Editorial

Why Johnny can't listen to the sermon

If your congregation is composed of "average American families" you have a competitor that is absorbing their attention some forty-four hours a week compared with the three or four they give you in church.

B. Russell Holt is an executive editor of Ministry.

Would you turn off your television set for a whole month if someone offered you $500 to do so? Don't be so quick to say Yes. When the Detroit Free Press made that exact offer recently to 120 families in their reading area, 93 turned it down flat! Chances are that a similar percentage of your congregation would too. After all, the average family in America keeps its TV running 44 hours each week, and a person just doesn't lightly "turn off" a habit that consumes that much of his or her life. If you have a church of "average American families," stack up the 44 hours each spends every week in front of the tube with the 3 or 4 hours spent in the pew, and you may begin to get a good idea of the competition you're up against in your preaching. Of course, keeping track of the hours you spend watching TV each week might shed some light, as well, on why your sermons don't always have the impact you envision for them.

Now every so often editors of religious publications get the urge to unburden themselves of a diatribe against the evils of television. I've been known to succumb to the temptation myself. Indeed, for almost ten years I could do so quite smugly, knowing that my home was among the miniscule number that had not a single TV set—not even an old black-and-white portable in the bedroom. I wasn't above casually mentioning that fact at opportune moments just to feel the righteous glow of abstinence and to practice a little Christian one-upmanship over my less self-denying brethren. Unfortunately, a few months ago the hospital where my wife nurses put in all new color models and sold the old black-and-white sets to employees for $15 apiece. Election night was coming up, and the cost of buying a hospital TV was less than renting one to watch the voting returns. We returned to the ranks of the TV-possessing (or possessed). So I can no longer pontificate on the evils of television with the freedom I once could, and I have no intention of doing so here. In fact, I promise not to use the words sex or violence anywhere in the rest of the editorial. (However, I would like to reserve the right to throw the set away, take my $15 loss, and begin pontificating again!)

I am convinced that the reason johnny (not to mention Johnny's father and mother) can't listen to the sermon has a great deal to do with that 44 hours spent in front of the TV. I am even more convinced of that fact since reading an interview with Neil Postman, professor of communication arts and sciences, New York University, in the January 19, 1981, U.S. News & World Report. Although the context of the interview is television's effect on children, most of Postman's points apply equally to adults, in my opinion. Let me give you a few highlights from that interview.

Television, says Postman, seems to be shortening the attention span of children. TV presents pictures moving very rapidly and dramatically. The average length of a camera shot on a regular program is three seconds (2Vi seconds on a commercial).

It's no wonder Johnny becomes bored unless he sees the preacher from a different camera angle every three seconds. He also misses the close-up shots of the pastor's face dissolving into a wide-angle view of the choir; the instant replay when the preacher makes a particularly telling point (repeated in slow motion from two or three different camera positions, of course), and the break every ten minutes for a word from the sponsor. In short, you're up against some stiff competition.

Postman also points out that although human speech is heard on TV, it is the visual that always contains the most meaning. As a result, TV really isn't suited to conveying ideas, since ideas are essentially words. Television communicates in a way that is accessible to everyone; no one has to learn to watch pictures. On the other hand, Postman says, schools (and I might add "churches") assume that there are certain things one needs to know before he can learn other things, that not everything is as readily accessible as it appears on television.

Pity the poor pastor who has to try to convey the Word of God in mere words and who has to wean the flock from milk before being able to present the "strong meat." On TV each night the world's "strong meat" is readily accessible in just about any strength one cares for! And it is all served up in a way that requires no hard work or diligent study to comprehend, just sit and watch. It isn't surprising that the sermon comes off second best in comparison with what Johnny has just seen on TV.

A third point Postman makes is that television commercials are the modem equivalent of the ancient morality play. By the time an American child is 20 years old he will have seen approximately 1 million commercials, easily making these the most numerous learning experiences he has. And, says Postman, TV commercials are about products "only in the sense that the story of Jonah is about the anatomy of whales." Commercials, according to this media expert, are really miniature parables in which the problem is stated in the first few seconds, resolved in the middle segment, and concluded with a moral in which the actor(s) fade ecstatically from the screen. Ostensibly a commercial may be selling mouthwash, but in reality it is selling acceptability to the opposite sex. Likewise, automobile and motorcycle commercials are actually selling freedom and independence. And these commercials teach children three interesting things, says Postman: (1) All problems can be solved; (2) all problems can be solved quickly; (3) all problems can be solved quickly by means of some technology.

Little wonder Johnny (or his parents) become disenchanted with the pastor who can't neatly wrap up a problem, prescribe the proper pill or machine or prayer that will solve it quickly, and exit smiling all in 28 seconds. The people on TV do it all the time; why can't the pastor? Why does he have to spend 30 boring minutes talking about long-term solutions to life's problems—solutions that require something more than technological answers?

Life according to television, Postman maintains, is a caricature of real life. This caricature is based on certain assumptions that come across unconsciously to TV viewers. For example, characters with education or discernment are portrayed almost invariably as aloof, unfeeling, and out of touch with their fellow men. The hero, on the other hand, is usually a "man of the people," uneducated perhaps, but warm and responsive. "It is very difficult for a youngster to find on these programs any model of someone who is admirable and who is also educated," says Postman.

Thus the minister who attempts to present the gospel on any kind of a reasoning basis has three strikes against him before he starts. The people on television who are to be admired and identified with don't complicate things with too much thinking.

So if Johnny can't seem to listen to the sermon (or if Johnny's father and mother have the same symptoms) a prime cause could be no farther away than the beautiful color TV set in their living room.

What can you do?

One possibility might be to challenge your church to a "TV-Free Month." (Try a week if you think a month is too ambitious.) If 93 out of 120 families in Detroit turned down $500 to go without television for a month, you could conceivably run into problems convincing your congregation to do so for free, but a few hardy souls might be intrigued by the novelty of the idea. Make it a big thing; have some special church programs to keep the family from disintegrating during this time of stress; interview those who successfully complete the experiment. Who knows what results you might have from some thing so bizarre? It ought at least to be worth a write-up in your local newspaper if nothing else!

If you try it I'd like to hear what happens. With a little more encouragement I might even join you and throw away my $15 TV! —B. R. H.


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B. Russell Holt is an executive editor of Ministry.

May 1981

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