Why it might be good to switch the TV off when the pastor visits

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Jeremy Walker posted on twitter recently that a particular challenge with modern pastoral visiting is the phenomena of the TV being on continuously in the background.  Now, I presume that by “modern” he’s referring to the past 50 years or so because this isn’t a particularly new thing.

Steve Kneale has written here about why you don’t have to turn the TV off when the pastor visits.  I think this a very helpful read for pastors and church members alike.  Steve rightly warns against the danger of legalism, demanding things off of people that the Bible doesn’t. Of course Scripture doesn’t specifically speak about TVs and technology that wasn’t around at the time but I think we can draw general principles about life and hospitality.  Steve also provides some compelling reasons for why it might be helpful for some, especially men to have the TV on in the background. Finally, he hits the nail on the head with his observation that there will always be something potentially distracting, why do we pick on TV particularly?

My personal take is that I think it is all going to depend on context to context, person to person.  What is the purpose of my visit? Am I there, just dropping in to spend time with someone? Is it part of normal discipleship, or is there a specific issue that I’ve made an appointment with them for? Now, a lot of discipleship and pastoral care should be about sharing our lives with others. So, it could well be that I’ve popped in to visit them and spend time with them. If so, then, all the more reason for me to accept that the TV is on.  This is part of entering their world. That they feel comfortable letting you into their home, as it is, should actually be a encouragement. 

Indeed, we might want to consider that in some contexts, having the TV on may be how the person seeks to make you feel comfortable and welcome. It is culturally, part of their hospitality, just as much as putting the heating on might be in some places, offering you a drink or having some music playing in the background. Indeed, perhaps a more important question for us might whether those of us who don’t normally have the TV on might do well to put it on when visitors arrive.

Now, I do think that there might be occasions when it is more helpful for the TV to go off. There might be times when I want to be sure that people have the complete attention of each other and are showing it.  This might be because we have big things to cover, it might be because there is more than one person involved. You might for example be doing marriage counselling and whilst the husband says he can have the TV on and focus, in fact that it helps him focus, his wife might be saying that this really frustrates her because she never feels that she has his undivided attention or that he misses all that is going on with the children.

And yes, getting undivided attention matters. That’s why we are increasingly alert to the problem of dual processing in many PowerPoint heavy presentations.

So, there are some cases where I think it might be helpful to talk about hitting the off button for a while.  There are three reasons for this. First, as alluded to above, sometimes it is simply about helping them to learn how to show to others that they are giving their undivided attention. Yes, I want to prefer their needs to mine when I visit but I also want to help them grow and for them to learn to prefer the needs of others too. Whilst I may not ask them to switch the TV off for me, I might want to encourage to learn how to switch it off for others.

Secondly, because whilst it is not necessarily the case, it may possibly be the case that the permanently on TV is a symptom of other things, loneliness, the fear of silence, avoidance of getting too serious.  It may be that the TV has become an idol to them. We shouldn’t just assume this, nor should we pick on the TV because it suits our own preferences whilst ignoring other idols, including our own. I wouldn’t immediately presume this to be so and I’d start with Steve’s reasoning but we may want to at least be alert to this possibility.

Thirdly, because, yes, there is a benefit in removing distractions as far as possible and learning to focus.  Whilst we may feel that we are able to fully concentrate and take everything in whils tother things are happening around us, I want to gently suggest that most of us are nowhere near as good at multi-tasking as we like to believe.  Focusing helps us to take in, understand and remember.  This means that, yes, we’ve got to be ready for those awkward silences when a question gets personal or people run out of words. We need to learn how to lean into and embrace those silences. And whilst it’s important that we don’t let class prejudice cause us to look down on someone who has the TV on all the time, whilst we have our own distractions, equally, we should not patronise them and assume that they are not capable of spending time with others and talking to them without the background distraction.

What I’ve said here about TVs of course applies to any potential distraction.  Increasingly, the bigger distraction is our smart phones.  The point is this, that we cannot just draw up blanket rules. We need to stop, observe, ask questions and think through what is best for each person in each situation.

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