What is meant by the term ‘digital media’?
Digital is the common term used to describe audio and video formats that come to us not by air waves, or TV signal, but in number, or computerized formats that make them accessible on desktop or mobile devices.
Why are these formats preferable to traditional radio and TV?
Most are familiar with the many minutes in a 26-minute format that are not actually teaching, but multiple invitations to contact the ministry for additional resources. Through those “commercials” the ministry builds a relationship, solicits donations, and covers the cost of airtime. Faithful financial supporters (for us, Change Partners) commit to monthly support, which combines with additional donations to raise the millions to cover air time costs.
Following that model, WITW has grown from one station in 1997, to today reaching millions of people through more than 2000 daily outlets on radio and television around the world.
Seems like that is working well — why not stick with it?
Audience reasons to go digital:
In ways that are not obvious to WITW’s friends, radio and TV are becoming more and more like daily newspapers – an old format that is gentrified and heading toward obsolescence. Traditional media formats retain audiences that are (literally) dying off and completely missing the new generations of people who also hunger for strong, challenging biblical content. These typically younger audiences don’t watch Christian TV or listen to traditional radio; think of Netflix or podcasts as digital and network news or the local Christian station as traditional. While we love the idea of reaching seniors with content to feed their souls and support that season of life (which some of us are not far from :-), we believe we are called to invest in future generations who will serve Christ and build His church when we are gone.
Financial reasons to go digital:
Many do not realize that WITW buys its broadcast time from both commercial and non-commercial formats. Costs range from hundreds to, in some cases, thousands of dollars per day.
In the new model, cost for all 2000+ radio and TV outlets per week goes to zero. This is especially telling given that these traditional mediums are used by only 25% of our audience and have become more where people find out about our ministry, not where they continue to access it. Instead, choosing digital platform like podcasts, YouTube, other social media, etc., and using new creative means to reach new audiences is much more cost effective.
Does WITW even need Change Partners then?
Yes, yes, YES. Even with costs reduced by two-thirds, we need our faithful Change Partners to make this journey with us. Capture and posting of teaching, generating compelling content to continue growing our ministry audience and impact, creation of study materials, devotionals, and making our entire video/audio library available online in fresh ways — these are just a few of the ongoing needs for a highly optimized WITW staff. Keep in mind that written, audio, and video content that previously helped ‘pay the bills’ will now be offered without cost through the faithfulness of our donors, and especially our Change Partners.
As part of this move, beginning March 1, 2019, WITW will post monthly financial updates with revenue, expenses, and current financial needs. Pastor James shares, “For several years, I have battled an internal dissonance about the growing need for ‘financial asks’ in our broadcast ministry, which became more frequent as costs increased, while listeners/viewers of traditional media were decreasing. In the new model, full-length messages without the old-school commercial content will lead the way through podcast and other digital formats. I was fearful of the impact of change, but knew it had to be done.”
How did the ministry overcome understandable hesitance to make this change?
Many are aware that we have long endured a small number of former Harvest leaders attacking our Pastor and our church online. As our Pastor’s primary focus has transitioned from building our ministries, to securing a healthy succession that sets all our ministries up to flourish in the next generation, we have carefully considered the obstacles. Second, we are in hot pursuit of our financial goal to be debt-free by 2023. A third area that is overdue for courageous engagement, and best handled during these other difficult resolutions, is WITW’s distribution model. By facing all these challenges at once, we envision a season of unparalleled peace and blessing as we head toward 2020 and beyond.
How does this help the ministry of WITW?
A very high percentage of WITW staff hours are spent maintaining the old model — e.g. building monthly campaigns, designing and ordering ‘premiums’, creating commercials, answering phones, fulfilling orders, writing direct mail appeals, etc. The new model eliminates the need for these. Pastor James’ sermon archives will be online and available at no cost. An optimized staff will make it accessible in creative ways, drawing through social media as an entry point to the teaching. Instead of delivering at significant cost via traditional media and hoping it is discovered, our efforts will target people with an interest in biblical teaching or a hunger for it. This includes targeting the unsaved, and pushing content toward them through questions they are already searching for online.
In the new model, our much-loved Change Partners are standing behind a strategy that is reaching a whole new generation of Christ followers and church planters. Further, we have long known that response to traditional broadcasts is higher with topical content, not the verse-by-verse teaching though Bible books that is that preferred approach of our Pastor and own church, as well as longer term WITW audience. This new model significantly frees Pastor James to focus on expositional preaching in the years ahead.
Is this decision as sudden as it seems?
No, especially to those responsible for leading the ministry of WITW, which historically has discussed the gentrified broadcast schedule maintained by most Christian radio stations. In the past few years, staff hires have focused on accelerating the development of our digital footprint. In the spring of 2018, we moved away from a long-standing supportive partnership with Roger Kemp and Company, who helped produce and distribute our radio broadcast. Late last summer, when our much loved former Executive Director Janine Nelson relocated to Michigan, we brought in Dan Sumpter, a gifted young leader on our staff for 8 years, who has a calling to use digital media to reach a new generation. This past fall, we found ourselves in the viral video market with our short segment, Homeless man . . . is the pastor?, which has already received more than 4 million views across all platforms. This kind of content is what we envision as the new path to helping people ‘discover’ the digital Bible-teaching ministry of WITW.
Why was this decision not made sooner?
Walk in the Word is and always has been a ministry undergirded by the congregation of Harvest Bible Chapel in Chicago, where Pastor James and Kathy have served for 30 years and counting. For many of those years, WITW was the ‘tip of the spear’ in our church planting strategy, allowing access to people across North America and around the world, and inviting them into church planting core groups.
In 2017, with the role of overseeing the churches we plant no longer sustainable, Harvest stepped away from leading Harvest Bible Fellowship (now grouped under multiple church planting entities, like Vertical Church Network and Great Commission Collective) and announced we would focus our efforts on helping midsize churches (1000+) and ‘mega’ churches (2000+) move into church planting as a recurring priority. An unforeseen benefit of that difficult decision was a release from maintaining any particular local broadcast signal in support of churches we had planted, who were also freed to associate and partner as they believe the Lord is leading them.
Will Wayne Shepherd continue to host the new Vertical Living program?
Wayne Shepherd has been a faithful friend to Walk in the Word for almost 20 years and a treasured partner in the studio portions of our radio broadcast. As the new digital format will not have edited content needing an announcer like a traditional broadcast, we will continue as friends, personally and professionally. We are happy that listeners will continue to hear Wayne on the many programs he hosts and creates on Christian radio stations around the country.
More answers to FAQs will be added as we receive questions from our church and WITW families.