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franciscan - May 1998

© Copyright, The Society of Saint Francis, 1998

Taking the Walls off the Church

by Pat Heap

‘The acceptable face of Christianity!’ A compliment or an insult? The statement had been made by a young man who claimed he was an atheist, and my colleague, to whom it was made, asked the question, ‘should we take it as a compliment or an insult?’ I was in no doubt, it was a compliment, a big one. ‘The acceptable face of Christianity’ to that young man was the Christian programme on our BBC Local Radio Station, of which I am the producer. His comment came in the programme's very early days, days when we weren't always sure if we were talking to anyone very much, and certainly had little clear idea of who they were. It convinced me beyond any doubt that we were reaching beyond the church community, that we were not just ‘preaching to the converted’, and that this was a means of reaching ‘the parts that others couldn't reach’, to borrow the Heineken advert.

Some years ago MARC Europe surveyed people's listening and viewing habits. They found that every week in Britain about eleven million people hear a religious programme on BBC Radio, almost as many watch one on BBC TV and nearly as many watch one on ITV. Even being very cautious with those figures and allowing for considerable overlap, it would suggest a weekly audience for religious programmes of at least twenty million people. Another MARC Europe census endeavoured to determine the number of people in church on an average Sunday in Britain and came up with a total of 3.7 million. Admittedly these figures are now several years old, but there is no evidence to suggest that they have changed significantly. On the assumption that the 3.7 million churchgoers are part of the twenty million viewers and listeners, that still leaves well over sixteen million people who every week listen to or watch a religious programme on radio or television, but don't go to church. Some may go occasionally or for special festivals, but the majority have left the church or have never been; to them church is irrelevant or inaccessible. But the spiritual awareness, hunger, curiosity, call it what we will, is there, and so are the ultimate questions about life and death and the meaning of things, and people are seeking the fulfilment of those needs, and answers to those questions, through the broadcast media; they are ‘the great church of the unchurched’.

Broadcasting has been called the ‘biggest shared experience in society today’; we turn to it for information, education and entertainment; we pepper our conversations with ‘did you see . . .?’, ‘they said . . .’, ‘it was on . . .’ We listen to about twenty hours of radio a week and watch about twenty-three hours of television; we are comfortable with broadcasting, it is undemanding and non-threatening – we can always turn it off. It is that easy familiarity that enables religious programmes to attract such enormous audiences. A BBC audience survey in 1994 revealed 93 per cent of people questioned said they wanted religious programming; a result which led to renewed commitment by them to religious programming. Guidelines for local radio now make clear that all BBC stations should carry religious output as a normal part of their scheduling, and the BBC recognises in its latest review BBC Local Radio - 2000 that ‘religious broadcasting on Sunday mornings is a big audience winner, capturing the biggest share of breakfast listening to BBC Local Radio across the week.’

Interestingly, although commercial local radio is no longer required to present religious programmes, their religious output has risen by 50 per cent in the last two years and eight out of ten commercial stations now broadcast religion. Jeff Bonsor, of the Churches Advisory Council for Local Broadcasting, believes this is because Christians are producing good programming ideas which compete on merit; when commercial stations were obliged to present religious material, it was often amateurish and of poor quality, and so readily ousted when the Broadcasting Bill removed their obligations. Now, Jeff Bonsor says, there is ‘a willingness by many stations to tackle religion, provided it is presented in a relevant and entertaining way’. ‘Relevant’ and yes, even ‘entertaining’.

I once had the daunting task of addressing a sixth form RE class in a local boys' school on religious broadcasting and my role as a producer. Inevitably there was ‘the back row’, a few boys determined to be unimpressed. It was almost time for the bell to sound my release and we were well into a question time, when a hand on the back row shot up. The boy admitted to sometimes hearing part of my programme whilst waiting for what followed, which at that time was a John Peel music show, and with a tone which implied ‘this will squash her!’, he pronounced judgement on the programme with, ‘It's far too entertaining to be religious!’ I replied that that was brilliant and just what we wanted to achieve.

But what did he mean by ‘entertaining’? We are certainly not flippant, or even light-weight on our programme: much of our material is very serious, although we do occasionally indulge in frivolities; but that is not what I think this young man was referring to. What I think he meant by entertaining was the fact that, as a team on the programme, we actually enjoy what we are doing. We enjoy working together, we enjoy the process of making and broadcasting a programme, we are committed Christians enjoying sharing and communicating God, and that sense of enjoyment is caught, I think, by our listeners.

The team at present comprises two Roman Catholics, one Anglican and one Baptist, and with others involved on a more casual basis. We are none of us trained broadcasters or journalists; we have learnt on the job and by making mistakes; we have been fortunate to be in a radio station where successive managers have been supportive and encouraging. The interaction of our differing traditions has always been enriching and has never once led to disagreement about the nature or content of the programme. We are all totally committed to the importance and opportunity of religious broadcasting, despite the long hours, late nights and lack of remuneration.

For myself – and I think it is true for the others too – the greatest joy and privilege is that of hearing other people's stories, stories of faith, of what God has done and is doing in their lives, and in effect saying to our audience ‘listen to this!’ We cannot say it in so many words, but I am sure the message is loud and clear, ‘if God can do it for them, he can do it for you’.

It is listening to other people's stories which is the fascination of broadcasting and, perhaps, especially radio. It is being a fly on the wall of someone else's life, the curiosity of what makes other people tick, why they do what they do and what they believe. Of course, it isn't always like that; much of what we broadcast is about things that are going on locally, good causes, organisations, books, news stories and reflective pieces; and those things in themselves are part of the attraction of local radio; they are about places and people and events that are known or close to home. But it is the story of a person's journey of faith and of finding God which is the most powerful and, one even dare say, entertaining.

My dictionary defines ‘entertain’ as to engage the attention and occupy it agreeably. When we do that we can communicate God. Radio is a unique way of communicating, it is very personal and almost private; we tend to watch television together but listen to the radio alone. We can be occupied with other matters and still be absorbed by what we are hearing. We can take it almost anywhere and let our imaginations take wing: the pictures on radio are so much better than on television! Radio broadcasting is an invitation into people's homes: their kitchens, living rooms, bedrooms; it is a privilege and an awesome responsibility. It is not an invitation to preach, except of course in the context of a service, but it is an opportunity to get alongside someone and suggest ‘we think out this together.’ It is not for us broadcasters to tell people what to think or believe, but we can take the walls off the church; we can enable people to tell their stories; we can – as Gerald Priestland claimed that he was about – ‘keep the rumour of God alive’. I prefer the way Robert McLeish, BBC Local Radio Training Officer, put it: ‘The gospel is a big piece of gold; our responsibility as broadcasters is to break it down into little coins and use them in everyday currency.’ Where those coins go and how they are spent we cannot know, and I believe God in his wisdom does not intend us to know, though he promises that his word ‘will not return to me empty but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it’ (Isaiah 55:11). And we as broadcasters do have the privilege of ‘going out with joy’. §

Pat Heap is Religious Programmes Producer for BBC Radio Cambridgeshire and Associate Minister at Mill Road Baptist Church in Cambridge.


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