The Common Good

The Church in a Media-Saturated Society

I grew up in the days of the encyclopedia salesman. I clearly remember the day when a clean-cut well-dressed man knocked on our apartment door to sell the 26-volume World Book Encyclopedia.

VLADGRIN/Shutterstock.com
VLADGRIN/Shutterstock.com

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We were recent immigrants and could not speak English fluently. We had few worldly possessions and the last thing we needed in our house was a 26-volume encyclopedia.

After the hour presentation during which we flipped through the volumes full of exciting information, my dad said no. The salesman looked sad and pitiful as he packed his sales kit. As he exited the door, he gave one last pitch and, suddenly, my dad changed his mind and we bought the whole set.

Either the salesman was good or my parents had this strong desire that their children needed to know “everything there is to know about the world.” Maybe it was a bit of both.

In 2014, long gone are those 26-volume encyclopedias that once filled the bookshelves of many of my childhood friends’ homes. Now we have everything that we need to know at our fingertips through iPads, computers, cell phones, or other gadgets.

We live in a media-saturated society. We no longer need 26 volumes to help us understand the world. Now, all we need is a palm-sized gadget to find the latest news, the juiciest gossip, or the up-to-date facts on anything under the sun.

We live in a society and culture where information is thrust upon us all day long. Things we may not want to read or watch seem to appear on our computer screens or on billboards as we drive along the highways. What does it mean for us, and especially for our children to live in a media-saturated society with all this information and “info-tainment” thrown into our faces?

First, we should be concerned about the easy accessibility of media and the messages that could be hidden in advertisements, promotions, and news. One might observe that the accuracy of what we see has decreased in proportion to the volume of information we have available. Encyclopedia articles were carefully edited for accuracy and they were written with cool heads with no need to accentuate the spectacular. Neither of those factors is at work in much of the information foisted upon us. We want our children to be able to discern what is good and what is acceptable to them and to be able to weed out unnecessary, unhealthy, and inaccurate information.

Second, it is important that we do not get overwhelmed or sucked into the media-saturated society. We can waste hours on the social network whether by chatting with Facebook friends or checking Twitter or just surfing the net. The time can evaporate like the water in an unattended teapot on a flame. We want to work to remain close, both physically and emotionally, with friends, colleagues, and family.

Third, we need to use social media to our advantage to build the church and our theological seminaries. We need to be aware of how to swim in it so we can make media work in our own world. As a theologian and an ordained minister, I know that it is important that we try to make use of media to help share news of hope, justice, peace, and love. Chances are there are more people out in the media-saturated world listening to us than people sitting in our pews and classrooms.

In this society, media have become our podiums and pulpits. Media have become the backdrop and the medium of our messages. More people read media reports than read our theological textbooks. More listen to and view media outlets than hear our sermons. That means, of course, that if our message from the pulpit is out of touch with those secular sources, our message will not be taken seriously.

The sooner the church and seminaries catch on to this, the better equipped we will become to serve the church and the world not in the future but today. With the big decline in seminary enrollment and church membership, the use of media may now become more than just an attraction to draw in younger members; it may soon become a matter of survival for our churches and seminaries. The key is for churches and seminaries to become known as one of those reliable media sources where information content is high, accurate, and easy to reach. If we attract their interest, people will pay attention to our message.

Grace Ji-Sun Kim received her M.Div. from Knox College (University of Toronto) and her Ph.D. from the University of Toronto. She is a Visiting Researcher at Georgetown University.

Illustration: VLADGRIN/Shutterstock.com

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