Allan Ahlberg’s story was a favourite with our kids. Riding his bike ‘from over the hills and faraway’ the Jolly Postman conveys letters to and between various nursery rhyme characters. Sometimes they are expressions of reconciliation – like a sorry note from Goldilocks to The Three Bears. In the Christmas version there are gifts – like a jigsaw puzzle from All the King’s Horses and All the King’s Men to Humpty Dumpty in hospital. It’s charming.
But in my reading recently I was reminded of another very helpful Postman – Neil Postman. I had picked up a newish book on ministry by Brian Croft and James Carroll titled Facing Snarls & Scowls: Preaching through Hostility, Apathy and Adversity in Church Revitalization.
It was the apathy part of the subtitle that drew my attention. Under the auspices of the Pastors’ Academy we are running a Study Day for leaders at London Seminary on 23rd January which concerns what to do about an unresponsive congregation. My experience is that many churches are sound doctrinally but pretty sleepy when it comes to actually heeding God’s word, obeying and getting things done. I thought that Croft and Carroll’s slim volume might help me think things through. And it has been a help. It’s a book to be recommended. One of the authors came through three attempts by members to get him dismissed because of his commitment to expository preaching. He saw people leave, but now the church grow has grown. What he writes is worth our attention.
And it was just here that Neil Postman came in.
When a church is apathetic the cure advised by many is to soup things up a bit with better music and a more entertaining approach to ministry.
Neil Postman was definitely not a Christian. He was an American author and educator who died in 2003. His most famous book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, has proved prophetic in many ways. But in our right concern to reach people with the gospel often the church has turned to a ‘show business’ approach and fallen into the trap of which Postman warned – we dumb down and inadvertently trivialize everything. (How to be popular, have fun and save the world at the same time?)
Here’s a quote from Croft and Carroll’s book: ‘Almost 40 years ago, Postman warned that the growing obsession with entertainment would lead to a reduction in attention spans and an inability to think critically. Because laziness and consumerism are promoted and trumpeted, they will win the day and everything from news to politics to religion will suffer. Related to the news, the practice of laying the significant and the insignificant side-by-side will dull our sensitivity to what is actually important. Related to politics, we will value style over substance and celebrity over conviction…And most importantly, related to religion, the avowed atheist predicted that faith communities would value entertainment over content.’ He was not a very jolly Postman, but he did bring a vital message right to the church’s door which I’m still not sure we’ve heeded. Here’s the question: What’s the difference between being contemporary and being merely entertaining in a world like ours?
Facing the Snarls & Scowls gives great encouragement to pastors who, for various reasons, are facing opposition. But it doesn’t delve very deeply into the causes of apathy in a church. How can churches which enjoy faithful gospel exposition, become unresponsive? For the answer to that perhaps you should think about coming to our Study Day?
Facing the Snarls and Scowls is written by Brian Croft & James B. Carroll and is published by Christian Focus, £7.99.
‘The Unresponsive Congregation – Its Causes & Cure’ is at London Seminary 10am – 3.30pm on 23rd January. You can book a place here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/pastoral-study-day-unresponsive-congregation-tickets-66661027929.