This week I finished reading a book by the late American author & cultural critic Neil Postman, called Amusing Ourselves to Death. The subtitle to the book is Public Discourse in the Age of Show-Business.
Postman’s initial aim in the book is to show how television in particular has changed the way we think about serious issues here in America. As Television and its visual images have replaced the written word as a primary means of mass communication, Postman argues that we have become less and less able to think and communicate about difficult issues in careful, rational and truly logical fashion.
According to Postman, television as a means of communication is unable to address serious issues with careful logical arguments, because, by nature, the point of Television is ultimately to entertain, rather than to educate.
Even in those instances where television is used to as a means to educate people (think of Sesame Street, or 60 Minutes, for example), it is only effective to the extent that it is entertaining to the audience. If a program is not in some way amusing or entertaining to its audience, it’s not worth showing, because no one will watch it. Education and careful, logical communication always get sacrificed at the altar of entertainment when it comes to television.
But the real point of the book is to show how that dynamic trains a culture to think and communicate about serious issues – since most of us have spent a lot of time in front of the tube over the years. And what Postman shows is that one of the great effects our entertainment driven, show business obsessed culture is that whole generations in our country are being trained to think that if a subject is not amusing or is not communicated in an amusing way, then the subject is not important. As a result, we are losing our ability as a nation to think and communicate about important matters like religion, politics, and education with the kind of seriousness and care that such matters require, and because of that may very well be amusing ourselves to death as a nation.
As I read through this insightful book, I couldn’t help but apply it to my life and ministry as a pastor. And as I applied it to my life and ministry, I vacillated between two rather different reactions; one of sorrowful disgust, the other of nervous discomfort. The former, because the examples of churches who have sent biblical truth ‘a packin’ in order to gather the masses abound. The latter, because the temptation to amuse is not a temptation from which I am exempt.
Should we follow suit in the church?
It goes without saying that in America (and throughout the world), the priorities of a great number of Christian pastors and churches have been significantly shaped by the mindset that Postman exposes in his book on a larger scale, namely, that it is incumbent upon them to incorporate amusement and entertainment into their ministries in order for people to take what they say about Christ seriously.
I’ll give a moment for the ridiculous irony of that dynamic to sink in.
Ironic and ridiculous as it may be, I believe it’s patently and undeniably true. Our nation is filled with Christian pastors and churches who believe to some degree that it is at least part of their responsibility to amuse people, and who believe to some degree that if they fail to do so, people will not take what they say about Jesus seriously. And to some degree, I am one of them.
As Providence would have it though, while I read Amusing Ourselves to Death in my spare time, I was also preaching verse by verse through the book of the prophet Nahum. Now, I would venture to guess that most of you who are reading this post have not spent a lot of time in Nahum recently, so please allow me to refresh your memory regarding the message of the book. The book of Nahum largely consists of a vision that God gave to Nahum the prophet in the mid 7th century B.C., which describes in poetic, vivid, and chilling detail the coming destruction of the ancient city of Nineveh.
God’s Word through Nahum came to Nineveh about a hundred years or so after the ministry of Jonah, who preached to Nineveh and got to see God bring the entire city to repentance, albeit against his wishes. The great message of Jonah is that the Judge of all the earth is yet full of compassion, grace and mercy – and loves to save repentant sinners by grace.
Yet, a century after Jonah went into Nineveh, the city had again become desperately corrupt, God’s patience with the city (and the entire Assyrian empire) had run out, and so God gave Nahum a vision of the city’s destruction to write down in a book and present to Nineveh to tell them that their time was up and God’s judgment was coming – which it did, in 612 B.C., when Nineveh was finally destroyed by the Babylonians and the Medes. Though there is mention of “good news” in Nahum’s prophecy (specifically in Nahum 1:7, 15; and 2:2), since the destruction of Nineveh and the downfall of the Assyrian empire would have been good news to Judah; the vast majority of Nahum is devoted to outlining in great detail the devastation and destruction that will come upon the entire massive city of Nineveh.
And so, if the message of Jonah is that the Judge of all the earth is yet full of compassion, grace and mercy, then the message of Nahum is that the Judge of all the earth who is full of compassion, grace and mercy, is yet still the Judge and a just, wrathful, avenging Judge at that (Nahum 1:2).
Now, here’s where I have a confession to make. While preaching through Jonah was a great personal joy, preaching through Nahum was a rather heavy burden. When I finished preaching through the fourth chapter of Jonah, I felt like I had just started and wished I there was more material to preach from. However, after I had preached through the first chapter of Nahum, I found myself sincerely praying for motivation to continue on into chapter two.
Having done a small bit of internet research related to this issue, I suspect that I am by no means alone in the way I found Jonah easier to preach than Nahum. Searches on popular sermon websites show that many more preachers have preached from Jonah, than from Nahum. For example, at Monergism.com you can find 208 sermons on Jonah, compared to 34 on Nahum. SermonCentral.com turns up 787 sermons from Jonah, compared to 60 on Nahum. Even a simple Google search followed this pattern. A search with the words “sermons on Jonah” came back with 535,000 results, compared to the 308,000 results that showed up from a “sermons on Nahum” search. The simple conclusion to draw is that a great many more sermons have been preached in recent days on the book of Jonah than the book of Nahum.
Why is this the case? Of course, there are likely many reasons for it, but I can’t help but wonder if the widespread American obsession with entertainment and amusement doesn’t somehow factor into this. Could my personal struggle to preach through a book like Nahum, along with the widespread determination of many pastors throughout our country to preach messages from Jonah but not Nahum, indicate that there is a temptation many of us feel, to only focus on those messages that either we or our hearers will find at least somewhat amusing?
Or to put it a different way, could it be that a lot of us feel pressure to say far more of those things that we suspect will enjoy hearing, than those things we fear might offend them?
Based on my struggles in preaching Nahum (struggles which I have experienced while preparing to preach on other hard passages of Scripture as well), I have to admit that I am not immune from this temptation. I too feel the pressure to amuse my hearers, and to either avoid or just run fast through those parts of the Bible I know will be hard to hear proclaimed. Whether they be promises of God’s final judgment to come upon unrepentant sinners, or the clear words of Jesus when he tells those considering a life of discipleship that unless they’re willing to come and die with him that they are not worthy of him, or those passages that describe the horrors of sin in vivid detail, I too feel a temptation to avoid (at times) or at least de-emphasize such things in order to give more time and attention to those things that will be easier for my hearers to receive.
Can you relate?
Perhaps you can relate to this struggle. Can you, my fellow pastors? Do you feel any pressure to amuse people to any degree in your ministry? Perhaps it comes out in your preaching. Maybe you are afraid to tell unrepentant sinners that they are in danger of hell, and instead wish only to proclaim the truth that God is gracious to sinners. Perhaps you won’t preach slowly and carefully through passages that reveal God’s hatred for sin. Or, perhaps the only sins you will confront are sins that the people who come to your church already find problematic. You’ll preach hard messages as long as those messages would only be hard for those who are sure not to hear them.
Or, it is possible that this temptation has a greater affect on your style than it does the substance of your preaching and teaching (though it would be naïve to deny a relationship between the two things). Perhaps you feel pressed to look sharp and wax eloquent, to make your hearers laugh and keep them on the edge of their seats with creative illustrations and stories, to present biblical content in a style that will amuse your hearers.
Or, perhaps you are willing to preach the hard stuff as long as everything else in your church is geared to please those who walk through the doors of your church every Sunday. And so, you carefully ensure that your worship services are structured to lead people into an emotionally satisfying experience, so that when you get up to preach, the proper mood has already been set, and the people are at least in a relaxed emotional state when you get up to level the boom. Because, let’s face it, people are far more likely to sit and listen to you talk about God’s judgment if the lights are down, the stage is set, and they have a delicious free latte in hand.
I am mocking no one by giving these examples. Again, I too have felt these temptations to varying degrees at various times.
What must we do?
But, pastor brothers, we must fight tooth and nail against these temptations as long as we wish to remain in any form of Gospel ministry. We’re not called to amuse people. We are called to proclaim Christ, “warning and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:28). This requires leading people away from where their sinful hearts want to be, to where they need to be according to God. It requires refusing to amuse them, but instead to present them with the truth in as much clarity and consistency as we can muster up with the help of the Spirit.
Let there be no mistake about it. The idea that a shepherd of Christ’s church is responsible for amusing crowds in order to get them interested in the things of God, or to present the things of God in an amusing way to make and keep people interested in them is an outright lie. And we must not buy into it.
For, where is such an example to be found in Scripture? Surely not in the prophets, who turned away far more people with their preaching than they won over. Surely not Jesus, who refused to entrust himself to crowds who found themselves amused by his power to perform miracles (John 3:24-25), and who left crowds of people amused by his power and interested in receiving healing from him in order to go preach a message of repentance to sinners in danger of God’s coming judgment (Mark 1:37-38). And surely not the Apostles, who like Jesus, made crowds so angry that people wanted them dead.
I’m in no way suggesting that we should aim to offend people and turn them away with angry, deliberately offensive preaching and teaching. Rather, I am suggesting that we must not shy away from saying difficult things simply because people will not be amused when we do so. Our job is not to manipulate people into taking us seriously. Our job is not to please man, nor is it to make men believe the Gospel and entrust themselves to Christ. Rather, it is to present all people with the very Gospel that they must believe and the very Christ that they must entrust themselves to in order to be saved from the wrath to come.
As Paul commanded Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:1-5: I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: 2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. 3 For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. 5 As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.
A passage like that is as relevant for a time like this as any text in the Bible. The time that Paul warned Timothy about has come upon us as well. People do not want sound teaching. They would rather be amused by preachers who will tell them what they want to hear. Many will not listen to the truth and have wandered off into all kinds of silly, baseless, subjective myths. Shall we go with them? Should we give them what they are looking for, or somehow try to trick them into hearing what they really need to hear? I can’t see how, not if we are looking to Scripture for counsel.
Preach and teach the Word, brothers. All of it. Every part of it. Preach it, teach it, counsel with it, pray with it, and sing with it; even the stuff that people don’t want to hear. And stick with it. Do it relentlessly until you die.
And please, encourage me to do it from time to time as well, because I need the reminder just as much as anyone else.