brings a challenge to the status quo, pointing the way to something better, which is the kingdom of God.

But there is another, less healthy kind of ‘out-of-step’. It has us answering questions nobody is asking.

In some sections of Christian broadcasting, we seem to be sitting back like Ali, belt unfastened, closing our ears to the world as if to say, ‘The normal rules don’t apply to me. Superman don’t need no seatbelt.’

Being relevant means being ‘contemporary’ in our style and ‘prophetic’ in our substance.

We have a vital message for our generation, yet our style of communication and the substance of what we say sometimes show that we have no sense of the zeitgeist, the spirit of our time.

Experts in radio suggest that we have just 17 seconds to capture the attention of our audience. Just 17 seconds to engage people, to break through the clutter of information that breaks like huge waves against people's consciousness every day.

With much of independent Christian TV, if you're not a Christian, you need to buy a dictionary of Christianese before you switch on.

For the church, being contemporary is vital! Literally, it means to ‘exist at the same time as’. We say that Churchill and Stalin were ‘contemporaries’, because they lived at the same time in history. This, surely, should be the bottom line for the church. We should exist at the same time as the culture we are called to serve.

Yet being contemporary is not an end in itself; it is a means to an end. We should be contemporary, in touch with the times, in order to be prophetic, ahead of the times.

We should use the iconography of today to build an image of God’s preferred tomorrow. Being contemporary simply gives us the vocabulary through which to say something truly revolutionary and forward-thinking.

Sometimes, especially in Christian TV, I wonder if we're not only afraid to think about the future, we’re afraid to think at all! It is as if, by being rigorous in our research and balanced in our presentation, we are somehow losing our fire.

Years ago, I heard someone introduce the work of my good friend, theologian and author Winkie Pratney, as being like "scholarship on fire". We need more scholarship on fire!

We live in a highly emotive culture, where people sometimes seem to be guided more by their passions than by rational thought. This emotiveness is often sustained by the media. Yet ours is still a thinking culture. Like Paul in Acts 17, we must engage people at the level of ideas, taking them on worldview for worldview. (For more, see FIVE BIG IDEAS: Concepts That Shape Our Culture’, by Mal Fletcher, NWI Books 2007.)

You can't speak to Babylon unless, like Daniel, you take the trouble to learn Babylonian. But when you speak to Babylon, you'd better have something interesting or fresh to say! Otherwise, people won't stay with you -- there's just too much else on offer.

What can we do to become more relevant, more contemporary and prophetic?

For a start, we can produce programmes that feature more than ‘talking heads’.

(Our own major TV project, EDGES, uses a magazine-documentary format to look at social issues from a positive, Christian worldview perspective. Over the past ten years, we’ve produced more than 60 high-quality programmes in this series. The magazine-doco format has enabled us to capture an audience on mainstream as well as Christian platforms, and to see them released in unusual areas – for example, in Turkey, with subtitles, and in Indonesia.)

We need to look again at our programme schedules. Where are our dramas? After all, we serve the greatest dramatist/storyteller who ever lived. Where are our reality shows? If anyone should be able to discuss what is real, it should be the Christian church.

Where are our current affairs programs? If anyone should be able to interpret contemporary events and put them into a big picture framework, while giving hope, it is Christian media.

To sharpen our relevance, it wouldn’t hurt us to ask for feedback from beyond our cultural bubble. When did we last ask people who are not churchgoers what they think of our products – especially in the West? When did we last consult industry commissioners and producers about what we might do to improve our output?

Several years ago, I took one of our programmes to the then head of BBC Religion, TV. He viewed the programme in advance of our meeting. His first comment was: ‘For a Christian production, this is of outstanding quality.’

What followed was a lengthy discussion of how we might make the show more fitting for broadcast on his particular platform. In the end, we didn’t make all of his suggested changes, but his input helped me sharpen my focus and broaden the scope of the show. In the end, he seemed impressed and surprised that an evangelical Christian should be so passionate about TV that he’d seek advice from a non-Christian BBC commissioning editor.

3. Grace

When you’re a kid growing up in church in church, you don’t understand the words of the hymns you’re singing. As a boy I would sing ‘Amazing Grace’ and, because I had a sister whose middle name was Grace, I’d try to work out who this amazing girl was! I mean, she could heal blind people and find lost people. She could even save wretches (whatever they were!).

I thought, ‘I’d like to meet this girl – perhaps even marry this girl.’

Of course, I gradually discovered that grace is, in fact, a divine attribute; the trait that allows God to include the previously excluded. Grace makes God the Ultimate Includer! We trust him because we know that he has our best interests at heart.

The theologian Karl Barth said that God is 'wholly other'. Everything he does is for the empowerment of others. He not only includes us in his plans; he also helps us find ways to maximise the gifts he has entrusted to us. His work gets done, but we are fulfilled in the process.

St. Paul said that we have the ‘ministry of reconciliation.’ I call it ‘the ministry of access ramps.’ I was an architecture student back in the 70s and I remember my teachers emphasizing the importance of design that was friendly to the physically challenged.

As Christians in media, our work is to build access ramps into God’s kingdom: to open the way for those who are ‘spiritually challenged’. Our role is to connect those who were previously disconnected -- not just with God but with each other.

This is why we should be near the forefront of the so-called ‘new media’, which are as more about connecting as communicating. They’ve been called ‘social media’, because audience members connect not just to the media provider, but to other audience members, changing the end product in the process.

The change is driven by generational shifts as much as by technological breakthrough. A new generation of media-savvy Millennials is emerging. Generally speaking, they are more positive about the future than Generation X, and less individualistic than Boomers were at their age. They are also more civic minded, believing that, by working with their peers, they can bring lasting change to the world.

This is the group that has given Facebook its 43 million users worldwide. (In the UK alone, one in ten people have a Facebook account.)

In 1995, a 12 year-old Canadian boy named Craig Kielburge read an article in his local newspaper. It featured the story of a Pakistani boy who had been sold into bondage, then escaped and was murdered when he dared to speak up. The young Canadian decided to take action and to inspire others of his generation to join him. Within 5 years, he and a group of friends had established Free the Children, a global youth network with 100,000 volunteers in more than 20 countries. Unlike most other charities, says its website, ‘it is an organization by, of and for children that fully embodies the notion that children and young people themselves can be leaders of today in creating a more just, equitable and sustainable world.’

So far, Free the Children has involved more than one million children and youth in such projects as funding schools and health clinics and distributing medical supplies in needy areas of the world. Craig and his brother Marc also founded Leaders Today, an organisation which visits schools, teaching skills to empower young people for teamwork and leadership.

The emerging generation wants to get busy, and when it gets busy, it gets results! If we’re going to have a future, we need to work harder at building participation into the communication process, earning trust as we demonstrate inclusive grace.

Let me say this by way of conclusion. If, collectively, we're willing to take our cultural mandate seriously. If we're willing to demonstrate holiness, setting a higher standard in areas like fund-raising and accountability.

If we will put more effort into being relevant -- contemporary and prophetic -- in our style and substance and will strive to become more inclusive of the audience we serve by embracing new media.

If we're prepared to do all of this, we can take our place at the heart of the conversation our culture is having on important issues like trust. When we do this, we will fulfil our cultural mandate, becoming a city on a hill -- and make our salvation mandate that much easier to fulfil!

Help the EDGES TV team change the paradigm.

Download the Podcast version.

Read Mal's new book...
'Five Big Ideas: Concepts That Shape Our Culture'

Keywords: Christian Broadcasting Council | Mal Fletcher | Christian media | Christians in media | Christian TV | independent Christian media | ITV | BBC

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