Monday, April 27, 2009

The Medium is the Message

This post just received the coveted, "Longest Post in this Blog" award...

In the Colorado Rockies a couple of years ago while hiking with my then 7 yr old son, we found ourselves in the middle of a stream trying to navigate our way back to our family. At one point our trail divided with one way being noticeably more difficult to hike than the other. I asked my boy which way we should go. Not hesitating, his eyes lit up as he pointed toward the more demanding path and said with confidence, “This way, cuz it’s harder.”

I’ve been on a different kind of hiking trip the past couple of years. After a long stint in church planting I arrived at a point where the path was divided. Though I’m still unsure of whether I chose the harder or easier way, the path I chose was in a direction away from an intense local church ministry and more in a direction where I’ve spent time (not like as in “did time”) in lots of different churches preaching or leading worship. These churches range in size from the modest to the mega. All of them have good, well-intentioned people. (Not including the days that I was at their church.) All of them are effective in one way or another. Many of them are very similar to the kinds of churches that I have planted in that they are very contemporary. As I’m beginning to notice some common denominators I thought I would share them. I will simply tell you what I see and hear. Believe me, this is not directed at any one church or denomination. I hope this isn’t judgmental. I hope it is making a judgment. (There is a difference. Not to suggest that I’ve never been judgmental!)

Bottom line: The more churches I visit the more I realize we are less and less wrestling with heart-formation and more and more obsessing over how to market(i) ourselves.

The Medium is the Message
In his prescient observation of media and culture over 40 years ago, Marshal McLuhan(ii) appropriately coined the phrase, “the medium is the message”. In other words, the way in which something is communicated says as much or more than what is being communicated. The way many growing, contemporary churches are communicating (i.e. stunning graphics, upbeat bands, hip clothes, awesome productions, etc…) says that church should be relevant, that the gospel should be contemporary and contextualized. I’m a proponent of being a student of the culture. I think great effort should be made to come up with a medium that contextualizes. I get that. I’m on board. But the scales are in danger of being tipped. Over-contextualizing leads to positioning, posturing and marketing. I don’t think that’s the business we’re in. I’m left in some cases to wonder whether we have decided that the strategy to reach our media-savvy generation revolves around packaging a cool, hip religious experience rather than life transformation through Jesus Christ.

Why Market a Cool, Hip Religious Experience?
Possible answer one: So, we can emulate the cool, hip, and successful churches… which, of course, is nauseating. (Both the emulating and the jagged pill-of-a-word, “successful”.) Success seduces. Caught up in accomplishment it becomes nearly as difficult for us to discern our errors as it is for a bird to discover impurities in the air that it flies in. We fly faster and faster while we slowly choke on the pollution of our hearts... our motives… our agendas.

Possible answer two: So, that the world thinks we’re normal. We seem to have the perspective that if we’re cool, trendy and ultra-relevant then the world might want to be like us. This is, of course, seriously misguided.

Possible answer three: We’re unsure how to communicate about deep issues such as holiness. The simple introduction of the word evokes all kinds of different responses. (i.e. You mean sanctification? Rules? Perfection? A continual growth toward God or your one timer? American Holiness or Wesleyan? Etc, etc…) And so we’re skittish to even discuss it.(iii)

Possible answer four, closely related to number three: It’s easier to package some microwavable, anecdotal information(iv) than it is to wade into the mystery of heart-formation. And that’s what this pursuit of Jesus often is, a mystery. It doesn’t happen overnight, which doesn’t make it particularly easy to package. It’s really not systematic, despite lots of classes with the word systematic attached to the description. The truth is, at times it feels less like aiming at an actual clear target and more like swinging at something under water. How do you market that?

The Long Apprenticeship of Holiness
Here’s what Eugene Peterson says, “There is a great market for religious experience in our world; there is little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue, little inclination to sign up for a long apprenticeship in what earlier generations of Christians called holiness.”(v)

The long apprenticeship of holiness is the cure to our self-aggrandizement. The long apprenticeship of holiness collides with us at the corner of image-management and who we really are. It redirects our attention away from the external, peripheral, marketing issues deeper into the “inclination of the soul” issue. This apprenticeship, or more accurately finding Jesus in the apprenticeship, is not easily quantified by powerpoint(vi) on a 3-point, fill in the blank sermon, or a 3 part series. If so we probably wouldn’t be referring to it as the “long apprenticeship”. The long part should give us a clue as to what we’re dealing with, namely our impatience and reluctance to struggle with the classic disciplines and concepts of the faith. Concepts such as Humility, Doing the inconspicuous with conspicuous passion, Serving, Obedience, Depth, Sustained suffering, Truth, Intentionality, the Spirit-filled life, Delayed gratification, Submission and others. Most importantly, the reality that as the Holy Spirit helps us deal with these issues that authentic, real interior heart change is possible!

A New (Old) Approach
So, where does that leave us? Can a relevant medium and holiness co-exist? Yes, I believe so but only when the former is subordinated to the latter. The relevant medium, the way we communicate (i.e. marketing, stunning websites, graphics, cool, hip, environments, etc…) must be the servant and not the master. So, while I’m disappointed in how easily we get caught up with peripheral issues, after time, I realize this disappointment is the hunger that drives a leader to go deeper and forge territory with a new (actually 2,000 year old) perspective. A perspective that reminds us that putting the emphasis on the exterior might manage an image but it will not transform a soul. This is a great day to be a fresh, authentic, revolutionary leader reminding our people it’s not what’s on the outside that makes us clean; it’s what’s on the inside. (Seems like that should be in the Bible somewhere.)

(i)Not marketing as in the buying and selling of goods in a market place. Marketing as in advertising or positioning. It doesn’t have to but often this leads to an emphasis on the external or peripheral.

(ii)I’ve not read McLuhan exhaustively but enough to know that he’s almost as insightful as he is difficult to read. I found this website to be a good general introduction to McLuhan.

(iii)But (big breath) I would rather be in a church motivated by the Spirit, seriously wrestling with the concept of holiness and all its ramifications and possibly making a mistake or two in semantics than listening to the cold-hearted-theologian who would dot every “I” and cross every “T”. Truthfully, I’ve come to believe that articulating holy living isn’t supposed to be easy. Good grief. Holiness is not a campaign slogan. It’s an epic novel. It’s not a walk in the park. It’s a scaling of the highest peaks. (That last sentence is something I heard Tom Noble of N.T.S. say more than once.) My friend, Leon, says, “Pastors don’t preach it (holiness) because they don’t understand it. Congregations don’t demand it because it’s too pricey, but neither do they understand it. The natural consequence of the lack of discipleship programs in the local church is dwindling crowds, which in turn result in another committee with two sub committees that must try to analyze why and how the church should be positioned in the community.”

(iv)Which does your church emphasize, information or formation? Information leads to things like modifying our behavior. Not a bad thing in and of itself, but I don’t think that’s the goal of the NT. Dallas Willard says, “What sometimes goes on in all sorts of Christian institutions is not formation of people in the character of Christ; it's teaching of outward conformity. You don't get in trouble for not having the character of Christ, but you do if you don't obey the laws. It is so important to understand that character formation is not behavior modification.” Dallas Willard interview from Christianity Today

(v)pg# 16, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society

(vi)Just so I don’t date myself, I haven’t used powerpoint in years but I know it’s the universal word to imply video presentation of any kind. When I say Media Shout or Pro Presenter just doesn’t sound as clear. Then again, in retrospect this whole endnote is an attempt to impress you with my knowledge of video presentation software… see…? I’ve got issues…

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jtc said...

Great, thought provoking post.

I have been listening rather than waiting to talk, which is what I'm often guilty of. With each answer, comes another question, but those are the times where my faith feels most alive.

Keep asking big questions ... I don't have the answers ... but I know someone who does.

jtc said...

I would also add that I do think we are losing ground and gaining speed ...

Jonathan Foster said...

that's a great line (losing ground, gaining speed)

regarding the listening/questioning... i keep being reminded lately that of the Hebrew prayer, which is more of a creed, called the shema begins with "hear..." the centerpiece of their faith was hearing. that's what i'm trying to do.

jtc said...

yeah, I heard it in a song and it has been swirling in my head ever since.

The question is ... should we be working towards quality or quantity?

Anonymous said...

I am tired of being "sold" religion at church. That's why I left the last protestant church I attended. Great band, powerpoint, you name it. They lived by the phrase "if you're not growin' then you're dyin'" to describe church membership numbers. Let's crank out the numbers of saved souls for (three sylables) je-sus-uhhh...

I'm tired, tired, tired...

Jonathan Foster said...

wow. thanks for the honesty.

to be clear, i believe there are places that get the relevant medium piece and the holiness piece blended together well but it feels like the exception rather than the rule.

hope you are energized by your new place.

Jonathan Foster said...

couple links that are relevant

Paul said...


I found your thoughts fascinating and profound. I pastored for 25 years before stepping out to lead a missions organization that encourages and equips pastors around the world ( After being in the "trenches" of pastoring for those 25 years, I spent a great deal of time reflecting on what was good, what was not so good, what was healthy, not healthy, what I would do again, what I would definitely NOT do again, etc. Your thoughts "rang true" within my own heart (not that that means anything in and of itself). But I say that to simply tell you that there are others out there that feel exactly as you do. I think we have bought hook, line and sinker into "use any medium, method or marketing technique" we can to "reach the world for Christ." I used to be one of them! I'm now convinced also that "the medium is the message." In other words, HOW we communicate the message needs to be seriously considered... because it becomes part of the message (whether we realize it or not). I personally think that we are seeing the fruit of this concept being played out across our country in church after church. Well, I could go on and on... I feel like you hit a nerve that many people in ministry feel but have not articulated as of yet.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts through your blog! Keep up the great work!

Paul R. Madson

Jonathan Foster said...

Paul, thank you man. I appreciate that. The interesting thing is that it feels as though I might be heading back into a pastoring gig again sometime soon. So, if/when that happens I'll have to figure out how to work my thoughts out. Tougher said than done. I'll check out global training. Thanks!