Switch off the telly

Feb 21st, 2008 | By | Category: Ministry

Church makes bad television.

As a visual medium it is dull, as a spectator activity, it is boring.

Even the big evangelical or Pentecostal places make bad television. Scroll through the list of satellite channels and you will find plenty of them: men (or occasionally women) standing on some sort of platform and talking, usually at length. sometimes they will walk up and down, sometimes they will wave a Bible around, sometimes they may even attempt a little amateur dramatics. Occasionally the cameras will switch from their focus on the preacher and pan across the audience, a sea of earnest faces; in what other broadcast would a producer think a sea of anonymous faces all looking in one direction would be interesting? Watch sporting events and you will only see the crowd when there is something of interest or they are ecstatic. Only universities attempt long monologues as a means of communication, their purpose is altogether different and their audience much more select.

The mainstream churches are every bit as dull. The announcer says we will now join the congregation of Saint Amaryllis in the Wardrobe for morning worship and there will be a parish choir singing slightly off key and a liturgy that is incomprehensible to all but the initiated.

Church as a spectator activity does not work. The BBC realised this long ago, its broadcast worship is concentrated on the radio and on the best of music. No songs where the same chords are repeated twenty-three times get by the people at Radio 3 or Radio 4.

Of course, listening to choral evensong makes no demands and presents no challenges to the listener. A confirmed atheist might listen to evensong in the same mood as the preceding programme, enjoying it as a musical experience and feeling no need to listen to the prayers that punctuate the music. Having attended evensong in various places, it appears even some choir members may approach the service with a similar view, spending the times when they are not singing sorting their music or reading.

Broadcast worship doesn’t work because worship is at heart a community activity, in most cases watching it from the outside is likely to be as compelling as watching the video of a friend’s wedding. If it was to be judged on its ‘entertainment’ value, churches would have disappeared centuries ago, but Sunday by Sunday congregations gather, particularly in rural areas, to together affirm their faith. It is about community and about a sense of participation in that community, neither of which translate into a televisual experience.

All of which prefaces the fact that, this evening, I have to rehearse a television broadcast being recorded for Easter morning.

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  1. However, for those who are unable to be present in the community to take their place in worship – the Sunday morning experience – albeit second best – is a valuable and valid expression of faith. Best wishes for that service! And now – I’m off to celebrate mid-week Holy Communion with a handful of rural folk.

  2. Ian you could borrow a Pope’s outfit from Nancy for the occasion! It might improve the TV ratings!

    Seriously I hope it goes well.

  3. Liz,

    I was being uncharacteristically provocative ;-). I think broadcast stuff works when there is a genuine attempt to engage with people. BBC used to have a Sunday morning programme in the early 90s where they invited people to light a candle at hoe and to have their own piece of bread to break (a colleague of mine used to go mad at this idea – I was never sure what he made of a group of itinerant Jews breaking bread together). Radio works much better because it is much more one to one. What doesn’t work is just allowing the cameras to look in on things.


    Do you mean a suit like Uncle Andy had on “Will you give my head peace?” No, it’s not my colour, anyway I’m always spilling things. I went to to England for ten days in October and took twelve shirts and three jackets because I’m so clumsy

  4. We’re inundated with American evangalists on our early Sunday morning Tv and that ratbag bunch from Hillsong of course. I thought the catholics were greedy asking for two collections (one for the Parish and one for the priest) but these guys just seem to spruik for money all the time. We do get “Songs of Praise” tho. My grandma used to love that show!

    Glad you’re messy. I can’t seem to eat anything without splotching . . especially if I’m wearing a white shirt! Fwoooaaar.

  5. “Church as a spectator activity does not work.”

    I have to agree with you there, Ian, though it makes for good watching when your own parish is on the box and you get to see all the old familiar faces looking back at you.

    Good luck with the final recording! I hope there isn’t someone in the studio congregation with a bad cough 😉

  6. Ian
    Will the recording be shown on an Irish channel? Will you be able to get it to me somehow if it is ?
    Good luck, Dont have too much gravy with your dinner it always lets you down when you have your best shirt on!!!!!

  7. the script for the broadcast on Easter morning got mangled up last night! I have to rework it by Monday 🙁

  8. Awww . . chin up, it’ll be brilliant!

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