Legacy Christian Organizations and the Irrelevance Spiral


The essence of communication is to understand your product, your audience and to present your product in a way your audience can understand it. Simple, right? Well, not in my experience with legacy Christian organizations. Some are losing the battle with culture and relevance.

First, let me define legacy organizations: movements, groups and churches that are in their second or third generations of existence. Some critics have accused these legacy organizations of becoming irrelevant thus finding themselves in trouble trying to recruit new followers, fund their programs and budgets and survive, much less thrive, in current economic challenges. But that’s not what I see happening in the American Christian landscape. While some might be out of touch, most of these ministries are led by godly men and women who are passionate about evangelism, missions, discipleship, social justice and serving and are trying very hard to advance the cause of the Gospel.

So, what gives? Most legacy Christian organizations in America suffer, not from a lack of vision and mission, but most of them suffer from a communication crisis. Often they know what their mission is and, for the most part, they know whom they are trying to reach. Their failure, however, lies in communicating with their target audience in a way it wants to receive the information. After decades of existence, these organizations tend to communicate their story, purpose, and mission in the language and images of their founders. Seldom I see a legacy organization change the way they present themselves in a format that reflects new societal values and attitudes while remaining true to their calling.

After decades of existence, legacy organizations tend to communicate their story, purpose, and mission in the language and images of their founders.

While I’m not advocating changing your heart to appeal to culture, I am a big fan of contextualizing your message so it’s heard and understood by society. Every successful missionary has learned this lesson: you must speak a language your culture understands and can response to. Don’t wasted time arguing how people should think and behave. Whether you and I like it or not our culture is changing and some of those changes are difficult to understand–for example, how children who are born in Christian homes, attend Christian schools and when asked about if there’s such a thing as absolute truth, profess their belief in situation ethics: “my parents’ truth is not necessarily my truth.” I don’t like it, but I can’t ignore this trend if my job is to communicate with them. I need to craft my message with that reality in mind.

How do you know if you’re communicating your message properly? Go outside your bubble and tap into people who will tell you the truth. Find those whom you are trying to reach who are not insiders and ask them their honest opinion of how you’re doing. Ask them “how would you describe our organization to someone who never heard of us?” Or, “what do you think we’re all about?” You’ll be surprise by the answers if you’re brave enough to ask the right people.

Are you familiar with an organization that needs to rethink its message? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  • Sally Simmons

    I think my church’s greatest struggle is to find a way to communicate truth in a contemporary way. Unless you come in with a Biblical foundation, you would probably not understand much of the sermons. 

  • AnilShama

    Me gusta mucho tu blog .. colores muy agradable y tema. ¿Hizo usted mismo sitio web o que usted contrata a alguien que lo haga por ti? Plz respuesta de nuevo como yo estoy buscando para crear mi propio blog y me gustaría saber donde te tienen que esto. aplausos

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  • Anonymous

    Goes hand in hand with your post about speaking the right language to people.

    I wonder how much “fear” plays a factor in some of these cases. As you says, societal values/thoughts/attitudes change and some Christians fear those changes or dont know how to respond. We get legalistic and scared to relax and be friends with people.

    We don’t ever have to compromise our message to be relevant.

    • Most people fear what they don’t understand. Sometimes we also confuse methodology with theology and make our way of doing things sacred.

  • i’m part of one of these legacy organizations and i would say contextualizing our internal communication is just a big of challenge as the external. 

    really enjoyed this post!

  • You have described well one of the challenges some legacy Christian broadcast organizations face with digital convergence. Their hearts are still full of passion and resolve for using media to tell the world that God loves them. However, a number of them, for a variety of reasons, continue to primarily use analog related strategies for doing so. 

    It’s more than a technology shift. Getting ahead of this change will be key to long-term survival for many of these organizations.

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