In the second half of A Social History of the Media, Briggs and Burke shift to an analysis of the more recent methods of communication. In the late 1800’s there was a move towards the blending of information and entertainment creatively called infotainment.
Informing the public was (and is) a worthy goal for the media, but it didn’t pay the bills. Business owners were forced to create an infotainment model that gave the public more of what they wanted in hopes it would keep their customers coming back for more. In retrospect, adding entertainment was probably a very needed decision, but today it has infiltrated all aspects of media.
Nowhere is this more evident than the 24hr news network. They tell stories about famine and death in Somalia, but 2 minutes later they’re trivially talking about the latest sex tape of whichever celebrity wants to ensure they stay at the center of public life. Sadly, being engaged and informed isn’t a real desire for the majority of Americans. They just want to be entertained and a majority of news networks are happy to oblige.
That subtle shift towards entertainment in the late 1800’s wasn’t only confined to businesses. It eventually seeped its way into the church. Today the church uses entertainment in hopes that it will produce discipleship and holiness. There are children’s ministries complete with a fire truck baptismal and Disney World style attractions in hopes that children will enjoy themselves, and more importantly encourage their parents to visit again. Entertainment isn’t just for kids though. In many churches, sermons sometimes center more on meeting one’s felt need and entertainment than theology or challenging someone to become a fully devoted follower of Jesus. They’re replete with jokes and sentimental stories. As a result it seems that the goal is less about transformation and more about church attendance. Entertainment is certainly the best way to achieve that goal.
Now, I know the church can and should communicate in various ways and avail itself of all appropriate media to convey its message. It’s great that Christians on Facebook and Twitter are engaging in conversations about life and faith. It’s great that videos are used to inspire and challenge during worship services. I’m certainly not going to tell preachers they shouldn’t tell jokes in their sermons. But, how do we know when we’ve gone from proclaiming the Gospel to Jesustainment, to ensure our institutions ability to survive and pay the bills? In my opinion, Jesus didn’t die so that we would be entertained. He died so that we could be whole and holy, and that’s no laughing matter.