No Miracles from the Media
by James A. Taylor
Mr. Taylor is managing editor of the United Church Observer, published in Toronto. This article appeared in the Christian Century May 30, 1979, p. 613. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
The old-time street-corner evangelist hardly ever shows up in the mass media anymore. If he does, it’s as a figure of ridicule. And that’s unfortunate, because he symbolizes both what the media most desperately try to accomplish and how they most dismally fail -- especially in evangelism.
When I first started working at a radio station in Vancouver, there was an old man who haunted the corner of Granville and Smythe streets. As people passed by, he would pounce on them, grab them by their lapels, and hiss into their faces, “Brother, are you saved?”
It didn’t seem to matter what answer anyone gave, or how often one gave it. He had a message to deliver, and he was not going to be diverted from it. His victims escaped only when he released their lapels to open his Bible or dig out a tract.
Normally, I passed his corner once a week on my way to deposit my paycheck in the bank. When it appeared that my only jacket would suffer permanently crumpled lapels, I learned to go all the way around the block to avoid him.
I wish I had learned some media lessons from him instead. For that street-corner evangelist had precisely what the mass media do not have -- an immediate and direct contact with his audience.
I have since made use of that man’s character in role-playing at a variety of communication workshops. We choose one person to act as the evangelist. The rest are passers-by. The “evangelist” can reach out, stop and hold any of the others, can demand “Are you saved?” and hurl other such questions. Almost without exception, the victim feels compelled to respond. Almost without exception, the evangelist finds the experience exhilarating.
Then we change the situation. This time the “evangelist” is blindfolded, with hands tied behind back; the passers-by have been instructed not to let the role-player make any contact -- physical or verbal. The passers-by may or may not feel involved. But the “evangelist” has always felt frustrated because he or she can’t know whether anyone is listening or being reached.
That is precisely the situation in which mass media workers find themselves.
For example, I have no way of knowing (as I write this article) who you are (as you read it). Months -- perhaps years -- may have passed between the time I type the manuscript and the time you pick up the magazine. I don’t know what you’re doing, or where you are, or what else is competing for your interest. Are you merely flipping pages during TV commercials? Did your daughter promise to be home two hours ago? Are you excited about your church? Fed up with committees? Promoted? Fired? Celebrating? Grieving?
All these factors will influence what you choose to read, and how you react to my message. No matter how hard I try to anticipate your mood, your reactions and choices are your own. By the time you see this article, it’s too late for me to change even a comma.
I’m often amazed that any message at all gets through the mass media. Consider a television appeal for, say, donations to an interchurch earthquake relief fund. The author’s words will be spoken by an unknown announcer, who will be filmed by an anonymous camera operator, who is directed by another stranger. The resulting message will be broadcast over someone else’s transmitters, after a commercial for laundry detergent and before another for chewing gum, all in the middle of an Archie Bunker tirade against Jews and Arabs -- provided, of course, that the football game doesn’t run overtime and cancel everything else.
What a difference from the evangelist who grabs you by your lapels! Yet the mass media, with all the skills and all the millions they can muster, actually try to re-create the face-to-face encounter. They use every possible means -- pictures, headlines, catchy words, color, sound, movement and, of course, sex -- to make their message so compelling that you feel you have to pay attention. They want to reach out from the page or the picture tube and grab you by your emotional lapels.
The key word is ‘emotional” -- because your emotions are the only things the mass media can count on.
Before I write anything, I try to determine who my audience is. I try to see my topic through their eyes, their concerns. I’ll talk money to economists, science to scientists, and religion to church people. But in fact, I don’t know that my writing will be read only by scientists. Maybe their spouses or children will also look at it. Maybe the magazine will end up in a doctor’s office five years later, or the article will be reprinted in Reader’s Digest. Or maybe at the moment my scientist picks up the article, he or she is more interested in fly-tying or motorcycles.
The only thing that I know my reader -- any reader -- has for sure is emotions. He has love for his daughter or his dog. She knows joy in water-skiing or growing roses. If somehow I can touch those emotions, I have reached my reader.
Of course, there are negative emotions too: pride, envy, fear, hate. They too are shared by all readers. They too are used by the mass media -- especially in commercials -- to establish contact.
Sometimes church people are offended when their denominational publications print articles that dwell on people’s prejudices or weaknesses. They think a church paper should deal only with “higher” matters. But until the Kingdom comes, people will be less than perfect. I have to reach those people before I can hope to change them, and I have to reach them where they are, not where I would like them to be.
That street-corner evangelist snared people with one of the strongest emotional hooks of all -- survival -- when he asked, “Brother, are you saved?” So why wasn’t he successful more often? Why did people want to squirm away from his clutches? For the same reason that the mass media will never evangelize the world. He wasn’t vulnerable.
He was willing to risk being disliked, resented, ignored or laughed at. Now and then, he may have risked a punch in the nose. But he never risked his faith. It lay deep-frozen, locked away in a glass case, to be displayed but never touched. You were supposed to learn from him; never would he learn anything from you. If God had anything more to reveal to him, it certainly was not going to come from unsaved passers-by.
Yet we know, or should know, that God has far more ways of revealing himself to us than we can ever imagine. And even while we try to present God to others, God may be using them to speak to us. That’s the essence of real face-to-face evangelism. As missionaries all over the world have discovered, to proclaim the gospel they have to be secure enough in their own faith to risk having it shaken.
Jesus was vulnerable. He dealt with people face-to-face, every day. He left himself open to the attacks of the Pharisees and the high priests, to the jeers of the mobs, to rejection by his own villagers and by his own disciples.
But Jesus would have been safe as a TV star -- protected by public relations staffs, the technology of bright lights and zoom lenses, and audiences that applaud on cue. When his popularity eventually waned, he would have been sentenced not to the cross but to quiet oblivion, spending his final years living on income from investments and reruns, forgotten by the public. Christianity would have died, rather than Christ.
Fortunately, that’s not what happened. Christ loved us enough to die for us -- and that love has left its mark on the world for 20 centuries.
People, you see, can be vulnerable. But the mass media can only pretend to be. In print, the New Journalism indulges in a lot of first-person narrative, as I have done in this article -- as if I were really laying myself open to your criticisms. But I’m not. By the time you can respond, I will have gone on to something entirely different.
TV networks claim that they schedule and cancel programs on the basis of ratings, which are the viewers’ way of talking back. But if you have to resort to turning off your TV set to communicate with the programmers, that’s hardly communication. It’s the exact opposite: the deliberate canceling of communication.
You can write a response to a newspaper. But some faceless editor decides how much of your letter to print, if any at all. And even if it is printed, it’s too late to change anything. The message has already gone out.
For all these reasons, I’m forced to the conclusion that the mass media as we now know them cannot really create religious disciples. The media have too many built-in handicaps -- from trying to talk to someone who isn’t there, to being unable to listen until it’s too late,
I say this despite the apparent success of some religious publishing and broadcasting: magazines such as Plain Truth or Decision, Sunday morning radio programs reflecting every hue of the theological spectrum, and television shows of the “Oral Roberts” and “PTL Club” variety or, in Canada, “100 Huntley Street.”
Please, I’m not attacking such programs. If they fill a need, more power to them. But as I watch them, read the publications, listen to the announcements of the people who have been healed or have sent donations, or who want to be prayed for, I’m convinced that the media are not bringing in any new disciples. They’re bringing back people who were once introduced to Christianity but slipped away, or who find that their present church associations fail to meet their needs. But style, format and language -- especially in television -- tend to eliminate all except those people already predisposed toward a particular kind of religious experience.
These programs and publications may provide nurture and encouragement for their audiences. They may, indeed, influence the atmosphere of society enough for individual Christians to witness to their faith more freely. But if evangelism does occur, if new converts do come to Christ, it will have happened because of the witnessing of those individual Christians. Hardly ever can the mass media claim direct credit.
Unfortunately, few people today recognize this fact. The man-in-the-street, the pew-sitter, the average layperson, shrinks in awe before the professional communicators who can reach millions through typewriter or tube. Too many people today worship the mass media as omnipotent and omnipresent, instead of doing their own communicating of the gospel.
I recall a meeting at my home church. The committee chairman stood in the middle of the empty room. Half a dozen people had shown up, all of them committee members or friends who had been spoken to personally.
“I can’t understand it,” said the chairman, shaking his head. “We had a really good notice in the newsletter.” Like most people, he expected miracles from the media. But they can’t supply miracles.
Sometimes I hear people saying wistfully, “If only Jesus had been able to use television. Think of how many more people he could have reached,”
I take the opposite view. I think that if Jesus had had TV, if Paul had had a printing press, Christianity might never have survived. The early Christians would have been tempted to leave the job of evangelism to the communications experts.
More people might have known about Christianity. But far fewer would have been converted. The media may be able to prepare the ground by influencing attitudes and values, by making people aware. In a few rare cases, they may even be able to plant a seed or two. But the media’s built-in limitations make it almost impossible to nurture those individual seeds into flower. That kind of phenomenon happens only when someone clutches your lapels with urgency, or is present to put an arm around your shoulder in support, or cares enough to express sympathy.
Fortunately, the early Christians had no choice. They had to witness personally to their faith, even at the risk of persecution and death. And the church grew.
But the mass media don't have that personal contact, and they can't convert the world. Only people can.