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The Sad State of Christian Journalism

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Acknowledgements

At every mail delivery the tide rolls in. At my post as editor of World I see more of the flotsam and jetsam of Christian journalism than I ever imagined existed. The postman brings some Christian publications flush with public relations pieces and propaganda. He brings others filled with "objective" articles beloved by those journalism professors who lack a sense of objective truth and see a story that balances ungodly subjectivities as the highest form of service.

Eight years ago, in a book called Prodigal Press, I described how American secular journalism is the wayward son of Christianity. Now, after some additional experience in editing, journalism teaching, and service as a judge in Evangelical Press Association contests, I need to acknowledge that much of modern evangelical journalism also has gone astray. Many newspapers have little news. Many publications that deem themselves Christian are neither hot nor cold, but tepid. Thoughtful readers thus spit them out.

Too often some of the most prominent publications provide not more but LESS: Lukewarm Evangelical Substance and Style. Too often evangelical publications, instead of exhibiting the journalistic excitement of the hunt, are content to print public-relations releases and carry on their business in a joyless manner that makes them resemble a proctologist’s press. Too often they fall from a proper seriousness of purpose into solemnity, so that readers who page through them do so out of duty rather than pleasure. And many in search of news do not bother.

One form of Christian journalism has had an enormous spurt in recent years; one form has not. Christian talk radio is on a roll; quality Christian news publications are hard to find, and none of the conventional explanations tells why.

Contrary to some modern myths, the problems of Christian print journalism have not arisen because readership of newspapers and magazines is declining. True, the percentage of American adults who read a daily newspaper each day has declined significantly over the past thirty years, but the number of nondaily newspapers has soared: Since the mid-1960s total circulation of weekly newspapers has almost doubled, from thirty to fifty-five million. Big circulation gains during the 1990s at conservative public affairs magazines such as National Review and The American Spectator have also shown that if the right stories are printed and marketed, readers will come.

The argument that news publications aimed at a particular segment of the population cannot survive and thrive also does not hold. Specialty news publications that are of high interest to advertisers, such as Golf Digest, have prospered, but other news carriers aimed at particular ethnic, ideological, or religious niches–blacks, Hispanics, New Agers, singles, the elderly, parents, homosexuals, Catholics, Jews, and so on–have also done well.

Nor can Christian publishers argue reasonably that their audience is not sufficiently print-oriented to keep press hope alive. The Washington Post, in referring to evangelicals as unintelligent and easily led, implied also that they were poorly read, but that is true neither historically or–at least in relation to the general population–currently. It is true that weak worship at some churches has contributed to not only lightness of belief but a decreased willingness to read tough-minded analyses of current events. Fluff generates fluff, yet non-Christians who face parallel social tendencies have still managed to develop quality news analysis.

Nor can it reasonably be said that evangelicals have no need for quality publications. Now as in the past, Christians under attack desperately need good magazines and newspapers, just as colonists under attack before the American Revolution needed committees of correspondence. For example, it will be hard to replace the welfare state with a truly compassionate system based in religious and private charities if effective groups face antagonistic coverage by those committed to increasing centralized power.

The success of Christian radio talk shows has not eliminated the need for words on paper. Articles provide readily reproducible affirmation of heroes and in-depth criticism of villains in a way that tapes cannot. At the least, Christian publications can hold powerful liberal newspapers and magazines accountable in a way that now-you-hear-them, now-you-don’t broadcasts cannot.

The need is great–and yet, instead of having quality publications, evangelicals are for the most part put to shame. Some of the slimiest publications in terms of morality are far more attractive in style than biblically solid but journalistically stolid local Christian newspapers. In central Texas, for example, a side-by-side graphics and writing comparison of the Bible-believing Texas Messenger and the Scripture-spurning Texas Triangle, a homosexual monthly, shows that the Messenger’s mediocre writing and layout do not glorify God. In city after city throughout America, publications that exhibit moral depravity often show technical superiority.

None of the big economic reasons–the "macro" explanations, to borrow a term from the economists–explain why the Triangle is more journalistically readable than the Messenger, and why similarly sad comparisons can be made across the country. It therefore becomes necessary to look at the "micro"–particular editorial decisions and especially the writing. Strong photos and graphic elements add enormous value to a publication, but good writing is at the heart of most successful newspapers and magazines, and that is what this book will emphasize.

The rarity of good Christian news publications represents both a crisis of entrepreneurship and a faltering of applied faith. Many aspiring Christian journalists know the Bible but do not know how to apply biblical wisdom to problems of writing and editing. Those who hope to build God’s kingdom through journalism need more than good intentions and more than a secular journalism-school education: They need to see how to hold every thought, and every part of their editing and reporting process, captive to Christ.

Judging from their publications, many editors do not know how to develop stories that pile up specific detail gained through journalistic pavement pounding. They fill their pages with warmed-over sermons rather than realistic stories of successful independent schools or corrupted churches and thereby miss an opportunity to teach boldness. They do not go after stories that could expose the aggressiveness of liberal culture and thereby miss an opportunity to alert and organize people as the committees of correspondence did just before the American Revolution. Those publications that do speak up often communicate in a tone so screeching as to be useless in coalition-building.

Sadly, vision without apprenticeship is common. Over the past eight years I have received numerous telephone calls from Christians who "have a vision" for publishing a national newspaper (or some such large project) and are looking for advice. I am obnoxious enough to ask questions about journalistic training: Rarely have those with good intentions paid their dues as reporters or copy editors. I ask about management expertise: Rarely have those with that particular vision put together or even heard of a publication business plan. I am usually forced to suggest to my eager callers that they take two aspirin–one labeled journalistic experience, one labeled business knowledge–and call me in the morning (a morning about five years hence).

That bedside manner does not make me popular, since most callers typically look not for cautionary words but for approval of their plans. The good news is that most of those who have the vision but are inadequately prepared do not have money to throw away on a prematurely begun endeavor. The bad news is that establishing a thriving Christian magazine or newspaper is hard under the best of circumstances. If editors and writers do not have a solid understanding of the principles of biblical journalism and their practical applications, the likelihood of success quickly falls to slim or none. In journalism as in life, God graces us with miracles–but to expect a miracle, when we are not using our talents intelligently, is presumption.

Is the struggle for strong Christian journalism worth it? The scheduling of concurrent sessions at a Wheaton College conference eight years ago caused me great consternation: The great theological writer J. I. Packer was scheduled to speak in one room, and I was placed in the next. I knew that Mr. Packer’s words would be more valuable than mine, and I wondered whether attendees would–or should–come to a session on ephemeral journalism, when they could hear a fine lecture on eternal verities.

Providentially, I was staying in a dorm room that shared a bathroom with another dorm room. Before walking over to my lecture, as I brushed my teeth in the bathroom, who should come in from the other door to brush his teeth but the estimable theologian himself? Mr. Packer showed God’s grace in his kindness: When I stammeringly expressed my sense that I was, in comparison to him, talking trivia, and noted that if I were not speaking I would be sitting in the theology room, not the journalism hall, Mr. Packer said in his resonant British accent, "Nonsense. Think of what revitalizing journalism would do for the cause of Christ in America! It is the most needed sort of pre-evangelism, it is training in Christian worldview, it is an aid to sanctification, and you need to teach people how to do it."

Since then, although I have spent time writing about fighting poverty and abortion and doing many other things, I have always thought that revitalizing Christian journalism was essential. I have also understood, however, that the race is worth running only if our goal is God’s glory and not our own. Our prayer should be Paul’s to the Galatians: "May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ" (6:14 niv).

Along those lines, this book emphasizes the need for those who manage journalistic enterprises to have a well-developed Christian worldview and the ability to apply it. Much of the book focuses on the how-to of writing, with a particular emphasis on what feature-writing reporters need to think through. I have also included material on the great cloud of Christian journalistic witnesses–those reporters and editors of the past who showed us how much can be achieved with the faith that produces courage–along with two chapters from my earlier book, Prodigal Press: "The Decline of American Journalism" and "A Christian Journalism Revival?".

There is great opportunity today for those who have that faith and are willing to move beyond the conventional journalistic practices of this secular century. This book is written so much with such pioneers in mind that I have sometimes gone outside my standard, third-person writing and addressed the reader directly: "you." Some literary elegance is lost in the process, but my goal is to challenge readers directly, in the hope that some will become writers. If even fifty new, talented, biblically directed journalists were to emerge in America during the next few years, the revitalization of Christian journalism would be well under way.


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