3 Things the Church Can Learn from the Serial Podcast

3 Things the Church Can Learn from the Serial Podcast

At the end of 2014, Meredith and I traveled. We probably spent close to 20 hours in the car driving. Both of us love podcasts and we decided to power listen to Serial, the breakout podcast hit of the fall.

If you aren’t familiar with Serial yet, it is a long form, narrative style podcast from the This American Life family. In 12 episodes it told the story of a murder suspect and the crime information that didn’t necessarily match up. The New Yorker called Serial “the Podcast to end all podcasts.”

It was a break out hit and one of the most innovative pieces of media in 2014. There are several lessons the church can learn from the podcast. I think now is the time for any local church to begin learning some lessons from new media.

3 Things Churches Can Learn from the Serial Podcast

1. The new media critical mass has been reached.
For the last 10 years people have slowly been learning to get news, build opinions and discuss things in alternative ways. According to Everertt Rodgers’ research Diffusion of Innovation, we have reached critical mass. New media has reached the late majority level. This means the average amount of persons might not have actually engaged in a tremendous amount of new media communication styles, but they are familiar enough with them to hit mainstream. The more narrative, people based storytelling is now accepted and understood easily (rather than tolerated and confused). The 20th century was primarily a knowledge based society. In many ways it was the apex of the last 500 years of a new system of innovation begun with printing press.

If we look at communication development, the last 5 years have been a shift of innovation away from knowledge/information and back towards narrative as the dominate holder of truth. This written -> oral cultural shift doesn’t downgrade knowledge…but instead shows a development of both together. The storyteller no longer is simply a transmitter of previous information, but now holds authority by not just the truthfulness they tell…but how they tell it.

This means people have now changed the way they digest and listen to media. Think of the communication potential your church now has. Instead of reaching people living inside a knowledge based culture,we have to shift to a narrative based. But isn’t that what the gospel really is? The story of many people being reconciled to the Father, through the sacrifice of His Son and then grasped and empowered by the Holy Spirit?

2. Podcasts have now reached mainstream
Podcasts have been around for 10 years in some medium or the other. Apple iTunes has had podcast delivery built in since 2005. Even though it was almost 9 years ago, this was the first step in accessibility. In the last 5 years, the technology for listening to podcasts has changed dramatically. With the advent of smartphones (and the iPhones ability to download/stream podcasts natively) the accessibility was easier than ever before. In the past, you had to search through the store, download to iTunes and then upload the podcast to your iPod.

Serial broke iTunes download records. They reached 5 million downloads quicker than any other podcast. 15% of our population has listened to a podcast in the last month. People are moving towards podcasts as a primary source of information and entertainment. The hardest part about a podcast is finding the best way to listen.

In the last 10 years, vehicles have slowly started making connecting an auxiliary device to the stereo easier. At first it was auxiliary jacks and now it is bluetooth. I don’t think I have had a rental car in the last 5 years that doesn’t have the ability to route my iPhone audio through the speaker.

This makes it easy for your church to distribute content.

Instead of the old tape or cd based ministry, which necessitated changing delivery systems (tapes or CD’s), listeners now have the content at the same place everywhere. They can start and stop with ease.  The average commute is 25.4 minutes.

Podcast technology means your ministry can reach listeners who can subscribe to regular content and listen to it anywhere.And the average person now has everything they need to engage with your content and is probably familiar. Churches have used RSS (podcast code) technology for years to deliver sermons…but that is just the beginning. Read  “What’s Behind the Greatest Podcast Renaissance” and think about how you can take advantage of this medium

3. How Serial changed everything (in a great way).

Serial changed everything. Or maybe we can say it served as the example of the great change that has been happening over the last 2 years as far as podcasts are concerned. I have podcaster off and on for 10 years. For 8 of those it was a total bust. Getting 10 downloads was a success. No one knew how, knew what or knew why podcasts were great. It was a total niche movement.

But it was worth sticking with. Apple sat on it for years before it hit mainstream.

Serial showed us how everything changed.

It was a distinctly Generation X/ Millennial product. With the crime in Serial occurring in 1999, there are plenty of cultural references.

Sarah Koenig, the host and primary investigator speaks of adolescence not as a statistical fact, but as something mainstream.* It shows a completely perfect example of a secular moral structure…with casual drug use and sexuality on a sliding scale of acceptability. Language isn’t edited out. One particular person involved coined a phrase used through out the show featuring the F-bomb. It was referenced countless times throughout the show. Unedited. No apologies. Besides the moral framework, the style of reporting this has completely changed. It is no longer a disapproving adult, but instead someone who remembers (and even identifies) with the subjects. I can’t imagine Barbara Walters doing this style of reporting.

Serial also served as an amazing example of power listening. We have been familiar with power watching, the practice of back to back viewings of entire television seasons, ever since DVD sets became affordable. Netflix, and other streaming services, have made this a regular part of life.

Serial was the first podcast to seriously look at power listening. People would plan out blocks of time (the holiday season was perfect…because the show had just ended) to listen to the entire 12 episode season.

So ask yourselves this. Are you in the content business or the sermon business?** The church has used technological advances for years in media. If fact, it’s one of the areas we have done really well in.

I think this gives us two questions to ask ourselves.

1. How can my church create or adapt a content strategy influenced by power watching/listening and the consumption of narrative media.
2. Do we speak the communication language of Generation X and the Millennials or are we still directing our digital media towards the style of engagement created by older generations.

Serial has been a great example of the tipping point of new media and any church leader needs to be asking these questions.

*Note. I don’t agree with the information below-but it’s of the utmost sociological importance.
**But let’s think about what a sermon is. It’s an intentional packaging and communication of the Story of God. For me, the basic assumption of preaching/sermonizing is the assumption and goal of a person being affected and making intentional decisions because of the word of God. The lines between the sermon and content are decently blurry.

  • Mark Jones

    Chad, I too enjoyed Serial. There were two reason why I did: 1) I live close to Baltimore, so I am familiar with many of the locations where events took place. Because of that, the story came alive in way it might not for other listeners. 2) It was masterful story telling. It is this reason, story telling, that ministers of the Word should embrace. One of the greatest tools Jesus used in His preaching was an applicable story. Some were very short, some like the Prodigal Son, much longer. Stories resonate, they hold our interest, and they are memorable. I can ask anyone in my church to tell me the story of Jonah and the whale and from the youngest to the oldest they would tell it in detail. If I ask the same people to summarize Romans 12 I will get a blank look. There is power in the story and we should be using it to help our people lock down truth.