We’ve fallen in love with soundbites and need a dramatic turnaround back to the importance of substance…

That was BBC political correspondent Nick Robinson’s warning when he gave the inaugural Brian Redhead lecture on politics and the media recently. Of course that’s my own soundbite summary, but his point was a perceptive one, certainly applicable for politics but with far more wide-ranging implications as well.

Robinson was arguing that our politicians don’t currently have enough space to properly explain their arguments and positions, and are instead being forced into short and snappy ‘made-for-press’ summaries to feed a media hungry for conflict, spin and sleaze. In a plea for more in-depth presentation, for discussion and debate rather than this current trend for controversy and hype, Robinson suggested more time be given over to explaining politicians’ policies on TV, and even dedicated channels that allow politicians themselves to express further depth ‘before those ideas are [then] dissected by the best interviewers or attacked by their opponents or derided on tweets or blogs.’

It’s a trend we could all do with being more aware of, particularly in the media’s relations with Christianity, as well as in Christian ministry itself. An example of the media’s tendency to do this to Christians is picked up by Adrian Reynolds, over at The Proclaimer, who has been reflecting on coverage of the women bishops debate. He notes that evangelicals often don’t seem to get a fair hearing in the press, and suggests this may be in part because ‘in a sound bite world, our biblical arguments are too hard for people’. I think there’s merit in his point.

Like Robinson says, as a culture it seems we’re increasingly guilty of dismissing the virtue of being ‘thought through’. I’m not talking about the person staunchly holding to a particular position, hands over their ears and eyes closed, like the child insolently declaring ‘I’m not listening!’ Obviously thinking should naturally involve listening and further engagement. But in some quarters to have convictions formed, and to have based them upon considered argument, can be seen at best as negative and at worst as mere pedantry. To be reasoned is equated with being bookish and dry; we don’t want to be persuaded by argument, instead we want to be entertained by enthusiasm, punch and panache.

But how much has the ‘soundbite over substance’ trend infected the church? The NY Times recently ran an article commenting that Christian leaders have become the unexpected powerhouses of Twitter, being responsible for some of the most ‘retweeted tweets’ on the web. Given our culture’s favour towards the short and snappy soundbite, it is not surprising that Twitter, complete with its 140 character limit, fits right in. It is made for this age, in fact it feeds and propels this trend, and clearly Christians are re-tweeting to their hearts content too. But shouldn’t we wonder: where’s the substance of it all?

Obviously there’s great value in being able to explain and articulate an argument or concept simply, and certaintly we can always seek to get better at this. When it comes to faithfully expositing the Scriptures then this skill is absolutely crucial. I think this is why we’ve seen the rise in popularity within evangelical churches of the ‘big idea’ or a ‘purpose statement’, when training people to read and understand the Bible. Such practice is rooted in the conviction that there is a message that the biblical author is seeking to communicate, whether you’re focusing on a single verse, the wider chapter, or even a particular Bible book as a whole. Therefore it is good and right that we attempt to understand, capture and distill that message, so that our preaching and teaching might better express the heart of the biblical text. As well as this simplicity we should also affirm the importance of passion in teaching, and likewise the appropriateness of making our beautiful message duly attractive.

But when doing these we also need to be mindful of retaining the substance, or the ‘explanatory power’, of this distilled message. As I was pondering all this I saw Peter Mead’s recent post over at Biblical Preaching about the need to keep such explanation in our preaching, what he calls the ‘indispensable ingredient‘. Naturally explanation must be a part of what a good preacher or Bible-study leader should be seeking to do as they unpack the Scriptures. But as Mead says, to be able to do this competently first requires having understood the passage for oneself, and this in turn requires hard and prayerful study. These are not ‘easy’, but the end result will surely be that the preacher’s purpose-driven exposition of Scripture comes across with bags more integrity. Humanly-speaking is a sermon not much more convincing when it is plain to see its essence is actually also at the heartbeat of the Scriptural text?

Sure, we all love a good quote, a pithy spiritual aphorism. When I was younger I had a cunning plan to produce a collection of the cheesiest of these (for the record my best was ‘mission is about seeing the cross, not crossing the sea’ – neat, huh?). But though they might sound impressive, indeed impressive enough to re-tweet to your 163 followers, if they lack substance then what long term effect will they have? 

So surely in our cultural climate we need to at least give ourselves a check-up? We need to ask whether we’re feeding upon surface-level spirituality, simply sugar-coated words, or whether we’re basing our ‘truth’ upon sure foundations. Are we encouraging our preachers to include diligent and thorough presentation or are we tempting them to deliver feel-good soundbites? Are we willing to engage with each other in comprehensive dialogue and debate or are we building straw-men and forgetting how to think?

Go on then, tweet a summary of that…