The Show Must Go On, Regardless

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I recently read an article in Christian Ministry Magazine about the television work of Joel Osteen and Phil Cooke. For those unfamiliar, Joel Osteen pastors the largest church in the United States with some 40,000 attendees. Phil Cooke is widely know in television and movie circles as an excellent producer who helps bring Christian TV productions up to Hollywood standards.

In Christian Ministry magazine, Cooke interviews Osteen about the quality of his television productions. The entire emphasis is on investing in the right equipment and expertise to produce a preaching program of the highest technical standards. Many Christian media productions are average and in fact, many are of poor technical quality. Both Cooke and Osteen point out that in today’s America, technical standards—the form of delivery—are of equal importance to the message being shared. In many ways I agree with this. But at the same time, high technical standards don’t guarantee an audience. The bottom line of all media productions is that the content you are delivering must be absolutely engaging. A pastor behind a pulpit isn’t enough. That person must be engaging. Of course, being the professional that he is, Phil Cooke knows this.

There is no doubt that Joel Osteen is an engaging speaker. His raw talent and his commitment to technically flawless presentations are truly engaging. The only problem is what Osteen is engaging people with.

Who am I to judge the servant of another? I’m nobody, except that since I work in the same field and care passionately about the Bible and the Christian message, I think we should pursue standards of excellence as much as possible. But when it comes down to the “what” being presented we must be sure that we are actually preaching the Bible and Jesus instead of the “Christianity Lite” that Osteen is so famous for.

What should we, as Christian media professionals, be communicating regardless of the technical and talent issues? I think it’s rather simple. There are three things as Christian media professionals we must communicate:

The principles of the Bible
The practices of the faith, and
The person of Jesus.

Christian productions which do not communicate these three foundational elements cannot rightly be called Christian. In fact, in my nearly 30 years of experience as a Christian broadcaster I’ve come to understand that we can talk all about the principles and practices, but if we never talk about Jesus then we haven’t communicated the Gospel. You can teach for an hour on the Ten Commandments, but if it doesn’t lead to a presentation about how Jesus is connected to those commandments and how to receive him as Lord and Savior, then that presentation is far short of what it should be.

In the early days of Eagle TV in Mongolia, when there was little of value in the country after its abandonment of communism, a foreign evangelist known the “The String Man,” came to Mongolia to do his creative string presentation for Mongolian kids to help them learn about Jesus. His message was simple and effective. So effective, in fact, that when it was announced that anyone who wanted a free piece of colored string should come to the station the next day to claim one, over 400 people showed up.

For a piece of string.

Of course, it’s nearly 15 years later and if they were to try that again I doubt many, if anyone, would show up at the front door asking for their free piece of string. Mongolia has developed greatly since then and its society is far more sophisticated than it used to be. The point being that the technical and talent needs of media consumers have changed over the years. Fifteen years ago you could offer free string and people got excited. Today’s audience won’t fall for that. So yes, your presentation must change, but the content of that presentation must remain the same: the principles of the Bible, the practices of the faith, and the person of Jesus. Without them it doesn’t matter of you’re presenting string tricks or intense counseling from a pulpit. Without them the Gospel isn’t communicated; and what people need the most is the message of the Gospel. Without the Gospel there is no salvation. Without the Gospel there is no spiritual growth. Without the Gospel there is no eternal hope.

Who am I to judge the servant of another? I’m nobody. But what I have seen in the few times I’ve seen Osteen on TV is a lack of these three important elements. Therefore, from my limited perspective of 30 years in media ministry all of the attention on technical and talent issues eventually fail to advance the Kingdom of God for the sake of putting on a show.

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