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Faith and the Media: Can We Coexist?

How Churches can benefit from the Secular media.

By Dan Prater

They are everywhere — in your car, on your computer, on your PDA, in line at the grocery store, at work, and on your cell phone. At almost every place on earth, you will see and hear the media in one form or another. Who are these people who write articles for newspapers and compile stories for news organizations? What kind of relationship should churches have with them? Every pastor needs to address these important questions.

It is interesting how certain words evoke powerful emotions. The word media, for instance, causes some to conjure up ideas of bizarre, unbelievable stories in supermarket tabloids. For others, the word constitutes late night cable news program hosts hotly debating the most recent national scandal.

Credibility studies have defined media perceptions in different ways, including believability, accuracy, trust, fairness, reliability, and bias. Most studies show people’s perceptions of the media are suspicious and negative.

Differences

The church and the media often find themselves with opposing worldviews. The media sees humans as worldly creatures whose meaning is found on this earth. Christians, however, see humans as spiritual beings whose true meaning is beyond this world. The media esteem cynicism and prying, while the church values humility, trust, and acceptance.

These differences, a fear of negative coverage, and a lack of trust have kept some Christian organizations at arms’ length from the media. For them the best policy is an out-of-sight, out-of-mind attitude, believing that where the church is concerned, no news is usually good news.

Similarities

The church and the media have many philosophical differences, yet common denominators link them together.

Both have a message they want to share with other people. Regardless of what title you have in the church — pastor, teacher, singer, or business manager — one of your primary day-to-day responsibilities is to communicate. The Scriptures command us to communicate the gospel (Mark 16:15). Likewise, the media’s primary responsibility is to communicate news, ideas, entertainment, education and, in some cases, to reflect public interests.

Both seek the truth. Writers and reporters search for the truth in stories. They investigate sources and follow leads that may help them unveil the truth, and gain credibility and trust among viewers.

The foundation of the church is built on the Truth — Jesus Christ. He is the way, the truth, and the life. This truth guides our every communication, written or verbal, and motivates us to press forward in every circumstance.

Both the media and the church have great influence in their communities. Studies have shown that most people turn to media outlets to help them make informed decisions about local and national issues. A story in a national publication has the power to sway millions of voters. Local newspapers are also especially influential in shaping the opinions of their readers. The Internet has thousands of sites offering coverage and analysis of issues and events that impact public perception and help shape many people’s attitudes.

From its beginning, the church was meant to impact society and transform the way people think and act (Romans 12:2). Today’s church is focused on ministry that addresses the needs of the people in its communities. We are called to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth, and to do this we must become partners in addressing the spiritual, societal, and physical needs of the people where we live.

Examples of ministries that are powerfully influencing communities include Convoy of Hope, Rural Compassion, and Teen Challenge. Each of these ministries is meeting intimate, desperate needs.

Regardless of these differences, the church that ignores the media is ignoring a powerful tool. Regional and local media outlets offer an opportunity to reach tens of thousands of people at a time. Many of these broadcast and print operations have a local focus and are interested in covering events — including church events — that occur in their community and are of interest to their viewers and readers.

Using Media Effectively

If you have never developed a relationship with members of the media in your community, or if you have failed to work effectively with them, consider these questions:

What is it you want to communicate? It may sound elementary, but this question is one that many churches have never pondered. A church needs a clearly articulated statement to communicate to its community. This key message needs to be more than a clever, catchy saying. An effective statement will capture a key point about your organization’s existence and reflect a central theme.

Once you decide on a key message, use it as a guiding force in all your communication. In other words, every activity and program within the church needs to reflect this statement. If it does not, you might need to re-evaluate the activity or program’s purpose for being.

This statement needs to be used in all communication, internally and externally, as a reminder to everyone of your commitment to fulfilling this goal.

Who do you want to reach? Naturally, you want to reach everyone in your community. But unlike 40 years ago when media outlets had broad appeal, today’s media are extremely specific. Focusing on a particular demographic does not mean your church is not open to everyone. It does, however, demonstrate a focus on a particular region or age group.

Whether you choose radio, television, newspaper, or all three, take time to research their audiences and make sure their audience is the group whom you are trying to reach. Most media outlets will have audience demographics that will help you make this decision.

What is your desired response? The goal of any outreach is to see the lost brought to a saving relationship with Jesus. But there may be some in-between steps to getting the lost to that point. A desired response to a media story or advertisement might be to invite someone to attend a church service, a community picnic, to call the church for more information, or to visit the church’s Web site. Whatever it is, make sure you clearly communicate your message with an appropriate response.

How to develop a positive relationship with the media

One of the first steps is to become acquainted with staff. Develop a press list — one for broadcast and one for print. These lists need to contain names, titles, network affiliations, contact numbers, and addresses, and need to be updated every 6 months. This information is often found through the local chamber of commerce or on a city information Web site.

Get to know the decision maker who decides which stories will be chosen. This person varies depending on market size and type of medium. For television, assignment editors work the desk and are the frontline people to receive and assign stories to reporters. Nevertheless, reporters and newscast producers also have input. For newspaper, city editors or managing editors may be the best contacts. Except in small markets (cities with a population less than 100,000), executive editors and news directors are not usually involved with day-to-day story management.

Contact them. Whenever your church has a newsworthy event, inform the media. Send a press release, make a phone call, send a fax, or send an e-mail. Make sure you contact the appropriate person and provide information such as contact names, addresses, and phone numbers. The release should be two pages or less and needs to get to the point.

One of the keys to getting a story published is to remember that local media want local news — news that is pertinent to their readers or viewers.

With that in mind, try to localize the title of your release. For example: Local Youth Group Helps Elderly, or Organization impacts (your city) with Food Drive. These emphasize local interest and will increase your chances of making the newscast or paper.

The timing of the release is important. Send a release at least 90 days in advance of your event, and do a follow-up within 30 days of the date to ensure coverage. When working with the media, remember the nature of their work is always time sensitive and deadline driven. If a member of the media contacts your church for an interview, reply promptly.

John Lindell is senior pastor of James River Assembly in Ozark, Missouri. James River Assembly, which has experienced rapid growth over the past decade, is consistently in the media through news coverage and stories concerning the congregation’s community outreaches. Lindell sees a direct connection between church growth and having a relationship with the media. “A positive relationship (with reporters) means favorable positioning in the media, thus it translates into more exposure for the church. The frequency of visitors at the church is tied to name recognition in the community. If they remember the name of the church when they come to a life crossroad, the church stands a chance of getting the visitor.”

“The church and the media can work together for the common good of the community,” Lindell says. And even though not everyone in the community shares the same political or spirituals views, he says the church should not shy away from involvement. “There are many amoral issues that all citizens of a community can cooperate on for the good of society. We have seen this phenomena recently with Christians, Jews, and Muslims all working together to help humanity in the aftermath of the Tsunami.”

“Christians must a have a voice in important, high-profile issues, especially those that are moral in nature. And when we are proactive in contacting the media,” Lindell says, “it builds relationships and credibility.”

Being proactive might mean sending a press release from the church, stating your position on a certain issue, or availing yourself to the media when they call for an interview. Either way, the church has an important message, one that must be given with confidence and clarity.

Finally, establishing a relationship with the media can serve as a great evangelism tool. It is possible to reach hundreds of people by knocking on doors and making one-on-one contacts. But it is possible to reach thousands or tens of thousands each time a story is printed in a newspaper or airs on television. Since we live in an increasingly media-literate society, churches and ministries must acquire media skills and learn to present their message more professionally.

We live in a world that is bombarded with stories of drugs, murder, violence, and every other conceivable sin. The church offers a light and a message of hope that is powerful. These stories of hope often have an impact far outside the walls of the church, into the community. When we take the time to tell these stories to the media, it makes great news content and has the potential to change a viewer’s or a reader’s life.

Dan Prater is communications director at CASA of Southwest Missouri, and is adjunct communications professor at Drury University in Springfield, Missouri. He is a published writer and professional communications consultant. He lives in Ozark, Missouri.

What Is the Media Looking for?

Journalists are storytellers; to do their jobs they need news stories. The types of stories they want vary depending on which medium is used. Television stations want something with visual interest: a carnival, a speaker, or children’s activities. Almost anything with sight and sound that has broad interest and is current is a potential story.

Newspaper reporters are not tied to sight and sound. They usually work on more in-depth pieces and are not as time-restricted as broadcasters. Broadcasters may produce five newscasts a day, whereas papers only print once a day, or in some cases, once a week. These reporters are likely to do feature stories or investigative pieces. They, however, also use one-paragraph notices of upcoming events offering dates, times, and contact information.

Never discount your story. A pastor celebrating 25 years at the church, new programs to reach the community, outstanding volunteers, or a youth mission trip are potential stories.

How To Write an Effective Press Release

Writing a press release is a great way to announce something to the media. Here are six basic ideas to remember:

Give the release an attention-getting title. The press will see the title first. If the title does not catch their attention, it may never make it past the fax machine.

Give contact person information (phone and e-mail address), and date near the top. It is critical that the contact person listed be available to handle inquiries. Do not list someone if he is out of town or not the appropriate person to assist the media with the story.

The opening sentence or lead needs to give the essence of the story. “Five members of First Assembly of God church in (your town) have started a literacy program for disadvantaged children.” Then follow with more details such as why they did it, how they did it, and the need it will meet.

Remember the five Ws. The release needs to answer who, what, when, where, and why. Most of these questions need to be answered in the first few sentences. The whyis the most likely to be left out of the lead; it usually requires more explanation.

Be clear and concise. The event or story needs to be clearly stated and, if possible, kept to one page. Members of the media do not have much spare time. They will decipher your message quickly and decide whether to pursue more information.

Do not use attachments. E-mail press releases are acceptable as a supplement to faxes. If you choose to use e-mails, do not send any attachments. In a world of Internet viruses and scams, most technologically savvy people will not open an attachment from a stranger or an outsider.

DAN PRATER is communications director at CASA of Southwest Missouri, and is adjunct communications professor at Drury University in Springfield, Missouri. He is a published writer and professional communications consultant. He lives in Ozark, Missouri.

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