The Death of News, Re-Tribalization and The Future Church

death of news

I had a sobering wake-up call this week.

Several of the major local newspapers in my region ceased publishing this week, forever.

The decline of the newspaper has been happening for years. Once-independent papers were bought up by major syndicates, downsized and trimmed, but despite all the changes, they just couldn’t find a way to be profitable in the digital age.

Still, to see the remaining daily newspapers shuttered for good and their online editions end was shocking, especially given the fact that the Barrie Ontario paper that closed served a city of 150,000 people.

The easy argument is that no one reads an actual newspaper anymore…just move online.

The papers have tried but failed to do this effectively. Online ad revenue is just a fraction of what revenue is in print. Consequently, the whole model toppled and the online editions were shuttered too.

And that’s the sobering part.

It’s not just the death of newspapers we’re watching. It’s the death of news.

The remaining paper is a weekly and a bit light on news. There’s a local TV station that’s been cut to the bone and may not survive another year. And radio stations eliminated actual local news reporting years ago. In major cities, cutbacks reign in every traditional media.

What happens to a city when there’s no one left to report the news?

Ironically, in a highly digital, hyper-connected age, we’re left without any independent way of synthesizing complex information.

And particularly in the US, there’s a growing push not to trust anyone but the candidate themselves to tell the ‘truth.’ A very scary thought, regardless of which way you bend politically.

Locally, I doubt a mayor or council is going to subvert the democratic process, but if he or she was, how would we know?

Come next election, how will we know who stands for what, other than by what the candidates themselves or their online tribe say?

There are some important lessons for all of us leading things in a rapidly changing world.

1. If you fuse the mission and the method, the mission gets lost

As I’ve shared before, churches that love their methods more than their mission will die.

But the rapid death of newspapers and the air loss happening on cable TV and even traditional retail should be a further wake-up call to every church leader.

You can argue all you like that the news can’t die just because the newspaper or traditional TV die. But that denies the reality that this is exactly what’s beginning to happen in front of our eyes.

And it’s what always happens when you fuse the mission and the method too closely.

It’s what killed Kodak, Blockbuster, Sears Canada and countless other businesses in our life-time. They simply couldn’t figure out a new way to do what they do.

Methods change. Mission shouldn’t.

But if you fuse the mission and the method, and the method dies, so can the mission.

Fundamentally, you have to ask yourself, are we in the news business or are we in the newspaper business?

For the church, this is a wakeup call.

The long-standing challenge of declining church attendance and irregular attendance even among committed Christians has been well documented here and elsewhere (here are 10 reasons even committed church attenders attend less often these days).

Even though I’m fortunate to be part of an expanding church that has growing attendance, we still have to rethink our methods to further the mission.

For years, the equation has been more people in the seats = progress.

And almost all the resources of every church goes into getting more people into the seats.

The assumption? Attendance = engagement.

As I shared in this post a while back, that’s increasingly backward thinking.

In the future church, for these 5 reasons, engagement will drive attendance; attendance will no longer drive engagement.

As we move into that reality, here are some fresh ways to frame the question.

Ask yourself, are we in the:

Life-change business or in the attendance business?

Engagement business or the attendance business?

People business, or the facility business? 

Again, there’s no easy way forward. It’s going to take innovation and risk.

As I heard Clay Scroggins share with me recently when we were discussing all this, he said “We used to bring people to church. We need to bring church to people.”

Exactly.

I outline 9 keys to innovation here.

2. We’re Re-Tribalizing

So what happens when local newspapers die and even major networks and publications can’t staff their bureaus anymore (a trend that’s well underway)?

Essentially, we are left with what the candidates themselves say and whatever we happen to think about it all.

That’s hardly a hallmark of a civilized society.

In the last decade as billions of us have gained access to almost any information and virtually everyone has their own platform (at least in the form of a social media account), we’ve seen people increasingly pick sides and tribes.

People haven’t become more tolerant. On the left and on the right, we’ve become increasingly intolerant, distrustful and even abusive toward each other.

Sadly, it’s as though we’re tribalizing.

One of the great by-products of the church’s mission is that authentic Christianity fundamentally gets people to think beyond themselves, not only submitting to Christ, but submitting to one another.

It’s sad that Christians have fallen prey to the ‘scream louder’ and ‘say whatever (ill-informed) opinion is on your mind trend’ in our culture.

The voice of reason seems to be disappearing from our culture.

As Jon Acuff put it during a recent interview I did with him, “Outraged plus ignorant is wildly dangerous.”

Are news organizations biased? Sure. The calming and common days of Walter Cronkite and Peter Jennings are long gone.

And increasingly, there is no widely-respected voice to replace theirs. Instead, we have a sea of voices screaming louder at each other.

But this is an opportunity for the church to be a voice of love, hope and moderation during a season where our culture desperately needs that voice.

Whether you’re a Christian or not, re-tribalizing is a terrible option.

If we lose all common ground, we lose the gift of each other.

Two voices that are really doing a brilliant job of finding common ground in our fractionalized culture are Ann Voskamp and Scott Sauls. I’d highly encourage you to follow (and read) both.

3. Truth Isn’t Personal

Christians have always believed in an objective truth.

In the emerging culture, truth is no longer just subjective or objective, it’s personal.

Don’t like something?

Great. Tell everyone it never happened. Explain that it doesn’t exist.

Just spin your version of the story long enough until you’ve constructed your own personal universe of what’s real and what’s not.

Why face reality when you can deny it instead?

This explains the rise of fake news and the shift in reporting that’s happening as we speak. What’s true on Fox News no longer appears to be true on CNN or NBC.

Don’t like what any of them are saying? Just make your own version of the story. Start your own site or take to social media, use the ALL CAPS key and spin it any way you want.

It seems the combination of a deeply divided culture, the proliferation of new media, and social media available to billions means everyone is attempting to twist truth until it confirms their own bias.

Worse, so much of it is done simply to get more eyeballs on a platform.

All of this should make us shudder.

After all, the most dangerous form of deception is self-deception.

A short study of history will show you that self-deception easily becomes mass deception.

I wrote more on living out the Gospel in a post-truth world here.

A Great Opportunity

Despite the tone of this article, I remain an optimist, not a pessimist.

However, optimism often requires us to face the brutal facts.

I really believe the mission of the church is God’s mission, not our mission. So in many ways, it’s not in danger.

And yet even though the mission isn’t in danger, your mission may be. In the strange interplay of divine and human action that is the church, what we do matters.

Church leaders, don’t confuse the mission with the method. There’s too much at stake.

If you want more specific help, my book and video course, Lasting Impact: 7 Powerful Conversations That Will Help Your Church Grow can help you and your team frame the issues you need to tackle to become a healthy church that reaches the next generation.

If you are growing (even a little) but can’t figure out how to reach more people, my new course, Breaking 200 Without Breaking You might help.

In the meantime, I’d love to know what you’re thinking.

Scroll down and leave a comment!

20 Comments

  1. Patricia on November 30, 2017 at 11:07 pm

    Brilliant write .I agree that many churches are Concerned about numbers and not weather the people are engaged. Our Focus should be the mission .I agree alot of people attend church out of obligation but are not connecting and the main reason being some of our methods are so outdated that the younger generation are unable to connect.Love the post.Excellent

  2. James VanAlstine on November 30, 2017 at 10:26 pm

    Great post. You’ve addressed well the wider issues that are affecting the church and in doing so you’ve highlighted the problems that beset us. My takeaway is that as followers and disciple of Jesus we are called to be counter-cultural revolutionaries, representatives and carriers of the kingdom of God! It’s sad when Christianity is simply another “ism” competing for airtime and its adherents are trying to shout louder than the other voices.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on December 1, 2017 at 5:14 pm

      Thanks Patricia!

  3. Jenny on November 30, 2017 at 9:46 pm

    “When a pastor is effective at making disciples of the people, the disciples will grow the church,” … so what your saying is that if your church is growing your making disciples because they are bring people etc… so in turn your church is growing… so the numbers DO show the tale of your success at discipling the people. Which in turn means if thats your model of success the souls of humans are in good hands in a growing church…

    Im so very confused as to your argument. I personally am a pastor who WANTS my church to be growing because I care that they are discipled well. I love the 7 to 9 points Carey it keeps me on track and helps me re-evaluate

    Thanks Carey I really do appreciate your wisdom!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on December 1, 2017 at 5:15 pm

      Hey Jenny…I think your comment must pertain to another post I wrote. Sorry I can’t help more.

  4. Joe on November 30, 2017 at 7:52 pm

    Another good insight to society as a whole.

  5. Johnny Prettyman on November 30, 2017 at 6:44 pm

    Thanks Carey! It is so easy to get in a rut with our methods, and I find great encouragement from this. Some days it also gets easy to forget the mission. Ministry and life is full of distractions. So thanks for the encouragement with our mission!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on December 1, 2017 at 5:19 pm

      Thanks Johnny!

  6. dave on November 30, 2017 at 4:55 pm

    its just about numbers with you Carey Nieuwhof, when are you going to stop telling pastors they are only successful if their church is growing? The great commission isn’t about numbers of reached people its about relationship. When a pastor is effective at making disciples of the people, the disciples will grow the church, not because of the 7 things to do, or the 9 things to say, or the conversations you shouldn’t have. it will grow in spite of them. Success in numbers is a dangerous game and the souls of humans hangs in that balance.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on December 1, 2017 at 5:19 pm

      Dave, I hope I share your commitment to the Gospel. I don’t know what to say. I think some people are always going to struggle with how I write, my lens on the world or the way I summarize things. You should write a blog and share your own perspective there. I’m sure you’d help people.

      • Heather Sandilands on December 2, 2017 at 1:12 pm

        I agree that engagement is not the same as attendance, And while not writing for dave, I share some of the same frustration. Isn’t discipleship about deepening faith and commitment to the way of being in relationship/community that Jesus Christ showed us? My commitment is to the God who saved me and my “success” as a pastor is sharing my “good news” about that; with some it may resonate and invite them into following their journey deeper into God, numbers seems to be about how well we are sharing one brand/group’s take on who God is and what God’s about in the world. Jesus never worried about numbers (Mark 6:11) that’s how The World judges succss; he just calls us to be faithful.

  7. Robert Stretch on November 30, 2017 at 2:59 pm

    Very thought-provoking as usual. You said that we should not confuse the mission with the method. I agree whole-heartedly. Yet many church leaders are hung up on a particular method or methods. Having a “love affair” with methods fails to realize that our culture is changing at the speed of light. Many of the methods our people love were out-dated years ago. I believe it’s a matter of feeling “comfortable” with a particular method; yet we are not called to be comfortable, or to make the Lord’s people feel comfortable. We are called to be committed followers of Jesus Christ, and seek to being others along with us on this faith journey.

  8. Jeff Fuson on November 30, 2017 at 2:57 pm

    Carey and friends,

    The ‘tribalaization’ effect and just create your own spin with ALL CAPS and just scream the loudest and longest is the tidal wave I’m attempting to surf as a Pastor and Career Consultant. There’s not a collective guiding narrative and no collective sense of truth and it’s harder than ever to be all things to all people as Paul suggested he was doing. I’m sure that history has stories to tell of how our Chrtistian forerunners navigated times like these and I’d love to learn from them. If you or anyone reading this can point me to a book or person from history who carried out our mission in times similar to these I’d sure like to know about them. Also if you know of pastors and churches or tribes of pastors who are thriving in the chaos and surfing strong in this tidal wave of Change I’d like to know who they are and how to connect with them. ALL THE BEST! Jeff Fuson

    • Carey Nieuwhof on December 1, 2017 at 5:20 pm

      Great point Jeff. You’re so right. We have no shortage of information. We have a tremendous shortage of meaning.

  9. Drew Smith on November 30, 2017 at 2:53 pm

    Carey,
    Thank you for serving the church like you do. This is another great thought producing post. We value your ministry here in Church KC.

    May we continue to be a voice of love in the world. (or in some ways start)

    Blessings to you,
    Drew

    • Carey Nieuwhof on December 1, 2017 at 5:21 pm

      Thanks Drew!

  10. Gary Whittaker on November 30, 2017 at 1:06 pm

    As always, you ask the right questions to get us thinking and listening to the Lord and to each other.

  11. Ralph Ross on November 30, 2017 at 12:42 pm

    In my experience with different churches there seems to be a spectrum and on one end are the people for whom attendance drives engagement. On the other end are the people for whom engagement drives attendance. It is an important dynamic to observe and it ties into something I learned once at a Vestry workshop about the transition from a pastoral church to a program church. A pastoral church is small, everyone knows one another, and if you don’t attend they will miss you. A program church has clusters of engaged workers. On one end of the spectrum attendance makes you feel more connected and less alone. On the other end of the spectrum working with people makes you feel more connected and less alone. I’m not sure the church of he future will be all about engagement. A compassionate church will recognize the validity of those who just want to attend.

  12. Paulette C Bresler on November 30, 2017 at 10:45 am

    Carey,
    Thank you for this post today. I have been thinking about this problem a lot lately. You have put into words many of the thoughts I have been having. Your words also remind me that we have hope in the fact that God still is in charge, but that we need to discern what he wants us to do to fulfill his will.

    Have great day!

    Paulette

    • Carey Nieuwhof on December 1, 2017 at 5:16 pm

      So glad Paulette. Thanks!

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