Report globally and help the Church engage

A video segment from Jimmy Kimmel Live! is getting big social media play this week.

People interviewed on the street could not identify a single country on a world map. Not even their own. It couldn’t possibly be this bad. Could it?

Things do tend to look at least a little better inside most churches. Some semblance of a worldview and a sense of global mission keep a map in front of us and swim against the nationalistic tide. There is no person on earth whom God doesn’t love infinitely. We do well to remind ourselves and others of that.

Even so, it’s easy to write off much of the world. To assume from the safety and comfort of America that Christianity has vacated the Middle East … that India is beyond hope … that Africa — that’s a continent, not a country — consists mostly of mud huts and tribal wars. That Papua New Guinea … wait, that’s a place?

Almost anywhere you can go in the world, God is working — especially so in the unlikeliest of places. In 2014 I had the privilege of visiting Egypt, just after its second revolution in three years. I saw an alive, active Church where denominational lines had blurred as a prayer movement cried out for that nation. I saw thousands of Egyptian Christians gather for prayer and worship, and I heard stories of God working miraculously. You can read and watch some of those stories here.

National prayer event in Egypt, 2014. Photo: Jim Killam

 

In an American chapter where nationalism seems to be winning the day, it’s worth reminding the Church that our focus must stay global. Good journalism can do that, by introducing audiences to people they’ll never meet but who represent an expression of Christ’s Church in a completely different context.

In Run with the Horses, author and Bible translator Eugene Peterson examines the globalistic viewpoint of an Old Testament prophet who barely left Jerusalem during his life. Jeremiah wrote separate messages to 10 different nations representing 750,000 square miles. His messages, Peterson writes, show “that he cared enough about the 10 nations to acquire thorough and detailed knowledge about them. … All of these oracles show an extraordinary knowledge of the geography, the history and the politics of these nations. He was not interested in them in general but in particular. He bothered to find out the details of their lives. He spoke God’s word in relation to the actual conditions of their existence. … The nations were not lumped together as ‘pagans’ or ‘lost sinners’ and the assaulted with stereotyped formulas.”

Ouch.

The best way to present a God’s-eye view of the world is simply to show people’s stories. Lots of stories, from lots of places. Leverage the greatest communication tools mankind has ever known for the glory of God. Tell about common struggles, common experiences and a common love for God. Help people understand and get comfortable with cultural differences. In short: Engage and connect the global Church.

It’s worth noting that Run with the Horses was first published in 1983, a generation before social media and its echo-chamber culture. Peterson writes:

“The larger the world we live in, the larger our lives develop in response. … We cannot be whole human beings if we cut ourselves off from the environment which God created and in which he is working. People of faith live in a far larger reality than people without faith. ‘God so loved the world.’

“We often betray this reality. We huddle and retreat. We ignore and even despise outsiders. We collect a few friends who look alike and think alike. We reject any suggestion that we transcend biological comforts and psychological securities. We barricade ourselves from visions that expose our prejudices, from people that challenge our narcissism.”

May journalists, communicators and anyone else who works in ministry strive to reveal the works of God among his people everywhere. This isn’t such a small world after all.

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The defining moment

Photo: Concussion Legacy Foundation

It was September of 1976, the week before the NFL season began, and Gary Fencik had just been cut by the Dolphins and signed by the Bears. On his first day of work, he borrowed his parents’ car and set out for Bears headquarters, then Ferry Hall in Lake Forest.

Then the car broke down on Route 60. Fencik was on the side of the road, in danger of being late for his first real day as a professional football player. He flagged down a passing car.

“Where are you going, kid?” the man with the blonde hair asked.

“Lake Forest,” Fencik replied.

“So am I, hop in.”

This was no coincidence that Fencik and Doug Plank would come together.

Writer Dan Pompei of The Athletic uses scene and dialogue to reconstruct this pivotal, unlikely moment that brought two great football players together for the first time. What a wonderful device to begin a story of how two of the most violent hitters in NFL history are now working, as the headline states, “to curb the concussion culture they helped create.”

Good reporters listen for the meaningful, defining anecdote … the moment that set the course for someone’s life. Then they ask questions, mining for detail. What road was Plank on when the car broke down? Whose car was it? (Though I wish he’d told us what make and model of car it was.) A single scene, including dialogue, can make an otherwise-routine story sing.

Nearly every person working in ministry anywhere in the world has an anecdote (or several) that changed the course of their life. The reporter who discovers it, mines it and makes it the centerpiece of a story will hit readers with a story they’ll remember for a long time.

You can read part of Pompei’s story here. The whole thing requires a subscription, a terrific investment if you like sports and good writing.

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Your Monday encouragement

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Peering into eternity

 

Look up into the heavens. Who created all the stars? He brings them out like an army, one after another, calling each by its name. Because of his great power and incomparable strength, not a single one is missing.

— Isaiah 40:26 (NLT)

There’s a reason photos like the one above, from Zion National Park in Utah, take your breath away. Even when not technically perfect — and my shot here certainly isn’t — star photos deliver a God’s-eye perspective that’s become all too rare.

If you live or work in a place with low light pollution (or skyglow, if that sounds less political), your view of the night sky looks very different than it does for most Americans or Europeans. The American Great Plains and parts of the Mountain West still have some dark-sky areas, but most people can see only a tiny fraction of the stars our ancestors saw. Check out this light pollution map to see how your area of the world rates.

If you find yourself someplace with bright stars — most of Africa and portions of Asia come to mind — you have an opportunity for photos that will wow your audience. Starscape photography takes practice and patience, but the results feel almost magical because the camera “sees” stars that the human eye cannot. It seems like you’re looking into eternity. In a way, you are.

Star photos from a cellphone won’t look like much, but if you have a DSLR camera, a tripod and a lens that stops down to f2.8 or wider, you’re in business. You’ll also need a flashlight to see what you’re doing and, ideally, a remote shutter release button that you can hold open manually.

The best time to shoot star photos is on a clear night during a new moon. The stars shine brighter because there’s no competing moonlight. Set up in the darkest place you can find that has a clear view of the night sky, along with a terrestrial landmark to give the photos a sense of place. But choose carefully, because any bright lights will overpower the photo.

Mount the camera to the tripod. Set the lens on manual focus, because autofocus won’t work in pitch dark. Turn off any destabilization features.

Start with these settings: ISO 1600, f2.8, 25 seconds. Use the “B,” or bulb, option for the shutter speed. Some cameras will meter correctly; others you just hold the shutter open remotely and count the seconds. With exposures longer than 25 seconds, the stars start to look like dashes instead of dots because the Earth is rotating. That’s why f2.8 is necessary; it lets in enough light for a short-enough exposure.

Then, just experiment with slightly smaller exposure times, higher ISO, even lower f-stop if your lens allows. By the way, this doesn’t require an insanely priced lens (though the results definitely do improve). I shot the above photo with an old Canon 50mm f1.8 lens that cost me $50 a few years ago and still can had for under $125.

My Zion photo was shot with a Canon EOS 7D at ISO 1600, f2.8 and 22 seconds, about 11 p.m. The Watchman mountain looked like only a black shadow to my eye, but the long exposure allowed the camera to catch the just-rising half-moonlight, barely there, and orange because the moon was still catching sunset light.

In other words, I either got lucky or God gave me a gift. It’s all in how you look at it.

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Raising questions and starting conversations

 

In the days leading up to Memorial Day, PBS reran The Vietnam War, the riveting 17-hour documentary film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.
 
Last year, Burns was asked about his team’s reporting process in deeply telling the story of a war that ravaged one country and divided another. He replied that their work succeeds not when it provides answers, but when it raises important questions and starts a needed conversation.
 
That’s what good journalism does — whether from the city council, Wall Street or the White House. From the football field to the battlefield to the mission field. It’s not propaganda, designed to posit a particular point of view. It’s not marketing, crafted with the obligatory call to action. 
 
Both the business and ministry worlds have embraced the “story” trend in recent years … but often without fully understanding the concept. Everyone agrees that stories are powerful, but not very many leaders truly trust that power, defaulting back to marketing and propaganda. After all, raising important questions and starting a needed conversation don’t yield immediate return on investment, and that’s what keeps the doors open. Right? We can’t just put an unvarnished story out there and hope that people will respond. Can we?
 
In ministry, I think we can and must. Certainly there’s a place for comprehensive marketing campaigns. But in a culture where we are exposed, on average, to more than 5,000 brand messages every day, one more call to action (or 10 more) isn’t likely to inspire too many people, or even be noticed. If well-reported stories from the mission field truly carry power, then why not invest in the journalism necessary to find and deliver those stories? Why not trust the Holy Spirit to delivery an infinitely more effective call to action than any of us could ever devise?
 
A ministry leader once told me that if he had the funds, he’d hire a grant writer before hiring a journalist. While I understand the expediency behind that sentiment, and I hear it echoed everywhere from local churches to international ministries, it’s short-sighted. Journalistic stories — I’m talking about writing, photography, audio and video — provide the verifiable truth behind every marketing effort and funding request. 
 
What’s more, stories help a ministry assess its true impact by shedding light on what’s really happening, versus what we hope is happening. Just as Burns and Novick’s Vietnam film did, stories about ministry impact raise important questions and start needed conversations — both inside and outside that ministry.
 
Can a journalist who works for a particular ministry really provide that kind of unfiltered look? Depends. It requires trust — trust that the journalists are providing an accurate picture, trust that the ministry and its audience can handle it and trust that God is indeed glorified by truth, wherever a story has to focus to find it. In an ideal world, detached journalists would be doing that kind of reporting. Given market realities, it’s not going to happen anytime soon. In fact, it’s disappearing.
 
But what if it could happen? What if churches, missions and ministries supported, PBS style, a broad-ranging agency that did report on the work of God with no strings attached? Whose only aim is to “Publish his glorious deeds among the nations” (Psalm 96:3)? Simply to glorify God, with all other motives secondary? What kind of value could that bring to the global Church in engaging people? How might it impact praying, giving, sending, partnering, going?
 
Are we as a Church ready to raise questions and start needed conversations? God help us if we aren’t.
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