Christians in the Media: Being on message for Jesus

Nathan Campbell —  September 7, 2011

Well. I wrote a piece for eternity on some of the stuff I’ve posted about lately in response to Guy Mason’s piece on Sunrise, but the nature of news is that it needs to be new and it wasn’t new by the time the new Eternity came out. So rather than letting this good gear go to waste, I’m going to post it here. In three posts. Firstly, this post, is the article I sent (a slightly extended edition), and in the follow up posts I’ll share the interviews with Guy Mason from City On A Hill church in Melbourne, and Mike O’Connor from Rockhampton Pressy. Two sharp guys who are grappling with what it means to use the media as a platform for the gospel.

Here’s the article.

Being on message for Jesus in Public Relations

Religion and the church are on the nose, but Jesus is still pretty popular with the average Aussie. So said the research behind last year’s Jesus All About Life campaign. Gruen Transfer panelist Todd Sampson summed the findings up as “Jesus is cool,” but the church “is letting the brand down.”

One of the foundational principles of public relations is to stay on message, to keep answers relevant to the brand. For Christians this means talking about Jesus, and our response to moral issues should be based on our relationship with him.

Guy Mason, pastor of Melbourne’s City on a Hill church has a background in public relations, his recent appearance on Sunrise to discuss a series of sculptures depicting Jesus as a transvestite, a cross dresser, and an indigenous man, is an example of staying on message.

The segment was billed as a “religious controversy,” the artist essentially accused anybody offended by his work of bigotry, while Guy defused the situation and invited people to consider Jesus’ death in the place of sinners. He says his aim when given a media platform is to talk clearly about Jesus.

“I love the gospel and I want as many people as possible to hear the good news of Jesus. If opportunities open doors for the gospel than I’m happy to get involved,” Guy said.

“I am aware that on shows like Sunrise you only get soundbite opportunities to speak. Thus, with a very complicated and heavily loaded segment, I wanted to be clear, concise and point people to Jesus.”

Modern newsrooms are time poor and under-resourced, a 2010 study found that half the stories we consume originate with public relations, which means churches can be proactive about getting the gospel a hearing in the public sphere.

Guy Mason doesn’t pursue media coverage like he did as a public relations consultant, he picks and chooses opportunities, but he is aware of the benefits of establishing a rapport with the media.

“The first person I met when planting a church in Melbourne was the local news editor. I asked him to tell me about the area, his perception of church, and also how we ‘the church’ could serve him. I have learned, and continue to learn, a lot from this friendship.”

“Jesus said we’re a city on a hill, a light to the nations. We shouldn’t hide that light and disconnect from culture, but rather be in the world living radically counter-cultural gospel lives that both display and demonstrate the glory of Christ.”

Former Federal Treasurer Peter Costello told a recent gathering of Anglican Clergy in Melbourne to beware the false idol of positive media coverage. He urged Christian commentary on issues to stick to the gospel and expect not to be popular.

“If the Church is going to speak on the issues of the day, it should be a distinctive contribution,” he said.

“The historic message of the Church, the Gospel, is a timeless message. It’s for every age. It does not have its relevance defined by what preoccupies us for the moment.”

Public Relations can be a blessing for regional churches looking to engage with their community.

Rockhampton Presbyterian Church Minister Mike O’Connor has built a relationship with the local media in his three years in regional Queensland. He’s had media coverage across a range of issues, from pizza shops to the recent Queensland floods.

“I wonder if there is still a ghetto mentality amongst Christians when it comes to the media. I think a more helpful way of viewing the media is seeing it as a platform where we can reach people with the message of Jesus. We have the message, they have the medium.”

It was this approach that led to a feature article in the local paper after Mike scoffed at suggestions that Christians should boycott the Hell Pizza chain if it set up shop in his city.

“I made a comment on an online article saying that it was just a Pizza shop and if they opened in Rockhampton, I would take my church youth group there. The local paper contacted me the next day and asked me if I would do an interview or write an article as a follow up to the story and if they could send a photographer around to my office.”

“I told the photographer that he needed to put his trust in Jesus and this was the point of the article I wrote. That while Hell is a real place – this was just a pizza shop and that church needs to be talking about Jesus and not what people can and can’t do.”

Nathan Campbell

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Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His Daughter. Coffee. And the Internet. He is currently a student at the Queensland Theological College and a mercenary PR Consultant.

10 responses to Christians in the Media: Being on message for Jesus

  1. I agree with Stephen; good stuff. I appreciate your focus on the media. You continually challenge me to consider these opportunities more (like your post on talk back radio).

  2. I agree with your post, Nathan. As long as “on message” doesn’t equal avoidance of important issues. Satan does try to distract people from directly dealing with the Lord Jesus and their need to bow to Him.

  3. Thanks for this article. I mostly agree with you.

    However, I’m concerned about too much of an emphasis on “public relations”, summarised in your quote from Todd Samson (an expert in making things appear more attractive than perhaps they really are):

    “Gruen Transfer panelist Todd Sampson summed the findings up as “Jesus is cool,” but the church “is letting the brand down.”

    Does the church want to be “cool”? Is Christianity’s “brand” something we want to be popular or truthful? And is the church seen as “letting the brand down” merely when it emphasises sin? How can we present the Gospel, how can we present what Jesus did for us, if we neglect to mention sin?

    The idea of Sin is not cool. The Jesus who hated sin (while loving the sinner!) is not cool. The Jesus who came to judge is not cool. The Jesus who forgave sinners, but then told them to “go and sin no more” is not cool. How cool do we want to be? What do we want our message to be – one of a “cool” Jesus or one of a Jesus who forgives *sinners*?

    What do you think the right balance is when staying on message? Thoughts? (I struggle with this issue a great deal.)

  4. I forgot to mention that I think Peter Costello’s address was right on the money.

    His warning to “beware the false idol of positive media coverage” seems at odds with some of what you seem to be saying about public relations. Especially Samson’s advice.

    • Hi Daniel,

      I think there’s a difference between “positive media coverage” and media coverage that represents our key message. A bad story about Christianity can still contain the good news of Jesus if we’re careful with how we respond to questions.

      So what I’m suggesting is that we be aware of how the media works and thinks in order to best achieve that outcome. Journos can’t put quotes in our mouths – they can only print what we’ve said, so the key is finding ways to say things about Jesus on any issue in the media in a way that is winsome. I’ll write a post in a few days (I’m on college mission) about how we assess the value of media coverage in the PR business and what I think we’re after as a win in the media.

      I don’t think we want to be cool – I think we want to be on message and I think being on message (talking about Jesus) has the added bonus of being more persuasive and winsome than most of the incoherent moral posturing we adopt otherwise. Hope this makes sense…

  5. I think there is a fine line between taking the opportunity to talk about Jesus and sounding like a politician on QandA. The first time I saw it I thought he didn’t really engage the question, but the opportunity he was given was pretty limited and I think he did a good job at being gracious while dismissing the artist as being unoriginal.

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