Religious leaders who once saw in television the technology to rapidly fulfill the Great Commission in the Gospel of Matthew to evangelize the world now more often find themselves preoccupied with fighting its demons than saving souls.
Television has offered religious groups an opportunity to spread their message to hundreds of thousands of people at one time. But popular television also has grown to the point where it has nearly pushed religion out of the picture, leaving churches with one hour on the weekend to compete with a secular world view promoted among their members seven hours a day in the home.
"Religion is going down the tubes," says Quentin Schultze, professor of communication arts and sciences at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. "Whoever controls the stories of a culture controls the fundamental stories and beliefs of a culture."
It wasn't envisioned this way when the technology was first introduced, Schultze said in a paper prepared for a recent conference on "The Expression of American Religion in the Popular Media" sponsored by the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture in Indianapolis.
Protestant America historically has looked to technology as a solution to religious problems, and religious leaders once looked at television's potential for evangelization the way educators once thought the medium held promise as an educational tool.
Somewhere along the way, he said, faith and technology became faith in technology.
Churches have been encouraged to improve their religious education programs by buying newer and better videos rather than putting their efforts into training clergy and lay members.
In a recent article in Christianity Today, James F. Engel of Eastern College said the Great Commission is in danger of being reduced to the "Great Campaign," "as we are urged to win as many customers for the gospel as possible before the end of this century."
He said some Christian groups tend to lose sight of the fact that people are converted one at a time and that one-on-one work still needs to be the bedrock of evangelistic strategy.
Even as they recognize its limitations, both Engel and Schultze say television can be used for good.
He suggests that, instead of standing on the sidelines as critics, religious groups encourage people to enter the television industry, to become part of it so television can help construct the "city built upon a hill" long dreamed of.
"The city belongs to its people, for good and bad," Schultze concludes. "In the end, it appears that both the critics and champions of television in America share a belief in the power of technology to shape social and cultural life. Perhaps that shared belief is now most American of all _ a faith that America can make a difference by creating a city upon a hill."
David Briggs has reported on religion for the Associated Press since November 1988. Briggs received a master's degree from Yale Divinity School in 1985.