Is There a Future for the Local Church in a Media World?
by Zack Payne | 7 May 2020 |
Let it not be said that Seventh-day Adventists haven’t utilized media for ministry.
I remember when growing up thinking how cool it was that the Seventh-day Adventist Church had magazines, radio stations, television channels and, later, websites dedicated to accomplishing Christ’s mission. I never really gave it much thought: we were all on the same team, and we were going to finish the work together using all of these tools.
It wasn’t until I was in college that I noticed the schisms between these ministries. Some people were devoted disciples of Doug Batchelor, or Carlton Byrd, or Randy Roberts, or Dwight Nelson. People from around the world had the ability to tune in to their services. Of course, not that many years ago you needed a great deal more money and more expensive and elaborate equipment to make these things happen, so these large churches and parachurch organizations got to make their own rules and push their own brand of Adventist messaging through. And, because for so many years these media savvy preachers have been allowed to go over the local pastor’s head and get their message to the whole church through radio, television, and now the internet, they have been able to define mainline Adventism—and not always for the best.
With voices like this coming right to your home, and with local churches often having to share their own pastor with multiple other churches—even if they like the pastor—we have in many ways made local church ministry and mission obsolete. Think about it: you can listen to Amazing Facts or 3ABN at any time, day or night—and give your money to them to further their worldwide work. You can trust Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) to take care of much bigger crises than the local Community Services ladies do. As for the local church, lots of times members don’t even live within the community surrounding the local church, or know that area’s issues.
In short, the message we’re getting over and over again is that Adventism is a worldwide movement, but not particularly a local one.
What’s a Pastor to Do?
Flash forward to my becoming a local church pastor. Some of my members are disciples of these big-name preachers—and some less so of me, their own pastor. People will put up with their local pastor—heck, they might even genuinely like him or her—but they’ve got so many options. So many ministries to be blessed by, so many to give money to.
When I worked with The Haystack back in 2015, I remember a conversation with Keith Bowman in which he was brainstorming an idea that never came to fruition: a local Haystack Church. A place that embodied the idea of a relevant, millennial version of Adventism, but instead of a worldwide focus, a local one. That idea stuck in my head and I began to wonder how we could make something like this happen.
As the pastor of WISEN (Wisconsin’s Southeastern Network), I have tried to build on this idea. We created a beautiful website and a social media presence that is often updated with quality media (event photography, mission/evangelism videos, sermon audio, etc.), and it’s been pushed out to the world—but it’s not focused on the world. It’s not intended to be palatable to all of Adventism or even meant for all of Adventism. It’s meant for our local audience. It’s meant to build local team spirit and to foster local mission and to bring attention to local events. It’s not meant to be in competition with worldwide Adventism, but rather to highlight what we’re doing locally within the context of worldwide Adventism.
Along came COVID-19. You can read a previous article in Adventist Today for the details, but I got together with two other local Milwaukee Area pastors with their own districts to create a Facebook group: Greater Milwaukee Adventist Fellowship. The goal was to preserve and foster a sense of local community during a time of social distancing. Why? Because more than ever, the temptation would be for local members to go to the Hope Channel or 3ABN, or tune in to It Is Written or Loma Linda church.
And the truth is, that programming is quality—I understand why people would want to tune in to what they are doing. However, that is not our church. That is not our mission field. That is not our friend group.
So from the beginning we have been intentional about keeping Greater Milwaukee Adventist Fellowship a local media mission. Seven weeks into the shutdown, we’ve grown to 900 members, and hosted 90 devotional talk videos and 75 unique guest speakers, three cooking classes, various interviews with conference staff and one COVID-19 patient, two weeks worth of kids evening programming, and had seven successful full-day Sabbaths complete with all local members, pastors, or conference staff. We’ve also managed to keep an active local fellowship going on the page, since it’s private and people feel comfortable sharing local news, as well as personal prayer requests and praises about what God is doing in our local context.
The Future of the Local Church
If I could dream the future of the local Adventist church, it would look something like we’re doing here. Of course, we’re doing most of this sans budget (we have been voting local moneys for projects in our respective churches, but our joint Greater Milwaukee effort has accrued little cost), and our production value can in no way compete with the big Adventist media efforts. But in a time when it would be easy enough to tune in to your favorite Adventist television programming, people have been choosing us (even with the technical issues that can come along with streaming services) because we are relevant to them, their mission, their local community.
I can listen to David Asscherick preach on demand any time I want. If I’m sick, I can stay home and watch Carlton Byrd preach. I can receive the ADRA newsletters and I can give to the relief efforts they are forwarding around the globe. All of these ministries are top quality and I’m not discouraging people from participating in them.
But unless he’s your local pastor, David Asscherick doesn’t know what’s going on in your life, and can’t preach a flavor of sermon that speaks to your life, because he’s not the one who visited you in the hospital or prayed with you this past week. Carlton Byrd’s church isn’t full of your friends and family (unless you’re a local member there). ADRA, for all the wonderful work they’re doing around the world, likely isn’t addressing the homeless crisis in your hometown.
I would love to see local churches take the COVID-19 crisis as their opportunity to realize that we can, and should, all be producing local media. Even after the crisis. Providing low-quality local media has helped our shut-ins (who are shut in, crisis or not) to feel connected. People who haven’t come to church in years, or who have never come to our church, have suddenly felt comfortable to tune in to our local efforts. People have shared with their Facebook friends what their local church is doing, when they likely have never shared such things with their friends in real life. People, it now seems to me, probably care much less about polished quality than we think—especially if they’re being reached out to by their own church community! If we can be producing local media—any local media—it can build team spirit, keep people connected, and foster mission and evangelism exponentially.
And, while we have been doing much of this with very little money, I wouldn’t say no to a budget! If we had the donations that the big Adventist media efforts have, we could be looking at locally focused media and high production value. We could be legitimately respected in our communities as 21st-century missionaries. We could leverage quality advertising campaigns where people are seeing them: on the internet. We could become even more connected as a local region, in our local mission, and not distracted by worldwide efforts—which are wonderful, but ultimately don’t have much impact on the area that we’ve been called to steward and cultivate for Christ.
So my charge is this: use the media savvy you’ve been forced to accrue over the past couple of months, and don’t forget about it after the crisis. Perhaps you’ll need to take a break from media for your own sanity—I assure you, I will be. But after a brief pause, talk to your church about how we can use everything we’ve learned during this crisis to be better local missionaries after the pandemic. I guarantee you your local area needs it. Your local area needs you. Be the hands and feet of Jesus. Stay local, but use the tools the COVID-19 crisis has taught you to use.
Zack Payne is a district pastor in Wisconsin, where he and his wife, Allison, are raising three young children. Zack is passionate about bringing the church into the 21st century, and creating healthy, sustainable congregations.