40 Days (and Nights) of Christian Media • The Challenge

Media cloud, VLADGRIN / Shutterstock.com

Media cloud, VLADGRIN / Shutterstock.com

I have a confession to make:  I am a Christian, and I dislike Christian media.

To clarify, I don’t dislike all Christian media, just most Christian media.  I will – on occasion – listen to a praise and worship playlist on Spotify; every now and then a Christian-made film will surprise me as an enjoyable film-viewing experience; there are a handful of Christian writers who capture me with everything they write.  I don’t visit many Christian websites, and I don’t listen to many Christian podcasts.  By and large, I am creatively and artistically unimpressed with much that comes out of the world of Christian media.

But it runs deeper than that.  While I don’t have a problem with the individuals creating the media, I don’t like the various industries that have built up around the Christian faith.  For example, on this blog I’ve argued against the creation of a Christian film industry.  In the spirit of Keith Green and Rich Mullins, I’m vexed that writing praise and worship songs and devotional books is a big business.  I’m most definitely not a fan of the idea of Christian celebrity, because celebrity runs counter to the humble life that Jesus lived, which is the point of the Christian faith.

And don’t get me started on people using Christianity to get ahead in politics.

I haven’t always felt this way.  I think it started when I moved out of the Christian subculture in 1999, the year I moved to Kazakhstan.  Also, as I’ve grown older, I’ve become more discerning with both my theology and my artistic tastes.  Finally, I credit the internet, which opened the door to everyone and their mother creating media with their cell phones and laptops, which means that a LOT of the Christian (and not Christian) media being produced is just… for the lack of a better word… poopy.

A few days ago, Lifeway Research published a report that showed that the majority of Christian media is consumed by Christians.  This means that I – as a middle-aged white Christian male – represent one of the key demographics for Christian media producers.

And I don’t like very much of what they’re producing.

This brings me to another confession:  I am a middle-aged white Christian male who loves secular media.

To clarify:  I don’t love all secular media.  There’s quite a bit that I wouldn’t go anywhere near.  But I listen to secular music; I love non-faith-based movies and television; reading good fiction by authors who don’t broadcast their religious beliefs is one of my favorite ways of passing the time, I constantly visit websites that have no overtly spiritual content, and I listen to hours of non-religious podcasts each week.

And I believe that God can speak to me through these materials that have not been created with the express goal of speaking to me about God.

The Idea

But reading the Lifeway report made me wonder:  am I doing something wrong as a Christian by not buying into what the makers of Christian media are selling?  Does it somehow make me less faithful?  Am I missing an opportunity for spiritual growth by avoiding materials made expressly to help me to grow spiritually?

And then the idea came:  what if I only consumed Christian media?  Saturated myself with the stuff?  What would happen?  Would it strengthen my Christian faith?  Would it make me dislike Christian media even more?  Would I discover producers of Christian media who consistently produce good quality work – thus opening my mind and choices a little bit?

jacobs_year-living-biblicallyThere are precedents for an experiment like this.  Over the past few years there have been several examples of writers setting time limits, forcing themselves out of their comfortable lifestyles, and documenting what happens.  A.J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically, Ed Dobson’s The Year of Living Like Jesus, Rachel Held Evan’s A Year of Biblical Womanhood, Ryan Bell’s A Year Without God, to name just a few.

And so I decided to challenge myself.  If those writers could change things for a year, certainly I could change things for forty days, right?

Still, it wasn’t an easy decision.  I would miss the movies, the programs, the podcasts, the music.  But, it was because it wasn’t an easy decision that I decided to do it.  The day after I started thinking about this, I read an article where the writer said that if God is prompting you to give something up, and you aren’t willing to do it, then that thing may have become an idol.

As much as I enjoy secular media, I don’t want it to be an idol.  So, for forty days, secular media will not be a part of my life.

The Challenge

The challenge:  to live on a strict diet of nothing but Christian media for exactly forty days (and nights), and then in the end, examine the results.

The ground rules:

1)  The Forty Day (and Night) Christian Media Challenge will begin on March 15, 2015 and will end at midnight on Saturday, April 25, 2015.

2)  For the sake of this challenge, media includes films, radio, television, magazines, books, podcasts, websites, and newspapers.  And I will only use media that you would find sold by a Christian retailer.  So, while it can be argued that Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is a film rich with Christian themes and imagery, it’s not sold in Christian bookstores, so it wouldn’t qualify.

3)  I will still visit and comment on social media websites (Facebook, Twitter), but I will not click any links, stories, or images that take me to any websites that are not promoted as being Christian.

4)  I will use all media as needed for my employment (I’m a teacher) – but not recreationally.

5)  I will do this every day except two.  I’m flying from China to America and back in April, and I will watch in-flight movies during that trip.  The trip will take at least 24 hours, and so I will watch in-flight movies as we travel.  However, if Delta makes Christian-made or Christian themed movies available in flight, i will give them preference.  So the challenge will actually run for forty-two days (and nights).

6)  I will write about my experience existing off of a diet of Christian media here on the Thimblerig’s Ark blog on a daily basis over the course of the 40 days (and nights).  I’ll write about the things I find that I like, and the things I’d liked to have not found.  I’ll record things that I learn along the way, things with which I disagree, questions which are raised, answers that are found, and which Christian-made media has the most potential to reach those who can’t find the choir loft.

The Request

I would love to have recommendations from you – my readers.  Which Christian-produced websites, blogs, news outlets, films, music, or television would you recommend?  Please let me know, because I want to find the best sampling of Christian media to enjoy!

And finally, if you’d like to join me on this Forty Days (and nights) of Christian Media Challenge, please do!  I’d love to have some company, and to hear what others are finding.  Let me know!

Finally, I’d invite you to be a part of the Sacred Arts Revolution on Facebook, and join us as we regularly discuss Christian media.

EDIT:
I finished!  If you want to read my concluding thoughts on this challenge, click here.

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What’s Wrong with Christian Media?

Media cloud, VLADGRIN / Shutterstock.com

Media cloud, VLADGRIN / Shutterstock.com

Lifeway Research recently released a study that examined the use of Christian media.  The results showed that the vast majority of Christian media is consumed by – hold onto your hats for this, folks – Christians.

Christian Media Barely Reaching Beyond the Faithful

This doesn’t come as a surprise.  Media will typically be consumed by the target audience, and in this case, why would a person who is not a Christian care to listen to a Christian podcast?  Why would they be interested in reading a book about Christianity?  Why would they spend their time watching Christian television programs?

It seems like the logical thing to do here is to circle the wagons.  After all, if the Christian family is consuming most Christian media, then we should just keep creating media for the family!  This is how business works, isn’t it?  You identify your target audience, and then push your product for that audience.

Given, the study does show that some of our media is being consumed by people outside the church – like a positive form of collateral damage –  but we should count those people as frosting on the cake and keep on doing what we do when we do what we do.

But hold on, hit the brakes, stop the engines, turn off the lights… there’s a slight problem with all that.

Did Jesus tell his disciples in Matthew 28:19 to “go back into the church, close the doors, and make disciples”?

No.  Of course not.  He said “Go into all the world…”  Go.  Get out of your comfort zone.  Stop naval gazing and get out into the world where people need the message of hope that we find in the story of Jesus.

Christian media should deal with finding the lost, and not just massaging the found.   What are the “Christianese” words for this?  Witnessing?  Sharing?  Evangelizing?  We’re supposed to be engaging with the world outside of the church, not just circling our wagons to protect the women and children.

Look at it this way.  Imagine your church supports a missionary family living in some foreign country.  The missionary family comes home on furlough, and visits your church to share about the progress of their work in this foreign country.

The missionary husband sets up a powerpoint presentation in the fellowship hall after the pot-luck dinner, and starts showing slides of the family’s work.

“We’re so grateful to be serving in our host country, and blessed to be able to share our work with you today.”

The missionary smiles and turns to the screen.

“In this picture, we’re having some missionary neighbors over for dinner.  We like to have other missionaries over for dinner regularly.  This next picture shows us at our bi-weekly Bible study with some other missionary families.  Oh, you’ll love this one – it’s a picture of us worshipping on Sunday morning at our church, which is only for missionaries.   Hmm….  this is our neighbor who isn’t a missionary… I’m not sure how that picture got in there.   Ah, here!  This next picture is better – it’s our missionary office, where we work with other missionaries.  Finally, here’s a picture of our kids going to their missionary-kid school.  It’s missionary run, taught, and attended.  They just love it there.”

That missionary probably wouldn’t be supported by the church for much longer.

So, we want our missionaries to engage with the culture around them, but for some reason, we seem to be perfectly comfortable that Christian media is only reaching other Christians.

And Christian media isn’t even doing that very well!

RNS-CHRISTIAN-MEDIA bTake Christian movies for example – one of the categories where the results were considered the most encouraging.  The Lifeway study shows that four out of ten people said that they watched a Christian movie in the last year.

Four out of ten?  That’s pretty amazing!

Well, it seems like an encouraging number until you remember that eighty-three percent of the American population identifies as Christian.

Eight out of ten people consider themselves Christian, and four out of ten people watched a Christian movie last year.

Let that sink in.  Less than half the Christian population of America watched at least one Christian movie last year.

So, what does this all mean?  Should we shutter all the Christian bookstores?  Boycott Chris Tomlin concerts?  Send Phil Vischer snarky letters for hosting a podcast with a Christian point of view?

No. Of course not.  (Although sending Vischer snarky letters about his ukelele might be warranted…)  There’s nothing wrong with producing media for ourselves.  There’s nothing wrong with producing media for small segments of ourselves.  People do that every day, all over the world, in all walks of life.

But as Christians, we shouldn’t be content with that.

So, if you are a person interested in Christian media and interested in changing those statistics reported by Lifeway Research, here are 6 (+2) things that Christian media must do better to catch the attention of those people who normally wouldn’t care.

1.  Be Professional.

If something is good in media, it’s not because it is good by accident, or because someone prayed for it to be good and God miraculously made it so.  Things are good in media because professionals have been hired to make them good.  Christian film producers have finally started to realize this, raising enough money to enable them to hire pros to help shoot their films, and the result?  Christian films are finally starting to look like well-shot films.  People in the world outside the church respect professionalism.

2.  Be Excellent.

Maybe this is a part of being professional, but if you’re involved in Christian media, then you shouldn’t cut corners.  If you’re a self-published writer, then revise, revise, revise.  Give yourself time to do the best you can possibly do with your efforts.  Want to be a filmmaker?  Cut your teeth on shorts before moving to features.  Watch a LOT of movies – and not only Christian made movies.  Read scripts.  No matter what area of media you feel drawn to, take the time to become excellent.  Say what you will about the world, but the world appreciates and is drawn to excellence.

3.  Be Creative.

This is where we often drop the ball with Christian media.  In our rush to get our message out, we tell sloppy stories.  We create one-dimensional characters.  We allow our faith to handcuff us, which is not why we have our faith.  “It was for freedom you were set free…”  Remember?  That includes the freedom to be creative.  Try to look at the world in a different way, in a real and authentic way.  Especially when you consider those people who believe differently than you do.  We call God the Creator, not just because he created everything, but because He is also so incredibly creative.  Go, and do likewise, because people outside the church are attracted to true creativity.

4.  Be Intelligent.

We’ve all seen the near-constant parade of apparently unintelligent Christians in media.  People hosting programs who have trouble putting together intelligible sentences; faith-based scripts that seem not well thought-through or properly edited; embarrassingly discourteous or rude commenters on the internet; self-published novels that are so plotless and pointless that they make one wish that self-publishing were as hard and expensive as it used to be.

Our reputation for being unintelligent has been well earned by these things and much more.  Write intelligently, direct intelligently, comment intelligently, create intelligently.  God may use the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, but that doesn’t mean we should aim to be fools.  Christians in media are the front lines for changing the intelligence perception with the media they create.

5.  Be Ingenious.

Christian media is known for trying to take something the world has done and recreate it in a faith-friendly way.  The world gives us 50 Shades of Grey, Christian media reacts with Old Fashioned.   There’s a good article about this on Vox, written by Brandon Ambrosino.  I’d also recommend the article he cites by Alissa Wilkinson.

The point is that Christians in media need to be ingenious.  We should lead rather than follow, set the standard rather than chasing after the latest fad or trend.  We should aim to take the world by surprise with our ingenious and unique creations.

6.  Be Honest.

Finally, one of the best weapons we have at our disposal as Christians in media is honesty.  As we interact with people who aren’t in the faith, they should see this about us – as we interact with the media, they should notice this about us.  As we write, direct, act, talk, sing, produce, film, record, edit, draw, or whatever it is we do, people should recognize it in us.

They should talk about it behind our backs.

And if they do?  That’s okay.  We should have nothing to hide, and no reason to hide.  We don’t have to pretend to have it all together, because we know that we don’t.  We don’t have to act like our families are perfect, because we know that they aren’t.  We don’t have to act like we have all the answers, because we know that we don’t.  And that’s okay.

What we do have is Jesus.

And if you’ll pardon my brief use of Christainese, we have his forgiveness, his mercy, and his grace.   And He gives us the ability to live openly, transparently, and honestly – in life and in the media we create.

And that is how we will impact the world.

And now the (bonus +2).

1.  Drop the Secret Language.

Christianese – the secret language of Christianity.  The moment you fall into using the secret language, you lose potential interest from people who don’t speak it.  If your Christian media is inundated with Christianese, you need to make some changes, or you might as well just create your media in Klingon for all the good it will do you.

To find out more about Christianese, go to the Dictionary of Christianese, or read a good article about it here.  And then cut it out.

2.  Give the End Times a Rest.

What do we know?  Jesus will return.  How?  When?  We have no real idea – just theories and interpretations.   That means that our Rapture books and movies are just the Christian versions of The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Road, or any of the other dystopsian end-of-the-world stories you want to pick.   And they’re not nearly as compelling, well told, or well made.

Can we just give it a rest for a while?

Please?

(Actually, having said that, a Christian dystopsian story that absolutely nothing to do with the Rapture or the anti-Christ could be a really interesting read.)