Churches Should Produce Non Traditional Religious Programming

MY showI used to work for a church that has been on the air with a traditional TV program for over 5 decades. In the Orlando metroplex, they reach about 100,000 viewers per week with their Christian program. It consists of a song or two from the service, and the message from the pastor. It is a fairly traditional church television program. When I was on staff a few years ago and had access to the data, I saw that we were reaching a predominately older crowd (75% of viewers were over age 55.) It was, and still is, a good work and it ministers to a lot of people in central Florida.

And because of the nature of non profit educational license religious channels and networks, there will always be a need for preaching/teaching shows in Christian TV. But those shows will continue to reach older, religious audiences. And will continue to not reach younger ones.

What if you took the money used to produce the program and buy airtime, and used it to produce programming that appeals to younger audiences? The churches I’ve worked for with TV programs spent between $30,000 and $250,000 on airtime purchases every year. Plus they had one or more staff people who were primarily focused on producing the content for the program every week. Conservatively estimating salary, taxes, insurance, etc… let’s say $50,000 annually.  That’s quite a bit of money in the indie production world.

What if you invested that money into creating video content that reflected a biblical world view, but wasn’t a traditional worship service/preaching program? What if it was something that told a story and, like a parable, taught truth at the same time?

Who would it be for?

People who don’t watch traditional religious programming. More specifically, find a target demographic in a group pf potential audiences members that don’t already consume traditional religious programming.

According to Pew Research, Older Americans watch more religious TV. Younger Americans are engaging in religious content online.

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Young audiences watch a lot of video content. 18-24 year olds still watch over 16 hours of TV per week, but that number is declining. The TV that they do watch is not traditional Christian TV programming. And they are increasingly watching video online. The older the demographic is, the more broadcast TV they watch.

We don’t need shows that target the 65 year old Christian, we already have those. We need churches to develop programs targeted at younger audiences that do not already watch religious programming.

How much would it cost?

The cost depends on what sort of show you are making. I’m most familiar with narrative programming. But you could do other sorts of shows that are not preaching/teaching/worship based.

If you do narrative, obviously, your church probably won’t be paying scale for actors and crew. Most of the people involved will be doing it as a ministry project. But unless you have no money at all, you should try to pay people something. I’ve done a show for no money before. It can be done, but it’s not sustainable long-term.

What if you could come up with $100 per day for the main cast and crew? That’s not scale, and there would be taxes taken out, etc… but $100. I have generally been able to shoot an episode in 4 days or less. If you have 4 main actors, and a crew with director, camera, audio and PA, you are looking at $800 per day. $3200 per episode. Plus any gear, additional actors, insurance, food, etc… $5000-5500 per episode. That may seem like a lot, but it is nothing compared to what network programming costs per episode.

At $5500, a 6 episode run would cost $33,000. 13 episodes would cost $71,500. This is assuming someone on your church’s staff is writing and producing the program, filling in the show running duties. And someone on staff would be doing the post work as well. One person cannot do it all, so you will need some help. Filmmaking and TV production is a team sport. Bare bones, on a shoe-string, you could make 6-13 episodes of a show for less than the cost of air time and a staff position in many markets. Other kinds of show may cost more or less depending on what all is involved in creating them.

How would people see it?

You just spent your airtime budget on production. How is anyone going to see it?

-Christian TV is begging for narrative content.

Literally begging because they can’t/won’t pay for it, but also begging because they want it badly.

It’s tempting to ignore broadcast television altogether. But even though the number is dropping, according to Accenture Digital Consumer survey, over half of TV shows and movies are still watched on TV. So it’s not a horrible place to be. And given the state of the religious TV market, you could have your show broadcast around the world for free. You might even get a little bit of money back to go toward the production of the program. One network my show was on was able to cover the cost of closed captioning. Traditional Christian programs have to purchase air time, but non traditional ones have a lot of effective, free options for broadcast.

Putting a Christian TV show on a Christian network is not way to reach the masses. The vast majority of viewers are Christians. I know that isn’t surprising, but I want to be clear that a program on Christian TV will be mostly seen by Christians. That’s OK, discipleship is something the church should be doing, and this is an avenue to disciple believers beyond the walls of your building.

You can produce programming that might appeal to non Christians, and broadcast it through non religious outlets, but it will cost more. Be sure to count the cost before you head down this road. There might be ways to mitigate those costs, but there will be costs.

-The internet is free.

It’s also very big. You cannot just throw a video on Youtube and expect it to reach thousands of people. If you have a video that has been seen by over 100 people, then you are in the top 30% of all Youtube videos. 300 hours of content is uploaded every minute! Youtube is massive. It’s the 2nd largest search engine, behind Google. So, most content is not seen by a lot of people. In order to be effective online you must have a marketing strategy. You need to develop an audience.

As a church you have a great foundation in your own congregation. Not only should you be mobilizing them to watch, but mobilize them to be encouraging their sphere of influence to watch as well. Last year my church did a campaign to get people to share their testimony through social media. It was not as successful as we had hoped. Still, I was able to locate over 80 videos that had been uploaded in the project, and I know that was just part of the ones uploaded over all. Those 80 videos had been seen over 200,000 times. Even if only a small portion of your congregation engages, you can still reach a lot of viewers.

Does your church have a ministry to help parents teach their kids about the Bible at home? How about developing a program that targets young mothers, and touches on subjects that they will have to face as they teach their own kids? Do a lot of mission trips? Send a video crew out with your teams, and produce a program that highlights the importance and impact of being in involved in missions.

Find something you are passionate about, that fits into the strategic vision of your church. Develop a program that targets younger audiences who would be interested in programming about that theme. Build a team, and make the show.

 

 

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New Job!

ID-100225146We are moving to Texas!

I have accepted the position of Video Content Creator at Mobberly Baptist Church in Longview, TX. The job has three main areas: media volunteer development and training, live multi camera video, and video production.

I start at the end of the month. And we are super excited! it’s a big answer to prayer.

If you’ve been reading this blog, you know God has been working for a while. For over a year I have been underemployed. That was after a year of doing freelance work while I worked on my TV show. So for 2 years we either didn’t have steady income or didn’t have enough income. I still vividly remember when my main freelance client evaporated in an ugly fashion. I remember when my car died, and we didn’t have money for a new one. I remember when we felt God wanted us to sell our home.

But God, Jehovah Jireh, provided. No bill was unpaid. No meal was missed. Every need we had was taken care of. In the meantime God began to work in our lives to bring us to Mobberly Baptist.

I can tell you, I didn’t just wake up one day and decide to move to east Texas. But if you look at what I have trained to do, what I have experience doing, and have been learning to do, this new position fits very well. And I really like the way they work, and the people I will be working with. Mandy and I feel this is God’s plan for us.

The very first project I will jump feet-first into is a major series of shoots for Christmas. Lots of locations and lots of cast.

Everyone is very excited about the move. Way too much to do to get ready for the transition.

Some of you may be wondering about the film projects I have been working on. I still have three short film scripts and a feature length one completed. I am still working on more feature length projects. I still expect to shoot those projects, but we will be based in east Texas now. One of the things I want to do there is what I was able to do here in Orlando: build a community of Christian filmmakers who want to create content with a biblical worldview.

I Refuse to Buy Air Time on Christian TV

Soap BoxPardon me while I step up on my soapbox and rant a bit about the Christian TV paid-time financial model.

Sure, it works great if you are a church putting your worship services on the air. You just make a line item in the budget and do your thing. Or if you are a non profit talk show, just spend 3-5 minutes selling your merchandise or asking for donations every show. No problem… in the short term. But long term this is a major problem. Audiences for this content are shrinking. Donations are drying up and donors are literally dying off.

Mean while, some of us are trying to create scripted content. Raising money outside the show. Trying to place it on stations and networks. Most see the need for this kind of thing. Almost none can (will?) pay for it. I sat with one of the big ones a few weeks ago. They would be happy to pay a licensing fee for a new show, provided it was good enough quality. But of course, the fee wouldn’t even come close to covering the production costs. Most are just happy to take the show for free.

But once in a while I run into one that likes the show, but wants me to pay them to air it. No. Never. I will give it away because we want people to see it, but I refuse to ever buy air time. It’s wrong headed, it’s upside down, and this practice has a very limited lifespan.

The other day I got an email from a foreign network. They were not asking for me to buy air time, but they wanted me to cover the cost of translating the program. I understand. It costs money to translate from English into another language. I declined. Partly because I didn’t have $3000 sitting around. Partly because my initial conversation with the president of the network had not included any mention of fees I would owe. Partly because in any other market (model?) they would be paying me for the content.

There is an audience for scripted and non traditional religious content. Our industry has to figure out how to get more of that created and on the air. Squeezing the producer for money to broadcast it isn’t the way. We had better figure it out soon. The clock is ticking.

Why We Shouldn’t Have Won the NRB Media Award for Best Creative TV Programming

NRB-Award-2013-410x410Last week National Religious Broadcasters announced that Peculiar would receive a 2014 NRB Media Award for Best Creative TV Programming. That’s a huge honor.

NRB has been around for 70 years. Every year they give out awards for various categories in the different media disciplines. Getting one is kind of a big deal in some circles. This isn’t some fly by night organization that just decided do some awards.

So, when I first heard we had won, I was surprised, pleased, proud of my team. What we did with a volunteer cast and crew on a micro budget is amazing by anyone’s standards.

But then I realized… We shouldn’t have won.

Not because we had done something wrong, or it didn’t meet the criteria, or anything like that. We shouldn’t have won because we shouldn’t have been the best program submitted.

I’m not blind. I can see the other winners in other categories. Any objective comparison of production quality will show that we are not in the same ballpark. Of course, they are using millions of dollars in equipment with a decent budget while we got by on borrowed gear and a dream. Nothing wrong with that, but we are not in the same league.

Now, I know creativity and story can overcome lack of production values. It doesn’t matter if the video is mind blowing if the story stinks. A bad story would still stink, no matter how good it looked. We can see that every year on major networks. They spend millions producing pilots that look amazing but don’t get picked up because they don’t work, aren’t good, etc…

But let me just be transparent. I am not the most creative guy alive. Sure, I can come up with a good idea. But for my first show out of the gate to win this award, well, color me shocked. I know I need to learn more about writing, directing, producing, and everything else. There are better producers, writers, directors, show runners out there. There are more creative people out there.

In Christian TV there aren’t a lot of shows like Peculiar. I can count on one hand the number of Christian sitcoms I have seen, and have fingers left. Same goes for Christian dramas. For whatever reason, there just aren’t many in production. But there should be.

I know that in Christian TV a lot of money changes hands. Some of the major networks, they take in millions and millions on the course of the year.

What if some of these networks or stations took just a portion of their budget, and hired producers to create creative programming? And took a bit more of the budget and earmarked it for production?

Imagine if a network set aside $1 million, and hired 5 show runners to produce 5 different series of shows (13 episodes each). Imagine if they set aside a one decent salary and a $100,000 budget for production.

Don’t tell me it can’t be done for that. I produced 10 episodes for under $9000 total. If some had handed me a $100,000 budget and paid me a salary, imagine what we could have done. Peculiar would be the same show, but 10 times better.

And don’t tell me they don’t have it. I know it would require retooling the budget, obviously. But there are networks that have it. And it could be focused on making new programming, creative programming. It’s a matter of priorities. Is it a priority to reach generations we are missing with our current content? (I am really trying to resist the urge to sermonize about this point…)

Of course, the question immediately follows: A network or station taking $100,000 earmarked for something else and investing in a new venture? What’s the return on investment? How do you recoup the money?

At first, you don’t.

The Christian TV market isn’t set up to do normal TV. As the station/network you can fill break slots with fundraising content and provoke some viewers to send in money. But that sort of thing is dying off. Younger viewers are not as likely to respond to that sort of request.

Maybe the key is selling digital copies? Maybe working with a distributor to get a DVD placed, and digital versions available for purchase on iTunes and the like.

Maybe it’s doing more “enhanced underwriting”. What’s enhanced underwriting?

Here’s an excerpt from an article on transition.fcc.gov:

“In 1984, the FCC granted stations more flexibility by adopting a policy of “enhanced underwriting,” which permitted noncommercial stations to broadcast donor and underwriter acknowledgements from for-profit entities. These acknowledgments can include logograms and slogans that identify, but do not promote, sponsoring businesses. They may include business location information, value-neutral descriptions of a product line or service, and brand and trade names along with product or service listings. That is why some underwriting messages resemble ads. Subjects that cannot be mentioned in underwriting announcements include price information, such as discounts, rebates, and interest rates; calls to action; inducements to buy, sell, rent, or lease; and any language that states or implies favor- able comparisons to other like businesses or competitors.”

A show that has viewers can attract sponsors. If the content is driving viewers to the station, then the underwriting becomes a good option for sponsors. This is a delicate balance. You don’t want to do something you shouldn’t or that’s not permitted on the non profit station, but you can do some sponsorships. Plus there is no limit to how you can advertise on the station’s website.

Obviously, an education license station can’t switch to all entertainment programming. There has to be a lot of teaching programs on the air or the station is in danger of losing its license. But creative programming can be done, and done for less money that you would expect. And that’s what younger audiences want to watch.

Being selected for this award is a huge honor. I am so grateful and humbled by it. I couldn’t be prouder of the work my team did on the show. But we shouldn’t have been the best show submitted. We shouldn’t have won because there should be better creative programming than ours on Christian TV.

Christian Character Honesty

fake guyOne of the biggest complaints about Christian film/TV/video is that the characters are not honest. There are exceptions to this, but many times, too many times, this is true.

I’ll be the first to admit, I’m no expert character developer. I’m no expert scriptwriter. I wrote 9 of the 10 episodes of my show, Peculiar. I’m writing a feature length script now. I’ve fallen into the trap of creating a one dimensional character to achieve a plot point. I’ve presented characters in my work who change little over the course of the story. I’ve created weird moments where characters are set up to preach in a conversation rather than talk like normal people. But I am working to get better. Trying to educate myself, taking classes, reading books, writing.

One thing I did not do in the show is present the main character as a perfect Christian, who knows all the answers. He is a new believer, with little religious background. He makes mistakes. He learns, he is discipled. He is trying to live according to his faith.

I think a lot of times we see religious works and the main “Christian character” is this snapshot of life. They are static. The world happens around them, and they react to it. Almost like the writers have said that this is how believers act. This moment of life, they are the Christian, and Christians act like this, so watch them be Christian.

Salvation isn’t just limited to a moment. It’s a lifetime of faith and learning. The Bible says we are justified and sanctified. Justification is like God looking at us, but Jesus steps in front of us, so God only sees his righteousness, not our sin. It’s immediate. Sanctification is a process of molding our sinful nature into the shape of Christ. It’s ongoing.

Christian writers seem to get tied up in justification. It’s like we have this story with conflict, and the character is this perfect believer with no doubts and nothing to learn. Let’s watch what a “real Christian” would do in this situation. And then we watch them make all the right decisions, and in the end… I guess we are supposed to feel convicted because we are not where the Christian character is? We are supposed to leave the film saying, “Wow. I need to get my life right so I can be like that guy, he’s a real Christian”? Or, “I sure was glad that sinful person ended up choosing to be more like that Christian character.”

But no one is like that. Not in real life. I’ve known some pastors and speakers who present their lives like that on stage, but in reality, they are just as mixed up and full of inadequacies as we are. People who try to live like that remind me of a guy sitting on a three legged stool, sawing on a leg. Eventually they are gonna fall. Christianity as a whole has a problem being real, being honest with each other. We don’t show weakness or flaws. And if we do, the most common response is not support, but attack.

And that rubs off on Christian film and story. It’s like we are afraid to let a character be raw and honest. Maybe the investors won’t like it? Maybe we think Christian audiences can’t handle it? I don’t know, but too often we set up these unreal Christian characters.

Christianity isn’t about following people. It’s about following Jesus. Believers who follow other people will always end up disappointed. Setting up dishonest characters in our story will always ring false to the audience.

Audiences don’t want fake characters. Let’s let our characters be honest and real. Let them struggle to overcome. Let them change. Let them be real.

It’s Dead, it Just Doesn’t Know it Yet

model tombstoneThe paid time/donor model for Christian TV broadcasting is dead. It just doesn’t know it yet.

I know there are program producers and stations and networks that will vehemently disagree with me on this. That’s OK. Eventually, no one will be able to deny this. There are some programs that are still working, but others are reworking what they do because of dropping donations. And it will only get “worse” as time passes.

The practice of paying non-profit, education license TV stations for a block of time, and then asking viewers to buy something or give something to your organization so you can continue to afford to make shows and buy time… is dead. Or at least on life support.

I recently described paid time/donor shows as having a limited shelf life (I’m mixing my metaphors.). These aren’t the same as churches producing teaching/worship shows. Those will always be around, because churches will continue to invest their budget into extending their ministry into their community. But the ones without the church backing, that rely only on donations from viewers, on selling things. Those will become less and less viable. Viewers who faithfully watch and support teaching programs with money are shrinking. They are literally dying off. And as the viewing and giving habits of younger audience members begin to have more of an impact on religious stations, things will begin to change.

The model to replace it hasn’t been fully formed yet. I had hoped to get in on the cusp of that new model, but those of us making shows that we are not buying time for are kind of out on the rough seas, looking for a harbor. (I know, I’m mixing my metaphors again. How about we’re in a private room in the maternity ward, hoping to check out of the hospital? No? You know what I mean.)

Today another network, CTN-Lifestyle, will start broadcasting my show, Peculiar. Not in the middle of the night, but during primetime and 3 bonus times. This cost me nothing but the time to email and ask, and then upload the programs. OK, it also cost me the time, effort, and resources to produce the programs.

This brings the number of networks (groups broadcasting the show to more than one market at a time) broadcasting Peculiar to 5. With 3 individual stations either already broadcasting, or about to start. With more in conversation. The amount of money spent by me to buy this air time is $0.00. It is possible to place programming that appeals to a younger audience on religious stations without buying it.

The flip side is that we cannot expect support from viewers who just want to write us a check. So, how can we afford to make more programs? Even at the super micro budget we had for Peculiar, that’s still a chunk to recoup… and then make enough on top of that to afford to make more episodes.

I did have one network give me a little bit of money for the show. Just enough to cover closed captioning. But that is not the norm. I really want to vent about the realities of Christian TV and it’s upside down funding model. I will restrain myself, and simply say that it stinks.

Retail? I wouldn’t bet on it. So far retails sales of my show’s DVD have been slow. It may eventually make back what we spent to create the show, but not any time soon. Unknown actors, unknown show, unknown director… very hard to reach a tipping point in publicity. For profit company broadcasting on non profit stations, so there’s no direct sales through the broadcast. Someone more skilled in marketing of this kind of thing may have better luck.

So, stations won’t buy it (cause most can’t afford to) and retail is sluggish. Netflix and the like aren’t much better. You might… might… get $10,000 for a streaming deal. That might cover your current production costs, but it won’t cover production for the future. So what’s left?

I’m not sure.

I do know that Christian radio stations sell spots… I mean, provide informational announcements for underwriting sponsors. Maybe a TV show can do something similar? Why not? I’ve spoken with one local religious stations about this. It’s possible. But likely that would be a station to station proposition, and not something that larger networks would consider. Not at this point anyway.

I don’t know the answer. But with the current model on life support, and more and more opportunity for new programming to air, we need to figure it out soon.

What do you think?

Year 1

caledarOne year ago I stopped being a media pastor.

I left my job. I left a steady paycheck with benefits in a bad economy. I left with just a mortgage, utilities, and some money in the bank. I left with a wife and 3 kids to provide for.

I left with a vision, a dream, that I still believe God has given me.

I wish I could say that everything has been awesome. I’ve dipped further into our savings than I expected. I’ve not had the number of freelance gigs I hoped.

But, that sitcom I’ve been working on, we just finished taping the 10th episode. It’s playing on 3 Christian networks this Summer. And the first 6 episodes hit DVD July 16th. One of the episodes even got chosen for screening at the Gideon Film Festival this Summer. Not bad for the first effort.

And working from home? Love it. I see my kids now. That last few months at the church, when God was nudging me pretty hard about making the move. I was working 60+ hours a week, every week. For about 5 months. Frankly, that’s too much. Once in a while there are busy seasons, but not 5 months straight. I won’t ever do that again. It’s not worth it.

I may still work 60+ hours, but their my hours on my project. And my family sees me. They can talk to me. I am not missing my children growing up anymore. I’m not leaving my wife to raise my kids by herself anymore.

I can’t believe how supportive my wife has been. She is amazing.

We just finished shooting 4 more episodes of the show. I’m in the middle of post production. Once these are done, I will likely put these on a DVD with some bonus features and see if we can get them released as well. If enough money comes in, we could revisit Peculiar again.

What’s next? I’ve got ideas for a documentary and a movie that could turn into a series… but I really want to shoot someone else’s script. I want to find a good script that I can produce. I’ve also got a couple ideas for general religious TV shows that could appeal to younger audiences.

And, still looking to add more freelance work. Gotta’ pay the bills. Camera, audio, video work.

One year in, this is what I know. God provides. Every bill has been paid. We have not gone hungry. We took a huge step of faith, and God provides.

TFWM Article

I was quoted in the March issue of Technologies for Worship Magazine in an article about broadcast ministry. (This is the online issue. Article on Page 16) Here’s a link to the blog bost they quoted from: The Decline of Christian TV – the Future of Christian TV. It’s actually from February 2012.

Since this article was posted, I have actually broadcast the show I was developing back then. We are in fundraising and pre production on new episodes. Production hits in April, with a new broadcast debut on JCTV in June. We will have 10 episodes after this production run.

I still believe that the future of Christian TV/video is in doing show that appeal to younger viewers, and getting away from the paid time model. I have never paid for time to broadcast my show. There are ways to get shows on stations without paying, but you have to have content that is unique.

Just a few weeks ago I was at NRB again. I finished out my term on the Church Media Committee. This year I was promoting my program, so I talked to a lot of stations and networks. To my knowledge, Peculiar is the only Christian sitcom in production today.

That amazes me.

There might be something else out there, but I have not found it. I want to find it. I want there to be all sorts of programming from a biblical perspective. There are a couple of reality shows, a few dramas, but where are the comedy shows (not stand up comedy) that are not directed at kids?

Anyway, I have found that station and networks are looking for content that is unique, and if you fit their target audience, you have a shot on being on there for free. You still have to cover production costs, and stuff like that, but not air time. You don’t get to pick the time slot. But it’s free.

It’s easier if you have an organization behind you. Independent Christian TV is hard, and expensive.

But if we don’t change, we lose religious broadcasting. This medium has been so powerful over the years. I don’t want to see us abandon it.

New stuff is hard. But are we called to make programming that is easy and familiar, or are we called to reach the world all ages and areas) for Christ?

Watershed

Watershed: A ridge line that splits drainage areas, or an important point of division or transition between two phases, conditions, etc.

Today is a watershed day.

As I blogged earlier in the week, I’m leaving church media ministry for … media ministry. For over 10 years I have been in full time employment at a church, doing the work of media ministry. I’ve seen God do some pretty spectacular things in this time.

Starting tomorrow I won’t be coming into an office every day. I will be working on the next thing God has called me to do.

There will be some things I won’t miss at all, and some I will. The biggest thing I will miss is seeing a project of eternal significance grow from an idea into an experience used by God every week. I will still see that happen in my new work, but not every single week.

Meanwhile I’ve made some great progress on the show this week. Got some new things I hope to get rolled out next week, when I actually have the time to work on it. And on the tent-making side if things, I landed a freelance gig this weekend. God is continuing to affirm this course for us.

So this is it. I’ve got a few more things to finish up, so I gotta’ go.

Pastors: Should You Be On Twitter?

Specifically, minister-types: Should you be on twitter?

I know that many of you cringe at the thought of social media. The imagined image of you, sitting at a computer, trying to keep up with responding to messages on Facebook sends you running to the dark corner of your office. I understand. The volume of email and phone calls you already have to keep up with is overwhelming. Unless you just like social media, you may be choosing to pass.

But twitter isn’t the same as other social media outlets. The 140 character limit requires conversations and responses to be short.

The shortened form (140 characters) limits conversations. It’s almost perfect for tweeting scriptures. And devotional thoughts. Recently, the NY Times had an article about this very thing. Part of the article included an interview with a Twitter executive:

“Pastors tell me, Twitter is just made for the Bible,” Ms. Díaz-Ortiz said.

It’s close. On average, verses in the King James Version are about 100 characters long, leaving room to slip in a #bible hashtag and still come in under the 140-character limit.

And proverbs are powerful draws on Twitter.

Why do religious leaders have so much more impact on twitter?

I think it’s because people do want to hear truth. They crave it. But our society is so busy, finding time to read and study is very hard. People will subscribe to your twitter feed and hear truth and scripture from someone they trust.

Should you be on twitter? Yes. Don’t miss a great opportunity to speak into the lives of people who care the truth you can share.