A previous time you were introduced to Quentin J. Schultz, project coordinator of the book Dancing in the Dark (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1991). Mr. Schultz is also professor of Communication Arts and Sciences at Calvin College in Grand Rapids. He may be considered an expert in the field of mass media and has focused especially on the relationship between evangelism and the media.
In 1986 he published a volume titled, Television: Manna from Hollywood? This was followed in 1990 with another book, American Evangelicals and the Mass Media. Recently Mr. Schultz has written again on this topic in a book titled, Televangelism in America: The Business of Popular Religion. In this installment we want to look at Mr. Schultz's main conclusion and add some comments of our own.
Schultz's main contention is that television preachers really do not bring many people to faith. Their work falls more in the category of "entertainment" than "ministry." Since established churches must somehow compete with these smooth media men, the trend in most preaching in these churches is to move away from preaching "doctrinal" sermons to delivering superficial speeches. Style has won over substance; content has made way for performance. It is not so important anymore what is said, but how it is said.
The approach of the media preachers may lead to a large audience, but does not result in much commitment from the side of the viewers. Most viewers watch a religious program much as they would any other television program: just another form of entertainment. Schultz therefore concludes that television has never been an effective means for evangelism. Instead, the television approach to religion has resulted in "couch Christianity." People tune in for a while and tune out again. At most one feels compelled to write out a cheque and send it away, but living and active membership of a local church is not generally required.
Instead of fostering real reformation in the lives of the viewers, the use of the mass media for the propagation of the Gospel has led to a superficial, uninvolved Christianity which regards religion not as a vital aspect of life but as a part of the entertainment package. Televangelism is more than ineffective, for it is. In many cases, very destructive for the true service of the Lord.
The widespread use of the mass media, both radio and television, for the work of evangelism can be very confusing to the viewers and hearers alike. Those who regularly watch these programs or listen to them are faced with a greatly varied array of preachers and speakers, all of them espousing and arguing their own viewpoint. The audience can choose and pick whatever is pleasing and can discard the rest. It reminds me of Paul's warning to Timothy about people with "itching ears" who "accumulate teachers for themselves to suit their own likings" (2 Timothy 4:3).
The danger is that this leads to a "smorgasbord religion," wherein people go back to hear what they like to hear and not necessarily what they need to hear. A smorgasbord dinner offers one the modern convenience of selection determined by personal taste and choice.
Whoever has worked in the catering business, knows that most smorgasbord meals or cafeteria dinners are of a similar, fast-food type. People are given a few options, to allow for some choice, but the basic format is generally the same. So it is also with the religious media. There are many religious celebrities, each vying for the largest audience, but their messages and programs hardly differ to any great extent. The same techniques are constantly used to bring in the required dividends.
There are radio and television stations which transmit only religious programming. One can hear and see almost every "denomination" and "sect" represented. In one program you may hear solid Biblical truths, but in the next you will encounter outright heresy. Many programs are so carefully crafted and well-presented that the audience does not detect the (underlying) dangers of the message. There is hardly any accountability; the innocent and ignorant are unwitting victims of persuasive deception.
Criticism on the Church
What has struck me through the years is that many who regularly tune into these religious stations and channels often develop a very critical attitude to their "home" church. Very often an addictive bonding to the media program develops. What one "misses" in the local church, is "found" in the radio or television ministry. The media offers a compelling supplement to the (meager) religious diet served up by the church.
The radio pastor or the television evangelist can say it so much better and more effectively than our local minister who labours through his weekly sermons. The media preachers are much more in "tune," I hear, with what is happening in the world and in the lives of people. Someone once said to me, "Our minister preaches in an abstract manner which doesn't affect my life or touch my needs, but the radio preacher is so practical and to the point, giving me daily direction on how to live."
The cream always rises to the top. Most of the religious media celebrities are true experts in their field, men with dashing good looks and warm voices who have a vast staff of assistants (text-writers) and great amounts of capital with which to operate. It is true that the average local pastor cannot compete with these media moguls.
Besides, media evangelism is by nature of a broad scope, and therefore indeed simple and direct. The message is very frank and straightforward: believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved. There is usually an upbeat, positive, warm and inviting tone. In the established churches, where the ministry is directed to a known quantity of people, the emphasis are undoubtedly placed differently. But the inevitable effect of this is that people perceive the radio and television pastorate to be tolerant and ecumenical, while the instituted church is considered to be intolerant and sectarian.
The media ministry gives the "illusion" of reaching above and beyond humanly-erected church walls and of encompassing the entire people of God! The media ministry gives people the feeling that they belong to a larger (though undefined) "family" which far transcends the bounds of one's own church or federation.
Ardent followers of the religious media are often most critical of the church to which they belong, and some in time take the ultimate consequence of leaving that church. They do not realize that they have traded in true fellowship for a "family" which in reality exists only on the screen.