May 1, 2012

The Challenge of Christian Journalism

3 Min Read

I am trained as a journalist. And I’m trained as a preacher. You might be surprised to learn there’s significant overlap between these callings. Both teach by distilling complicated concepts about how the world works. Both herald news, good and bad. You might not know about the overlap between these callings because journalists and preachers generally don’t like each other. Journalists rank among the most skeptical professionals. They don’t trust anyone they cover. They’ve seen enough double-talk and corruption both within and without the church to last several lifetimes. A pastor recently told me his church convenes meetings for Christian artists, bankers, and many other professionals. Despite the many media outlets in this city, few journalists ever darken the door of his church.

The mistrust is mutual. Preachers know that when they hear from a journalist, something is usually wrong. No one cares to know how many marriages have been saved, new believers baptized, children catechized, or meals served to the homeless. But journalists demand to know all the juicy details about why a group of malcontents left to start their own church. Few journalists bother to learn the intricacies of church life and theology, so when they do write about Christianity, they often bungle the details. Over and over again I have seen ministry leaders sabotage even honest, sympathetic efforts to explain their side of the story because they don’t trust the media. They think by ignoring or abusing journalists that they will prevent publication or at least secure a positive outcome. They are wrong.

Such preachers operate under the mistaken impression that they can control the narrative of controversy to protect themselves. If anything, the proliferation of blogs, message boards, and other new media outlets today makes it harder than ever to cover up our misdeeds. Disgruntled critics don’t even need to persuade a journalist to tell their story. They’ll set up a blog and trust Google to turn it into a global publishing platform. And they won’t be bound by the pesky codes of ethics that guide the guild of professional journalists. In our day, the ends justify whatever means are necessary to hold leaders accountable. Citing reliable sources has become an antiquated notion when Twitter demands immediate answers.

These developments need not scare preachers, however. The changing media climate holds us accountable to act on what we profess. We know the gory details of pastoral ministry require great discretion with the delicate troubles entrusted to our care. We lament when this news spreads to the detriment of those involved. We must resolve, then, to stamp out gossip, lest our churches resemble Corinth, torn apart by quarrelling, jealously, and disorder (2 Cor. 12:20). The responsibility starts with us, overseers who must be “above reproach” (Titus 1:7) rather than “insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers” (Titus 1:10). When we live out our high calling in Christ, we can rest easy in the knowledge that no truth exposed can harm us.

Journalists may face even greater temptations in this new media era. Not all news is fit to print. But discretion has never been a high journalistic priority. Especially when professional standards have been lowered by competition, we face severe pressure to break news without regard for the consequences. Surely this is worldly, because as followers of Christ we’re told by Paul to “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3).

This does not mean we buckle under the pressure of self-interested church leaders with something to hide. We think of the damage in the Roman Catholic Church as a result of the pedophilia reports. Some may be tempted to implicate anti-Catholic media, and they may bear some blame. But surely we can recognize that fault lies primarily with the priests who abused children and the bishops who covered for them.

The main challenge for journalists, then, is to resist the powerful pull toward the new, urgent, and controversial. This is how journalism schools teach us to evaluate news priorities. If it bleeds, it leads. Even Christian journalists fall into these patterns. This is why we tend to give undue attention to demagogues predicting the death of the church and the end of civilization. This is why we also tend to give a sympathetic ear to theological innovators who so carelessly dismiss the accountability of church tradition.

Journalists that would serve the church will fulfill a catechetical calling. We are teachers who help other Christians understand a world created by God but corrupted by sin. Our investigative work reflects the biblical reality that we live in the “not yet” of the coming kingdom, a time when our “adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). We expose the sin that imperils believers so that they might be prepared to defend themselves in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Yet, we also live in the “already” time, when the Father is working in glorious ways to spread the saving knowledge of His Son, Jesus Christ. This is good news, and journalists have been called to tell it. With a little help from preachers, we just might be able to encourage the church with a new, more edifying approach to media.