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reuben munn: the medium is the message?

What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘tele-evangelist?’ For many people, it evokes the image of a suit-wearing, sweat-dripping, fist-pounding American preacher, asking his audience for money. This kind of connotation can lead people to think preaching has no place on television or any broadcast media. But I think it’s possible for biblical preaching to effectively translate into mass media within a New Zealand context.

I have a vested interest in arguing for this—our church has a television and radio programme currently running that purely comprises preaching content. This has led me to wrestle with some of the unique challenges and opportunities that come with blending preaching and media.

New Zealand has increasing numbers of people choosing to express their faith outside of organised church structures. And many others can’t physically attend a local church for various reasons. In this context, media like television, radio, internet video streaming and podcasting represent an opportunity to make biblical preaching accessible to those beyond our weekly gatherings. I’ve also been surprised by the number of people who do attend a church, but enjoy supplementing the preaching they receive there with additional teaching from other sources. The anecdotal feedback I get through our programme convinces me there is a growing hunger for home-grown, non-hypey, biblical preaching in New Zealand. It seems that media-based preaching has a role in helping satisfy that hunger.

One of the fears I had is that without a physical connection between preacher and listener, the preaching experience would be compromised. And maybe something is lost without that presence. But the communication act of preaching involves not only the preacher and congregation; it also involves the Spirit. As my physical presence diminishes, especially in a radio context, perhaps there is a unique opportunity for the Spirit to become prominent in the message? And although the message may a pre-recorded sermon, it was still delivered in a real New Zealand church service, not an empty studio. Does that make a difference? Would it still be preaching if I were alone in a room recording a message that was later broadcast (confession: I have done that twice when there was a problem recording on Sunday!)? On the flip side, how well is preaching embodied and contextualised when overseas content is imported and broadcast in New Zealand?

There are some practical challenges with filtering live preaching through mass media. One is the issue of speaking to a dual audience—the physically gathered congregation and the unknown group of people ‘out there.’ I don’t know who they are, where they’re at, or what they need to hear. Again, my reliance on the Spirit here is huge. I try to preach with an eye on some of the perceived broader concerns, such as a loss of faith in church. But primarily I speak to the people in front of me, trusting God to contextualise my words to other listeners.

And then there’s the small issue of sermon length! Editing a 35-40 minute message into 24 minutes is no easy task (except when I ramble). And the integrity of the message can easily be undermined. This takes a lot of trust in the person doing the editing, that they’ll preserve the heart of the message and maintain a smooth flow. But it also forces me to work on the elusive art of brevity—which doesn’t come naturally to preachers!

Despite these challenges, I think preaching can faithfully transcend a gathered context and utilise mass media without selling its soul. There’s a huge opportunity in New Zealand to use broadcast media (as well as other forms) to deliver preaching that is uniquely kiwi, thoroughly biblical, culturally engaged and Spirit-inspired.

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Reuben Munn is Senior Pastor of Shore Community Church on Auckland’s North Shore. He also preaches on the TV programme Connection Point, a ministry of SCC, which screens on Shine TV. He enjoys reading and is a keen piano player.

2 Comments

  1. Paul Windsor says:

    Reuben, I’ve enjoyed picking up Shore Community Church’s TV show from time to time. Two things tend to refresh me. One is the way it is so Kiwi in a world so full of imports. The other is the way you stick to a systematic ‘feeding’ brand of Bible teaching. It is good stuff.

    A few questions that come to mind for me…

    To my amateur eyes/ears it does not seem that you let the medium impact the message much at all. I can see what is good about that approach – but what might be not-so-good about it?

    How do ‘ratings’ impact you, if at all? Do you ever feel the pressure to change the approach in order to get bigger numbers on TV – or do you just pay for your slot and go for it? Do you make any effort to be sensitive to the opinions of your TV audience?

    And how do things change when you move from being on public TV – to being on Christian TV?

    Thanks

    1. Reuben Munn says:

      As far as the medium impacting the message goes, our show certainly doesn’t have the production values that others do in terms of technical quality. I would like to be able to use the medium of TV a bit better in future and cut away to testimonies or video clips during the preaching, but that is a level beyond us at present.

      Ratings don’t really affect us, simply because they are so unreliable. One week we’re told 10,000 people watched the programme, the next week none (and I know my Gran was watching that day!). So it’s a shonky system that tells us very little. We do get anecdoatal feedback in the form of letters and emails, which I keep in mind but try not to read too much into.

      In terms of public TV, our programme used to be on Prime, which seemed to reach people further from God and church community. Ultimately that slot outpriced us. But Shine TV still gives us access to a large group of people hungry for biblical teaching, so it is a valuable ministry.

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