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images-1Newspapers must either change or die in this new media age, and churches could learn something from them.

My friend, Jim Stovall, teaches journalism at the University of Tennessee, and sees the death of newspapers as a positive development for journalism.  Does that sound strange?  Jim sees it this way:

We who contemplate the importance of journalism look at the future with trepidation.

What happens to journalism, we ask, when newspapers continue on their inevitable decline? The question assumes that journalism itself will be diminished.

I am coming to a different conclusion: 

Journalism will improve once newspapers die or decline to a minor medium.

Jim and I have had several conversations about newspapers and churches.  We both grew up in church, and Jim is a regular United Methodist Church member.  I share Jim’s conviction about newspapers, and have a conviction of my own about churches.

Newspapers need to realize they are in the news business, not the paper business. The high cost of printing, delivery, labor, and organization is bankrupting newspapers.  News organizations that embrace new media are on the rise.  Where do you read your news — a printed paper or online?  And that’s my point.

Churches have a similar problem.  We are trying to hold on to the form of church (our version of the “paper”), forgetting that the message (“news”) is most important.  Almost all denominations are in decline now, including my own Southern Baptist Convention.  In response to that, denominational leaders try to appeal to young people.  LifeWay conducts lots of very good research on how Baptists can reach the under-30 crowd.  We kid ourselves to think, “If we could only add young people to our churches, everything would be fine.”

What we really should be doing is repackaging the message in ways that would carry it better.  For example:  Pick the worst hour of the week to try to get young people to an event and you won’t find one worse than 11 AM on Sunday morning, unless it’s 10 AM on Sunday morning.  Yet we persist in meeting at that time, which started when the farm chores had to be done, the wagon hitched up, and Sunday lunch packed for dinner-on-the-grounds before the family could leave for church.

I could go on and on here about our concern for the “form” of church more than its substance, but I’ll let you fill in your own ideas.  My point, as was Jim’s about newspapers, is that the sooner some of the outmoded forms of church fail or diminish, the sooner we’ll get on with finding new forms for the message.   Of course, that might mean some of the churches we currently pastor go out of business, which would hurt.  But if we remember that the form of church we have now is not that different than it was in the 1920s, then we realize we’re overdue for a makeover. Not much else from the 1920s survives today, and churches and newspapers are about to get added to that list.

What do you think? If you’d like to read the rest of what my friend says about newspapers and the future he sees for journalism, go here. Then think about what a similar outcome might mean for churches.  Let me know what you discover.