5 Things The Decline of Radio and TV Can Tell Us About the Future of the Church

When was the last time you sat down to watch a TV show (other than, say, a football game) when it aired live?

And in the car, how often do you listen podcasts or your own playlists compared to the radio?

Even just a few years ago, you likely would have answered very differently.

The world around us continues to change because people are changing with it. The church is never immune from cultural change, and the decline of radio and television give us a window into some of the changes the church is struggling with now and will continue to struggle with in the future.

The mission of the church will never change, but the methods have to. Otherwise, you die. Plain and simple.

The television and radio industries have adapted better to the changing world than, say, newspapers have, but as this Pew Research Centre report makes clear, the industry is changing dramatically.

Here are 5 changes I see happening both now and in the future and some implications for the church.

future of radio

1. Disappearing radios create a value crisis

One mainstay of the car dashboard in the last 60 years has been the radio. But that’s changing.

As this article so insightfully points out, the car radio is now disappearing off of dashboards. Instead, a media console is appearing that basically resembles your phone. You now have to scroll several screens deep to find any AM/FM or even satellite stations.

The question, of course, is will anyone listen to the radio if they have to work to find it? Or, asked another way, did we really only listen because it was the only option?

In many ways, the church was to the community what the radio was to the car dashboard. Churches dotted the countryside, towns and cities and people went. Now you’re just as likely to find antique stores in those historic churches as you will people worshipping God. Or, if you pass by the local church, the assumption is that it’s become a club for people of similar views and persuasions to which the public is not really invited, despite what the sign says.

So how will radio get heard when it’s not front and centre in the future car? Only one way: by providing sensational content no one else is producing.

In an age of customized playlists, podcasting and on-demand content, I’m not sure how that one’s going to go. (If you’re interested, I did an interview for a broadcasting student on the future of radio that you can listen to here. As a former radio DJ, I find the subject fascinating.)

So what about the church? Our buildings aren’t the key to the future. Nor are our signs. Nor is merely being there.

The greatest statement to the community any church makes is through the lives of its members. And as you know, sometimes that works for us and sometimes it works against it.

When the Gospel displayed in the lives of a church’s members becomes irresistible, the church will grow.

2. Set-hours programming only really applies to live events anymore

The change goes far beyond having a radio on the dashboard or a TV in the family room. It’s much more sweeping than that.

Some of you remember having to be home Thursdays at 8 or Mondays at 9 to catch the latest episode of your favourite show.

And if you do, chances are you’re over 40.

The idea of having to be home to watch a show at a set hour is fading quickly. VCRS, DVRS or as we call them in Canada – PVRS – and now on-demand programming have made traditional ‘don’t miss’ moments easy to miss.

The exception? Live events. Sports, award shows, or live shows like The Voice make instant, real-time results meaningful. Otherwise, you can watch Suits or The Walking Dead whenever you want.

The challenge for the church, of course, is that we’ve almost always done live, scheduled programming for which you show up at a set hour. Even with multiple service options, churches are still largely run off of a “be-there-at-10 a.m.” approach to gathering.

And yet every church leader has noticed that it’s getting harder and harder to fill rooms. While there are many reasons for this, we’ve already seen that even people who attend church attend less often (here are 10 reasons for why that’s happening).

So how do you counter that trend? Or should you even try?

Well… let’s think this through. What makes a live event worth attending is that something is at stake in the moment, or if you miss it, you miss it. This is why you watch it live on TV or try to find it on the radio.

Consequently, if your church service consists of interchangeable content with no sense of urgency, immediacy or transcendency, attendance will always feel more optional.

On the contrary, churches that facilitate an experience or encounter with God, or that drive an urgent sense of mission will always be events that people will not want to miss.

Fortunately for church leaders, the activity and movement of God in the lives of his people is something that, when accurately and faithfully facilitated, drives engagement.

The more your church feels like a live event with God moving, the more people will be drawn to attending at a fixed time and place. And in that context, even watching live online won’t feel like being in the room.

Conversely, the more static or interchangeable your services feel, the less people will feel the need to come at a set time and place.

There’s no doubt that a growing number of younger adults seem to be drawn to a more passionate, engaged, almost charismatic form of worship and church. Witness the rise of Hillsong, Elevation Church or the Passion movement.  While that’s not the only template for how to do church, the passion and engagement in those services and experiences helps explain why people are willing to line up for them.

The attenders are immersed and consumed. They are anticipating that something is going to happen.

As a result, they’re engaged. And as we’ve already seen, in the future church, engagement will be the key to attendance.

3. Fixed-formatting limits your options

One of the things traditional radio and television struggle with is what you might call ‘fixed formatting.”

Essentially, radio and TV have to function through paid advertising, so content is interrupted every 2-10 minutes for commercial breaks.

Podcasting creates options that commercial radio can’t match.

I love the fact that on my leadership podcast, I get to have 40-90 minute conversations with leaders that are uninterrupted. I promise you conversations unfold very differently when over an hour than they do if the host is always interrupting the guest with “we only have a few minutes left” or “we have to throw to a commercial and we’ll be right back”.

People interview differently over an hour than they do in five-minute segments. They’re more relaxed. They tell you things they otherwise might not mention and you have a far more authentic conversation than you would if you were constantly interrupted.

With over 100 long-form interviews under my belt on my leadership podcast, I’m sold on the benefits of open-ended formatting. And with podcasting, there’s no limit.

It makes me wonder whether church leaders have far more options available to us than we realize.

What kind of long-form content or alt-format content can your church produce now that more channels are open to it?

At Connexus Church where I serve, we’re starting to experiment with online bonus messages for our series that we don’t run on Sundays.

Our most downloaded bonus episode so far is an indepth interview I did with a spiritual warfare expert that we ran in conjunction with a series on the supernatural. People loved it, and it accomplished something that would have been far more difficult to do during a service on a Sunday.

There are far more options for churches to explore than we’ve explored.

The greatest limits you face as a leader or organization are those you impose on yourself. What limits have you constructed for you and your mission?

4. You no longer go to content… content comes to you

Some churches have decided not to do online ministries for a variety of reasons, one of which includes not wanting to compete with live services.

And while I don’t think online church will ever replace church (it can’t…God designed us to gather), it can serve as a great supplement to it.

News networks now have apps and a tremendous social media presence. And can you think of a radio station that doesn’t have a Facebook page?

In the old paradigm, you got the news by going to a station. Now the station sends the news to you. Think about it… you probably first heard most of your news this year via social media.

The church can learn from this. To box content up for consumption only on a Sunday morning, or to simply place it on a website or podcast alone in 40-minute blocks completely under-utilizes content.

Taking snippets or a message to post on social media, insert into blog posts and repackage in various ways so it reaches more people is a much better use of the time, energy and resources that goes into a great message. Not to mention the redemptive potential of exposing more people life-changing messages.

It’s also an incredible outreach strategy. Andy Stanley puts his messages on a separate app and on NBC after Saturday Night Live, reaching an entirely different audience than he does through North Point channels or than most do through traditional Christian channels.

If you’re not repurposing your content, why not? Think about it.

Everybody who was not in your church on Sunday was online. Why aren’t you?

You can expect people to come to you. Or you can go simply go to people.

5. The explosion of information has created a crisis of meaning

Our culture has never had access to more information than we do now. Three networks on TV has exploded into hundreds of channels. Radio went from AM to FM to satellite and beyond. And then there’s this thing called the internet.

In all of human history, people have never had access to more information than they do today. But somewhere in the midst of it, meaning has been lost.

The crisis our culture is facing is not a crisis of information. It’s a crisis of meaning.

This is perhaps one of the greatest opportunities for the church in history. No one should be better at providing meaning, hope and perspective.

I don’t mean jumping on Facebook and offering your half-formed opinion on politics, supreme court decisions and anything else you want to rant about. That just adds to the noise and detracts from the Gospel.

I mean sharing intelligent, honest, transparent, soul-nourishing, grace and truth that springs from and points to the source of all wisdom—Jesus Christ.

The Gospel satisfies the deepest needs of the human heart and mind for meaning. And no one should be better at proffering meaning into a culture so desperately in need of it than the church.

What Do You See?

As things continue to change in industries like radio and television, what are you noticing?

Scroll down and leave a comment.

12 Comments

  1. qawii3 . on January 5, 2017 at 12:27 pm

    Corrected typos: Sorry!
    I must have mentioned this before, but a very good example of what you are
    talking about here can be witnessed by checking out “Speranta media” on
    YouTube. Then go see “Biserica Baptista Speranta Oradea” – also on
    YouTube. Does their approach work? Well look at the churches packed to
    the doors and often with away over 50% of the millennial demographic in
    attendance. We so much need this in Canada. Why not copy those
    Christians in Romania ? It seems to be working.

  2. […] Related Reading: 5 Ways The Decline Of Radio And TV Can Tell Us About The Future Of The Church […]

  3. qawii3 . on December 2, 2016 at 10:29 am

    I must have mentioned this before, but a very good example of what you are talking about here can be witnessed by checking out “Speranta media” on YouTube. Then go see “Biserica Baptista Speranta Oradea” – also on YouTube. Does their approach work? Well oook at the churches pasked to the doors and often with away over 50% of the millennial demographic in attendance. We so much need this in Canada. Why not copy those Christians in Romania ? It seems to be working.

  4. […] 5 Things The Decline Of Radio And TV Can Tell Us About The Future Of The Church by Carey Nieuwhof […]

  5. Mark Henri on November 30, 2016 at 8:06 pm

    This lack of meaning you’re talking about extends to many worship teams I’ve played on or seen in the last couple of years.

  6. Michael S Carlton on November 29, 2016 at 8:21 pm

    Great post Carey! I love checking out the changes in culture and wrestling with how the Church can be innovative so that we are not playing catch up. That is why I completely agree with you that Culture changes, but the mission doesn’t change. If culture didn’t change we would still have a church service that was structured like the 1st century Church described in the NT!

    I will say on point 5 I heard Garyvee talking how the internet has shifted and changed so much. It started as an information hub where you plastered your information out to the world and that felt valuable, but now it has evolved to much more of an experience and encounters. People want dialogue online not a digital newspaper. I think that is where someone like Life.Church has really excelled in their dealings with online Church as they are just as interested in the conversations they create as the information they are sharing!

    The questions that I have my staff wrestle with constantly is how are we connecting with our people during the entire week not just the one hour we get on Sundays and how can we make the one hour not just feel like Deja vu… Thanks again!

  7. Tuesday Picks ~ 11-29-2016 | Life on the Bridge on November 29, 2016 at 9:18 am

    […] 5 Things The Decline of Radio and TV Can Tell Us About the Future of the Church –Carey Nieuwhof In all of human history, people have never had access to more information than they do today. But somewhere in the midst of it, meaning has been lost. […]

  8. Mike on November 28, 2016 at 11:26 pm

    Hi Carey. I’m a 30-something that would count myself among the de-churched. I grew up in the charismatic world and have fond memories of Hillsong, Passion and Jesus Culture. Unfortunately I would say I’m beyond that movement as well; loud music and dynamic speaking don’t cut it for me anymore.

    What I need is the authentic presence of God. I need to feel that I’m a functioning member of the body DURING the gathering. I’m no longer content to sit in an audience while the ministry happens on a stage.

    I think we need to rethink EVERYTHING about the gathering and ask ourselves if we really are doing it the way God intended. For example: Why do we have a stage? Why do churches look like theaters? Why does everyone in the room face forward? Why does only one person speak while the majority are silent?

    I think we need to think bigger. I’m talking radical change. Culture-shaping change. Something that makes people KNOW and BELIEVE there is something uniquely different about our gatherings that cannot come close to being duplicated in a Coldplay concert or TED talk.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 29, 2016 at 5:16 pm

      Hey Mike…you’re not alone in that longing. Thanks! I would just be careful of saying you’ve grown ‘beyond’ something. That kind of thing can easily suggest you’re better than/smarter than/wiser than everyone else. I know that’s not what you mean…but I’ve heard it said more than a few times in the discussion. God is both immanent and transcendent, and he speaks through both kinds of encounters.

      • Mike on November 29, 2016 at 7:03 pm

        Thanks Carey! Especially for reading thru my ill-formed wording. Correction taken.

        Do you ever get the sense that as church services become more aesthetically appealing and free of defects they also create distance between the stage and real life.

        I know for me leading worship at my old church we would get “looks of death” from the pastor when the service did not go as smoothly as planned. All of us are amateur musicians. To rise to the level of full-time recording artists would require us to quit our jobs and focus solely on improving our craft.

        As talent rises and services have less and less glitches, how do you demonstrate the narrative that Jesus came not just to celebrate talent, but also to love what is broken? How do you model to the flock that body life is not just observing from the audience? It’s getting pulled up on the stage and being invited to play alongside Christ as He heals the world.

        • Carey Nieuwhof on November 30, 2016 at 10:10 am

          Mike…thanks man. Love your heart. I’m just coming off a three day retreat with some leaders from rising churches in America. I think you will see a wave of churches that embody what you and many others long for. Things are changing. For better.

          • Peter Podlas on December 5, 2016 at 4:11 pm

            Maybe that is why Francis Chan walked away from his 4000 person church and now is doing house churches? So he goes back to the Acts 2;42 trying to do the “truth” pure concept from back then ,is how it started he says but yet “grace” says you can do it anyway you want as long as it is working?

            We have 6 days, God has the 7th. What do we do on that 7th to honor Him?
            We take a time out give Him our time, we give Him our first fruits, we
            say thank you, we praise, we come together not alone, we mediate on His
            Words, that’s it…it is about Him the 7th day ….somehow from that to
            we say it is about those outside, or kids,or families or outreach….and
            the deep & wide picture – my tension…and then we say why can’t it be both..ex: communion – do this in memory of me – oh know we do not do that on Sunday , communion is for insiders ,we will offend outsiders- service is just for outsiders..then the insiders say – if we are so “ON” that the outsiders will come in and see what we have – it will be so irresistible that our worship is about God so the outsiders will come ..and then A Stanley says – do it anyway you want, I do it my way and it is working

            and on and on it goes —



Leave a Comment





This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.