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Our Own Worst Media Enemies
Christians should not complain about bad news coverage if our church leaders aren’t willing to make themselves available to local media.

Religious people in Canada complain about how the mass media treat religion. It doesn’t matter if you’re Sikh or Buddhist, Muslim or Christian – we’re all unhappy about stories that stereotype our traditions and focus on the wildest and least representative members of our communities.

I don’t understand why pastors who pride themselves on being able to preach well to seekers can’t speak well to journalists.

Evangelicals in particular often complain – and we have good reason to do so, according to Wilfrid Laurier University scholar David Haskell. In his new book Through a Lens Darkly: How the News Media Perceive and Portray Evangelicals (Clements, 2009), Haskell shows that, when the values of Evangelicals clash with the values reporters believe are “mainstream Canadian,” journalistic integrity is often sacrificed to make sure the “moral of the story” comes out “right.”

I’ve had enough experience with Canadian journalists to nod my head sympathetically. It is often very difficult to get Canadian journalists even to understand, let alone sympathize with, an evangelical point of view on controversial matters.

I will leave Haskell to make his case, however, since he makes it very well.

Today I want to offer a complementary point: we Evangelicals, we Christians, we religious people are often our own worst media enemies. Here is a lightly edited version of an email I received from an oft-honoured Canadian religion reporter on the Tuesday before Easter:

A couple of evangelical pastors I wanted to speak to have not come through by my deadline, and I am down to the wire. Would you like to respond to a few questions about what Christians, and particularly Evangelicals, are doing to engage, retain and bring in new members in this day and age? I know some evangelical churches are doing really well but, in general, what are your thoughts on how   Evangelicals in Canada are engaging the wider “secular” culture, bringing in new people, making their viewpoints attractive to non-Christians – that kind of thing? Even a few paragraphs from you would be helpful. Or, if you prefer, we could talk briefly on the phone tonight or early tomorrow. This large feature has to be completely finished by noon tomorrow.Sorry to burden you at this last minute. Thanks.

I helped with the story, which was published in due course. But I followed up with the reporter later and asked more about the problems trying to contact those pastors in big evangelical churches. Here’s the reply:

Sometimes I wonder if the problem is the receptionists – or maybe church policies. I didn’t get any sense they were really helping me to contact the senior pastors. Everyone was in “meetings” that couldn’t be interrupted. So I’m left to leave voice messages that may or may not get picked up. Seemed like avoidance of the secular media was going on. And you know the consequences of that – even when I emphasized it was pretty well a “good news story.”

Well, we do know the consequences of that. We complain about it all the time. But while Haskell’s evidence shows that some of the problem is with the media, some of the problem also stares back from the mirror.

Yes, it was Holy Week and pastors were busy. Guess what: the other time of year when reporters want to talk with pastors is Advent when pastors are busy.

Journalists rarely come to us when we think we have a story – although most of them are glad for us to suggest ideas. They come to us when they think they have a story already. And Christmas and Easter are still occasions in Canada for Christian stories to be told.

I don’t understand why pastors who pride themselves on being able to preach well to seekers can’t speak well to journalists. I particularly don’t understand why churches anxious to connect with their communities at Christmas and Easter won’t make it a high priority to connect with the mass media of those communities.

So get ready.

And, please, answer the phone.

John Stackhouse teaches on theology and culture at Regent College, Vancouver. His latest book is a second edition of Can God Be Trusted? Faith and the Challenge of Evil (InterVarsity, 2009).

Originally published in Faith Today, May/June 2009.

Used with permission. Copyright © 2009 Christianity.ca.

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