By Debbonnaire Kovacs, Oct 14, 2015

“I hope this program will inspire new and innovative ideas we have never seen before. I don’t even know what those will be! Students will be coming with their own creative minds and innovations, and the Holy Spirit working on their own hearts with ideas that will be new and will reach people for God’s kingdom.

“I hope we will have three or four in our first cohort that will come up with something new and exciting that will, most importantly, do something great for the kingdom of God, and will also showcase what can happen in a program like this.”

Professor Lynelle Ellis, Director of the Center for Media Ministry at Walla Walla University, was speaking with enthusiasm about the new Master of Arts degree in Media ministry that is being offered at WWU. After much dreaming, discussion, and planning, the curriculum has been laid out and the faculty are working on developing courses, marketing, and recruiting. They hope to begin with their first cohort at the end of August 2016.

The two-year program will offer two concentrations: media and cinema or web and interactive media. The courses, including foundational theology exploring worldview and mission, communication theory, research methods, and story structure, can be completed online, with three two-week on-campus intensives, so that it will be more accessible to students and working professionals from all over the world. Their website says their vision is “to be the Seventh-day Adventist hub where students, educators, leaders, and organizations find insight and training related to the effective use of mediated communication for Biblical ministry.”

Professor Ellis, (not quite through with her doctorate), told me she feels that God has been preparing her for just this position for years. “WWU was visioning something new, and from my perspective, it fit so nicely with where God had brought me.”

Ellis’ undergraduate degree from WW [College, at the time], was in mass media. She then earned a Masters in Communication in Media from Spring Arbor University in Michigan, after which she worked at Blue Mountain Television in College Place, WA, as station manager for thirteen years. When this call came to direct WWU’s new program, Ellis had been teaching in the School of Journalism and Communication at Southern Adventist University and working on her PhD from Regent University.

“My advanced degrees and experience teaching and at the television station seemed to come together so well, like it’s all been planned by someone bigger than me. I am so thrilled that my alma mater dreamed up this idea and was willing to take the risks to do something like this.” She paused, then added, “’Risk’ is maybe not the right word, but it’s new and different; it takes courage to try something that hasn’t been done before.”

Still, Ellis says they have received no real criticism, though some questions have been raised, such as, “Is there enough theology in the program?” Ellis says the faculty are taking feedback and making adjustments, but most reactions have been overwhelmingly positive, which she called “thrilling.”

In particular, she named recently retired Graduate Programs director Joe Galusha, and new director Pam Cress, as well as WWU president John McVay as all being strong “cheerleaders.”

“John McVay has talked with me a couple of times, expressing support; he is happy because of the missional nature of the program.”

WWU leadership has crafted a strategic plan called Sabbath Jubilee, centered around “five bold commitments:” Economic Jubilee, Excellence in Thought, Generosity in Service, Beauty in Expression, and Faith in God. Ellis explained that they are looking for elements and programs that are as missionally centered as possible, and that this degree combines several of those commitments, especially Beauty in Expression.

They are still working to help conferences and unions to understand better what they are doing and what their goals are, particularly because conferences traditionally fund graduate degrees for their pastors, and she feels strongly that this should be one option for those pastors who are interested. She says one conference, so far, is sounding very positive about the possibility. She would like to see two or three pastors in each conference who specialize in this area, perhaps especially at larger churches. “They might have youth pastors, or music ministers; this should be another option,” she said.

“Our biggest group of people interested in the degree are pastors; they are looking around world they live in and saying I’ve got to have some new tools. Traditional evangelism methods assume you accept the Bible as the authority. In this, for lack of a better term, post-modern world, in this secular world, you can’t assume that. If people don’t accept the authority of the Bible, then how do you reach them?”

Ellis believes media ministry could be the key.

“I truly believe that one of strengths of the program, and a unique strength of it being at Walla Walla is that we have this particular theological group, led by David Thomas, the Dean [of the School of Theology], who is very invested in this. His great passion is apologetics and how we understand and defend our faith and stand well in the bigger world. He is concerned for how we can reach this new, non-biblically-based world, and he’s really interested in how visual media might reach them. He’s giving a richness on the theological level as well as academic depth to the students, which will help them to understand our faith much more foundationally—way below the doctrinal level.”

The main teachers of this new program will be Ellis, Dean Thomas, and Paul Dybdahl, Professor of Mission and New Testament.

When I asked if this program is the first or only one of its kind among Adventist colleges and universities, Ellis explained that other colleges and universities have some classes or programs in this area, but this two-year graduate degree, with the theology and missional nature deeply built into all its classes rather than having media classes added to religion classes, is the first and is unique, she believes.

Aside from her great hopes for “new and innovative ideas we have never seen before,” Ellis also says that she hopes research will come out of this program that will help Seventh-day Adventists in general to know how to reach others better. “Students will be involved in research projects, and that’s a whole other side in addition to creative projects. I hope that they’ll understand through research more about how to reach post-moderns and secular people in a way that will be effective for the gospel.”