Monday, January 2, 2012

Monday Morning Preacher: Christmas in Chelsea Square

On Christmas Eve at 11:30 pm, there was a special on CBS featuring a service of lessons and carols from the General Theological Seminary with a sermon by the Presiding Bishop called Christmas in Chelsea Square.  You can see it here.

First of all, kudos to General for getting this on the air nationwide. Secondly, mondo kudos for starting with an image of Bishop Catherine Roskam and featuring the Presiding Bishop, showing the world all these images of women in religious leadership.

That being said, I'm afraid it was a disappointment.  There's nothing quite like yelling at the television on Christmas morning, saying, "Would it hurt you to smile, dammit?!" And a merry Christmas to you, too!

Having had a week to reflect, I would like to offer these comments both for General, whose good faith effort I truly applaud, and for others who are thinking about doing more multi-media services and outreach.

First of all, who is your audience? At the beginning of the program, it seemed it was geared toward non-Episcopalians, explaining what General Seminary is and what the Episcopal church is.  But the service itself seemed to be complete inside baseball--or inside church.  I thought it appealed to a narrow demographic: those who were already steeped in high church tradition.

Which leads to the question, what will engage your audience? If your intended audience is people unfamiliar with the Episcopal church and liturgy, what will catch their attention from the start?  A hint: singing all eight verses of O Come, O Come, Emmanuel is not going to do that.  As a friend of mine said, "That sound in verse 6 was the sound of televisions turning off all over America." Yeah, that's a real barn-burner, that one.

Here's one difference between going to a church service and watching a church service on television: once you're inside a church, there is a significant social cost to leaving, because to do so would draw attention to yourself in a very hushed environment.  Watching on TV, there is no such cost. It is very easy to leave. Therefore, you want to make it easy for people to stay by keeping their attention engaged all the time.

Also important: make sure the delivery of the message matches the message! O Come, O Come, Emmanuel already has a dirgelike quality, very at odds with the message of joy it brings.  To compound the issue, the congregation singing "Rejoice, rejoice!" looked absolutely miserable.  Eddie Izzard had it nailed:

Another difference between going to a church service and watching one on television is that on television, the congregation are also (for lack of a better word) performers.  They didn't seem aware of that--and the show was not edited in such a way to bring out what enthusiasm there was in the assembly. I feel for the guy in the red sweater who yawned. Why was that left in the final edit?  Because there's nothing that says, "Boy do I want to be part of this church!" than watching its most stalwart members exhibiting boredom.

If there's one thing that I think would have made Christmas in Chelsea Square much better, it would have been to tell the congregation, "Remember that the television viewers' eyes will be on you as much as they will be on those up in front. How you comport yourself will say a great deal to the viewers about what is going on here--whether it is joyous or dreary, whether it is a time of celebration or boredom. Be an outward and visible sign of the grace you receive here today. And make sure it's visible!"

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