Should the church stand or sit amid the cable TV explosion?

Cable television, commentators believe, is ushering in a startling new way of life for Americans. It opens the way for increasingly specialized programming, with more than 100 channels offering films, sports, fine arts, even 24-hour news. The educational possibilities are intriguing: colleges could present lectures for an entire course to students in their own homes. Two-way cable television is already a reality in Columbus, Ohio, where viewers have electronically coached the local football team by “voting” on plays. Cable will almost certainly expand television’s already prominent role in our lives.

Where should the church stand amid the cable explosion? Does cable, with its inviting potentials in so many areas, have anything to offer the local congregation? It does. For one thing, cable TV air time is available without cost to churches across the U.S. Although federal regulations requiring cable stations to offer “community access” channels have been dropped, most stations still provide them. A simple telephone call may be all that is necessary to get a local church’s program on the air. And money, surprisingly, presents no real barrier.

Most cable companies will lend cameras and editing equipment free of charge. Some will even train lay people to operate video machinery. A congregation wishing to cablecast its worship services will certainly need its own camera and recording equipment, however. But even there the cost can be less than $3,000.

So if money is not the key ingredient, what is?

The key is for a congregation to be convinced a cable TV ministry is valid. It is fairly easy to make the decision to spend 2 or 3 percent of a large church’s annual budget on video equipment if the church leadership (including the pastor) understands the effort as a significant outreach.

First of all, church leaders might realize that by putting their services on cable TV they are making an effective statement to their unchurched neighbors. They are saying the congregation wants to share the message it proclaims every Sunday inside that rather formidable building.

Television, of course, is viewed behind closed doors, apart from any community—including the church. Cable TV ministry should be seen as pre-evangelism that opens doors. Television is a medium people trust, one they welcome into their homes every day. People who would hesitate to visit a church in person will watch a worship service on television. They can see a church’s worship style, and then, when they come in person (certainly the desired goal), they feel comfortable, not lost in an unfamiliar setting.

Entering into cable TV ministry should strengthen, not diminish, those areas of ministry where pastors and lay people already serve. Elderly shut-ins can now see the service each week instead of only hearing it on a tape recording. Shut-ins still need regular visits from pastors and members, of course; but it is an extra benefit to a hospitalized member if the worship service is carried via cable to hospital rooms.

The pre- and postservice television message should clearly tell viewers, “We would like to have you visit in person.” Evangelism callers will still need to visit the homes of all Sunday guests to explain personally what the gospel means and answer individual questions. And from experience at my church, I am convinced that additional evangelism callers will be needed after cable services have been started.

Cable ministry offers yet another advantage: it provides a place of ministry for teen-agers and young adults, who are too often forgotten. Video equipment has been introduced into many schools, and many youth already have a working knowledge of the technology. Young people are less threatened by new gadgetry than their elders, and they are creative and eager to experiment. Youth and cable ministry is a ready-made match.

But the congregation convinced that cable can be an important ministry may wonder where to start. First of all, as I stated earlier, cable companies may lend a portable camera and recorder for occasional taping. This allows a church to try out cable programming before any major commitment is made or equipment bought. The church may even borrow these from a member who owns equipment personally. In a previous article (CT, Nov. 20, 1981), I suggested camera and recorder options that will get a congregation started for $2,000 or less.

Then, when a congregation is ready to go beyond the simplest one-camera operation, the first camera can become part of an expanded production capability. To begin two-camera recording, however, one of the two cameras must have external synchronization or “genlock” potential. High-quality cameras with this feature are now available for $2,200 to $2,700. Cable stations generally offer training sessions in camera and recorder techniques. Thus, with basic equipment and practiced operators, imagination is the only limit to the ministry.

A talk show or panel discussion is one programming possibility. A congregation can actually begin programs such as these with no equipment of their own, working out of the cable company’s studio.

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But what should be discussed?

Family Films of Panorama City, California, has a list of movies cleared for cable use. Normally a cable station would not consider these to be viable local material; but they can be given a local framework. For example, the pastor can introduce a film to the cable audience. Then, after the film has been aired, four or five members may join him to discuss the film, its focus, or related topics.

The variations on this theme are myriad. The cable station may have current events segments that could be used as discussion starters. The church’s teen-aged TV crew could tape high school plays, band concerts, personality interviews—even something like “A Visit with the Pastor” could be done creatively.

You must begin with the basic question: Is this a way your church can relate the gospel message to people who cannot, or simply do not, attend church now? If it is, you should seize this rich opportunity to present that urgently needed message.

Dennis H. Tegtmeier is pastor of the First Lutheran Church in Papillion, Nebraska.

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