Tuesday, June 09, 2009

You can't force it.

(Continued from "How's the Reception?" and "Programmatic Prayers")

After the sermon concluded, the program cut to an empty sanctuary with the pastor in one of the aisles. He was wearing khakis and an open-collared shirt—two buttons undone—instead of his suit jacket and open-collared shirt—two buttons undone. Now for a personal message from the preacher to his television audience.

"You matter to God, and. . .” He paused. The next phrases seemed obvious, but I sensed a hesitation. Was there another thing to say that could seem natural? He continued. "You matter to us.” Apparently not. “If I could come into your house, come into your kitchen, and have a cup of coffee with you, I would. But I just can't do that with everyone who watches this program. But I want you to know God loves you. He's got a plan for you. You're important to him, you're important to others.”

The contradictions here made for an awkward moment, even for the pastor, alone with his camera crew. It’s hard to earnestly care for people you can’t see or even imagine. I sensed, not in his words but in his delivery, that he struggled to find a place of honesty from which to deliver his lines. I do not think he was disingenuous, but he was simply face-to-face with the limitations of his medium. He was desperately trying to overcome them. Instead of saying, “You matter to me,” he said, “You matter to us.” The interpersonal element could not be established nor sustained using television. Who’s this “us” that you matter to? The TV programming crew? His church’s staff? Who’s “you”? Is it you the individual, or is it “y’all” (as Hipps points out)?

The mass medium of television is just that. It’s for the masses, not the individual. Attempts to speak to the individual from a television nearly always seem ridiculous. Even when experienced politicians speak to the individual, it’s a sort of "grouped individual," not the personal individual. They say things like, “If you’re facing credit cards bills you can’t pay . . .” or “When the doctor says you can’t work and your employer says you can’t stay home. . .” It’s all these hypothetical statements to general audiences. Sometimes they even clarify by saying, “you, the American people.” It’s the best they can do.

And it’s the best this pastor could do. “You matter to us.” The church isn’t meant to be a mass culture like that. If a church-goer is always and only among the “y’all” and never the “you,” then the community has failed. It is likely both the fault of the church and the fault of the individual, but the TV medium can never avoid that failure, whereas even a megachurch leave the possibility open. For that reason alone, the nature of the TV medium runs contrary to the nature of the church. That’s why the pastor paused, why he had to say “us” instead of “me,” and why he could not pierce the medium and establish a relationship with me. He was trying to send a message that the medium could not transmit. He was trying to force a camel through the eye of a needle. That’s where God has to get involved.

Okay God, we'd love to have you show up and work through this. You've got a 30-second window. Go.

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