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.”
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.
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.
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