Quentin Schultze has become one of the American church’s most insightful observers and critics of the impact of media — particularly television — on the lives and attitudes of people. A professor of communications at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, he has written widely about media. His most recent book is Redeeming Television, published by InterVarsity Press. He was interviewed by Preaching editor Michael Duduit.
Preaching: Television has obviously become a very pervasive influence in American culture. How has this affected the attitudes of persons who sit in the pews in our churches? Has television changed the way they think about moral issues and social issues?
Schultze: Television’s effect on congregations, I think, falls into two major categories. One would be in how average parishioners think about their faith and about church life. Although most television drama doesn’t deal very openly, very extensively at all with the church, with clergy and so forth — religion’s sort of invisible there — there’s a lot of religious broadcasting and most of the religious broadcasting is watched by people who are members of churches. They are not just elderly people; some of the programs — 700 Club, the old PTL and so forth — have a significant number of younger people watching. Charles Stanley is out there with an enormous audience.
When you start looking at these biggies, what you find is that many, many people watch these programs because they think they are being fed spiritually by them in ways that they’re not in their local churches. That’s the rationale they give me. Now when I push it a little bit further, asking them questions about what’s going on, the conclusion that I’ve come to is the principal effect in terms of the content of the religious broadcast is to get the congregant to think that their church somehow should match the style of what they see on TV: the style of preaching, the style of music, the pacing of the program.
It’s rather an emotional and less cerebral kind of preaching. Frequently it’s an oral style of preaching — I think most good preaching is in kind of an oral style — rather than a literary style. In short, what is happening with content is that congregations more and more want their local church to be like what they enjoy from TV preaching. That’s one effect.
The other effect is harder to see but I think it’s probably the biggest effect, and that is how time has been shifted in the lives of most people. Most people in North America today spend most of their leisure time watching television. There is no leisure activity that even comes close. We’re talking about the average adult now with cable and VCR. In the latest figures from 1991, the average adult watches four hours and forty minutes per day of television. They’re spending very little time developing relationships with people in their own family, with people in their congregations, with neighbors. So what’s really suffering is interpersonal communication. When the average person today comes in to the church it’s much more likely that they don’t have much of a personal relationship with the people who they are worshipping with, and less likely they have much of a personal relationship with the pastor or other staff because they’re not investing the kind of time in those things. So I think the body of Christ as a community is suffering significantly because of television.
The Roper studies of television, done every two years, show that if you ask people what they most want to do tonight with available time they will say get together with family and friends — that’s number one. If you then ask them what they did last night, overwhelmingly it’s watch TV, so there’s this tremendous need for fellowship, closeness in relationship that’s simply not being met. What’s happening is the congregation is becoming more and more like the TV audience: individuals in their homes, not talking together about what they’re watching, not necesarily sharing much about their lives, but they’re all tuned into the same thing for a limited period of time. I think it’s very hard to have a true congregation in that kind of setting.
One other effect I’ll talk about briefly is the effect of the new technologies — cable, VCR, especially the remote control — on people’s willingness to patiently listen and view things around them. Reflective ability, silence, meditation are all things that are disappearing in peoples’ lives and this affects the church significantly. People do want a fast-moving litury, they want a pastor who has some flair in general, otherwise they become bored; this is especially true of younger people. It’s much harder to get younger people excited about church, and the mega-churches are growing principally on the basis of the baby-boom generation. They are the ones, in fact who are most adopting the entertainment styles into the churches so that makes a lot of sense — they’re the first generation raised on TV.
Preaching: What about, for want of a better term, the “Murphy Brown” factor? The influence on the attitudes of things like moral issues, the kinds of things that Dan Quayle was talking about. How pervasive is that in terms of changing attitudes that people come to church with, that may influence how they hear the message?
Schultze: Terrific question. If you asked me this question a hundred years ago I would line up the institutions that shape someone’s moral fabric as follows: 1) family, especially parents, inculcating a moral vision that they then take into the churches; 2) church; 3) schools — 2 and 3 might vary a little from family to family; and the last one would be 4) the media. Now we know from the studies of the younger generation — the first generation to grow up on TV and so forth and now the new technologies — that number one is the media in terms of developing a sense of morality (what morality is, what it includes, how you think about it, what kind of sensitivity you have to moral issues and so forth). Media is number one, followed closely by the family, by the schools, and then the church which is last. These are the major nurturing institutions for moral vision, moral sensibility in our society in that order today. The person coming into church to worship is bringing along more than anything else a moral vision that’s been nurtured by the mass media. You have to think about it this way.
The average person today in the United States and Canada is exposed to more drama on television in one year than prior to television the average person was exposed to in a lifetime. It’s incredible. I believe that our moral vision is shaped more than anything else by the stories that we take on and put ourselves in vicariously and preaching is to some extent making the Gospel story our story. So we see ourselves in the redemptive narrative from creation, fall, salvation, second coming and so forth. People today in most churches can’t identify themselves as being in that story even if they say they are born again. They don’t quite see that they’re players in God’s historical movement. What are they players in? Thirtysomething. They’re players in Beverly Hills 90210, which is a teenage version of Thirtysomething. So moral vision today is framed incredibly strongly by the media, particularly television.
Preaching: How does a preacher adapt to that, knowing that when he sees the young adults and youth, they are coming to the preached Word with their moral values shaped by what they’ve seen on the tube? They are still carrying around not only Thirtysomething but Leave It to Beaver and the things they grew up on. As the preacher frames the Gospel message — how does he adapt to that?
Schultze: Two adaptations are essential for preachers at this stage, I think — I’m still in process thinking about this. One is the structure of the message. I think we have to get away from literary structures which are very much linear and discursive. Point A leads to Point B, leads to Point C. It’s like writing a lecture for a seminary professor. It’s very difficult today for most people to hear that kind of sermon as a lecture rather than a sermon and to be able to follow it and find it meaningful and interesting. Too many preachers have seminary professors as their principal role models, because professors are lecturing all the time. As students, they may take a course in homiletics but they come out with all these role models of lectures and then they go into the pulpit and lecture. Well, people who are exposed to entertainment media — television for example — principally in the form of a narrative story, are not really open to a twenty or twenty-five minute sermon in the form of a lecture, unless you have a very academic congregation.
I think what we need to do in terms of structure then is to recapture an oral style of preaching. An oral style would be characterized by a single central theme. Then the use of illustration, the use of example — some of them from the Scriptures themselves, some of them from real life — and so forth to build that theme. This becomes powerful. What you find interesting is that a lot of successful pastors today, without even thinking about it, are doing this. Many of them are getting away from writing out their sermons, they’re going to simple outlines or they’re even throwing out outlines. The preacher says, “What is the point that I want to get across? Here’s the passage; how can I put this in a kind of oral style so it’s me communicating with these people as if it were a conversation — so they know it’s coming from someone who’s grappled with this particular passage and determined the meaning of it.” Here’s what it means and here’s how to apply it to your lives. The reason that most preaching today is better in the Southern states than in the Northern states is because the oral culture in the South is still stronger than in the North. The Northern culture in the U.S. has been more oriented toward a kind of academic lecture — a very formal kind of style — and the seminaries tend to reflect that.
That’s in terms of structure. I think it will work. It doesn’t mean we need to have all kinds of visual glitz — I don’t believe that for a minute. It doesn’t mean you have to turn worship into a TV program with multi-media stuff and everything else.
What about content? I think the most effective content is going to be that which takes the message from the Scriptures and directly relates it to where people are at in contemporary culture. Prophetic preaching is that which understands how to apply the Scriptures to contemporary social and cultural situations. If people are living in the contemporary culture and someone comes in and preaches in a way that never makes the intersection with that contemporary culture, they’re lost! This means that preachers have to know enough about what’s going on in the contemporary culture. He should watch Beverly Hills 90210 because it is the most popular program with teenagers and there’s a reason — it deals with teenagers where they’re at. I don’t like the answers that it provides, I don’t like its overall outlook, but it’s addressing the questions, concerns and issues they have. Preachers need to know who the major role models are in the lives of young people, to know what adults are worried about and thinking about, what’s going on around them, such as a lack of faith in social institutions of all kinds and politics.
I’m not saying just come up with A and B lists of good and bad programs or films or whatever, but to understand the cultural currents and to intersect that with the Gospel message. That, I think, is what really prophetic preaching is today, and it can be very powerful, very powerful. I’d like to see for example a sermon on comparing the New Testament view of evil with the contemporary notion of evil. The notion in popular culture right now is that evil is out there and particularly in evil people who can be eliminated; that maintains our hope as a society that we can eventually get these scoundrels in jail or whatever. In fact, of course, evil is in all of us — it’s part of the fall that affects all of us — and that’s completely contrary to the popular culture. It’s a prophetic kind of preaching to say to a congregation: we are all sinners, and you may be doing evil things in the workplace in terms of white collar crime or in what you’re doing in raising your family. The evidence of evil is not just out there.
Preaching: Related to that, it seems that popular culture doesn’t interpret evil nearly so much in terms of traditional moral issues as, for example, intolerance.
Schultze: Oh yes. We let the media dictate to us as a Christian community what morality is and what scope morality includes. In fact, what I try to do in the Redeeming Television book is to say to the Christian community, “Our view of morality is too narrow.” People say with regard to popular culture: what about sex, violence and profanity? I agree those are big concerns, but we are wrong to think that those are the only concerns. There are all kinds of moral issues out there that we ought to be outraged about but we’re not because they’re just not seen as the big issues. Who’s going to help people think of these other kinds of issues? Racism is like a little blip on the screen now and then. It comes up because of the Rodney King beating or whatever and this is pervasive in society. We need to address it. What about materialism? I’m a believer that materialism may be the biggest threat to the Church in North America. What do we do with materialism? Television and films are filled with materialism. Look at the program Dallas — in some respects it was a celebration of materialism, as is much of TV. Why aren’t we concerned about that? We need to define these things through prophetic preaching so that as a community we can understand what’s included in morality.
Preaching: Much of religious television has taken on the form of spiritual entertainment as opposed to more traditional forms of preaching and worship. What are some of the factors that have contributed to that trend, and what do you see as the future place for preaching in religious television? Neil Postman says that television and preaching/worship are inherently unsuitable for one another — they just don’t mix.
Schultze: I think too many preachers and theologians have bought into the arguments of Neil Postman, Malcolm Muggeridge, to some extent Jacques Ellul, that television is an inherently evil or negative-consequence-producing media. I think this is a very wrong heading. This notion that a particular communications technology is inherently evil has been applied to every new communication technology that came along, including the book. Gutenberg’s invention set a lot of people reeling. We have to see this in historical perspective.
My view is that in God’s work in history the creation unfolds, and as new technologies unfold they can be used for good or bad depending on whose hands they’re in and what kinds of values and practices will be applied to those technologies. But — and here’s the key point — no communications technology is neutral with respect to the message. None is neutral with respect to the message. Here Postman is right, here Muggeridge is right and so forth. I think they are wrong in terms of the inherently bad influence of television and technology but they’re right that it does have its own specific thing. Every technology can communicate some things better than other things but each has its place.
Let’s talk about the place of television. Television is a medium that communicates both visually and aurally. It’s not just a visual medium; a lot of people like Postman overemphasize the visual dimension of it and underestimate the aural dimension of it. It’s a combination. It’s a medium that is not going to trivialize everything inherently as Postman would say — that’s his basic theme in Amusing Ourselves to Death. He’s simply wrong there. It’s not like Muggeridge says, that we’ll automatically communicate untruth. This is just nonsensical but it does have its limits. I think the proper role of television for church use is in drama — because television can be a very dramatic medium — and in simple teaching. Not complex theological teaching — you don’t do advanced physics and you don’t do advanced theology through television — but simple kinds of teaching. What I would call documentary — doumenting what people have accomplished and done by showing conversations with them showing their accomplishments and so forth. Television can do some fantastic things along these lines if we’re willing to do it.
With respect to straight preaching: unless it’s very simple preaching it’s not going to be very effective on television. Usually the simpler the better. Here’s where we get into the problems. How simple do you go? How much do you begin to throw out to get a message that will appeal to a mass audience and can be communicated through this technology? There are people out there who’ve dropped sin out of the picture. Sin complicates things too much. They want a very, very simple kind of message that everything will work out. Basically, Romans 8:28 without having to be a Christian. That becomes problematic.
Part of the problem is the cost of TV. This is not inherent in the technology but there’s a tremendous cost. If you’re going to bring money in you have to tell people by and large what they want to hear. If you’re prophetic in a way that disturbs people, discomforts them, they’re not necessarily going to be your supporters. So you’re driven on the one hand by the technology inherently to simplify the message and then by the economics of television to come up with a message that confirms what people either believe or want to believe — and here’s the real danger. It’s not just a simplification to get people in the church door. Now it’s a corruption of the message, and the general direction of religious TV today is toward what I consider to be terrible distortions of the Gospel, principally in the health and wealth Gospel. I think that television let loose in a market system used by religions will tend to move in the direction of the health and wealth Gospel because that confirms some basic American myths.
Preaching: As you pointed out in your book on televangelism that also tends to bring in more financial support, doesn’t it?
Schultze: It brings in the financial support because you’re confirming what people want to believe. “Amen, brother, I’m gonna send you my bucks because that’s what I want to happen to me, too.” I say in that book — and I’ve been critized by people for doing this — that that’s what led to the 700 Club being organized around the theme of healing. Their own market research showed that’s what people wanted. Well, when we get to the point where the church is in pure marketing, not to understand where people are so we can take the real Gospel and reach them but so we can design our message around what people want to hear for audience share and donation and all, then we’re destroying the Gospel.
I think there are two kinds of prophets. There is the kind of prophet who says, “Thus saith the Lord; you may not like it, but thus saith the Lord; I may not be popular but thus saith the Lord.” Then there’s the other kind of prophet who gets his or her authority based on telling people what they want to hear rather than what they should hear. That’s the false prophet.
Preaching: What does the Christian preacher need to do to help prepare a congregation to deal with what is happening to them in terms of the impact television is making on their families and their daily lives?
Schultze: We have to see the broad context here. Most church-related time is leisure time — that’s where it comes from. Whether it’s going to church on Sunday morning or doing something on Wednesday evening at church, it comes out of leisure time. So I think the first thing that a pastor has to do is to convince the congregation that too much leisure time is spent doing things which are not productive, and not just productive in terms of specific religious goals but in terms of family goals, in terms of all of the things that are really important about life. If we’re seventy years old and look back on our lives and say what we wish we did more of — it’s not going to be consuming more entertainment. That is far and away the single biggest thing that we do with our time.
I’m convinced that the place to start is to get people to reset their priorities with respect to leisure time — to encourage families to set limits on television viewing, film viewing, even radio listening and so forth. And note: even of great stuff. People may have fantastic Christian video tapes that they just love and they’re edified by and so forth but when that takes up all their time without time put into relationship and family, relationship and church, evangelism, whatever sort of things are the real needs in their community and all, I think it’s selfishness of a kind — a kind of spiritual hedonism in a strange way. So that’s number one and I think that can be done most effectively — here’s the trick — not by being negative about what people are doing but providing some positive alternatives — the kinds of activities that will promote warm loving relationships, what fellowship should really be. Given a choice — if they’ve experienced both — people in a congregation instead of picking the leisure entertainment stuff will pick the fellowship. If it’s real fellowship they will choose that every time because it’s where our real human needs are.
Let me give you an example. In my church we started a program called “The Dinners for Eight” because small group theory says when you get above eight people it’s hard to have everybody involved. What we do is carve up the congregation into groups of eight with some couples, some singles involved and so forth. Certain nights of the week we get together for dinner at people’s homes. People bring different dishes, start out with dinner together and then just talk about our lives. In our church this has developed relationships among people who often were reluctant to shake someone’s hand in church because they weren’t sure of their name. It’s mind-boggling that we could consider that the body of Christ when you don’t even know who this person is and you’re there every Sunday with them.
We found that sports activities were a bait. We have three baseball teams in my church. We only have a Hundred and twenty families. We have three baseball teams; one of them is co-ed. We get together on a baseball field, play other teams and talk in the dugout, talk after the game, get there before the game to practice and so forth. Someone said to me recently that they think more ministry is going on at those ball games and at “Dinner for Eight” than at our formal church programs. What have we done? We said the formal church programs may not really help develop the kinds of interpersonal communication that will become the solid basis for church life that we need. So we’re going to be very creative about what we use here so people want to come to church. They know who these people are, they want to talk with them at church. They want to do other things with them, so that’s the place to start.
The next thing to do, which I think is really important, is to slowly bring in more of a cultural critique and not just from the pulpit. One church in my area has started something very interesting. They have people agree in advance the Sunday before to see a certain film that week at a movie house. Now they’re careful about what they select. They don’t want the awful stuff. They see it that week and on Sunday morning we have one class which is dedicated to people coming together and simply discussing that film. It may not be a film that’s oriented toward adults. It may be the one that’s most popular with their teenagers and their teenagers don’t want the parents to go with them to it because that embarrasses them. So they go out and see this film, Wayne’s Word or some other crazy thing, and they get together and talk about it. What does this say about our kids and where they’re at and so forth? Try and grapple with this. I like the idea of churches taking spaces in their Sunday bulletins and having people make suggestions about TV programs or films or recordings or whatever they found that they think has some redeeming value. They may not be produced by Christians but they may say, “Hey, I just saw this film, Tender Mercies or Trip to Bountiful or something else, and you know, I was amazed this was a Hollywood product.” So the local body becomes a unit where together they start going out consuming some of the same entertainment products and bringing those within the discourse in the congregation. I think all of this is really helpful. Preachers can’t do it alone. What preachers can do is excite some other people to get things going in the congregation. It can’t all be done from the pulpit. You can’t put the burden for all this on the preacher but the preacher can be visionary and can take some risks that some other people may not want to take to make some of these sorts of things happen.
Preaching: I’m seeing an increasing use of Christian video tapes within the church for programming, from the Children’s church or the Sunday school class gathered around the tube watching the Bible story on video to the whole congregation sitting around watching James Dobson or Tony Campolo or some other good speaker or good teacher on video. Obviously that brings some resources that would otherwise not be available. But are we sending some dangerous messages by using that medium in that way?
Schultze: First of all video can be a very good medium for simple teaching as I said before. With simple teaching you can do some fantastic stuff with video. You can bring in some quality speakers, some quality material it’s hard to get locally. So there are some benefits there. That’s the good side of it. The bad side of it is that churches are starting to become so dependent on this that they are disenfranchising their own laity from the responsibility of doing these things themselves. The pastors are more and more becoming sort of professionals who are responsible for everything and the gifts of the laity are not being used adequately.
One of the things we decided in my church was to figure out how to use the gifts across the board in the congregation in the church and promote this strongly — not just giving people work that they don’t want to do but trying to figure out what people’s gifts are so that they get a sense of ownership. We have people who are experts in all kinds of things. We’ve got people who are experts in investment. We could get a bunch of great video tapes on investment as stewardship from a Christian perspective. There’s a lot of good stuff out there. But if we’ve got people in our congregation who are willing to talk about this and do it — why not use them? So, I think we go outside for established professionalized kinds of tapes and all when we can’t do that stuff very well inside.
Also, when we use the professional stuff from the outside, it should always be assumed that it’s supplemented with congregational discussion. If that’s not there I think a lot of the value is lost. If that means taking a fifty-minute tape and only doing twenty minutes of it one week and spending twenty-five minutes in a Sunday school class discussing it — chopping it up that way — I still think we should do it, because then it becomes part of the congregational discussion and dialogue. Then the results of that can more easily be led into what the church is doing. So I’m grateful for what’s going on in video. I’m not the Postman type to want to throw it out but on the other hand I want to say, “let’s be careful about how we use it — how we integrate it in.”
Preaching: Do you have any final words of advice, caution or encouragement to preachers relating to television, their use of television — how they should deal with it or adapt to it?
Schultze: The worst thing that a preacher can do is be defined by the congregation as someone who’s negative about the media and not balanced about the media. Because then, that sort of preacher will be tuned out. No matter what the adults in the congregation say, they’ve got their media that they like. It’s especially true with young people so a preacher needs to convey both from the pulpit and inter-personal conversation a sense that media, like the creation overall, has a combination of the grace of God and the evidence for the fall in it and discernment is necessary. That’s important — get across that kind of credible position.
Another thing I would say is that a preacher should always be looking at ways of making use of local resources within or outside the congregation rather than assuming the preacher needs to deal with this problem completely alone. There are always resources around. There may be schools around with people who know something about this stuff and so on. Look for those people, make use of them. The professionalization of the clergy has ended up in putting too much of the burden for all of this just on the preachers and we need to figure out ways that we can enfranchise the laity in this.

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About The Author

Michael Duduit is the founding publisher and editor of Preaching magazine. He is also the founding Dean of the new College of Christian Studies and Professor of Christian Ministry at Anderson University in Anderson, South Carolina. Michael is author and editor of several books, including the Handbook of Contemporary Preaching (Broadman & Holman Press), Joy in Ministry (Baker Books), Preaching With Power (Baker) and Communicate With Power (Baker). From 1996 until 2000 he served as editor of the Abingdon Preaching Annual series. His email newsletter, PreachingNow, is read each week by more than 40,000 pastors and church leaders in the U.S. and around the world. He is founder and director of the National Conference on Preaching and the International Congress on Preaching, which has been held in 1997 at Westminster Chapel in London, 2002 at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and 2007at Cambridge. He has been a pastor and associate pastor, has served a number of churches as interim pastor, and speaks regularly for churches, colleges and conferences.

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