Does TV Simply Preclude Good Preaching?

The news this week is that the struggle between Robert Schuller père et fils continues to diminish the ministry that has made them both famous. Donations and viewer numbers are dropping and it is not clear that the long-running “Hour of Power” will have the fortitude to last another year.

All over America, in fact, televangelism seems to be in trouble — at least among the big boys. And that trouble likely won’t trouble most readers of this blog, since I daresay most of you aren’t big fans of television preaching anyway.

But as the old lions pass off the scene and either put their sons in charge (or, in the case of Canadian David Mainse, their daughter) or dismiss them from their roles as heirs apparent, we might pause to consider this question: Has there ever been any really good preaching on television?

Like you, I can think of some preachers that aren’t so bad. They are not heretical, they are not sensational, they are not egotistical — but I still don’t want to listen to them, do you? Most of them, furthermore, I have seen only on local broadcasts of local large churches. I can’t think of anyone with a national or international ministry that I would ever want to hear again.

Now, you might say, you’re a theological professor. That might mean you’re a snob. At best, it means you represent an awfully small demographic. Television is a mass medium, so of course no successful ministry — that is, “successful” in the way that television has to be successful, namely, in terms of viewer numbers — is going to be aimed at you.

But not so fast. While it is commonly said that all popular television is aimed at the proverbial 12-year-old male, with the exception of shows that clearly are aimed at middle-aged women, there are lots of shows that I like that seem to require a brain to follow. Indeed, some of the most popular shows nowadays require viewers to remember half a dozen storylines and dozens of characters.

So where is the preaching on television that meets even this standard of intellectual quality? Where are the donors who will step up to put on the air preachers who actually might appeal to intelligent Christians and non-Christians? Why are the big bucks always flowing to the lowest common denominator? Doesn’t any rich person out there have a vision for intelligent television?

Have I been missing something? Are there some terrific preachers out there who are on television? I’d really like to know.

Or is it just a matter of money? As one who has read his fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan and enjoyed reading the late Neil Postman, is the medium itself the problem? Or is good preaching simply too big, too substantial, too aurally demanding to fit into the very narrow pipeline afforded by television?

In the meanwhile, however, I can only conclude that it is sad that some television ministries are in trouble when they have, it seems, encouraged the faith of a lot of people. But I’m not going to cry too much over the decline of most of those ministries, since most of them are theologically and homiletically so bad.

And I’m especially not going to mourn the loss of the “Hour of Power” that has let Robert Schuller’s version of the Gospel (let the reader understand) be broadcast to so many for so long.

0 Responses to “Does TV Simply Preclude Good Preaching?”

  1. Brad Penner

    I don’t watch many TV preachers either, but one that I find intellectually stimulating and well-spoken is Charles Price of The People’s Church in Toronto.

  2. Steve

    I would echo Brad’s comments that Charles Price of The People’s Church in Toronto preaches biblical, expostional sermons through the Living Truth television ministry that is both national and international. Otherwise, I would agree that the quality of preaching on tv is quite poor.

  3. Josh

    I’ve been appalled by most TV preachers I happened to come across while flipping channels – particularly by those who hardly make an effort to veil the real purpose they are being aired: raise money for themselves and their “ministries”.

    But I definitely would second Brad’s statement – Charles Price is an honorable exception!

  4. Lukas

    I love your books and blog, but…

    …aren’t you slightly missing the point? Most people under forty who want to “watch” a sermon, will download a vodcast. If you look at those preachers who are topping the iTunes charts, there are some very good ones out there: Gregory Boyd and Mark Driscoll, for example, may sit at very different ends of the evangelical spectrum, but both are people you would “want to hear again”.

  5. John Stackhouse

    Brother Lukas, you make a good point. I am indeed old enough not to bother with vodcasts (yet), but my sons (who are younger…) do.

    Not that it affects your main point, for which I am indeed grateful, but no, I wouldn’t want to hear Brothers Boyd or Driscoll again. I’ve read enough of Boyd, whose work strikes me as certainly intelligent, but half-baked: not all wrong, but not even close to all right, either. (I recently reviewed his book on Christianity and politics and boy, does he ever need to give things a little more thinking through before publishing.) Driscoll? He really, really bugs me.

  6. wilco

    Driscoll? He really, really bugs me.

    I really would expect someone of your standing to voice your criticism more carefully.

  7. John Stackhouse

    Yes, Wilco, I understand your point. Sometime I might detail why I don’t want to listen to him anymore, but that would have to be done carefully, as you suggest, and for now I’m just recording an emotional reaction candidly.

  8. Chris

    Mark Driscoll is 16th century theology wrapped in a 21st century wrapper. If I want Calvinism, I’ll look to the source. I think Mr. Stackhouse was referring primarily to those for whom television is a major thrust of their ministry. I wouldn’t classify the great Billy Graham in this group, but I would go even further in my disdain for the ‘theology’ of Robert Schuler, which consists mainly of prosperity theology combined with a liberal dose of Norman Vincent Peale’s positive-thinking psycho-babble. Blech.

  9. Chris

    Sorry, my first sentence should have read “Mark Discoll’s TEACHING is…”

  10. wilco

    @ Chris

    If I want Calvinism, I’ll look to the source.

    Yes, but will a Seattlite that has no clue as to what Calvinism is do the same? You have to take into account the ministry this guy has, and the people he is trying to reach. I’m pretty sure it’s not you.

  11. Lukas

    sorry for the delayed reply… I only periodically remember to read this blog… thanks for your response to my comment. But, granted the qualms that you have with Boyd and Driscoll, would you not more be infinitely more happy to recommend them to friends than you would anybody preaching on television?

  12. Jon Rising

    Professor Stackhouse, I am in agreement with you, but for one exception — Jack Hayford. While a bit too wordy (I heard a magazine editor refer once to Hayford’s “dense prose”), his content is not unorthodox or shallow. I think he represents the evangelical pulpit well on television.

    The website for his broadcast ministry is: http://www.livingway.org/broadcast_min.html

  13. Calvin

    I would echo Kasey’s opinion that Charles Stanley is a good preacher I’d like to hear again and again. I used to transcribe his sermons and there’s some really good stuff… I’m not sure if he’s broadcast nationally…

    Though I have to agree in general, Dr. Stackhouse, that the quality of preaching on TV (and any Christian programming on TV, for that matter) is just garbage.

  14. Chris

    Mark Driscoll is my favorite preacher by far. He is growing at an incredible rate. He admits to his past shock jock to Christianity approach and has done well since. Regarding Stacks original post I found your blog searching for something ANYTHING good to watch on Christian TV.. PLEASE let us know if you come up with anything.. So far I’ve heard good things about the following but have yet to listen to them so check em out for yourselves. David Jeremiah,John Ankerberg, Mark Jeske, Melissa Scott is supossed to be hebrew smart but I just can’t listen to her too boring. Charles Stanley is one of the few biblical preachers I’ve seen on TV he’s just a lil too slow for me.

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