When I was a child, adults in my life emphasized three dangers about the outside world: predators on the Internet, strangers in cars and the influence of media.
As a popular joke points out, however, warnings about meeting people from the Internet and not getting in cars with strangers have been replaced by using the Internet to hail a car driven by a stranger via ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft.
What came of the third warning? It was raised most often in contexts stemming from my Southern Baptist heritage and referred to perceived corrupting influences in pop cultural media like movies and music.
I fear we got so focused on the media out there we never bothered to worry about the media trying to get in here. The niche of news commentary aimed at evangelicals has exploded in recent years, spawning radio broadcasts, television shows, digital streams and entire careers. Consider what that means for people of faith.
Examining media consumption by the average churchgoer
Let’s say a hypothetical believer named Greg is a member of First Anytown, a mid-sized church you’ve likely seen before. Greg is strongly committed, attending Sunday school, Sunday morning worship and midweek Bible study.
First Anytown still holds discipleship meetings and worship on Sunday evening, and Greg is there for that as well. If each of these runs about an hour, Greg is spending approximately five hours a week in educational settings aimed at spiritual formation. This might hit six or seven hours if meetings run longer.
Meanwhile, Greg listens to a two-hour news commentary radio show Monday through Friday. That’s already 10 hours.
Though we don’t often call these broadcasts spiritual formation, the appeals to religious concerns and impact on how we see the world necessitate that we call it what it is.
Without getting into primetime broadcasts or streaming services, the floor for Greg’s spiritual formation from the commentary world already has exceeded his ceiling for spiritual formation with his church family.
From which source is Greg most likely to draw in his decision making?
Results of media consumption by the average churchgoer
This is not without consequence. Both anecdotes and polling data show growing belief gaps between those in the pews and those in the pulpits.
A 2016 LifeWay Research study asked for the top issues for white evangelicals and their clergy when voting.
Almost half of laity cited the economy or national security as their top motivator. Neither of those were cited as white evangelical clergy’s top two issues, a plurality of whom instead cited the moral character of the candidate.
While there was overlap in issues cited, the ranking of their priority and motivational factor was wildly different.
This is not to say clergy have it all figured out, but I see no safe reason why the commentary class should be more responsible for our spiritual formation than our community in Christ.
Learning from media influence on the average churchgoer
The effects of dueling spiritual formation are still very much with us as the 2020 election cycle swings into gear.
It’s time to have robust and difficult discussions on what is forming us if we are to be the salt and light Jesus called us to be. That formation, ultimately, was the fear being addressed by those who warned me about media influence.
I rightly was taught as a child to discern what was helpful and what wasn’t when walking through the world, but too often we switch that advice off if the speaker can use enough Christian buzzwords.
If name dropping wasn’t good enough for Christ when he talked about true and false disciples, it shouldn’t be good enough for us.
I’m glad we’ve modified how we handle wise warnings about the Internet and strangers. I’ve relied on ridesharing many times, both to get around and to make ends meet. There is an element of trust, but it is not a wide-open trust.
Rideshare apps state the breakdown for their charges, and credit cards have fraud systems in place. Some services have begun adding 911 connection buttons to both the rider and driver apps, and cities are increasingly requiring strict background checks before a service can operate.
If Greg uses a rideshare to get to church, he relies on these safeguards to make sure the app won’t take from him that which he doesn’t owe and that drivers won’t carry him away for their own purposes.
Is Greg (or are we) sure news commentary aimed at the church isn’t trying to do just that—take from us what we don’t owe or carry us away for its own purposes?
Geoff Davidson, an alumnus of George W. Truett Theological Seminary, is a minister, writer and library information specialist in Waco, Texas.