An entertaining service?

Commenting on the inherent entertainment bias of television in Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman asserts

The problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining, which is another issue altogether. (p. 87)

He supports his assertion by examining the ABC program broadcast on 20 November 1983 following the controversial movie The Day After. It was billed as a serious discussion of the possibility of a nuclear holocaust, but Postman explains that it was merely entertainment dressed up as serious discussion. He concludes,

At the end, one could only applaud those performances, which is what a good television program always aims to achieve; that is to say, applause, not reflection. (p.91)

Living lives immersed in the modern television culture we cannot escape the effects of this pervasive entertainment bias. If we expect the same of a Christian worship service, God help us. And God help the pastor who seeks to conduct it in television style.

Tellingly, Postman later gives two examples of Roman Catholic priests who have sought to connect with their audiences, for so it seemed to Postman they were, rather than congregations. Greg Sakowicz summed up his approach by saying, “You don’t have to be boring in order to be holy.” (p. 93). Pointedly, Postman concluded of John J O’Connor that he “apparently believes you don’t have to be holy at all.” (p. 93)

Protestant pastors are not immune from the urge to compete with the televisual. But, given the nature of the beast, there is grave danger, for the pastor preaches not for applause but for application. Christian worship is far from a performance, and reflection is an important component in it.

And yet, the medium can be used sensitively if used carefully, as Postman himself mentions, though such programmes will make “bad television”. It strikes me that the difference is illustrated by comparing something like the BBC programme Songs of Praise on British television, and a webcast of a full traditional church service where the predominant shot is of the pulpit, with perhaps shots of the choir when they sing introits and anthems. Watching at least one such webcast each week (as well as attending my local church, I hasten to add) I have noticed how as a family we feel very much part of the congregation as we sing, recite the creed and participate in the responsive reading. However, on the rare occasions I watch Songs of Praise it always seems more entertainment as various people are interviewed, and we are subjected to gratuitous scenery or roving shots of the congregation during the singing of hymns, and have the inevitable performance of celebrity solo/group songs, many completely sub-Christian in content. Very entertaining, but hardly praise or worship.

Heartened as I am by the realisation that the technology may be used in a beneficial way, there is also a very real danger that we may attempt to make our worship services too much like television, making enjoyment the principal goal and measure of success. Perhaps many services have already become enjoyable entertainment–happy hours, rather than holy ones.

Postman concludes his chapter with a series of short descriptions illustrating of the impact of Show Business on the wider culture. He concludes,

What all of this means is that our culture has moved toward a new way of conducting its business, especially its important business. (pp. 97-98)

His insights and conclusions are surely applicable to the Church of the Living God. May we be vigilant as we conduct our important business with a holy God, that it may not be Show Business. May we not be concerned with showmanship but stewardship, “the stewardship from God that is by faith” (1Tim 1:4).

Wesley’s concern was

‘Tis all my business here below
To cry: ‘Behold the Lamb!”

That is a long way from Show Business. It is most certainly a challenge to conduct The King’s Business in the Age of Show Business.

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