Media masks messages

I realise the topic comes from a well known phrase. The Media is the Message. Basically this means that it doesn’t matter so much what is said, as to how it is said. Imagine the following scene; the white robed choir boys have finished their aria, and the candles have been lit, and two rousing hymns have been sung, and the notices read out about the celebration of lent, and all done in the glorious echoes of a steepled church architecture. Then the white robed bespectacled middle aged, balding Minister steps up to the pulpit and preaches an absolute cracker of a sermon with spot on spiritual content.

Unfortunately everyone listening was lulled into the wrong frame of mind. And they don’t hear what was said. Instead, they experienced the ambience of the delivery. The media. They go home having felt good about being in church. By the next Sunday, 98% of them can’t recall what was said a week previously.

It’s true. Once this mate of mine asked me to go with him to church one Sunday morning when we were on this course together in another country. Turns out he was a Catholic. Now I had not been to that many Catholic churches in my life. So I said, ‘sure, lets go’. I sat at the back trying to merge in, and the service went through a bit of a routine. A family got up to do something together, the songs were great, then the priest gave a sermon. And I tell you, he had some good stuff to say. There was no party line delivered at all. What he had to say was straight down the line. I was impressed.

But I couldn’t help noticing that most in the back rows were ignoring him. There was a guy near me reading the newspaper! Not just folded up either. He had both pages wide open, full stretch, and took no care on opening to the next section. Luckily for the priest the comic strips weren’t too funny that particular day.

Now just here I had better try and cover my butt. You see it is tricky writing this because people usually come out with one of two immediate reactions; firstly some will say to me, ‘oh you are just another Catholic hater’; or else some will shrug, ‘what else do you expect to find in a Catholic church?’ Neither of these responses gets anywhere near the point of this exercise. Knocking the Roman Catholic church is a centuries old tradition of both Protestants and Atheists. Exactly the same conditions exist within all branches of Christendom, whether Roman, Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, Coptic, Quaker etc. In fact the same issue can be just as true for an Electric church, or a Pentecostal church, or one of those architectural wonders found in California. The Media overwhelms the message.

Churches everywhere struggle with the sociology of this situation all the time. For example, we were in this traditional church once (many were cold, and some were frozen), but the Minister and the elders couldn’t bring themselves to really change much in the flow of the service. The guy gave excellent messages. Absolutely. But little impact because nobody heard them. Nobody was challenged, nor did they want to be challenged. This was the problem. The elders were afraid that if they challenged the congregation, most would up and leave. The congregation was their capital base, to use a business term. And one does not squander ones capital. Instead they had a church full of committees. And everybody was happy. So happy.

Since all the above examples relate to traditional gatherings, and these are always the easiest to criticise, lets look at a modern situation. For a few weeks I went to this Superchurch in a large auditorium. So large a church that 1500 people at a time filed in and out five times every Sunday. The stage was littered with electric guitars, drums, digital pianos, and young men in business suits. The young Pastor (always a ‘Pastor’ for some reason. Never a ‘Minister’) is swarming around continually, grabbing the microphone now and then as the music drags on for at least an hour. Eventually when he judges the moment is correct, he either preaches an emotion packed message (never a ‘sermon’), or makes an ‘appeal’. While he does this a very serious older man stands with him near the front lifting an obviously holy arm beckoning them down. Preferably he is grey haired to add authority.

And people go home feeling good for being at church. Next Sunday 98% of them can’t recall what was said the previous week. The Media overwhelms the Message.

Significantly, very significantly however, the media, or the ambience, or the environment, or whatever you call it in the above case is closer to the media of the modern world. So, in the opinion of those Pastors, it is not ‘boring’. It is ‘relevant’. You can go there and have your life changed. Every Sunday. Perhaps five times every Sunday if you attend all the services.

Since we have commented on the state of the modern world, let us explore another perspective on this. Namely, the problem of communication in the modern world. Go back a few centuries, and there were far fewer technical means of communicating than there are today. Rather obvious. No TV, radio, Computers, cellphones, or even daily newspapers. Basically what this meant was that when somebody took the trouble to try and say something, people were so starved of information that they listened. Speaking was such a serious activity that words held value. And silence did too. In the Old Testament story of Job, his friends heard about his predicaments and all travelled to see and console him. When they arrived, they were so shocked they did not say a single word. For seven days!

Let me provide a recent day analogy. I was with this guy in Africa once who drove around in a truck selling Christian books. He could pull into a village (a village without TV, radio, Computers, cellphones, or even daily newspapers), open up the side of his truck and start talking into his loudspeaker. People would appear from everywhere. The novelty of hearing something, anything in fact, was still strong.

But in the modern telecommunication oriented world, people have the opposite problem. They have information overload. We send each other data all the time. Whole economies are based on industries just trying to get this data through to people more efficiently. Computer networks are terrible in this regard. You get on a Computer based Office system, and you will find out what I mean. People type up a message and send it around the world, or across the office floor. But with about two extra keystrokes, they can copy ten, twenty, a hundred extra people on the same message. If one hundred people read that thirty second message, nearly one man hour in total of work time is consumed.

So people stop reading all this stuff that flows over their desk or past their Computer screens. Rather they attempt to sort out what is important, and what is not. If you are marketing million dollar deals to Chief Executives, you only have one page to get their attention. And it better have a colour chart. Education courses are run on how to get this message across to these guys. As the marketers get more effective, the same trainers turn around and teach the recipients how to discern quickly between valuable and worthless information.

It’s getting out of hand. Pretty soon it won’t be acceptable to just send someone a written message. Do you know what the new wave of communication might be? Multimedia. A combination of Video, still photos, Music, and Computer power. The way things are going with Multimedia, you will need to deliver a personal video message with musical sound effects, and background still shots in order to simply tell someone that the budget reports are due in tomorrow. Otherwise you won’t get your point across. Nobody will have heard your attempt to communicate over the incessant chatter of data in its multitude of modern forms.

What am I getting at? Simply this. No longer is it adequate to just say something, and expect that it is heard. Modern media wants excitement delivered with the message. It wants an environment. The father of media studies, Marshall McLuhan pointed out the difference between hot and cool media. Newspapers are a ‘hot’ media because you have to get involved in the newspaper to get anything out of it. You have to read it. But television is a ‘cool’ media. You don’t have to do anything. It’s message comes out at you. You don’t have to go get it. You just sit there. And guess what? Predictably, human beings prefer cool media. Just plain laziness I reckon.

I realise this particular topic throws open the whole question of why today’s youth can’t read and write but this is not my point. My point is still back with the sermon being delivered using time honoured methods. Standing at the front, and lecturing. Amidst disciplined quiet. This message is delivered to a people increasingly accustomed to a zappy media, to excitement, to stimulation. They expect wall surround videos, quadraphonic sound, colour graphs. Instead they just get words. Sometimes not even impassioned words. The preacher might be like Paul in the New Testament. A great writer, but not that challenging a speaker. How could such a sermon compete with Multimedia? Unlikely baby, as the man would say.

So what do you do? Well, shucks, take on Multimedia. Get into ‘Christian Television’ or ‘Christian Radio’ or, heaven forbid, ‘Christian Multimedia’. Make your message relevant to the society we live in. Give it to them how they want it, how they expect other messages to get delivered to them. Make it an experience. Turn the preaching of the gospel into a disco. The crowds will pour in. You will be a great success. You could then write a book on church growth in the modern world. (This could be a facetious paragraph by the way.)

You know something? After pondering this through I am starting to think that the best way to communicate with people is sit and listen to them, person to person, friend to friend. That is one media that has the potential for love to be involved. Funny thing is, Pastors talk about this method of communication all the time. But they return to their main job of preaching from the front – with multimedia.