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November 15, 2019Culture, Interviews

One-on-One with Warren Smith on MinistryWatch, Accountability, and the Need for Christian Journalism

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” That sentence also describes American journalism today. 
One-on-One with Warren Smith on MinistryWatch, Accountability, and the Need for Christian Journalism
Image: By Photo Kozyr via Shutterstock

Today I am glad to welcome Warren Smith to The Exchange. Warren is president of MinistryWatch. Here we talk about the ministry and why it is needed today.

Ed: What is MinistryWatch?

Warren: MinistryWatch is an independent advocate for donors to Christian charity. We’re 20 years old and maintain a database of financial statements and analysis of the 500 largest Christian ministries in the country. We use this analysis to rate ministries on a 1- to 5-scale based on financial efficiency.

So, for example, ministries that spend more on administrative and fundraising activities will see their ratings lowered. Ministries that have large endowments will also likely see their ratings affected negatively. The rating system rewards ministries that use donor money directly for ministry activities.

We also issue “Donor Alerts” when ministries engage in bad behavior, or when we think donors need to beware or ask additional questions. We do not issue donor alerts often, usually a couple of times a year to warn donors (and focus media attention) on bad actors or questionable activities.

An equally vital part of our work has been to raise the profile of lesser-known ministries doing great work. We call these ministries "Shining Lights," after Matthew 5:16, which encourages us to "let your light so shine before men that they would see your good works and glorify your father who is in heaven."

Ed: I’ve used the ministry to look up certain charities. Can you explain to people who might not be familiar why that matters?

Warren: The financial analysis is unique to MinistryWatch. Ministries and other non-profits are required by law to disclose publicly certain financial information. However, most people are not trained to read financial statements.

Our analysis, and especially the ratings, help donors decide how to share the resources God has entrusted to them. We also hope that the ratings will be a service to ministry leaders who want to deploy financial resources more effectively and efficiently.

Ed: You’ve always been passionate about investigative reporting. Why do you think that matters?

Warren: America’s Founding Fathers wisely codified a free press in the First Amendment to the Constitution. They knew that a free and independent press was a guard against tyranny. That’s why journalism is often called the “Fourth Estate,” helping to ensure (along with the separation of powers in the three branches of government) that power will not be concentrated in the hands of the few to the detriment of the many.

Further, we often hear the expression (attributed to Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis) that “sunlight is the best disinfectant.” These ideas point to one conclusion: transparency and accountability are vital for a free and flourishing culture, and that’s true of a church culture as well as the secular culture.

It’s important to remember that these are biblical ideas. The Bible tells us to be “children of the light” (I Thess. 5:5). At MinistryWatch, we take especially to heart Ezekiel 33:6, a verse which exhorts the watchman to blow his trumpet at the sign of trouble. Investigative journalists can be the “watchmen on the wall” who shine light into dark places.

Also, we should never forget financial and spiritual fraud produce real victims. So in addition to being an advocate for donors, we also want to be a voice for victims. Our goal at MinistryWatch is never merely to tear down, but to build up.

We believe that our work can help restore confidence in an evangelical movement that has, frankly, some credibility problems in the culture today. If I could state what we are trying to do in a single sentence, it would be to bring glory to God by guarding the peace and purity of the church of Jesus Christ.

Ed: In your work, you’ve always insisted on journalistic standards and accountability in such reporting. Why is that needed today?

Warren: Charles Dickens famously opened A Tale of Two Cities with the sentence: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

That sentence also describes American journalism today. On the one hand, it has never been easier to share your views, no matter who you are. A hundred years ago, to enter the media ecosystem required a significant investment in printing presses and typesetters and skilled labor.

Today, social media and advanced software tools have turned us all into publishers. The problem is that we don’t all have good editors. So the truest and most thoughtful voices can easily be drowned out by the loudest and most outrageous voices.

I’m not the first person to point out this low state of media affairs. However, I may be among the few that view this state as one of great opportunity. Outlets that pursue excellence and maintain high journalistic standards continue to thrive. Why? Because in an era of confusion, they provide clarity and credibility.

I don’t mean to assert that MinistryWatch will stand alone among Christian journalists. Christianity Today, WORLD, The Colson Center, and other outlets do great work and I pray they continue to flourish.

But, to paraphrase another biblical expression, the fields are white unto harvest, and the laborers are few. I do not consider other Christian media to be competition, but co-laborers, and I pray that together we can “raise the bar” of Christian journalism and be an agent of change in the church.

One other comment about why an aggressive Christian journalism is needed today: Structures of biblical accountability have broken down in the evangelical church. Fifty years ago, we had only a few dozen megachurches (churches with more than 2,000 regular attenders).

Today, we have thousands, and many of them operate outside the structure of denominational polity. Responsible Christian journalism can help provide structure, transparency, and accountability when and where it has broken down.

Ed: Some people say it is better not to tell bad news at all— what would you say to them?

Warren: Read the Bible. The Bible is a very good story indeed. It is the best and the truest story ever told. But it has a lot of dark moments. Those dark moments exist in Scripture in part to bring us face-to-face with our own humanity, our own rebelliousness, our desperate need for a Savior.

If we turn from the bad news, it becomes easy to forget how badly we need the Good News, and just how good it truly is.

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