Mass Media and Ministry

by Peter Horsfield

Dr. Peter Horsfield is an ordained minister in the Uniting Church in Australia. He is currently employed on the Electronic Culture Research Project, a special initiative of the Uniting Church’s Commission in Victoria to explore the impact of electronic media on global cultures and the implications of this cultural change on religious institutions and on the social experience and expression of religious faith. For ten years previously he was the Dean of the Uniting Church’s Theological Hall and Lecturer in Practical Theology in the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne. He has published extensively in the areas of mass communication and society and media, religion and culture. Among his publications are two books: Religious Television: The American Experience (Longmans 1984) and Taming the Television: A Parents’ Guide to Children and Television (Albatross 1986).

This appeared originally in Research, 1991, monograph on the genesis and ethos of public service campaigns; principles and case studies. In yet different form appeared as “Selling Consent,” Communication and Citizenship. Eds. P. Dahlgren and C. Sparks. London: Routledge, 1991. The sociological and public policy implications of establishment information compliance campaigns.


The author addresses some of the key issues in the relationship between the mass media and religion. First he indicates trends in the study of mass communication; then applies these to three areas of religious faith: hermeneutics and proclamation, church practice, and religious experience. He concludes by suggesting some possible courses of action.

When one talks about the relationship between mass media and religion in our Australian society today, two topics generally arise. One is the lament about the number of people who no longer come to church because they're too busy watching television or their videos, particularly during the cricket tests or popular drama series on television. The other is the concern people express about the morally damaging effect television, videos and movies are having on people, particularly those that are heavy in sexual or violent content.

These are legitimate concerns, of course. The church is not the only social institution to complain about the difficulty of getting volunteer workers, Nor is the church the only social institution to express concern about the effect of violent or sexually explicit programs, particularly on children.

The greater issue in the relationship between the mass media and religion in Australian society -- as in the whole of Western society -- is a more subtle one. It is one, though, that is having a much more significant impact on the understanding and practise of religious faith because it is laying the foundations for a change that will be durable over a much longer period of time.

In this paper, I want to address some of those issues: first by indicating the trends in the study of mass communication; and second by applying these to three areas of religious faith: hermeneutics and proclamation, church practise, and religious experience. I will finish by suggesting some possible courses of action.


When one thinks of the effect of the mass media on society, one of the most common thoughts is on whether people imitate what they see. Studies show, however, that the imitation effect is not the best way to conceive the relationship between the mass media and society.

One of the more widely accepted theories of general television effect used in research today is the cultivation analysis theory. This theory, which has been developed, tested, applied and modified over the past fifteen years, suggests that the major effect of television on people and society is not through the direct changes in behaviour it brings about, but through the long-term shaping or cultivation of people's perception of what life is really like.

Through hundreds of detailed studies of the content of television programs, researchers have found that television, through its programming repetitively presents particular and consistent ideas about the world and life:

what is good and what is bad,

what has reality and what does not have reality,

what power is and who holds the power in society,

how relationships should be conducted, and

how one should behave in particular situations.

These "myths" that television uses -- these "pictures of reality" -- are rarely explicitly stated, but they underly almost all forms of programming: news, sports, drama, situation comedies, advertisements, soap operas, and even, or more accurately particularly, children's cartoons.

Let me spell out some of these myths. Television constantly reinforces the message, for example, that:

* success in life is best measured by one's possessions and power

* that the world is an increasingly violent place and one is justified in protecting oneself by violent means

* that happiness lies primarily in acquiring goods and services

* that being young, male and white is of greater importance than being old, female, or coloured

* that avoiding one's problems is more desirable than resolving them through disciplined and intelligent effort.

* that progress and efficiency are always good

* that most of life's pressing problems have simple solutions, and that solution is generally found in the purchase of a product or the application of a new technology

* that God has no place or relevance in today's world.

I am sure you could identify others. The important thing is that this environment in which we find ourselves is shaping the way in which people now think about life and make their decisions, even though they (we) may not be conscious of that influence.

This constantly repeated message of television has been shown to change people's perception of life and its meaning. Research shows that the more one watches television, the more one begins to see and interpret events and situations according to the television picture iof life. This unnoticed change in one's perception changes how one subsequently responds and behaves to life's situations.

Researchers have undertaken numerous studies into these pictures of reality affect people's response to many life issues. But little has been done to measure their effect on how people perceive the relevance and practise of religious faith. But if one extends what has been found in other situations, it is possible that the mass media may be having a marked effect on religious faith by changing the very foundations of social perception and social reality by which religious faith is expressed.

Television may, in effect, have changed the terms under which people will be religious. Let me move on to suggest a couple of ways in which this be considered.


The first is in the area of hermeneutics and proclamation.

One of the problems in communication is that often we think we are making good sense to someone else, when in fact we are missing something very vital in the background.

Read Psalm 8 and Romans 1:16-23.

In reading these two passages, one is reminded again of how important the context of the world of nature was in the development of biblical theology and in the communication of those truths.

That is not to say that the biblical writers had a purely natural theology, but as you read through the scriptures, you will find that the biblical writers were continually making inference from nature to nature's God. Many of the central doctrines of our faith not only were expressed in natural images, but they gained their authority because they resonated with people's subconscious experience of the world in which they lived.

Our doctrine of creation for example, is tied very closely to the sense of giftedness of the universe in which we live. Our concepts of providence, the mystery of God, human dependence on God, and Divine Immanence, all arise significantly from experiences of the processes, order and dependability of nature. Even our central doctrines of redemption and renewal while not being purely natural theology, gain much of their strength as ideas because they tap into our collective experience of the ability of nature to renew itself. The hope of salvation in Isaiah, for example, is sustained by a common experience of the natural world:

"The royal line of David is like a tree that has been cut down; but just as new branches sprout from a stump, so a new king will arise from among David's descendents."

Much of our Christian proclamation and apologetics draws on this innate "suspicion" people have that for the world to be the way it is, there must be a greater power behind it. So Paul's statement to the Romans,

"There is no excuse at all for not honouring God, for his

invisible qualities are made visible in the things he has made"

carried added authority because it resonated with the world in which they lived.

But for most people living in Australia today, the environment in which we are living has changed its character, and with it is changing also the subconscious "suspicion" that people have of God's presence and activity, a suspicion on which so much of our Christian apologetics and proclamation has depended.

For the world in which most people today spend most of their time is not the world of nature in which the invisible qualities of God are made visible. It is a world of wall-to-wall technological devices, in which God not only is not made visible, but appears to be increasingly irrelevant.

The world in which people in Australia today spend most of their time is not the world of nature, it is a world of human artifact. It is not a world we have inherited as a gift, it is a world we ourselves have manufactured. It is a world of artificial light; of cereal boxes, newspapers, and magazines read at meal tables and on public transport. It is a world of kitchen, car, and walkman radios. It is a world of videos, fun parlours, and computers. It is a world of television, which provides an environment of constant pictures and stories so that you no longer have to think or live your own. It is a world in which increasingly silence is being abolished. It is a world shaped by the scientific method, in which God technically is not necessary.

So people today, particularly those who live in the cities, do not live in a natural environment in which God is a gracious partner. They live in an environment in which just about everything we use and count on has been made or improved by human beings. I was interested to hear of a recent study on nutrition conducted in the western suburbs of Sydney, which found that there were teenagers who had never eaten a piece of fresh fruit. Their total diet had consisted of processed food.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, to find that the real focus of attention and devotion through its public voice is on those forces that shape this new environment: international and local politics and economics, and entertainment.

It is an interesting exercise to calculate how much of your average day is spent absorbing mass-mediated messages, from such things as radio and records, television, newspapers and journals, cereal boxes, street signs and stop lights, books, bumper stickers, billboards and banknotes. You may be surprised to discover that almost the whole of our waking life is spent in some way in the presence of mass-mediated messages, messages which, by their nature, are highly ideological by virtue of their being centralised, largely impersonal, lacking the opportunity for personal feedback and participation, and generally existing primarily for the purpose of economic profit.

Figures on television viewing alone show that the average child today, by the time they graduate from high school, would have spent more time in front of the television set than they would in the classroom. In fact, by the time they leave high school, the average child would have spent four and a half years of his or her time awake doing nothing but watching television.

Of course we deal with the mass of information we receive selectively, but the important factor is not what individual messages we become aware of, but the total message we absorb from the whole environment. People today are living in a new, artificially structured environment.

This is a change from earlier years, when the mass media were less integrated and functionned primarily as tools of communication for society's use. Today, however, they represent such a powerful force which is so entrenched and so economically competitive that they present themselves increasingly as indispensible, trustworthy, and omni-competent means of social life and experience.

For example, it is interesting to note how many major products and producers now present themselves in religious or philosophical terms.

>>>>"All good gifts around us are sent from from heaven above?" we used to sing. No longer. All good gifts around us are found at MacDonalds, who do it ALL for you.

>>>>GOD the Creator of life? No longer. Now it's General Electric, who bring good things to life.

>>>>God was revealed to Moses as the indefinable I AM. Today Coke promotes itself with that status, with its slogan "COKE IS IT!"

>>>>Sanyo promotes itself as all-encompassing by saying, "I said That's Life! Sanyo!"

>>>>What does the message "God loves you" mean when dozens of times daily a television station told its Brisbane listeners in an uplifting, inspirational way, "Love you, Brisbane!"

>>>>I'm not sure if you had the same ad on television down here, but one of the most inspirational visions I have seen recently was a beer ad, which with sweeping scenes of nature and uplifting music, sang the song,

You can feel it in the sunrise of an early Autumn dawn;

You can feel it in the earth beneath your feet.

You can taste it in the rain of a sudden summer storm,

You can see it as the sunset calls retreat.

I can feel a Fourex coming on.

On one hand we can push such things aside and say, "Advertisers have always been like that." But on the other hand, these things are just one part of what has become an all-encompassing world view that is well-integrated, consistent, deliberate, and influential, and it is steadily convincing millions of people to look at life in the same way. That world view has important implications for our Christian apologetics and proclamation.


The second major implication arises from the close link that the mass media have with consumer philosophy: the message that the immediate needs and wants of the consumer are supreme.

Against such a background, the Christian message of the ultimate supremacy of God, the importance of personal discipline, the postponement of gratification through sacrifice and service, and the limiting of one's demands for moral reasons sounds jarring, unreal, and irrelevant.

I would suggest that this conditioning in consumerism is changing the common understanding of what it means to have faith. I think this is evidenced by the marked increase in the past decade in the practise of "church-shopping."

This trend in ecclesiastical mobility has led to a greater emphasis on a church's "image," an essential element in attracting and retaining the circulating saints. In many quarters one can see a distinct movement away from smaller neighbourhood churches to larger churches which can offer a "comprehensive religious service" to its now discriminating and mobile religious clientele.

The Church Growth Movement has picked up on this consumer emphasis in society, and by the application of marketing analysis and technology can help churches grow by identifying the major demands people are making and tailoring your church to meet those demands: right down to the type of minister needed, the types of programs that should be offered, the type of theology to preach, the best places to build, and the most productive market segment to aim for.

I consider it is not accidental that the churches which have shown most marked growth in this decade have been those whose message parallels the television image.

Those churches, for example

* which are strongly authoritarian

* which see most issues in black and white terms

* where the Christian faith is presented with a strong emphasis on personal and immediate gratification

* where the Christian message is presented in a lifestyle package that emphasises success, health, and prosperity

* where there is a strong emphasis on God's power to achieve dramatic things, and which major on the sensational

* where there is constant noise, with little time for silence.

The most obvious example of this are the American evangelical broadcasters. The grandeur of their productions, the images of "success," their "positive thinking" messages, and their offering of gifts and goods in return for donations translates the Christian message into an attractive consumer package.

The large super-churches which have appeared in most Australian capital and provincial cities in the past decade also reflect a similar culture: apparently successful; spectacular worship services; charismatic leaders; the use of stereotypes; centralised decision-making; and messages which stress the benefits of believing.

Don't get me wrong. I believe that the Church Growth movement can teach us some important lessons and give some valuable insights into the practise of ministry.

It may be also that such churches have grasped the new nature of reality as it has been created in our subconscious by television and the other mass media.

What has not been sufficiently grasped, however, are the theological implications of a change away from the biblical position where God is seen as supreme to the position where people's religious needs are seen as supreme.

In this process, faith also is transmuted away from an emphasis on the service of God to one of selection of aspects of faith and churches according to what one perceives one's needs are.

One of the central theological questions raised by the mass media for the Christian faith is: Is there a valid integration of the consumer philosophy with the Christian revelation? In what ways does faith and our church practises need to be changed to take account of consumerism, and in what ways does faith need to stand apart and challenge the society in the name of the One who is supreme, and jealous for love of his people?


A third implication arises from the nature of television as an oral medium. For many centuries, the Christian faith has been a literate faith. Protestant churches in particular have placed great emphasis on The Word, and have stressed the intelligent integration of faith with the rest of life.

But television is less a literate, and more an "oral" form of communication. There are a number of theorists who suggest that through the influence of television, our society is becoming more "oral" in its thought-forms. (Would Joh Bjelke-Petersen be having the impact he is having in a literate society?) This is creating a national subconsciousness that benefits oral forms of religion over the literate forms.

Consider again the churches which are in growth patterns. Most tend to be "oral" rather than "literate" in nature. Their theological concepts tend to be basic and simple, even simplistic. They tend to stereotype in terms of opposites, dividing people into the saved and unsaved, good and bad, moral and immoral. They tend to be very literal in their view of the bible, finding if difficult to perceive the subtleties of literary analysis that most of us find basic, all of which are characteristics of oral cultures.

Their approach to theology and the Bible tends to be summed up by the bumper sticker I saw recently: "God said it, I believe it, and that's the end of it."

It is not just a simple matter of literate or liberal churches not selling themselves well enough. It is my proposition that, in many ways, television has had such a marked shaping effect on what people perceive as reality, that churches that stress a reasoned, literate, and immanental approach to religious faith will become more and more alienated from the masses (if they ever had any attraction to the masses!)

It may be that those churches which market their message by emphasising authority, personal success, health and prosperity through faith may have intuited the proper response of the Christian faith to the new cultural situation in which we find ourselves. Perhaps Jesus did the same and intuited the market potential of going to the deprived outcasts rather than the satiated religious. Perhaps the survival of the Christian faith in the 21st century may owe a lot to these churches. Perhaps the Uniting Church, with its dominant emphasis on being literate, rational, and democractic will find the future pretty rough going. Only time will tell!

What scares me, though, is the uncritical and unthoughtful way in which so many churches and movements are simply adapting to our mass culture without any sort of critique based on a well thought out biblical hermeneutic. The measure appears to be: if it brings in more people, do it.


There are a number of other issues which a study of the mass media raise:

* In what ways does the personhood emphasis of the gospel relate to the efficiency emphasis of modern technology?

* In what ways does our doctrine of sin and human nature relate to the limit-less emphasis of modern technology?

* How does the servant of God emphasis of the gospel relate to the master nature of technology?

*How does the relationship orientation of the gospel relate to the information orientation of modern technology?

* What does it mean to stand with the poor in an age where information costs money?


Finally, what should we do?

First, as religious communicators, and people training to be religious communicators, we need to study the characteristics of our mass media environment as carefully as did missionaries who related the gospel to foreign cultures.

There is a dominant attitude among many tertiary institutions, teachers, ministers, and other literati that television is of secondary importance, a lower form of culture that is best ignored or tolerated. What I have been suggesting is that we need to take television in particular and the mass media in general very seriously. Far from being a mild form of distracting entertainment, they are shaping an alternative world view that in many respects is diagonally opposed to the Christian world view. What a case study of the American evangelical broadcasters shows us is that in many ways the ideology of television shapes religion much more easily than religion shapes it.

Second, we need continually to be interpreting and relating the truth of our faith to the myths by which the mass media describe reality. In some cases faith may easily be re-expressed in mass media terms and images. In others, the Christian faith may pose a radical challenge to the way in which the mass media see the world and people in the world.

This process, of course, is not a new one. Every faithful preacher each Sunday applies the Word of God to the "sitz im leben" of his or her congregation. Rudolf Bultmann outlined the process with his concept of remythologisation. In doing this, Bultmann drew heavily on the existentialist philosophy of the early Heidegger for his cultural analysis. Perhaps the process needs to be repeated as our culture moves into new phases.

Third, we need to begin to educate ministers and people within our churches on how our lives and our children's lives are being shaped by media values and where Christian faith stands in relation to them. It is my observation that the dominant attitude to television is that it is very entertaining. There has been little common perception of its awesome power to shape and reshape social values, attitudes, and relationships.

I finish with one final perspective. The emphasis of our critique and proclamation must always be that of good news. Often we become condemnatory of television and other media for no other reason than we are jealous of the appeal and success they have, or because the Sunday night movie keeps people away from church.

But I have never been more confident than I am now of the potential there is for the church to model the richness and quality of inter-personal human relationship. As technology more and more forces people out of a meaningful participation in life, more and more will the church with its message of grace, of hope, of human integrity stand out.

If our message is one of good news, and it is lived with authenticity by those who have been grasped by it, surely the contrast between the life of the good news and the life of the bad news will become self-evident.