Can Journalism Save Evangelicalism?
An Address to the Evangelical Press Association Annual Conference
Editor’s Note: MinistryWatch President Warren Smith delivered the following address to the annual meeting of the Evangelical Press Association held April 10-13 in Colorado Springs. To hear this speech, click here.
If you have been paying attention to the news – and you are journalists, so I know you have – I do not need to tell you that the institutions of civil society are in disrepair.
It is distressingly easy to find examples of this disrepair in the evangelical church: Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church. Bill Hybels and Willow Creek. Bill Gothard. Ravi Zacharias International Ministries. Jerry Falwell Jr. and Liberty University.
In every case I just mentioned, neither the government, nor the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, nor denominations, nor the boards of these ministries have brought those stories into the open.
Indeed, these institutions were either absent or impotent. In some cases – such as at Mars Hill Church, Willow Creek, and Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, the boards were – arguably — complicit in the wrongdoing.
Instead, Christian journalists played a key role in each of these stories. In fact, as I will explain further in my presentation today, journalism ended up being vital, essential, in part because one of the pathologies of the evangelical church today is that it is no longer able to police itself with anything resembling biblical structures of church polity.
It is also worth noting, as we begin our discussion on the role journalism can play in reforming the church, that it was almost exactly 20 years ago – in the late winter and spring of 2002 — that the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team published its Pulitzer Prize-winning series of stories on the Boston area’s Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal.
It was a series that in some ways did for religious journalism what Woodward and Bernstein did for political journalism a generation earlier.
The Spotlight team helped the world see that journalism about religion matters, that journalism can provide a voice for victims, that journalism still has the ability to speak truth to power. And more than speak: to be heard, and to compel those powers to account for their actions.
And we Protestants should not get self-righteous about the Catholic clergy sex scandal. A couple of years ago came a scandal in the Protestant church with distressing echoes of the Catholic clergy sex scandal. It was revealed by the Houston Chronicle, in the Southern Baptist Convention – the nation’s largest evangelical denomination. Literally hundreds of perpetrators, some of them men in high positions in the denomination, and possibly thousands of victims. In Texas alone.
Once again, the institution proved incapable of disciplining itself.
Once again, journalists were vital to the process of bringing injustice to light.
I’m sure you know that for every scandal I have cited here, there are scores, perhaps hundreds, of lesser scandals. Wrongdoing that is petty by comparison, but tragic in its consequence, leaving a toll on the victims of these scandals, and continuing the slow erosion in the credibility of the church.
A Crisis of Confidence
Public opinion surveys quantify that erosion of credibility.
According to a recent study we reported on at MinistryWatch, done by the Independent Sector, trust is declining for nonprofits and philanthropic organizations, which includes Christian organizations.
Only four percent of respondents said they currently trust major philanthropists or foundations, down from 15 percent the year before.
A 2021 Gallup Poll said that just 37 percent of Americans had a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in religious institutions. That was down 5 percent in one year.
Journalism fares even worse.
That same Gallup poll found that just 21 percent had a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in newspapers. For TV journalism, the number was even worse: 16 percent.
Of the 16 institutions Gallup asked about, only the U.S. Congress had lower scores.
If you’ve been working in journalism for very long, these data points are likely not news to you. In fact, the low esteem which many people hold journalism has caused many to give up on the craft. They say that journalism is part of the problem. More than that, they say that journalism is the source of the problem.
It is not hard to find evidence for that conclusion. Fake news, cable news punditry, and well-financed disinformation campaigns masquerade as journalism so convincingly that we have come to believe that it, in fact, is journalism.
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But I stand before you today to say that I don’t believe that is true journalism, or that true journalism is the problem. I believe, in fact, that journalism can be an important part of the solution for many of the cultural problems we face, especially many of the problems in the evangelical church.
The role that journalism played in the uncovering of the scandals I have already mentioned is, of course, part of the case I make today.
But I think it is important that we dig a bit deeper into the current cultural malaise, and try to find its source, and ask ourselves: Who, or what, is really to blame?
The Digital Disruption
First, I think it is important to acknowledge that we have undergone a massive technological revolution in the past 30 years, especially as it relates to communication. The Internet, cell phones, email, and in a single year – 2007 – we saw the advent of the iPhone, Facebook, and Twitter.
The way we communicated with each other changed in 2007. And the way we got our news. And who we trusted. Our very language changed. We don’t search for information, we google it. We don’t ask friends or trusted advisors for help. We crowdsource the problem.
But this transformation of language runs far deeper than that. Words like “family” and “marriage” and “liberty,” and “love” have new meanings. Meanings that would have been unrecognizable to anyone on either the political left or right, religious or secular, just a few decades ago.
To cite just one example: It is common on social media to see a meme that says, “Love is Love.” It is a message designed to support the LTBTQ+ rights movement. This message is verifiably false. I make this assertion with confidence because loves are, in fact, different. My love for my wife is different than my love for my children which is different than my love for the Atlanta Braves which is different than my love for salt and vinegar potato chips. Not all love is the same. That’s why C.S. Lewis wrote a book called “The Four Loves,” to differentiate between the various kinds of love.
And yet the “Love is Love” message, though false, must be accepted as true. Those who refuse to do so are then mislabeled themselves as bigots or homophobes – merely for insisting that a false statement not be accepted as true.
This transformation in language should cause deep concern for those of us in this room, those of us who make our living using language, and who hope to practice our vocation in a way that brings Glory to God.
In other words, those of us who know that one of the first jobs God gave to Adam in the Garden of Eden was to “name the animals.” In other words, what we call things really matters. To say it succinctly: Words matter.
Using the right word, or the wrong word, is not just an issue of clear, or less clear, communication. The way we use language is an exercise in theology. The way we use language is both formed by and a testimony of our worldview.
Is The Decline of Journalism Cause or Effect?
These disruptions have had economic consequences, of course, but the most significant consequences have not been merely or even primarily economic.
As I have already suggested and as most of us can plainly see, they have also caused a kind of cultural vertigo. We are off balanced, uncertain. The temptation to fear is strong.
But fear should not be the response of Christians to chaotic times. It should be love. As Scripture tells us, “Perfect love drives out all fear.” Fear, not hate, is the true opposite of love. When we live in an environment of fear, love is often the first casualty.
The temptation is to relieve our fear by retreating into comfortable tribes, or around the flags of leaders who speak to our fears and appear to know what they are doing. This temptation is strong even for Christians, who should know better, who should be known by fear’s opposite, love, and who are told repeatedly in Scripture to “fear not.”
But many who claim to be Christians live by fear, too, and not by love. And that fear drives us toward tribes and demagogues who share our fear. That retreat to tribes and demagogues ends up not making us less fearful, but we are at least no longer alone in our fear and anger.
So fear destroys love, and it also destroys truth. Fear causes us to bear false witness about the world. That great birthright we have as humans, the calling by God to name the animals, begins to go awry. All of the animals in the garden begin to look like predators, or scapegoats. We call fellow human beings, those Image Bearers who God loves, the enemy, the source of our fear and the object of our anger.
This temptation to look for scapegoats leads us to mislabel institutions as well as people. Journalism has become a convenient target. And journalism – as I have already noted — is not blameless. Many of the wounds journalism is now experiencing, the economic and reputational wounds I have already itemized, are well-deserved, even self-inflicted. Indeed, Marvin Olasky wrote a book – called “Prodigal Press” which I helped revise a few years ago – on this very topic.
But it is important to separate the craft, the vocation, of journalism from those who practice that craft poorly, or irresponsibly, or maliciously. We can agree that journalism, when practiced badly, can and does have a corrosive effect on the world. Bearing false witness, in any form, is a great evil, whether practiced by journalists or the people we cover.
But I would assert with equal vigor that bearing true witness is a great societal and cultural good. And I think we can now see that it is a great spiritual good as well. Telling the truth is an act of love that drives out fear.
I have seen this in my own reporting. When I wrote about the scandal at Mars Hill Church, or brought to light misleading fundraising claims at the Bible translation organization Wycliffe Associates, or exposed concerns about sexual abuse concerning Bill Gothard, the resignations of key leaders quickly followed. In the case of Mars Hill, the entire organization disappeared.
But more gratifying to me were emails and phone calls from people who simply said, “Thank you. For the first time, I feel like I’ve been heard. For the first time, something is happening that feels like justice.”
So let me say that again: Telling the truth is an act of love.
When we, as journalists, look out at the world and rightly name what we see, we are doing nothing less than fulfilling the great commandment God gave to Adam in the Garden of Eden that I mentioned earlier: to “name the animals.” When we do so, even when se are naming the brokenness of the world, we are fulfilling what the novelist and medical doctor Walker Percy called a diagnostic role.
And in being a responsible diagnostician, we are participating with God in the repairing, the restoration, of His beautiful but broken world.
The Biblical Basis of Journalism
I will admit, though, that an assertion is not an argument. So let me call a few witnesses, both from Scripture and from history, in order to make my case.
First, from Scripture:
Standing on the firm foundation of Genesis 2 to “name the animals,” and the 10 Commandments not to bear false witness, I would build on my argument from the life of Jesus himself, who used storytelling as a key strategy.
Mark 4:34 says, “Jesus did not speak to them, except in parables.”
Revelation 1:11 begins with an explicitly journalistic instruction from Jesus Himself to John the Revelator: “Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches.”
And, of course, we have the example of the Bible itself. The books of Numbers and Judges might be thought of as early exercises in data journalism. Jesus’ genealogy in the book of Matthew, “Matthew’s Begats,” as the songwriter Andrew Peterson calls them, and Luke’s introduction to his gospel, provide beautiful examples of what we might call journalistic techniques to tell the True Story of the Gospel, which we do not by accident call NEWS. The Good News.
In fact, it’s worth pausing on the opening verses of the Gospel of Luke. There, Luke writes,
“Many have undertaken to compile a narrative about the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as the original eyewitnesses and servants of the word handed them down to us. It also seemed good to me, since I have carefully investigated everything from the very first, to write to you in an orderly sequence, most honorable Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things about which you have been instructed.”
It is not hard to imagine a wise editor using these passages from Genesis and Luke and Revelation to give instructions to a young reporter: “Go to the city council meeting, the Senate hearing, the football game, the scene of the accident. Show up. Keep your eyes open. Pay attention. Write down what you see. And when you get back, turn it into an orderly narrative, so that your reader can see what you saw.”
Of course, I tend to have the Reformed, some might say the “Kuyperian” view that all work, if done for God’s glory, and honorably engaged, is a “sacred” vocation – whether it be baker, brewer, barrister, or broker.
But, as we have just seen, what we today call journalism is a craft with clear biblical precedent. Those of us who practice it today should do so boldly, with the certain knowledge that this enterprise of “naming the animals in the garden” and “speaking truth to power” has a rich biblical basis.
Journalism in History
It is also important to look to history. The emerging craft of journalism played a key role in the Reformation.
We remember the Great Reformation of the 16th century primarily for its theologians and churchmen: Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and others. And so we should. But let us not forget that the German metalsmith Johannes Gutenburg produced the first printed Bible in 1455.
Without the printing press, the Reformation might not have occurred.
Luther himself reportedly said of the role of the printing press: “Printing is the ultimate gift of God and the greatest one.”
Historian, Paul Johnson, wrote that “The smell of printer’s ink was the incense of the Reformation.”
This development also birthed an explosion in literacy. Historian Rodney Stark said that when Gutenburg invented the printing press, only a few thousand Germans could read. By 1500, 400,000 people could read.
Over the next 100 years, journalism also exploded across Europe. Some historians consider the first true newspaper to be the weekly “Collection of all distinguished and memorable news”, started in Strasbourg in 1605. Soon, newspaper sprang up in Frankfurt (1615), Berlin (1617) and Hamburg (1618). By 1650, 30 German cities had active gazettes.
Journalism became so powerful, in fact, that official churches and national governments started pushing back, shutting down printers and destroying presses. In 1643 the British Parliament passed a law regulating printing. It required authors to have a license approved by the government before their work could be printed.
That law led to one of the great moments in the history of a free press. Just a year later, on Nov. 23, 1644, John Milton published Areopagitica. The document takes its name from the Areopagus, a hill in Athens, sometimes called Mars Hill, where the Apostle Paul gave one of his most famous speeches, which we can find in Acts 17. Paul’s speech is considered one of the great evangelistic sermons of all time, and it was that, but it was also a defense of free speech. Paul was defending himself against charges of promoting foreign gods and strange teachings.
It is for precisely these reasons that America’s Founding Father memorialized free speech in the First Amendment to the Constitution. And it’s important to remember that this amendment sets out not just this freedom, but a total of five freedoms, including religious liberty. As the Founding Fathers themselves noted, these five freedoms were in the First Amendment together, because they depend upon each other. You cannot have one without the other.
So all of that history to make this point: Never doubt that journalism – the proclamation of the news, be it Good News or other kinds of news about ourselves and our institutions – can change culture or, for that matter, the entire known world. It has happened at least twice before, in the first century and in the 16th century, and it can happen again.
So What Needs To Happen?
However, if Christian journalists are going to be more than propagandists for Christian institutions, several things need to happen. Here are a few of my suggestions.
We need to get over our fear of bad news. In fact, we need to understand that bad news can be good news. The reason the Gospel is good news is because it makes us feel good. It is because it offers the truest, most authentic story of the world. And it is never more true than when it compels us to look at the brokenness of the world. The grace of God is cheapened by a sentimental, inauthentic, whitewashed, sanitized account of that brokenness.
We need to remember that people, and the truth, matter more than institutions. In virtually every investigative story I’ve ever covered, when the scandal finally broke into the open, we discovered that it had been known but covered up for years, even decades. That was the situation at Kanakuk, at Willow Creek, at Mars Hill, at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries. The logic was this: To deal with this scandal publicly would be to destroy the institution and the work it is doing.
Transparency and accountability are the instruments of truth-seeking and truth-telling. Transparency and accountability are the two essential, non-negotiable ingredients when it comes to the restoration of the evangelical church.
These two words – transparency and accountability — can and do mean a lot of things. On the purely tactical and practical level, they mean that Christian non-profits should release their Form 990s to the public.
There is a trend among Christian ministries to claim to be churches in order to receive an exemption from that requirement.
This practice is not new. Controversial and sometimes outright fraudulent organizations have been claiming the church exemption for years. It’s a common practice of televangelists and prosperity gospel preachers.
From 2008 to 2011, Sen. Charles Grassley investigated six televangelists – Benny Hinn, Eddie Long, Joyce Meyer, Kenneth Copeland, Creflo Dollar, and Paula White-Cain. The investigation was necessary in part because their organizations were not transparent in their dealings. The organizations they led spent donor money on mansions, lavish lifestyles, and private jets.
Now, though, other organizations are following the terrible example of these prosperity gospel preachers. Some of these organizations are those I would have told you five years ago were exemplars, ministries the set the standard, that were above reproach.
Alas, I can no longer say that is true for organizations who now hide behind the church exemption as an excuse for a lack of transparency. Among the organizations who now claim the church exemption are: Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ), The Navigators, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, the Willow Creek Association, Gideons International, Ethnos 360/New Tribes Mission, Precept Ministries, Denison Ministries, Voice of the Martyrs, Missio Nexus, and Ravi Zacharias International Ministries.
Many of these organizations have made this change in the past five years. At least two of these organizations (Willow Creek and RZIM) had major scandals in recent years. Indeed, RZIM is no longer in business.
It is a fair question to ask: Did the lack of transparency contributed to the scandals. I will tell you plainly that my answer to that question is: “Yes.” That’s why we at MinistryWatch we think it is a dangerous trend.
These words – transparency and accountability – also mean that board members should be independent. They should not have financial or familial arrangements with the organization they are governing. This lack of independence is a flaw we saw at Mars Hill, at Kanakuk, and elsewhere.
Who is going to ensure that transparency and accountability exist? Who is going to keep watch to make sure that organizations are doing the things I’ve just mentioned?
In a fallen world, it is foolish to expect ministries to police themselves. The temptation is just too strong to look the other way when wrongdoing and irregularities occur, and the bigger and more powerful the institutions become, the greater the temptation to keep quiet becomes.
We can’t count on the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. The ECFA does good work, but it is not a watchdog organization. The membership is too small, and members pay dues. That means it is not in the ECFA’s financial interest to police its members.
So, then, I ask again: WHO?
Journalism’s Unique, Indispensable Role
It is precisely here that Christian journalists play a unique and indispensable role.
It is journalism’s mission to pursue the truth. It is the Christian journalist’s mission to define the truth according to the principles of Scripture. For the Christian journalist, words matter. What we call things matter.
Because we are Children of the Light, transparency matters. We have dozens of examples in Scripture of evil being exposed. These are not just descriptive passages, but PRESCRIPTIVE passages. Exposing evil is a GOOD, something we are commanded to do. Ephesians 5:11 says, “Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness. Rather, expose them.”
On that subject: As Christian journalists we care about not just what is TRUE, but also about what is GOOD. The other side of that coin is that we are in a unique position to name evil, even evil in our midst. In a relativistic, post-modern world, this desire, this ability, is especially valuable.
So, please let me close with a word that I hope you will hear as both a challenge, and an encouragement. That word is this: This calling on your life, journalism, is a high and sacred calling. It is as old as the creation story, and it is made new and vital – and essential — by the current crisis in the evangelical church, which is – at its core – an inability to face the truth and tell the truth about itself and about the broken world in which we find ourselves.
Christian journalists are uniquely qualified to answer this crisis. It is my prayer that we will, in this moment, live up to this high calling God has placed on our lives.