How many American priests end up in their own reality show on British television? James McCaskill did just that when he moved last year from Pittsburgh to the town of Lundwood in England's South Yorkshire district. He was brought in to revitalize a church whose congregation had dropped below ten, and his turnaround efforts were filmed for one year by a camera crew. The results will air—under the name Priest Idol—in a three-part series in November on the UK's Channel 4. Nate Anderson sat down with McCaskill on a recent visit to the U.S. to talk about ministry and media.Read the whole thing!
The filmmakers brought in a marketing firm to help you sell the church to the town. Was this a positive experience?
It really was. The marketers—a firm called Propaganda—were very respectful and sensitive. They brought a fresh perspective from the world. I don't think it was selling out to the world. I think it was a way of learning what is going on in the culture, what does the immediate society want, how do they view church? I don't know the story very well, but I wonder if Bill Hybels used a similar approach when he went knocking on the doors around Willow Creek, asking what folks would like to see in a church. The most positive thing this did was to raise the profile of the parish in the community, to say, "We're here and open and alive."
What would you say to those who argue that the church does not need to market itself?
I would say that we did not take a secular approach and put the label 'Christian' on it and therefore redeem it. What I would say is that we used a tool available in Western society and used it in such a way to produce something that is worthy of the church. For instance, the marketers challenged us to say, "What is special about the Christian faith?" It was a challenge for us to articulate it; in fact, the congregation was not able to articulate it. By taking a sales point of view and asking, "How are you are you going sell this place, if you can't tell people what's great about it?" the marketers weren't asking us to make things up; they were asking us to genuinely examine ourselves. It sounds pathetic that the congregation was not able to articulate those things already—this is our faith we're talking about, after all—but obviously it wasn't happening.
Does the show play into the idea that "bigger is better" as opposed to "deeper is better"?
I don't think it does. Certainly, the first thing everyone looks at is numbers, and numbers are played up in the show. The marketers asked the archdeacon, for instance, "What is success? 30?" He said, "No, I think for the church to have a viable future there needs to be 70 people there." There is a sense that the church really does need a certain number at the core to be a self-sustaining ministry. For me, success would be reaching a place where the church would be able to take care of itself, and sustain ministry in the community. Whether that's at 50 people or 200 people is not the point, I don't think.
The real issue is quality of faith. Liturgical traditions—places where there's an emphasis on the sacraments, the mystery and the holiness of God—look at the mega-churches and say that you'll never experience the holiness of God in those big places. But on the other hand, they're not always the best at evangelizing and spreading the Word. I think it's good for the Christian church perhaps to have both things, to have that tension. A little place like Lundwood is in no great fear of being too big and not having any quality of faith.
What do you think the airing of Priest Idol can accomplish?
It tells a really positive story about our particular church and about the church in general. That was one of the concerns of the bishop. He thought that if this was a success, it would be a success not just for Lundwood, but for the Christian church in the UK. It shows hope, it shows excitement, it shows people rallying around a church. It shows a church willing to take risks. It raises a lot of issues for churches to think about how, why, and to what extent they can reconnect with their communities.
The Church of England has done a really good job of compromising itself, lowering the standard to where people are, rather than calling the people to something greater in the church. I think we sell ourselves short when we sing only one song, because it will make the service thirty minutes instead of forty minutes, but will take away from the beauty of the service. Maybe it's actually the beauty of the service and not the timing [that draws people].
Monday, November 14, 2005
A sacredotal reality show ...
From Christianity Today. Interview with Fr. James McCaskill, an Episcopalian/Anglican priest who has his own British reality TV show. His mission: Save a dying church.