If you watch anything at all on the telly these days, it won’t escape your notice that much of what is aired is of an increasingly similar format. Whichever broadcaster you choose to indulge, you will find shows made in a particular style. For example, if you were to tune into the BBC on any regular weekday, you will find variations of the themes of buying and/or selling antiques or property at some auction or another. This is because broadcasters like the BBC find a formula that works and reproduce variations of it to reach a wider audience. And when I say ‘works’, what I mean is that they measure success in terms of how many people tune into the show.
If you watch a lot of American TV shows you will notice that they will often give a pilot show (that is a taster of what might follow in order to judge what a focus group might think of it) before they commit to a whole series. And they always hedge their bets at the end of a season in case the ratings start to drop, in which case the show will also be dropped. With the exception of the BBC (who have to justify receiving the licence fee with viewing figures), most broadcasters only produce programmes in order to expose you to advertising.
I used to watch a great deal of TV. I liked crime dramas such as The Wire or The Sopranos, and of course Breaking Bad. These days the appeal has worn off for me, and I actually watch very little. Not that there is anything wrong with watching the telly. But I do caution myself when I do watch because I feel like if you fill your head with rubbish then you will think rubbish. Someone once told me a good rule: If you are watching telly and are unsure if what you are watching is suitable then just imagine that Jesus is sitting right there on the sofa with you. If you then feel you might have the need to apologise for the nudity or swearing or whatever, then perhaps it is time to turn it off. Good rule.
Now, you may already know this (and if you do, I apologise), but broadcasters like the BBC don’t only produce shows for us to watch here in this country. No, they produce shows with the idea that they will also be a product they can sell on the open market. After recent news of one BBC presenter’s behaviour, we learnt some interesting facts about the Top Gear show. It turns out to be the BBC’s biggest export. They sell the show all over the world. They do this with all sorts of shows too. Now, Top Gear is slightly different because of the personalities it uses: They sell Top Gear ‘as is’ and allow dubbing into native languages where required. But with a lot of other shows they sell just the idea. For example Strictly Come Dancing was rebranded Dancing with the Stars for the US audience. New presenters, new judges, but the same old formula. This is how the process works:
Firstly, a (usually) independent production company comes up with an idea. They pitch the idea to the BBC (other broadcasters are available). The show is then made and, if the ratings are good, the BBC package it up as a franchise. This is the interesting part. They copyright the idea and produce a document which contains everything you need to know to make your own show including type of characters to use as presenters, the exact specifications for the fixtures and fittings for the studio or set, all of the rules for doing it as well as the type of theme music, fonts for the titles and everything else you can imagine. The package, which they sell to the highest bidder at a global conference where all broadcasters bring their own packages to sell, is called The Bible (seriously!). You buy The Bible for that show and agree to pay the broadcaster royalties forever for it and it is all yours. Simple.
Now, just put a pin in that process for a moment. Some of you may already see where I am going with this, but for those for whom the penny is still waiting to drop, let me explain.
About a year ago, during a conversation with a guy who runs a church, we got onto the subject of someone else who runs a different church. The guy we were talking to said of the other guy “He’s going down the Hillsong route – the first one to do that in…[that particular city] will clean up.” Or words to that effect. I have never been to a Hillsong church per se but I knew exactly what he was speaking of. When he said ‘route’ he really meant a type of franchise or formula.
I started to realise that much of what we do these days in church is very similar to the way broadcasters do TV shows. We see something that works – that is, measured by the size of the audience. We buy into the formula and reproduce it our own way but to the same rules. Simple.
Nothing wrong with that. The gospel is preached, people are saved. All good.
But what if there was more?
More than the opening song/awkward handshakes/newcomer’s welcome packs/three songs in a row/dry ice/big screen/milky sermon/altar call to music/closing prayer and ministry.
And that is what I have spent the past year thinking about. Now, in a way, as we are not part of a church nor planting our own, you might be inclined to wonder why I am even bothered about this. To be honest, I am not really. But we are undertaking to do something where we live and we felt that we shouldn’t be importing any of the existing formulas in with what we do. We felt that God wanted to show us a different way. One that worked for us. Something bespoke. Handmade. Not off the shelf.
I have to tell you that in the past two years I have read a great many books on all sorts of things – looking for the answers. Looking for things that work. Looking for formulas. But, this morning, I realised something I already knew. I mean, I already knew it but I hadn’t actually realised it in my mind.
I was thinking about a book I had read with great interest about prayer and how to pray effectively. The author had proposed a particular course of action, which when I practiced it, I didn’t find it effective. The author had simply retold their own experience. Their intention wasn’t to teach me how to do it; to provide me with a formula; to sell me a franchise. Their intention was to tell me that what God had taught them and to encourage me that it had worked for them. And that’s my point.
In the gospel according to John we have an excellent example of how God teaches us as individuals. In chapter three Jesus meets with Nicodemus and discusses the kingdom of God on a level that suited his intellect. Jesus spoke of spiritual things in a way Nicodemus could grasp it. Then in chapter four, Jesus does exactly the same thing with the Samaritan woman at the well. The conversation wasn’t as intellectual as the one with the Pharisee, but it reached her exactly where she was.
What I understood today was that we don’t need a formula from a book or another church to achieve what God wants here in Hunstanton. No. We just need His Holy Spirit. We don’t need a ‘one size fits all‘ approach to spreading the good news. We just need His Holy Spirit. That was all the disciples had. No off the shelf formula with its own bible. Just the Holy Spirit.
“‘Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the LORD Almighty.” [Zechariah 4:6b NIV]