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.