What Broadcast Television Can Teach Us About Worship
There’s no questioning the ubiquity of television in our lives. It’s all around us! The cultural presence of the screen has become such that most of us have come to depend on video as our primary form of mass communication. We’ve even put them in our sanctuaries!
But broadcast television holds more educational value for worship planners than simply a blind appropriation of the medium. Besides understanding that video and image are powerful means to communicate, what else can broadcast TV teach us about worship in our now digital age? Here are some observations:
Worship is a Production of Many Components
High production values are sometimes lost in our current models of “contemporary” worship. Often, that’s not because we don’t value quality, but because we don’t know how to do it effectively with screens involved particularly in the praise and worship tradition, where the entire service consists of 30 minutes of singing (the “worship” time) and 30 minutes of preaching (the “teaching” time). When screens are added to this mix, their primary use becomes backgrounds for song text and sermon points. This alone does not constitute high production value, because it is falls so short of the capabilities of the medium.
Compare worship to a variety show, such as a late-night talk show. Beyond the primary components of the opening monologue interviews, good episodes of late night TV incorporate a variety of other elements such as video clips, sketches and gags (particularly in the “Carson” tradition), musical performances, and much more. Or take a look at children’s television programming such as Sesame Street, that combines teaching and creativity with themes that run throughout the show in different mediums. The more variety, the better.
If we expand our view beyond current trends to the rich history of Christian worship, we find many opportunities to interface the screen with worship, from video calls to worship to brief videotaped testimonies to visual prayer experiences, and much more. Begin to think like a worship producer, and expand your repertoire to include a variety of components.
One key to making those components work well together is to practice. A technical rehearsal is a must. You can bet that just about every moment we’ve ever seen on broadcast television has been delivered with much preparation. Interviews on Leno and Letterman are preceded by a “pre-interview”, and even the nightly news is scripted! The Holy Spirit may still move in worship, sometimes away from the predetermined plan, but a tech rehearsal is invaluable.
Watch broadcast television or turn on the radio for more than a few minutes and you’re bound to see and hear the presence of metaphor. From radio station names like The Edge and The Rebel to songs like White Flag and Candle in the Wind, metaphor is inescapable. It is the primary form for artistic expression of our day. The movies and television we watch would be drastically different without this creative form of communication. The advertising industry would practically cease to exist.
Every Super Bowl Sunday we see millions of dollars spent on mere seconds of commercial time. Often the best and most memorable spots are heavily wrapped in metaphor. One of the ads that summed up metaphor really well this year was the Sierra Mist commercial that shows a man and his dog dying from the sweltering heat of summer. They find relief by diving feet first from a balcony high above an outdoor restaurant into a small pitcher of water on a tabletop below. The announcer then utters these words” “Yeah it’s kinda like that”. Metaphor is all about those “kinda like” experiences.
The reason advertisers use these metaphorical images and catchphrases is because they know that it is the glue that makes messages stick in our minds. They’re selling dog food and hairspray, yet people buy these products because of how the message is being presented. We should take a page from their creative books and design worship with the same intentionality. It makes the message easier to understand, easier to retain, and most importantly, that’s the same way Jesus preached to the “worship gatherings” of his day.
There’s A Difference Between TV’s Messages and the Gospel
This may seem like a no-brainer but is worth mentioning. Many churches, in an effort to be relevant to people’s lives, incorporate pop cultural themes into worship settings. We have seen services, and even entire series, based around irredeemable shows like Survivor, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, and even The Osbournes. While it is acceptable, and something we encourage, to make reference to the cultural environment of people’s daily experience, the catch from a worship producer’s perspective is to redeem these references.
Be careful of trite rip-offs of the culture. If you use the theme of Survivor to talk about love (“Voting people onto the island”), which we have seen, are people likely to remember your message of love, or are they going to simply remember the Survivor weekend? You can’t expect to completely reverse the intentions of a show like Temptation Island or a song like George Michaels’ “Faith” (both of which are explicitly about sex) in worship either. Even if your intent is to use only the title or the chorus, people will likely remember the source you ripped it from rather than the message you were trying to get across. Some cultural artistic expressions just aren’t redeemable. Make your television references point to the Gospel, and make the connections powerful and unique (not trite and simple), and people will comprehend and be changed.
Avoid the sitcom mentality
You know the format: 23 minutes long. Introduction of character. Character experiences conflict. Commercial break. Plot thickens. Commercial break #2. Character resolves conflict in a neat and humorous way. Viewer changes channel.
Sitcoms make innocuous little antidotes to our innate need for story. After a long day of life’s issues, we experience the life of another person through television, we worry with them and laugh with them, and when their problems are solved we move on without any more investment in their story. The only problem is, real life is not so neat and humorous. Well, maybe life is humorous, but not in a “ha-ha” sort of way. We have to get up the next morning and return to our own issues.
This lack of resolution is our daily experience. So if we go to worship and are presented the Gospel story in a neat 23-minute “sitcom” package, we often find it to be unfulfilling and trite not “real”. So this one is aimed squarely at the preacher: avoid the sitcom mentality. Don’t fall into the trap of resolving everything in a neat package at the expense of being authentic.
So, next time you turn on the TV or your radio, take mental notes on the creative forms of communication being employed to reach the world around us. These methods are important for us as a church to understand and use in our communication of the good news of Jesus. We have to break through the noise of the world in a language that our congregations understand to effectively and authentically reach the culture of this present time.