Gregory E. Reynolds
Malcolm Muggeridge once asked: "Suppose there had been a fourth temptation when our Lord encountered the Devil in the wildernessthis time an offer of networked TV appearances, in prime time, to proclaim and expound his Gospel. Would this offer, too, have been rejected like the others? If so, why?"
If we think of idolatry in terms of fallen man's quest for control over his life and destiny, then we will have a clearer lens through which to view and understand the electronic environment. Looked at in this light modern man has invented better, more pervasive, and efficient ways in which to escape Godor should we say evade God, for he can never be escaped. In the absence of genuine faith control is the only alternative. Our mechanical and electronic inventions have created the illusion that we do not need the God of the Bible. The sum of these technologies is broadcasting a continual message: there is no need for God, unless he functions in our service. The problem for the church is how to manage technology so that this message is muted.
This problem relates not only to the more specificand perhaps obviousmessages of consumerism or radical individualism that technology brings into the church, but also to the idea that God is unnecessary to the church's existence and ministry. Church fund raising software wraps these messages all up in one pernicious package. The only invisible reality affirmed is the mysterious interaction of bits and bites. The technologies involved in alchemy have changed; the meaning and message have not. If the church thinks that its message isn't being altered by the naive use of technology, especially in worship, it is giving in to what Muggeridge called the "fourth temptation."
Marshall McLuhan didn't mince words when he observed: "Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot." The term "idiot," is only apparently uncharitable. The original Greek word (idiotēs 1 Cor. 14:24 "unlearned," 2 Cor. 11:6 "untrained in speech") indicated ignorance of a particular language. The point is that, as a culture, we are largely ignorant of what we are doing with media, or more precisely, what the media are doing to us. That too was McLuhan's pointtechnological ignorance.
Communication technologies are even more dramatic in their effect. In The Disappearance of Childhood, Neil Postman summarizes the three types of changes which such technologies bring into culture. They change the "structure of interests," by refocusing what we think about. They change the "character of symbols," by altering the visual and linguistic tools with which we think. They change the "nature of community," reorganizing social structure. Machines are ideas with consequences; consequences with which the church must reckon.
Lewis Mumford describes the enthusiasm with which the machine was greeted: "Mechanics became the new religion, and it gave to the world a new messiah: the machine. ...The machine came forward as the new demiurge that was to create a new heaven and a new earth." The advent of the electronic media elicited similar encomiums from secular and sacred quarters alike. Mid-twentieth-century television teacher Bishop Fulton Sheen epitomized the naive attitude of the church toward television when he declared, "Radio is like the Old Testament, hearing wisdom, without seeing; television is like the New Testament because in it the wisdom becomes flesh and dwells among us."
The printing press radically altered the cultural environment, and thus affected the church in a dramatic way. But there is a vast difference between word based media and the image media. Director of communications for the Chicago Federation of Churches, Gary Rowe, chastises clergymen who resist the use of television for ministry: "It's not news to say that we are living with a new consciousness about reality. Church professionals need to get involved with the miraculous opportunities of telecommunications and match actions to their words." For Rowe, thinking about Gutenberg and McLuhan, during the sixties, was a "pleasant fad." Rowe concludes with breathless optimism: "As the great moments in television attest, there is a vast appetite for a larger vision of the world, our connections with each other, and the immediacy of thought and feeling that can bind us together. Surely we have community, drama, symbolism, and information ready for a hungry audience. Let's brighten our ideas and light up the tube."
Since electronic and image media have become the vernacular of our culture, we must consider their potential for communicating the gospel. However, if we accept them uncritically, we will accentuate the liabilities, and these liabilities will in turn eclipse the benefits. Postman has asserted that Morse has been more influential than Darwin because Darwin's ideas are debatable, whereas Morse's idea of electric communication is not. In the church the nature as well as the messages of electronic media must be debated. Presently there is little debate in the church on this subject, though it is in the church that the presence of the Word is of paramount importance.
Too often the influences of the electronic media are uncritically affirmed as a blessing. While most of the literature of the Church Growth movementadvocating the use of marketing techniques in building the churchdoes not deal explicitly with the electronic media, the assumption that we should give people what they want is a tacit affirmation of one of the greatest liabilities of the electronic mediaits man-centeredness. Rather than challenge the idols of our culture, Church Growth has chosen, perhaps in many cases unwittingly, to invite them to dinner. The lack of a well developed Christian mind and sensibility has allowed the Trojan horse of modernity into the church. "Churches are right to seek ways to communicate with and appeal to contemporary society. They must remember, however, that while we need to reach out to postmoderns, they dare not leave them where they found them." While not catering to idolatrous tendencies, the church certainly needs to be aware of the idols, identify them for what they are, and gently wean their worshipers away from them. The preacher, especially, must seek ways to overcome the sins, propensities, and weaknesses of our culture, especially as they impinge on worship and preachingthe supreme act of worship; but to overcome, not to succumb, must be the goal.
Being "user friendly" has become the controlling goal of the marketing church. Bill Hybels, Pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, has one of the most successful megachurches in the countryalmost 15,000 people per Sunday in 1990. Rejecting much of his Christian Reformed background, Hybels sought to answer the question: How can we make church so it isn't what baby boomers always say: boring, predictable and irrelevant? The answer is "Ask consumers what they want, then let them (as they say at Burger King) have it their way. At non-denominational Willow Creek, that means a slick, show-biz service where drama and soft rock are served up on a stage washed in pink and blue spotlights. A soft-sell sermon is delivered by Hybels from a Lucite lectern. It's been put down as pop gospel, fast-food theology, McChurch. Hybels says his message is rock-solid Biblical principles, only the medium is unorthodox. No one disputes it sells like Big Macs."
There's the rub: as if unorthodox media will yield orthodox Christians. "Hybels ...wants to remain doctrinally sound but with his dualistic approach this has become entirely impossible. For, as Paul says, the form of the message and its content belong together (1 Cor. 2:13)." Once marketing dominates the church's agenda "the concern is not with 'finding an audience to hear their message but rather with finding a message to hold their audience.' After all, when the audience and not the message is sovereign, the good news of Jesus Christ is no longer the end, but just the means." It has always been the temptation of the church to use the wrong means to achieve God's ends, but it is an even greater temptation to use the right means as ends in themselves. In either case God's glory is diminished, and the purity of His sovereign grace is sullied. The reader controls the text.
The question Christians must ask is: What kind of an audience do we build when we market the church? The tragic answer is that we gather a group of people who are consumer oriented, who may have come to church for the wrong reasons, and who find as Barna attests that "the Christian life-style and belief structure...[are]...impractical and unreasonable for today's world." David Wells sums up the result: "The audience is sovereign, and ideas find legitimacy and value only within the marketplace." The gospel, on the other hand, is not a "marketable product." Sinners do not know what they need. The most important question of all is: What kind of a God are we communicating? Is He the majestic sovereign God who uses means, but doesn't depend on them, to fulfill His purposes, or is he really just a psycho-sociological phenomenon? Despite their best intentions, and I believe many have them, the Church Growth movement relegates God and His truth to second fiddle. Technique is king.
The ultimate in compromise is revealed in cyberspace, where many poignant examples of contemporary Gnosticism in the church may be encountered. This is the perfect medium for "reimagining" God and seeking to escape from the God-given creaturely limits of his world, along with the nasty imperfections encountered in the real church; precisely what McLuhan meant when he used the term "discarnate." One church Web site designer makes the extravagant claim that "all elements of congregational life can be experienced through the Internet." Equally serious is the arrogant "trendier than thou" attitude that getting the church on the Internet is keeping pace with the "real world." The "Minister of Technology" of a Presbyterian megachurch recently opined that a failure to come up to speed technologically will render the church "completely irrelevant."
Does this mean that there is no appropriate use of the Internet by Christians? Is the Gnostic, postmodern tendency inherent in the medium, or the medium of media? Certainly not, if, and only if, it is used with great caution, as indeed dis-incarnation is its tendency. The church does not lack examples of the thoughtful use of the Internet. A fine example is the Web site of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church
In the first month of the new millennium USA Today announced the formation of a new religious Web site:
Beliefnet [is] a Web site launched last week that aims to be an on-line spiritual community for people of all religious backgrounds. . . Waldman and co-founder Bob Nylen are gearing up to sell ads and plan to add an e-commerce section by springeverything from crosses and meditation cushions to books, music, travel and charity donations on-line.
Beliefnet manages to gracefully walk a fine line, balancing inspiration and practical information, entertainment and spiritual substance. Staffers in New York package news and features on religion, spirituality and culture, as well as family and "milestones," deeper issues raised by births, deaths and the rites of passage in between. . . .
Many of the articles are by a diverse group of more than 50 columnists, top names in religion and spirituality, from orthodox to fringe. They include Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, Jesus scholar Marcus Borg, Catholic priest/sociologist Andrew Greeley, Buddhist Lama Surya Das, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin and Margot Adler, a writer on goddess spirituality.
Even though Beliefnet's scope is broad and inclusive, "our goal is not to create one big, bland amalgam religion," Waldman says. He expects the site to be controversial. "It can't help but be, dealing with death and sex and abortion and God." But in a multicultural society, he adds, "people will tend to disagree, and the Net is a great place to explore our diversity. People are coming from so many different directions, there's a need for information and help in sorting all this out."
Lance Rose observes that Beliefnet is "A demonstration, as it were, that now we can aggregate religions at a web site as if they were different brands of laundry soap on the supermarket shelf ..." There is a clear connection between the commercial and the inclusive. Just as we have a wide range of products for everyone, so a wide range of religious preferences to suit all needs, and thereby build the market, the bottom line. Many churches have secular advertising on their Web pages, like renting the steeple to a cell-phone company. It is not accidental that the electronic galaxy is the context in which the commercialization of the church has emerged. As the church naivelyand in some cases knowinglyparticipates in the electronic world, which is driven largely by commercial, not communicative or spiritual, motives, it is no wonder that narcissism and consumerism are promoted and reflected in the church itself.
Today, similar to the Middle Ages, when superstitious and subjective expressions of Christianity thrived, the image is the chief means of communicating with the masses. The charismatic movement has experienced a revival in tandem with the electrifying of communication. Since images have taken center stage (beginning around the middle of the last century), the charismatic movement has begun to dominate the Evangelical church. This should not be surprising, for at the heart of this movement is the man-centered theology of Arminianism which looks at the reason, will, and emotions of man as essentially untainted by sin. Cultural productions are thus considered "neutral." This subjective theology puts a premium on feelings, which in turn emphasizes the "needs" of the Christian, tending toward a kind of Christian narcissism. The purpose of New Testament miracles are inverted, bringing excitement and therapy to individuals, instead of glorifying God as the author of redemption. In the New Testament Jesus performs miracles as attestations of his divine power: "What manner of man is this that the wind and the seas obey Him?" His authority to forgive sins is verified by his healing of the paralytic in Capernaum.
Pastor and homiletics professor Warren Wiersbe sagely observes, "When it comes to religious TV, I think evangelicals missed the boat completely because we didn't take time to understand the medium and how it worked... What does TV add to our ministry? I say it adds nothing to our ministry, but it can take a great deal away. TV puts God's people and God's Word into a context that can rob the message of reality." "Television worship" is an oxymoron. Those for whom it is not, should consider the ways in which television distorts the biblical concept of worship. In his now classic critique of television, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman presents an overwhelming case, in his chapter on religion titled "Shuffle Off to Bethlehem," to support the proposition that television is not a suitable medium for preaching or worship. I will summarize his case in three points.
First, television is essentially an entertainment medium. Entertainment focuses on what the audience wants, especially what a large, diverse audience wants. Worship focuses on what God wants. Television creates a passive audience which demands to be entertained. "...on television, religion, like everything else, is presented, quite simply and without apology, as an entertainment. Everything that makes religion an historic, profound and sacred human activity is stripped away; there is no ritual, no dogma, no tradition, no theology, and above all, no sense of spiritual transcendence. On these shows (Schuller, Roberts, Swaggart, Falwell, Baker, Robertson) the preacher is tops. God comes out as second banana." Harvard Divinity School professor Harvey Cox picks up on the irony of fundamentalists using the tube. "This is a tension between content and form, between message and medium, that occurs when the Old Time Gospel Hour goes out on network television. ...The move from the revivalist tent to the vacuum tube has vastly amplified the voices of defenders of tradition. At the same time it has made them more dependent on the styles and assumptions inherent in the medium itself. ...a set of attitudes and values that are inimical to traditional morality. ...If the devil is a modernist, the TV evangelist may have struck a deal with Lucifer himself, who always appearsso the Bible teachesas an angel of light."
The entertainer is the preacher. The preacher is the celebrity who gets help like Johnny Carson from celebrity musical performers and converts. "On television God is a vague and subordinate character. Though His name is invoked repeatedly, the concreteness and persistence of the image of the preacher carries the clear message that it is he, not He, who must be worshipped. I do not mean to imply that the preacher wishes it to be so; only that the power of a close-up televised face, in color, makes idolatry a continual hazard. Television is, after all, a form of graven imagery far more alluring than a golden calf." "What makes these television preachers the enemy of religious experience is not so much their weaknesses but the weaknesses of the medium in which they work. ....not all forms of discourse can be converted from one medium to another." Graham and Robertson have publicly and naively approved of TV as an excellent medium for preaching, overlooking ways in which the "delivery system" affects the message.
Second, television, like the Internet, promotes secularism and inclusivism, thus undermining absolute truth. "Television favors moods of conciliation and is at its best when substance of any kind is muted." It caters to the wide audience of the Neilson ratings. The revenues required to program make attracting an audience for advertising purposes the main goal of the program. TV gives people what they want. It is "user friendly" and therefore market driven. In 1990 Newsweek provided statistics showing the percentage of airtime devoted by television preachers to "fund raising and promotion": Oral Roberts 53%; Pat Robertson 44%; Jerry Fallwell 37%; Billy Graham and D. James Kennedy 19%. Rex Humbard represents "the infantilization of theology." Anti-doctrinal Evangelicals find television to be the perfect medium because emotion replaces content. Charisma is everything. As Calvin asserted, images distract from the business of the church, which is inculcating biblical truth in the heart, minds, and lives of people. The "television screen itself has a strong bias toward a psychology of secularism. The screen is so saturated with our memories of profane events, so deeply associated with the commercial and entertainment world that it is difficult for it to be recreated as a frame for sacred events. ...The television screen wants you to remember that its imagery is always available for your amusement and pleasure."
Third, television is an artificial reality and does not establish, but undermines, personal relationships. It especially undermines the covenantal interaction of the congregation. On television there is no congregation. If an actual congregation is being televised it becomes like the seconds on a set, part of the setting for the real audience. But, the preacher cannot truly relate to anyone outside of the studio. "...there is no way to consecrate the space in which a television show is experienced." The electronic church "separates the media clergy from their audience, believers from their local communities, and the experience of worship from the problems of daily affairs in the social realm. These are matters of great concern. The services of the historic Reformation churches ...have been pushed off the air. On our screens and radios worship is dominated by preachers, the community is secondary, and the Eucharist is absent."
Because of its focus on faces, television gives the illusion of intimacy, when in fact the preacher does not even know that any individual viewer exists. What the preacher gains in the quantity of presence in the mass audience, he looses in the quality of presence. This is a great loss indeed. The television viewer conforms without belonging, is isolated without a unique identity. In the church each individual is a unique part of a larger corporate whole. He belongs without conforming, he is an individual without being isolated. What a contrast the biblical picture presents of the church "speaking the truth in love," in order that it "may grow up in all things into Him who is the headChristfrom whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love."
Another dimension of this artificiality is what Walter Benjamin called "the decay of aura." In his 1936 essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," he says, "the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition." Image media detach us from the reality of personal presence. In worship this presence is not only of the congregation, but the presence of God himself, who promises to be present himself in the congregation of his worshipping people. "I will praise You forever, because You have done it; and in the presence of Your saints I will wait on Your name, for it is good" (Ps. 52:9). "Let us come before His presence with thanksgiving; let us shout joyfully to Him with psalms" (Psalm 95:2).
Whatever naive notions preachers may have about the use of television, it is clear that "old time religion" is impossible on television. Television transforms Christianity into another religion altogether. Postman concludes:
The executive director of the National Religious Broadcasters Association sums up what he calls the unwritten law of all television preachers: "You can get your share of the audience only by offering people something they want." You will note, I am sure, that this is an unusual religious credo. There is no religious leaderfrom the Buddha to Moses to Jesus to Mohammed to Lutherwho offered people what they want. But television is not well suited to offering people what they need. It is "user friendly." It is too easy to turn off. It is at its most alluring when it speaks the language of dynamic visual imagery. It does not accommodate complex language or stringent demands. As a consequence, what is preached on television is not anything like the Sermon on the Mount. Religious programs are filled with good cheer. They celebrate affluence. Their featured players become celebrities. Though their messages are trivial, the shows have high ratings, or rather, because their messages are trivial, the shows have high ratings. I believe I am not mistaken in saying that Christianity is a demanding and serious religion. When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether.
"There is no doubt, in other words, that religion can be made entertaining. The question is, By doing so, do we destroy it as an 'authentic object of culture'?" Postman makes a fundamental mistake in identifying the church with culture per se. More important is the question, By doing so, do we destroy it as "authentic," period? Paul wanted to make sure the Thessalonians understood that the means of communicating the message of the gospel must be suited to the message. "But as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, even so we speak, not as pleasing men, but God who tests our hearts. For neither at any time did we use flattering words, as you know, nor a cloak for covetousnessGod is witness." The medium of television corrupted both the men and the message in the televangelist scandals of the eighties. The beguilement of Madison Avenue is nothing newonly its electric means are new. Just as the first-century church identified and resisted the sophistic rhetoric of its day, so must the church today evaluate every medium in terms of its suitability to the glorious message of saving grace in Jesus Christ.
However, absent all electronic media in our own worship, we are not exempt from the pervasive environmental influence of those media. We bring the subtle attitudes and expectations of that environment into the church, to its worship, the hearing of the word preached, and every aspect of the Christian life.
As a baby boomer I am part of what I call the "cross-over generation." I remember low definition television and a world without cell phones, personal computers, or the Internet. Perhaps it is easier for me to stand back and critically observe my situation. Ministerial colleagues have told me that some Christian college students hear media ecological concerns as a kind of apocalyptic liberalismof the Al Gore variety. I have observed that this rising generation is puzzled by my concerns over the influence of the human inventions in the spiritual formation of Christians. This is troubling since these are concerns as ancient as the fall of Adam. The Bible is full of such concern. Its interest in the problem of idolatry is one of the major threads in the biblical story of redemption. The apostle John ends his first epistle with a stark reminder: "Little children, keep yourselves from idols" (1 John 5:21). Paul sets up the perfect contrast when he exhorts: "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect" (Romans 12:2).
But as I sit here typing on my word processor, preparing to publish on the Internet, I remember that this rising generation also needs to hear about the value of common culture and the reality of common grace. So, I am not advocating doom and gloom via technology. I would like to temper our optimism about the benefits of technology by challenging us to good stewardship of our inventions. This may be less painful in the long run than unmitigated good cheer about every new invention. Stay tuned.
[Portions of this editorial are taken from my The Word Is Worth a Thousand Pictures: Preaching in the Electronic Age (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2001) chapter 8 "The Fourth Temptation: The Compromise of the Church."]
 Malcolm Muggeridge, Christ and the Media (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), 30.
 A brochure which I recently received in the mail highlights the problem. It is titled: "Fail-proof Church Fundraising." Inside we are told: "Fundraising does not happen just because you are doing God's work. ...This remarkable new guide makes the fund raising process less mysterious ...more manageable and useful. ...Low on philosophy, high on nuts-and-bolts, this book fills an urgent void." Whatever happened to prayer and tithing? One can barely imagine a more blatant example of American Pragmatism as it affects the church.
 Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1964) 18.
 Neil Postman, The Disappearance of Childhood (London: Allen, 1983), 23. Postman's summary is based on the work of Harold Innis.
 Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1934), 45, 58.
 Daniel Czitrom, Media and the American Mind: From Morse to McLuhan (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982), 188.
 Gary Rowe, "The Living Room Pew," The Christian Ministry 12:3 (May 1981):11-15.
 Postman, The Disappearance of Childhood, 69.
 Richard Keyes, "The Idol Factory," in Os Guinness and John Seel, eds., No Gods But God (Chicago: Moody Press, 1992), 31.
 Gene Edward Veith, Jr., Loving God with All Your Mind: How to Survive and Prosper as a Christian in the Secular University and Post-Christian Culture (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1987), 227.
 Cindy Lafavre Yorks, "Gimme That New Time Religion," U. S. A. Weekend (13-15 April 1990): 4-7.
 Jacobus De Jong, "User Friendly Evangelism," Lux Mundi 17:1 (March 1998): 4.
 Os Guinness, Dining with the Devil: The Megachurch Movement Flirts with Modernity (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1993), 78.
 David Eby, Power Preaching for Church Growth: The Role of Preaching in Growing Churches (Fearn, UK: Christian Focus, 1996), 105.
 David F. Wells, No Place for Truth or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993) 207.
 David Wells, "Our Culture of Chaos," Lecture notes, July 12, 1996, L'Abri Fellowship, Southborough, MA.
 Ibid. I owe the apt phrase "trendier than thou" to the late Charles Dennison, church historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
 Lance Rose, "Heard of Beliefnet?" firstname.lastname@example.org (13 January 2000), quotes from http://www.usatoday.com/life/cyber/tech/cth139.htm. Leslie Miller, "A Community of Believers of All Faiths: Religious Site Strives to Be Inclusive," USA Today (13 Jan. 2000).
 Lance Rose, "Heard of Beliefnet?" email@example.com (13 January 2000).
 Mark 2:1-12. All Scripture quotes in this article are from the NKJV.
 In Douglas Van Allen Heck, "Is TV a Medium for the Gospel?" These Expository Times (May and June 1990): 1.
 Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves To Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Viking Penguin, 1985) 114ff.
 I owe this insight to my dear wife Robin Reynolds.
 Postman, Amusing Ourselves To Death, 116, 117.
 Harvey Cox, Religion in the Secular City: Toward a Postmodern Theology (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984) 68-70.
 Postman, Amusing Ourselves To Death, 122, 123.
 Ibid., 117.
 Ibid., 116.
 Stephen Winzenburg, "Vital Statistics," Newsweek (9 April 1990): 8.
 Postman, The Disappearance of Childhood, 116.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1559, Reprint (1 vol. in 2), The Library of Christian Classics, vol. XX, edited by John T. McNeill, translated by Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960) I.11.7, 107.
 Postman, Amusing Ourselves To Death, 119, 120.
 Ibid., 118.
 R. William Franklin, and Joseph M. Shaw, The Case for Christian Humanism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991) 174.
 Eph. 4:15, 16.
 In Cox, Religion in the Secular City, 68.
 Postman, Amusing Ourselves To Death, 121.
 Ibid., 124.
 1 Thess. 2:4, 5.