David is an Anglican minister, he’s a good guy. He loves Jesus. Here’s what he says he’s aiming to do on Wednesday:
“If I get a chance to tell people what the gospel is, I’ll be ecstatic. And if I have an opportunity to have a bit of fun as well, that’ll be ok with me.”
His audition video is pretty funny.
Pray for David – if you’re the praying type – that he’d be able to speak clearly and winsomely – even (and especially) if he gets ambushed on a few hot button issues from this week, pray that he’ll have a chance to get the gospel in there too.
If you’re not the praying type – watch on Wednesday. I’m hoping David will be a great representative of Christianity, and that it’ll be an entertaining show.
I once bagged vaguely funny (or not funny at all) church signs for very rarely being “on message” or at all related to what goes on if the people the signs are for (passers by) choose to come through the doors of a church building. I was, perhaps, too dismissive, and my discussion with a guy from Outreach Media on that post presents a bit of a middle way… But my position hasn’t really changed all that much – most church signs are used poorly, and if they make Christians cringe, must be worse for outsiders.
I’m also not generally a fan of outdoor advertising – partly because it’s visual clutter, partly because in my opinion, unless you’re saturating a city with a very clear proposition to the people of the city, they’re a fleeting reminder of something people don’t care about – they’re intrusion marketing personified. Or boardsonified. They work for Coke – because Coke is in every shop you walk past after seeing the billboard, they work for people promoting longer lasting satisfaction in the bedroom – because they get media coverage for being shocking – and generally, they haven’t worked all that well for Christianity (thanks Harold Campling and the ACL). They do work if they’re attention grabbing and controversial, and an attempt to be part of a conversation that is actually happening – not the conversation you think is happening that people cared about 30 years ago.
Many churches have the capacity for outdoor advertising – be it a small sign, a letterboard, or a big space. It does not follow that all churches should use them. But if you’ve got the time and resources to think carefully about what you’re going to say, it’s the low hanging fruit of communicating with the people around you.
If you’re going to do them, you may as well do them well… While my preference would just be for clear brand information and a clear, and related call to action, something like: “This week here at church we’ll be looking at X – will you join us at TIMES” – but in a much more engaging, non-boring, non-templated way. The rationale for this approach is – statistically speaking the same people are passing by your church on their way to school, work, home, etc, so the sign outside your building is a long term visual presence for them, and if you can, over time, build the expectation that you’re not a weird cult, but are a church that tackles interesting issues in an interesting way, that will make their decision to come through your doors a little more informed.
I wonder if there’s something like the equivalent of a lectionary for church signs – where the whole gospel is communicated in a year, and if that could be made more winsome and engaging – maybe something like a catechism for church sign writers… but I digress.
This has, indeed, been a rather long digression. A setting of the scene, if you will…
I have mixed feelings about this – I’m not sure, following the unfortunate issues of a few weeks back, that I want smoking and sin being associated so closely together. It’s a bit like Tony Abbott using the words “die of shame” – there’s going to be an immediate association drawn, especially when part of the argument is essentially the same, just with an explicit, rather than implicit, reference to the theological underpinnings.
But the story is pretty brilliant and engaging – and doesn’t draw the comparison.
St. Peters Anglican Church is on a highway. The sign is getting plenty of attention. I’m not sure how big it is, and how legible it is from the road – someone from Outreach Media might care to comment on that… but the “warning from the Bible” box is pretty gold.
Ignoring the response from the anti-smoking lobby – who used this as an opportunity to stay on message for themselves – this article is pretty brilliant, Andrew Bruce, the man on the ground at St. Peters, got a great opportunity to get some good quotes in, and he took it.
“Better to be a smoker that goes to heaven than a person who doesn’t smoke and falls under the judgment of God,” the Reverend Andrew Bruce said.
The billboard outside his St Peters Anglican Church, on the Princes Highway, is seen by about 40,000 cars a day, he said.
“Jesus is good news for smokers and non-smokers alike.”
The health risks for smokers are not a patch on the prospect of eternal damnation, he suggested.
“One is eternal and one is only for this life; I think that’s the point.”
Love it. I love this endorsement of Outreach Media too – at first read I had a problem, but I’ll explain why I don’t think it’s a problem after the quote…
“Mr Bruce said the organisation’s posters and billboards, which some churches pay to use each month, were deliberately designed to attract attention.
“I think the biggest sin of the lot is being boring. If we put up a sign saying ‘Jesus loves you’ that’s what people expect us to say. You need to strike deeper than that and engage people or it’s here today, gone tomorrow.””
Yes. Being boring kills. You won’t get an argument against that in these parts… I’d rather see churches put up signs about Jesus love than signs that aren’t about Jesus at all – but this quote isn’t saying “we’ll engage by not talking about Jesus” but “we’ll talk about Jesus in an engaging way”… the first is a possible interpretation of that quote, but the idea that we’re to “strike deeper” not “strike elsewhere” is pretty critical, and a point well made.
Did you hear the one about the Cardinal and the Evolutionary biologist? Or at least watch Australia’s highest ranking Catholic, George Pell, take on Richard Dawkins on the ABC’s flagship “new media” panel program Q&A, on Monday night in an Easter extravaganza?
You can watch it in full here…
It was a train wreck. Talking too much about where Pell went wrong wouldn’t be conducive to keeping my promise not to debate atheists online, at least atheists I don’t know personally. But Pell was awful. In my humble opinion. The only saving grace of the night was that Dawkins wasn’t much better, and my conversations with non-Christian friends afterwards, both on Facebook and in the real world, confirm that his brand of intolerant fundamentalism is every bit as on the nose as Christianity.
Despite giving up visiting atheist blogs and forums to engage in what I would like to call “winsome trolling” – where you keep a conversation going, but as pleasantly as possible, as “tolerant” as possible, as genuinely inquisitive as possible, and as focused on Jesus as possible – I have some experience arguing with people who adhere closely to Mr Dawkins views, with a more than liberal smattering of those advocated by the late Mr Hitchens, and messers Dennett and Harris. By my calculation I’ve spend hundreds of hours engaged in such debates, either at the keyboard, posting here, speaking to others in person, or ruminating about the conversation I’m currently engaged in while I go about my daily business. I’m a fairly experienced amateur. But I’m an amateur no less. Pell. Arguably. Is a professional. At least that’s why he was presented to us on Monday night. And yet. Almost immediately. He became tangled in several follies of, well, any form of argument/debate, let alone an argument or debate that is televised to a national audience.
In some moments he was sneering, in others pompous, in others snide, in others confused, in others doddery, in others he danced around a question without going near providing an answer, and every five minutes he trotted out a reference to Hitler. In short he was neither convincing or winsome. His theology was jelly-nailed-to-mast stuff. One minute he said he hoped hell existed because Hitler’s evil required it, on the other hand he said he hoped nobody was there, then he said that atheists would end up in heaven if they did good – thus defeating himself. Why would one sign up for a life of self denial if the outcome is unchanged. Pell said himself (and I agree) that an atheist can do good. What he didn’t say was that any “good” act is the result of humanity being created in the image of God, and that none of it has any merit so far as our relationship with God is concerned (the former is consistent with a Catholic understanding of human nature, the latter is pretty much the root cause of the Reformation and non-Catholic Christianity).
I wasn’t expecting to agree with much of what Pell said theologically – but I was hoping that as a guy wearing our colours, and claiming to own Christ, he’d at the very least be loving and winsome, and treat his opponent with respect. Instead, he spend time strawmanning Dawkins, engaging in logical fallacies, playing the man not the argument, misunderstanding the science he was claiming to promote, and generally not talking about Jesus – except after he’d confused everybody by talking about ancient Greek metaphysics (particularly Platonism), while trying to explain what goes on with the wafers when Catholics take communion (transubstantiation).
At one point, when Tony Jones asked him where he’d draw a line on what is “myth” and what is “truth” in the Bible, or rather historical truth, citing the example of God writing the Ten Commandments on stone tablets, Pell flat out denied that the Bible says God wrote the commandments down.
“TONY JONES: So are you talking about a kind of Garden of Eden scenario with an actual Adam and Eve?
GEORGE PELL: Well, Adam and Eve are terms – what do they mean: life and earth. It’s like every man. That’s a beautiful, sophisticated, mythological account. It’s not science but it’s there to tell us two or three things. First of all that God created the world and the universe. Secondly, that the key to the whole of universe, the really significant thing, are humans and, thirdly, it is a very sophisticated mythology to try to explain the evil and suffering in the world.
TONY JONES: But it isn’t a literal truth. You shouldn’t see it in any way as being an historical or literal truth?
GEORGE PELL: It’s certainly not a scientific truth and it’s a religious story told for religious purposes.
TONY JONES: Just quickly, because the Old Testament in particular is full of these kind of stories, I mean is there a point where you distinguish between metaphor and reality? For example, Moses receiving the Ten Commandments inscribed directly by God on a mountain?
GEORGE PELL: I’m not sure that the Old Testament says that God inscribed the Ten Commandments but leaving that aside it’s difficult to know how exactly that worked but Moses was a great man. There was a great encounter with the divine. Actually, with Moses we get the key that enables us to come together with the Greeks with reason because Moses said who will I tell the Egyptians and he tell that my name is “I am who I am”.”
Perhaps he’s not familiar with chapters 31-34 of Exodus…
Exodus 31:18 When the LORD finished speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the covenant law, the tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God…
32:15 Moses turned and went down the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands. They were inscribed on both sides, front and back. 16 The tablets were the work of God; the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets.”
The other thing he kept doing, that really irked me, was presenting the Catholic theological position as the “Christian” position, rather than the position of his own tradition.
MATTHEW THOMPSON: I am an atheist. What do you think will happen when I die and how do you know?
TONY JONES: George Pell, we’ll start with you? You ought to be an authority on this, I imagine?
GEORGE PELL: Well, I know from the Christian point of view, God loves everybody but every genuine motion towards the truth is a motion towards God and when an atheist dies, like everybody else, they will be judged on the extent to which they have moved towards goodness and truth and beauty but in the Christian view, God loves everyone except those who turn his back turn their back on him through evil acts.
Sadly that is not the “Christian” point of view, but a disputed point where Catholics and Protestants disagree.
It was. In short. A train wreck.
Here are some of my favourite tweets from/in response to the night that pretty much sum up what I’m thinking…
A scientific knowledge of the world no sooner dispenses with God than a mechanic’s knowledge of theCommodore explains away Holden.
Jesus got 8 mentions in the program, by name, he was obliquely referred to in a couple of Pell’s quotes. One was from a questioner, one was from Tony Jones, three were from Dawkins.
Here’s the best description of the gospel from the night.
“…the fundamental idea of New Testament Christianity, which is that Jesus is the son of God who is redeeming humanity from original sin, the idea that we are born in sin and the only way we can be redeemed from sin is through the death of Jesus…”
And it’s from Richard Dawkins. Who is dismissing it. Dawkins is clearer on the gospel he’s rejecting than Pell is on the gospel he’s promoting.
Two mentions were in a segment where Pell suggested that the Jews were culturally inferior to the other civilisations of their time.
“TONY JONES: I’m sorry, can I just interrupt? Are you including Jesus in that, who was obviously Jewish and was of that community?
GEORGE PELL: Exactly.
TONY JONES: So intellectually not up to it?
GEORGE PELL: Well, that’s a nice try, Tony. The people, in terms of sophistication, the psalms are remarkable in terms of their buildings and that sort of thing. They don’t compare with the great powers. But Jesus came not as a philosopher to the elite. He came to the poor and the battlers and for some reason he choose a very difficult but actually they are now an intellectually elite because over the centuries they have been pushed out of every other form of work. They’re a – I mean Jesus, I think, is the greatest the son of God but, leaving that aside, the greatest man that ever live so I’ve got a great admiration for the Jews but we don’t need to exaggerate their contribution in their early days.”
Pell finally got on message at the last gasp, in his best answer of the night, answering the last question which essentially suggested a modified Pascal’s Wager, where people should become Christians because life is better for Christians, particularly health wise. Pell thought that was a bad idea.
GEORGE PELL: So am I. It’s a question of truth. Christians don’t present God as, like Santa Claus, something that a myth that’s useful for children and believing in God and being a Christian cuts both ways. More people were killed for their Christian belief in the last century than any other century, probably than all the other centuries combined. They died on principle to be faithful to Jesus so we might get some benefits. You know we mightn’t get ulcers, we might live a bit longer, that might have much more to do with our heredity but we follow Christ because we believe it’s the truth. I think it does bring a peace of mind. It does help us but sometimes it gets us into my life would be much simpler and much easier if I didn’t have to go to bat for a number of Christian principles.
The one thing the transcript doesn’t capture is tone. Pell was snarling. Sarcastic. Snide. He didn’t miss an opportunity to take a cheap shot. Dawkins wasn’t any better. But the tone of this discussion was what really disappointed me. I am overjoyed that we live in a country where the national broadcaster hosts discussions like this, without any fear of repercussions or persecution from the government, or any fear of censorship. But surely Christian spokespeople should be using these opportunities to talk about Jesus, not get cheap laughs and applause from a crowd for mocking their opponents.
So that was Q&A’s Easter special. It made me angry. Why couldn’t someone like Peter Jensen have been invited onto the panel instead. He’s so much more winsome, and able to stay on message about what Christianity is really about (hint – Jesus). Check out the raw footage from this interview he did with SBS.
Mike, also known as M-Dog, O’Connor is the minister at Rockhampton Pressy Church. He’s a top bloke who’s always on the lookout for ways to love his community and point them to Jesus. This means using the media a bit, and finding quirky angles to latch on to in order to get Jesus front and centre. I interviewed him because I wanted some regional balance because I think PR is more effective and a bit easier in the less crowded regional markets. Anyway. He says some good stuff.
1. How much media stuff have you guys done?
We’ve had fair bit to do with the media during my three years in Rockhampton. I was interviewed by TV and Radio during our church’s involvement with the Rockhampton Flood recovery and also during our church’s 150th Anniversary Celebration.
I’ve also written a couple of opinion pieces for the local daily newspaper “The Rockhampton Bulletin” about same-sex marriage and about a pizza franchise called “Hell’s Pizza”.
I also use facebook for ministry, I have lots of non-christian ‘friends’ and I’ve taken up twitter again recently.
2. What benefits do you see from engaging with the media?
There are many benefits – I struggle to think of any disadvantages.
In a technological age, the media provide another platform, if not the greatest platform for the church to proclaim the gospel news about Jesus. The media access more people than I can ever reach on a Sunday with the good news about Jesus. We have a message – they have the medium. Our culture is media saturated and so the church needs to engage with the media if we still want people to take seriously the claims about the person and work of Jesus Christ.
3. What do you think stops churches engaging with the media?
It’s hard to speculate accurately, perhaps it’s a matter of not knowing how to use the media or not knowing what things might be in the public interest where the church’s voice would be welcomed into the debate or expected to be heard?
I wonder if there is still a ghetto mentality amongst christians when it comes to the media. The idea of ‘secular’ and ‘sacred’, ‘clean’ and unclean’ still shapes a lot of church thinking and the media is seen as ‘part of the problem’ in an ‘evil world’. I think a more helpful way of viewing the media is seeing it as a platform where we can reach people with the the message of Jesus. This must be done in an intelligent and respectful way, by which I mean, knowing what battles are worth fighting for and the kind of voice or tone we bring to the debate.
4. What do you think it looks like when Christians do media engagement badly?
It’s embarrassing! I think bad engagement means picking the wrong battles and speaking with the wrong voice. There have been a number of examples lately across all mediums concerning same-sex and religious education in schools where we’ve spoken with the wrong tone or picked the wrong battle. What happens is that people think the church is about rules and regulations because essentially that’s what we are telling them. This only perpetuates the stereo-type that Christianity is becoming more and more irrelevant as our culture seeks to be morally progressive. We lose our right to speak about anything intelligently, we’re no longer being invited to the discussion. Bad engagement means no-one is listening when we want to talk to them about Jesus and we’re left wondering why people want nothing to do with the church!
5. How important is it, from your perspective, for us to talk about Jesus and the cross, when we’re appearing in public?
I would see it as essential. If the message that God has given the church to tell the World is about the death and resurrection of Jesus and the forgiveness of sins, then surely that’s what the church needs to be communicating at every opportunity. If we aren’t talking about Jesus we are irrelevant and an out of touch organisation with strict and exclusive morals. Problem is we’re too busy attacking the issues demanding the world listen when really our job is to show them how Jesus is relevant. Its not the role of the church to make Jesus relevant to the world but to show the world how he is relevant.
I wonder if we’ve lost that distinction?
6. Can you tell us a little bit about the Hell Pizza thing?
Sure, an article appeared in our local newspaper about the opening of a pizza franchise in Brisbane and a local Pentecostal Pastor outraged that such demonic activity was taking place in their area. The Pentecostal Pastor was calling for a boycott of the store and for it’s closure.
I made a comment online about how the Pentecostal Pastor was over-reacting and being unhelpful. It was 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.
Guy Mason is the Melbourne minister (from City On A Hill) who used a discussion about a controversial piece of art on Sunrise to talk about Jesus to a national audience. I thought he did a great job, so I asked if I could interview him, mostly for the purposes of writing a story, but also because I thought he’d have good stuff to say based on his performance. So here are his answers to my questions.
Guy has some training and experience in Public Relations, and an M. Div from Ridley College in Melbourne.
1. How did the Sunrise interview come about?
They called me on a Sunday, while I was at Starbucks prepping for our evening service. I’ve done a number of spots for them before; since planting City on a Hill we have attracted a bit of press – especially recently with articles in the Age, Herald Sun, interview with Triple J. I don’t take all opportunities that come up, but am happy to serve where I can.
2. With your PR background do you proactively look for opportunities to engage the media?
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. I don’t hunt down media (like I would in a PR consultancy) but as the Spirit leads I follow. Interestingly, I find a lot of media people (like most Australians) are curious about Jesus. However, their impression of most churches and religious groups is that they are solely interested in speaking against culture. As a Christian I believe there is much about culture to reject – but also, much to receive and then also aspects to redeem. For example, in an interview with Triple J I was given an opportunity to talk about the gospel and sexuality. The common view is that all churches teach that sex is evil. In contrast secular culture treats sex not as the devil, but a God to worship. I then shared how as Christians we believe sex is neither devil or god, but rather a gift from God to be enjoyed frequently and freely in marriage.
3. Do you think other churches need PR experience to do this?
I think we all have much to learn in this area. The very 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 and continue to learn a lot from this friendship.
As I understand PR, it is the practice of understanding an audience/demographic/culture and communicating a message in a comprehensible and relevant way. As a believer we are all called to be communicators of the greatest message in Jesus. We don’t want to change the message at all – but consideration to the audience is key. We need to be grappling with questions like – who are we speaking to? what language do they speak? what is their understanding of Jesus? what obstacles exist that get in the way of them seeing Jesus for who he really is? what are the most effective and culturally relevant methods of communicating Jesus? All of this sits under the banner of God’s providence and power who is at work equipping the saints to proclaim the good news of Jesus and awaken unregenerate hearts to the majesty that is Christ.
4. What made you decide to respond to the art work the way you did?
To be honest, it was a Monday morning following a long day of preaching, prayer, and I was pretty tired. I asked people to pray for me and that God would use my words for his glory. I am aware that on shows like Sunrise you only get sound bite opportunities to speak. Thus, with a very complicated and heavily loaded segment, I wanted to be clear, concise and point people to Jesus.
5. Is there anything you regret not saying?
All the time. I always walk away from church, interviews, conversations saying “I should have said this!” Thankfully, God’s grace is made perfect in my weakness.
6. How important is it, from your perspective, for us to talk about Jesus and the cross, when we’re appearing in public?
In Paul’s letter to the corinthians he says – “whether you eat or drink, whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” Whether I’m chatting with my mates at the football, catching up with a young bloke exploring Christianity, counselling a couple going through a marriage crises, or speaking before thousands of Aussies in a channel seven studio, I want to lift up Jesus. I’m not going to do this perfectly, or even helpfully all the time – but pray that God uses everything I do for the good of our nation and the glory of his name.
7. What were the potential problems, from your perspective, with answering the Sunrise questions differently?
I didn’t give them the controversy they perhaps wanted. On other occasions I’ve rejected media spots because of the corner they wanted to put ‘christianity’ in – that churches are judgemental, divided and irrelevant. I’ve then watched as the spot was filled by someone else who fell right into their plan (either wittingly or unwittingly).
But while many media agencies like controversy, Sunrise appreciate honesty, authenticity and anything that is unexpected. These are welcome in a world of political double talk.
In any interview you will have one team wanting you to answer one way, and another team hoping you say something completely different. At the end of the day I want to live for Jesus. It’s his opinion that matters.
8. What do you think are the benefits of doing media stuff like this interview?
We are working really hard these days to get people to come to us and hear the message of Jesus. If opportunities open up for us to ‘go to the people’ than praise God. The gospel is for all people and our city is full of people whom God is calling to Jesus. In addition, we are called to be in the world. Jesus said, as the father has sent me so I send you. The gospel light is to be present in homes, the workplace, the university, the television network. Jesus said – we are 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.
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.”
The Centre for Public Christianity is another. They don’t necessarily comment directly on political issues (perhaps they should) but they do engage with the news cycle. Here’s a wordle of their releases.
Compare that with this ACL wordle from my post last week:
Now, some caveats. The ACL write more releases about more issues with a different purpose to these other two organisations. I recognise this. And my point remains that this proactive media strategy has left them as the default spokespeople for Christian belief in Australia. I’ve had some fruitful email conversations (from my perspective) with some ACL representatives since my last post. I won’t talk outcomes, but I think they’ve at the very least heard and acknowledged the point the post made. While I think the ACL get good coverage from their releases (releases get picked up in some form) the coverage is not usually favourable or positive. At some point as a PR person I’d be questioning the value of speaking if my position was never properly represented. In PR we value stories with an equivalent advertising spend and usually a multiplier based on how much the story represents our view. Unless the ACL subscribes to the “all publicity is good publicity” maxim, I’d say their multiplier is so low as to be non-existent, and their media coverage is hurting their cause. And worse. Hurting the gospel. My working hypothesis is that it is possible to speak on public issues without removing the gospel of Jesus from the picture. The questions are how, and what the PR “win” is. I’d say the Centre for Public Christianity has the best Christian PR approach in Australia, and the Sydney Anglicans aren’t far behind. Even when stories featuring Archbishop Peter Jensen are negative he usually manages to make sure the gospel is clearly articulated and linked to his response. That’s an art.
A Case Study in Gay Marriage
The Archbishop has recently featured in the SMH for an opinion piece he wrote elsewhere on the gay marriage issue. Here’s another confronting moral issue of our time where there’s every chance the gospel is going to be lost in a sea of moralising reinterpreted as bigotry (or homophobia). Sadly in this case, and I suspect because it was the result of a slightly underhanded move where quotes were lifted from an article for a Christian audience (Southern Cross Newspaper) and placed in a story for a different outlet (The SMH) so the angle was doubtless well and truly form before any follow up interview took place and thus the initiative was lost.
Now. I recognise that an article in the church’s own newspaper is the perfect place to discuss issues from a Christian perspective, it’s for the church, not for the public at large. So I’m not really interested in judging the approach to the issue they’ve taken there (which I agree with), nor in whether or not they should have expected the media to pick up the story and run with it.
I’m wondering if part of the issue with the way we approach debates regarding homosexuality is that we lack empathy with those who identify as homosexual or struggle with same sex attraction. We are able to put ourselves in the shoes of heterosexual moral offenders with a “there but for the grace of God go I” mentality. But most of us have no idea what its like to grapple with an outside the norm sexual orientation. And I think it shows. And I think our approach to the issue of gay marriage might be a little bit more nuanced if we firstly realised that our opposition to gay marriage is largely driven by our Biblical convictions, not necessarily our natural ones, and secondly realised that the origin of these convictions means we should think carefully about how we approach legislation in a democracy which definitionally seeks to serve all constituants not just the powerful majority or noisiest lobby group.
Gay marriage makes an interesting PR case study, particularly in the light of this article dealing with the Sydney Anglican position on the issue.
Arguing against gay marriage is going to end up confusing the gospel message in the public eye. Which is really my major reason for not fighting the issue. We end up becoming just like the ACL, no matter how nuanced our position. For two reasons:
a) because the media is hostile to us, and
b) because people like the ACL keep making this about “Christian worldview inspired family values”…
Stories like the one on the Archbishop’s position are normative mainstream media treatments of Christian statements about moral issues. I’d be interested to see the story if we framed our approach around questions of identity, and being able to identify, in our society, by whatever belief, creed, or sexuality we choose. I think that’s a message with traction that would possible allow Christian ministers to continue to define marriage traditionally, present the gospel clearly as we articulate our position on homosexuality (“we believe we are not defined by our sexuality but defined by following Jesus which has flow on effects for how we see sexuality”)… every time we speak out on a position morally the story is going to end with a quote like this one:
‘The archbishop would acknowledge we live in a multi-faith society, and as such he must respect that his views should not be imposed on those religions that want to perform same-sex marriages, such as the Quakers and progressive synagogues, or the civil celebrants who perform 67 per cent of all marriages,” he said.”
Here’s how the ACL tackles the issue in a Media Release. Here’s a thought. Rather than angrily responding to a minority who face a fair bit of ostracism for having outside the norm sexual orientation for using the words “bigot” and “homophobe” what if we turn the other cheek. And empathise with them. And lovingly disagree.
“We are also yet to have a debate in this country free of abusive slurs such as ‘homophobe’ and ‘bigot’ and until that can occur, not one should jump to conclusions about the inevitability of redefining marriage.”
It doesn’t really matter what we say in this debate. The other side is always going to reinterpret our position as an attack on their core identity (why is sexuality an anchor point for identity anyway?). So why not just stick to presenting the gospel in a gracious and winsome manner, where we do more than pay lip service to gay rights (which every Christian statement seems to be based on). Why not talk about how Jesus loves all sinners – gay and straight. And how he calls us to find our identity not in our sexuality, but in submitting to his Lordship? The media will still be hostile to us. But at least we’re not confusing the moral issue with the gospel message, as though homosexuality is worse than other sins.
The question then is essentially what would Jesus say about gay marriage, to the state. Because that, trite as it sounds, should frame the approach we take to the state. While Jesus clearly taught that marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman (Matthew 19:4-6) he wasn’t really a political revolutionary speaking out against the immorality of the Roman empire. And there was plenty to criticise.
I’m not sure what sort of normative ethical principles of engaging with the state can be drawn from Jesus’ “render unto Caesar” approach to paying taxes. Or from his lack of protesting about the empire’s immorality (when his disciples clearly expected a political revolution). But I’d suggest his approach with sinners – lovingly calling them to repent, because God’s kingdom was near, should probably have some bearing on how we approach issues of morality. The problem is that this can potentially lead to political quietism, where we say nothing about the way our government runs. Which would be a bizarre position to adopt. Especially in a democracy. And especially when we have a responsibility to seek the welfare of our city (some previous posts on that note: 1 and 2). So, and I’m happy to flesh this out in the comments, I think there’s a place for speaking out politically in a WWJD approach, but I think it should be motivated by a desire to love the lost and proclaim the Lordship of Jesus. Not impose that Lordship by proxy. It would be interesting to examine how the Christian church changed the Roman Empire, in terms of their views of Christianity, but that would be a pretty long post.
What would Paul Do
Another interesting paradigm for understanding a Christian relationship to the state comes from Paul’s trial before Agrippa in Acts 26. Now. Paul was defending himself against criminal charges, but he was also essentially lobbying for Christianity’s legal status before a hostile state. We’re increasingly in a position where parallels can easily be drawn between the state we live in and the idyllic, though very immoral, Roman empire. Paul meets this king, and in his defence, he preaches the gospel of Jesus and essentially appears to be evangelising Agrippa in the process.
“28 Then Agrippa said to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?”
29 Paul replied, “Short time or long—I pray to God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains.”
There’s a Biblical model for lobbying. Right there. I won’t revisit old ground too much, and this is already an excessively long post. But in my next installment I’ll have a go at writing a media release that demonstrates how I think one might stay “on message” in this debate.
This video is doing the rounds. It’s painful viewing.
There are a couple of things I don’t like about it – one is the dichotomy that Bashir sets Bell up with. Bell can’t win with the question the way it’s framed. So it wasn’t particularly nice.
The other is that people keep calling journalist Martin Bashir a non-Christian, when he’s not. He, like me, is a reformed, evangelical, Presbyterian. A good Presbyterian no less. Who would doubtless be accepted for candidacy for holding orthodox theological views and having no characteristics that disqualify him from ministry…