Church leaders need a cultural shift to see the media as a partner rather than an adversary, writes Martin O’Brien
What is the perception of the Irish Churches among the secular media in terms of getting out their story? Dynamic and missionary, which are words that I would associate with an 81-year-old man, Pope Francis, for example, do not trip off the tongue although there are dynamic and missionary individuals in all the Churches.
When I think of the Churches in Ireland words and phrases such as not pro-active, nice, well-meaning, overly cautious, complacent, passive, boring even, come to mind.
Most of those words would most certainly not have applied to the Apostle Paul, arguably the greatest communicator in world history, when he was defying shipwrecks, earthquakes, prison, and the threat of death to proclaim the Good News of salvation in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the end, he paid with his life.
The Churches appear to be institutions, unwilling to make waves; by that I mean itching to reveal or say something very newsworthy, very striking and on the odd time you have potential to make waves you don’t appear to know how to press home the advantage or you are not too bothered.
You may wonder, as I did, on reflection if those adjectives I used a moment ago are fair. To test myself I turned to a colleague, a senior media figure in Northern Ireland who is sympathetically disposed to the Churches and who deals with a wide range of organisations including the Churches.
I asked that person where do the Churches fit in, among those organisations who are knocking at the media’s door to elbow their way on to the news agenda with their stories.
My colleague replied: “They don’t fit in at all. They have dropped so far down the list that they don’t really feature any more.
“The only way a member of the clergy will get on the media these days is if there has been a really serious act of vandalism on their church,” he said.
That person added: “Churches often give me the impression that they are relieved we haven’t bothered them.”
That sort of bunker mentality, that apparent unwillingness to put your head above the parapet, is self-defeating and sells Jesus short.
Of course, Churches believe that they are different from every other organisation because they are carrying out a divine commission. But that doesn’t mean that normal rules of media engagement, in relation to news values, do not apply.
Equally, it goes without saying that the Churches are entitled to be fairly treated, like everyone else.
And when the media, particularly the publicly-funded BBC and RTÉ, fall short you should not be slow to complain, and you are slow, or do not complain at all.
That senior media figure recalled a time, as I do, less than 20 years ago, when the media would clamour to ensure that a statement from the then four Church leaders would be carried live on TV news.
Like after a violent atrocity, during a critical stage in the peace process or during a crisis like Drumcree.
We are in a different world now. Post-conflict yes, but also post-pedestal, where the main Churches are no longer on a pedestal from where they could previously lecture a docile, deferential, uneducated people.
Now you are struggling to be heard in the public square, struggling to demonstrate that you matter a lot in the realm of everyday life.
And that must mean that you are seen to be relevant in relation to the family, in a society where families, to quote Lord Sentamu, the Archbishop of York in the House of Lords last year, “particularly poor families, come in different shapes and sizes”.
So, it goes without saying that the Churches should have an inclusive, realistic, non-preachy approach to what constitutes a family, recognising the love and commitment and sacrifice that is at the heart of a family unit, including what Pope Francis has coyly called “irregular situations” where we should, to quote the Pope again “avoid judgements which do not take into account the complexity of various situations.”
Not bad advice when you consider that a priest told me the other day that over the past 25 years he has not officiated at a single marriage where the bride and groom did not share the same address, this in an Ireland where nearly 40% of births take place outside marriage.
So, the Churches are challenged to adapt to that reality in love and compassion while at the same time holding to the truth that the best context for the upbringing of children is within marriage, a Biblically-ordained institution which makes a vital contribution to society.
And that children have a right to grow up with a mother and a father in their family, notwithstanding the Churches’ responsibility to pastor lovingly to gay persons and their families, and to acknowledge the virtue present in loving, committed, faithful gay relationships.
How do the Churches set about communicating a vision for the family? I think there are three aspects to this.
- What individual Churches do themselves to communicate directly with their members, lapsed members and possible new members, using personal visits, knocking on doors, social media, Twitter, Facebook etc. and traditional leafleting;
- What individual churches do to communicate with the secular media in terms of using it as a vehicle to communicate their message of the Gospel; and
- What you, the Irish Council of Churches and the Roman Catholic Church together can do, using the secular media as a vehicle, to communicate the Gospel of Christ’s Love as it pertains to the family.
As a working journalist with experience of the secular media I will concentrate primarily on that third bit, your joint relationship and engagement with the secular media – a secular media whose job, of course, is not to spread the Gospel at all but to report, analyse and debate the stories and issues that concern their audiences and readerships, posing questions ordinary people would put to the powerful, if they had the chance.
Those issues of course include religion, because as one author has remarked, religion is part of human life and contributes to the order of society just as say politics, science or sport does.
Not surprisingly, there is no silver bullet regarding the task of harnessing the media to communicate your message about the family. But there is something that would help.
And that is, to use a religious term that you are all familiar with, there must be something of a conversion, on the part of the Churches towards engaging with media organisations in a professional, pro-active, constructive and productive manner to get key messages into the public domain and to your audiences. Those audiences are your parishioners, prospective parishioners, funders, opinion formers, the commentariat, policymakers, law-makers etc.
I do not see that necessary pro-activity today and that in part explains the perceptions that I spoke of in the first part of this talk.
You need a conversion, a cultural shift if your like, to see the media, regardless of how hostile it may seem, as a partner rather than an adversary, working for the betterment of society.
A start would be for the Churches, the members of the Irish Council of Churches and the Roman Catholic Church, in a spirit of appropriate ecumenical endeavour, to devise a media strategy, that could be part of a wider communications strategy involving the whole gamut of public affairs. This could incorporate engagement with government and civic society generally – including the universities where research is conducted, research that uncovers so many stories about social injustice. Of course, individual Churches have their own individual interests and concerns and they will continue.
And in approaching your task you should keep to the fore the words of Fard Johnmar, the American communication guru who says: “Remember, we may live in a new world, but the old rules still apply. Powerful communication has always been about getting people to pay attention and take action.”
The most effective way of getting people to pay attention, is by making personal face-to-face contact, introducing yourself, saying what your business is and establishing a relationship, however brief or however long, because even in this day and age of smartphones and Facebook, we are still, by and large, and I believe always will be, relational creatures.
In terms of establishing a relationship with the media the people you first must get to pay attention are the editors, producers and correspondents who decide what the news is and what the issues are on TV, radio and social media.
I should point that a report last year by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism showed that social media has overtaken television as young people’s main source of news.
But do not forget the newspapers, all of whom have got websites, and are in Ireland and Britain extremely influential in determining what stories broadcasters pick up and discuss.
I suggest that the 15 Churches who constitute the Irish Council of Churches and the Roman Catholic Church, maybe re-branding yourselves as Irish Churches Together agree a vision for the family, and then identify a number of social justice issues centring on the family that you can campaign on together using all available media platforms to press home your message, in the pursuit of the common good, demonstrating your zeal to spread the Gospel of Christ’s love.
My point here is that if the churches can unite around the radicality of the Gospel then people would see them standing up for them against the powerful, like the tax dodgers of the Paradise Papers, and the banks, who have contributed so much to the assault on families that is the homeless crisis, by evicting people from their homes and pulling the plug on landlords, also not been able to keep up with their payments due to circumstances beyond their control.
A Church that speaks truth to power as Jesus did in his time is more credible in its mission to evangelise.
You might consider organising pan-Church campaigns on a range of issues around social justice issues, followed up by intensive comparable outreach by the individual churches to your respective parishioners and would-be parishioners – and if you are unsure about it, naturally cautious folks that you are, give it a go and see how it goes!
There is no shortage of issues. Suicide, debt, mental health, child poverty, homelessness, food banks – a scandal in the fifth biggest economy in the world; addiction; human trafficking; harassment and bullying at work – and of course domestic and sexual violence.
If the politicians at Stormont fail, a scenario that cannot be ruled out, there will be a dangerous vacuum that the Churches will have to help fill.
In your list of ‘Priority Concerns’ right at the top you identify “the challenge of recruiting, keeping and supporting volunteers” who are essential to the work that churches do to support families.
I couldn’t help asking myself why have I never heard a news story about the volunteer crisis making the headlines on, e.g. the Stephen Nolan radio or TV show on the BBC.
Has anyone tried to quantify the problem, do the necessary research, and catapult it on to the news agenda?
I wonder have you ever considered asking an economist to quantify in hard cash the social contribution of Church volunteers in Ireland. That would be some story!
In Scotland an Evangelical Alliance study released in September showed that 9,000 faith groups in the Serve Scotland coalition of Church charities (not including the main Churches) contributed more than 11 million hours, totalling almost £100m in time and resources to social projects around foodbanks, debt advice, night shelters and refugee support work each year which prompted an hour-long debate in the Scottish Parliament that celebrated Church volunteering.
I would like to see a similar debate in Dáil Eireann and in Stormont – if and when it returns – with a media plan around it to garner maximum publicity.
Nearer to home, could steps be taken to ensure that the volunteer crisis could be addressed by the priest or minister in every church in Ireland on a given Sunday? That would take leadership and co-ordination on a big scale but is quite doable.
Research in the US shows that the most effective way to recruit volunteers is to ask people directly. People like to be asked.
I accept that research normally but not always costs money and research needs to be commissioned so I wonder have you considered a strategic partnership with the universities and charities to explore this?
No news-maker, including the Church, can expect to deal with the media only on their terms. There should be mutual respect, media and Church each genuinely welcoming the different role of the other.
Some years ago, Dr Joseph Stowell, the prolific American evangelical Christian author and associate of Dr Billy Graham, said: “Communication is a two-way street. And while we revel in the reality that we can always get through to heaven, our concern should be whether our Lord can always get through to us.”
Martin O’Brien – northern correspondent with The Irish Catholic and a communications consultant – is a former senior producer with the BBC and editor of The Irish News. This is an edited version of a talk given at the recent Irish Inter-Church Meeting at Dromantine Retreat and Conference Centre, Co. Down.