MIT Communications Forum – April 5 – Evangelicals and the Media

Last night was the third and final MIT Communications Forum for the semester. I’m bummed. The topic was evangelicals and the media and it was pretty interesting. A more formal summary, along with the event Q&A, will be posted on the Communications Forum site. You can find the official summary, photos and other resources at the Communications Forum site.

The moderator was the Reverend Amy McCreath, MIT’s Episcopal chaplain and coordinator of the Technology and Culture Forum. The panel included Diane Winston, who holds the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the Annenberg School at USC; Gary Schneeberger, special assistant for media relations to Focus on the Family founder James Dobson; and Jon Walker, a communications consultant for Rick Warren and Purpose Driven Life http://www.purposedrivenlife.com/ ministries.

Having worked with eHarmony in the past, I was especially interested to hear and meet Schneeberger.

Henry Jenkins of the Comparative Media Department kicked things off by saying how important it was for academic institutions to be in contact with the Christian community in spite of – or perhaps because of – their differing world views.

McCreath began by saying that in looking over the archives of the Technology and Culture Forum, she found that from 1964 (when that forum was founded) until the late 1990s, there were no events that included the word ‘evil’ in the title; since the 90s there have been several. She attributed this change to the growing influence of the evangelical movement through their persistent, well funded and innovative use of the media.

Diane Winston started with a provocative premise: that for the past 250 years, evangelicals have driven the use of most mass media innovation in the country. They have been the early adopters of what was then taken up by everyone else. I’m not sure I buy that 100 percent but she offered three case studies:

In the 1740s, George Whitfield was the first “transatlantic rock star” holding outdoor revivals that would attract as many as 30,000 people. Whitfield was an astute marketer and promoter and used newspapers (all local at the time) to cross geographical boarders and societal boundaries – tying the country together through savvy use of the media. A friend of Benjamin Franklin, they shared an interest in the role of communications as a tool for improving life – even as they disagreed on the value of religion.

In 1813, Sam Mills graduated from the Andover Seminary. As he traveled the more remote parts of the country he was dismayed by the lack of Bibles. In 1815, he helped to form the American Bible Society – a group dedicated to saving souls by printing a Bible for every American. To accomplish this, the ABS turned to technology – steam-driven presses, machine-made paper, etc. – in ways that far outstripped the commercial publishing industry. In 1833, Harper Brothers bought its first steam-powered press. The ABS had 16 in 1829.

In the early 20th century Aimee Semple McPherson traveled the country, preaching in her bible car. In 1923 she settled in LA and created Angelus Temple. With seating for 5,000, Sister Aimee kept it full by attracting a secular audience. Her services were full of popular cultural – music, shows and even motorcycles. McPherson eventually had her own newspapers and magazine, was the first woman to broadcast a sermon and in 1924 became the first woman to own a broadcast license. At the time of her death in 1944, she had purchased land to create a TV station.

These run counter to the popular perception that evangelicals are somehow less sophisticated. It would also be a mistake, according to Winston, to believe that financial gain has been the sole reason for their use of the media (although it has generated great wealth) – spreading God’s word has always been at the root.

Gary Schneeberger introduced himself as self-avowed “rabid right-winger” who had something in common with many liberals – being called a moron by Anne Coulter.

When Focus on the Family founder Jim Dobson started out, he was a child psychologist. He’d written a book, “Dare to Discipline,” (spare the rod, spoil the child kind of stuff). While promoting the book he came to believe that the family was in crisis and that society wasn’t helping. He felt “called of the Lord” to do something and started Focus on the Family.

When conservatives talk about media bias, they are not talking about radio. It is a conservative bastion. Even before the current crop of conservative commentators, Dobson was on the air. His program caught on not by telling Bible stories – but by having real people on the program telling their stories. It has been the emotional connection that has inspired people to want more.

That ‘more’ has taken the form of additional radio programs, books, magazines and television. Now there are Web sites, podcasts and thoughts of on-demand and mobile channels in the future.

Schneeberger wanted to make it clear that the tech is secondary to their mission to provide truth, heart and hope for families. According to him, public policy is only about six percent of Focus on the Family’s activities – yet it gets most of the media attention. He pointed out that Carter was the first president that Dobson worked with; but that his work on the Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography during the Reagan administration led to a greater involvement in public policy.

That involvement included expanded communication, the evolution of media outlets and news channels that allow Focus on the Family’s constituents to connect with lawmakers and opinion leaders. The organization’s communications are designed with its audiences in mind – Dobson will talk about a bill in congress and encourage people to express their opinion.

And Focus on the Family provides the tools for people to express their opinions. For example, CitizenLink, a regularly updated Web site and a daily email allows people to contact politicians and policy makers with the click of a mouse. When they do, Schneeberger contends, it isn’t Focus on the Family that is flexing its muscles, it is the constituents. Focus on the Family, though its media and technology, is the “bowflex” that helps them stay in shape.

Jon Walker focused on what churches are doing with media – from local to global to “glocal” – and how that is changing the way they operate and communicate.

His first example was PowerPoint. Hymnals are now a rarity – the words appear in presentations on big screens. All sorts of stagecraft is coming into play and people expect to be entertained. Walker sees this as a positive thing – it is a way to capture interest. “Jesus was an exciting speaker,” he pointed out.

At Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, services include a number of jumbotrons. They noticed that people watched the screens even though Warren was there in person. This led to new uses for video and the creation of “venues” – thematic worship spaces (rock, gospel, Polynesian, etc.) – that can exist separately and simultaneously. The common elements of the service appear on screen (time-shifted if need be) while unique elements occur live.

This idea is allowing churches to brand themselves and attract members based on reputation rather than proximity. Time-shifted content and Web casts are also a growing phenomenon – with small groups meeting to listen to services.

Some of these advances are resulting in the creation of lots of content and have led to media licensing opportunities. In some cases, missionary work is being funded by selling content.

In all cases, the use of media is based on supporting and promoting the great commandment (love thy neighbor as thyself) and the great commissions (to spread the faith to all the world) in order to create purpose driven churches all over the world connected by technology.

Rick Warren’s contribution to this has been the book series, “The Purpose Driven Life,” associated ministerial resources (40 Days of Purpose and 40 Days of Community), a number of DVDs and a Web site. Walker showed several examples of sites and communities that subscribed to the “purpose driven” ideal.

I was struck but what great communicators all three of the panelists were – especially Schneeberger and Walker. Since I don’t hold many of their views, I was prepared (and perhaps hoping) to be put off by them. That wasn’t the case. After the session I had a chance to talk with Schneeberger about some of the issues that had come up between eHarmony and Focus on the Family. He’d not been in the media role at the time but was familiar with them.

This was one of the best thought out panels in terms of its makeup. Winston did a great job at providing historical context, Schneerberger offered an interesting example of a single organization using media to forcefully and successfully promote its ideas and agenda and Walker showed how multiple organizations were using media in different ways to share and connect around a single idea.

Now, aside from MiT5 later this month, things will be in hiatus until the fall . . .

[tags]MIT, Communication Forum, Evangelical, religion, media, Henry Jenkins, Amy McCreath, Diane Winston, Gary Schneeberger, Focus on the Family, James Dobson, Jon Walker, Rick Warren, George Whitfield, Sam Mills, Aimee Semple McPherson, Saddleback [/tags]

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