Broadcast television news viewership has been declining for many years. There are several reasons: competition from 24-hour cable news outlets, the rise of news accessibility on the internet, and increasingly popular opinion-based news coverage appearing on all types of media. Present-day viewership is now less than half of what it was in 1980.
During the same time period, increasing pressure has been brought to bear on television news outlets to become financially self-sustaining. Once considered a public service by broadcasters, television news divisions have become subject to the same pressures as their entertainment divisions: generate advertising revenue by increasing ratings and market share. This has led to a trend toward so-called “soft news”—lifestyle, celebrity, and human-interest stories that function more as entertainment than serious information. Networks found that soft news stories would increase market share, especially when promoted heavily with teasers, so they pushed their news departments to air growing amounts of soft news, often over the objections of veteran journalists.
While soft news might have made temporary market share gains for individual news programs, the overall trend for news viewership has continued to decline. It’s possible that the decline was inevitable, given competition from various technologies, and may not have been halted no matter what content individual news providers offered. Nonetheless, trying to increase news viewership by including an enlarging proportion of soft news involves a fundamental contradiction. While those who don’t usually watch the news might be drawn in by recipes that encourage weight loss or the latest developments in a celebrity’s love life, serious news viewers are likely to consider the same stories a waste of time. Those serious news viewers are then likely to search for alternative ways of getting news and information.
Meanwhile, casual news viewers, lured into watching a particular show based on a particular story, have no enduring interest in watching the news on an ongoing basis. There have to be continual soft-news lures to keep those viewers engaged, while those who would have been likely to be loyal have been alienated.
Soft news stories do not simply use up time that hard-news viewers find pointless. They also limit the time, and therefore the depth, of the hard news that gets covered. Sometimes news organizations acknowledge that their reporting of serious topics is increasingly superficial and driven by sound bites. They complain that it is impossible to cover news subjects in depth given the limits of a half-hour program. But if that’s true, it makes even less sense of the time that is devoted to soft news. If it is difficult to squeeze all the news of a day into 22 minutes of non-commercial time in a broadcast, why spend half of that time on subjects that are not truly timely and significant?
The strategy that seemed to create a short-term increase in news viewership is likely to have contributed to its long-term decline. This conflict between short-term strategies and long-term results is evident in many different endeavors. Politicians find that running negative ads is effective in defeating an opponent in a particular election, but the result of all candidates running negative ads is an increasing level of popular disgust with politicians in general. Investors and corporate executives make decisions based on short-term profit potential without regard to long-term effects. When this occurs throughout an industry, consequences such as the early 2000s housing bubble occur. Mortgages were then being written with little thought regarding ability to repay, since they were being bundled and sold off for short-term profit. Repayment was going to be someone else’s problem, until the bubble burst in 2008, and it all became everyone’s problem.
So what does all this have to do with the church?
The role of the local church has also been in decline in recent decades. This has led to an increasing trend of strategies designed to reach out and draw in more people, from contemporary worship styles to seeker-sensitive service formats to emergent and missional church models. All of these developments have merits which could be debated individually; the point here is that all of them start from the premise that the main point of the church is outreach. This starting point is all-but-inevitable given the evangelical emphasis on the Great Commission as the overriding missions statement of the church. Our mission is to “make disciples,” which necessarily entails an outward focus. It mandates that we do whatever is likely to draw people in and bring them to saving faith. This seems to make sense, but the overall effect appears to be continued decline. Is it possible that the church has fallen into a similar trap as broadcast news?
There are obvious differences, of course. Church services and ministries should not be designed merely to retain the loyalty of those who already attend. Many churches function in exactly that way, and it results in dwindling congregations that cater to the tastes of their long-term members while children and grandchildren flee. But when the church sees outreach as its primary mission, it misses the point of what outreach is for. People temporarily attracted because of a special event, a topical series focused on practical felt needs, or a service project for the community, are unlikely to continue to attend, let alone get involved in the life of the church, once the initial hook has run its course and the church has moved on to other things.
The goal of outreach is usually conceived of as bringing those who were previously outsiders to a commitment to Jesus for salvation. This is a noble goal, as far as it goes, but once people have had a salvation experience, they are naturally going to ask the question, Now what? And this is where many churches have little serious guidance for new believers. They will be advised to read the Bible and pray daily, and perhaps to fast or participate in other spiritual disciplines. There will be pressure to conform to the church’s social standards regarding dress, language, church participation, and tobacco and alcohol use. New believers will be instructed on particular areas of morality (primarily sexual in nature) that are considered non-negotiable. And then, there’s not much else.
Except, of course, the mandate to go out and reach more of the lost. It will often be stated baldly that the only reason a person continues to live on planet Earth after having received salvation is to bring other people to heaven. So when the church views its mission solely in terms of fulfilling the Great Commission, and the Great Commission in terms of bringing “the lost” to a point of salvation, and salvation as something whose main purpose (in this life, anyway) is to turn around and reach more people, then the entire process ends up looking increasingly like a multi-level marketing scheme. And to a generation that has been marketed to death and has become very leery of marketing schemes, all this is a turn-off. The process that focuses on reaching people ends up having the effect of pushing them away.
This is how the church’s outreach efforts, whatever form they take, end up becoming as counterproductive as TV soft news. The problem is always thought to be one of methodology, and books get churned out regularly as pastors of churches that have some success with some method advise others on how it has been achieved. If only we find the right method, if only we make the Christian faith more relevant to the world around us, if only we capture how to do what Jesus did and contextualize it properly for our culture, then we’ll manage to reach the lost in an effective way.
But the problem is not one of methodology; it’s one of goals. The means are not the issue; the end is. TV news lost its way because it saw its mission as garnering more viewers, instead of delivering the news—the real news—to whomever would watch. Similarly, the church has lost its way because it sees its mission as reaching more people, instead of delivering the news—the Good News—to whomever will listen. Of course, TV news can present the news in a more or less engaging way, and there’s nothing wrong with trying to make the presentation more engaging. Similarly, the church can present the gospel in a more or less engaging way, and there’s nothing wrong with trying to make that presentation more engaging. But the heart of the matter is the gospel, not how many people are being reached.
This issue becomes obvious when we consider churches that appear to be reaching large numbers of people with a defective or absent gospel message. Most of us will not recognize ourselves to be in the same category, particularly if our theology is orthodox and we present the message of the Cross as substitutionary atonement. But if the ends are focused on bringing people in, without much thought to what to do with them once they are in, or why (other than being saved from hell) someone should want to be in at all, then there’s really very little difference. The message offered by most of our churches may not be a defective gospel, but it is certainly a shallow gospel, and the world is hungry for depth. What happens when a person who is searching for meaning comes to a church, only to find that “meaning” consists of repeat this prayer, help with this project, follow this set of social conventions? He or she is likely to leave, and as Jesus once said, “The last state is worse than the first.” If approached again, the person is likely to say, “Oh, I tried that already. Didn’t work for me.” They’ve been inoculated to the gospel—and there are millions of people like that. Without meaning to, the church’s efforts at outreach are ghettoizing it as a subculture that appears irrelevant to the rest of the world.
None of this should be interpreted as meaning that outreach is unimportant, that the Great Commission is irrelevant, or that salvation for the lost is an unworthy goal. The greatest TV news program ever will be irrelevant if no one watches it. The point being made here is that outreach must be focused on a goal beyond itself, that the Great Commission involves much more than reaching “the lost,” and that salvation is a process that goes far beyond the point we might call conversion. If we get straight on the ends, the way to go about the means will be much more clear. If we figure out the actual role of the church and where the Great Commission fits into it, we’ll be able to live out that role, and accomplish the Great Commission, much better. If we determine where we’re going with people once they’ve made a commitment to Jesus, we’ll be much better able to steer them toward him from the beginning.
The answers to all of this lie in scripture. We generally think that our present, defective way of going about evangelism is scripturally based; but in fact it is the result of taking a few passages out of context and making them the center of how we go about doing church. If we get scripture back in balance and follow that, our evangelistic efforts will come back in line.
I’m not suggesting that we can do an end run around the problem, that deconstructing outreach as we know it today will result in the key to unlock outreach and draw in hordes of people. Stopping the numbers game as a goal is not a clever way of winning the numbers game. I do think that looking at outreach in a more biblical way will make doing it more fruitful—that those who were reached would be more deeply and permanently transformed, as I think was Jesus’ goal—but it won’t necessarily draw in large numbers of people. What Jesus said about the narrow and wide roads may hold true no matter what we do. But our first step must be to make Jesus’ goals our goals. And then the rest that follows will be exactly what he planned.
This blog entry is a chapter from What's Wrong with Outreach. Check out the whole book on my book page.