• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

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.