Friday, June 30, 2006

The Falwell Formula

I was on my way to work this morning with my radio tuned to NPR, as it normally is. A story about Jerry Falwell was on the air. I don't listen too closely when Jerry Falwell speaks, but my ears perked up when I heard him say, "A pastor needs to be media saavy if he's going to reach everybody." From that point on in the interview I tuned in.

Falwell talked about how he first realized the power of the media. "The brash statements aren't on [the air] by chance," he said. In 1985, Falwell visited South Africa where he saw Bishop Desmond Tutu. At that time, Falwell continued, Bishop Tutu was a highly respected figure. Falwell's strategy was: if you want to get in every newspaper in America, say something about Bishop Tutu. So, he called him a phoney. Two days later he was on Nightline for a hour-long interview.

Falwell went on to confirm for the reporter his strategy for church growth:

Outrageous Remarks = Media Attention = A Bigger Church

With no disrespect intended, as a church communications professional I have to wonder if that's the best formula for media strategy. I have heard it said in marketing circles that any media attention is better than no attention at all. However, I would argue that a more effective approach to media attention is to herald your story and focus on the message a seeker needs to hear in order to consider your church a possible place of worship, rather than speaking out in order to offend and garner media coverage for your outrageousness. Is the latter more likely to pick up coverage? Yes. But the former is more likely to pick up coverage that benefits your church.

Perhaps this difference of opinion is the difference between the traditional conservative church seeking to reach their tried and true audience, and the emerging churches seeking to reach an audience of postmoderns and seekers suspicious of high church politics, predispositions and pipe organs.

[Side note: When asked why he thought his church had grown to such a large congregation, Falwell said that one of the reasons was that he always tries to use the newest technology available. That, I think, is great advice for church growth and relevancy.]

Listen to the whole NPR story here. It particularly gets interesting and relevant to church communications after about the six minute mark.

Do you agree? Disagree? Tell me why.


Blogger Cory Miller said...

"Outrageous" comments like those mentioned by Falwell will get you attention, but at what expense?

If it's at the expense of Christian graciousness and love ... I'd rather not have the limelight.

Maybe this is cliche, but: "What would Christ think?"

I would rather be "remarkable" and "outrageous" in service and mission and love to my community and catch the limelight from being the hands, feet and mouth of Christ than what I would consider a more "worldly" act.

What Falwell does really well is make you decide whether you are with him or not? He polarizes people in that sense. And he resonates with people deeply, as well as turns people totally off. (Look at the school he's built - Liberty - that money has to come from somewhere!) But either way, you have to make a decision about him because of his message.

... and in the process, he gets TONS of media attention. He becomes a quotable source that the media loves.

10:31 AM  
Blogger Sharon said...

In regard to the premise that "outrageous etc" and "any attention etc" make for church growth... I humbly submit the following thoughts...

Christianity does not need to use these tactics to gain followers, the Gospel of Christ is perfectly capable of standing on its own merits without embelishment.

We owe our Lord and his teachings more allegiance than this kind of thinking reflects. The impression this thinking leaves on the greater world is certainly embarassing to this believer,the depth of our faith requires and provides so much more.

We are in the world not of the world after all and our belief in the Gospel of Christ is enough to help this hungry world without resorting to subterfuge.

Shame on any Christian who thinks otherwise, and what an injustice to faith and the faithful of over 2,000 years.

6:20 PM  
Blogger jenn_anthony said...

good post, sharon. i absolutely agree. welcome to the blog.

12:21 PM  

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