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How do you watch what you watch?

Christian wisdom and entertainment choices

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May 9, 2022

I’m pretty sure my family was the last one in our neighborhood to get a color TV. It was around 1979. My parents shocked my two sisters and me when they brought home a Curtis Mathis color TV one afternoon. It was a 26-inch screen, enshrined in a built-in wooden stand. Gone were the days of tinfoil on the 19-inch black and white. My 9-year-old eyes dazzled with delight when I noticed that our new TV had 13 different channel buttons. 13! This gave me color access to all of the local channels in the Dallas/Ft. Worth Metroplex. “Diff’rent Strokes” on Friday night, “Gilligan’s Island” reruns after school, and I’m not too proud to admit that I watched a little bit of “Hey! Hey! We’re the Monkees.”

Life was wonderfully simple back then. If you fast-forward to most of our homes today, the scene is a bit different. If you have not “cut the cord” yet, you likely have a minimum of 150 channels on your 70-inch flat screen. It’s also quite easy to see that digital media players and streaming services are quickly winning the day, providing countless options for our viewing pleasure.

And of course, newer shows explore contemporary topics with almost no restraint. The sexual boundaries and standards of our day are different than when I was trying to avoid admiting that I actually liked watching “Little House on the Prairie” with my sisters. Words that used to only appear on certain cable shows are streaming loudly into the bedrooms of teenagers on their phones. This world’s appetite for pornography has become more accommodating since the days of people awkwardly asking a gas station attendant to purchase a covered magazine behind the counter. Disney and other networks see to it that one can rarely watch a show without a positive angle on a LGBTQ character. So, it’s not exactly a hot take to point out that modern media poses a great challenge to followers of Christ.

Christians and media consumption 

So how do we respond?

Years ago, I sat next to a young man on a plane that belonged to a very small, strict sect of Christianity. As we shared our different experiences of the Christian life, he said that no one in his church had a television (“Except for maybe a few people that weren’t truly saved,” he qualified.). While I didn’t share the conviction that true Christians don’t own televisions, I respected the radical measures he took to guard against worldliness. My wife and I actually had long periods early in our marriage where we seldomly consumed any media. It gave us a great foundation for our marriage and spiritual life. Even though we more regularly watch certain programs now, we live imperfectly in the balance of approaching the tricky world of media consumption.

Faithful Christians will have different convictions and land in various places regarding what to watch — or not. The advice is not one-size-fits-all. But we are all called to pursue holiness, and that encompasses every area of our lives. In light of this, I’d like to offer a few suggestions from my personal experience, individually and as a pastor, regarding how to wisely watch what you watch.

Don’t worry about feeling “left out of the loop.” This is not a temptation for all. But sometimes we may tire of being the only person we know that has not seen Game of Thrones or The Sopranos. Maybe you’re not so much jealous of missing the profane content, but you have always prided yourself on keeping up with cultural trends and inferences. That’s when the temptation to just “watch an episode or two to see what it’s all about” comes into play. Soon, the well-written plot and highly developed characters draw you in. Before long, you may be glad you know what everyone is talking about, but find yourself pledging to quit watching the show tomorrow. If that doesn’t work, you vow to never let anyone from church know what you’re watching. Slowly but surely, you are nurturing a genre of entertainment that makes it difficult to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5 CSB). We must remember that being left out of the loop is sometimes a great way to stay spiritually alive.

Watch as if you’re watching with your mother or daughter. I remember listening to Pastor Alistair Begg on a panel at a conference years ago. The interviewer asked him a question about television. He was asked that because he was sitting next to John Piper. Piper had just been asked what helped him walk closely with God. He mentioned that not having a TV was beneficial to him. Begg was then asked about his television habits. He simply said, “I do watch it. But I try to watch something that I’d be comfortable with if my daughter or my mother were watching it with me.” I realize that how you apply this has a lot to do with the moral fortitude of one’s mother and daughter. But in general, if you asked yourself, “What would Mom or my baby girl think of this show?” I bet we would practice much wiser media scrutiny.

Be mindful of the softening of biblical convictions. The first gay character on television was a guest star on an episode of All in the Family in 1971. Over the next few decades, more shows boldly included occasional same-sex attraction story lines. Pressure from activist groups, especially since the turn of the century, pushed studios to insist on significant LGBTQ representation on the majority of scripted television. The stated goal of such activists has been to normalize gay relationships in every way possible. In that sense, one would have to credit this effort as a massive success. The result is that it no longer feels unusual to most people to watch two gay characters interact, even on a sexual level. 

Is there a connection between this phenomenon and the growing number of former evangelicals that are now gay affirming? It would be difficult to apply research to such a question, but it is certainly worth thinking about. As Christians who lovingly hold to a biblical understanding of sexuality and marriage, we must be mindful of the dangerous effects modern media saturation can bring about to our belief system. We must be vigilant to never let a show normalize the culture’s worldview and weaken our biblical convictions.

See the good and potentially bad effects of filtered streaming services. Personally, I am a huge fan of streaming services that allow viewers to skip profanity, nudity, and graphic violence. The main reason is that I want to see zero nudity in my media viewing. A cursory reading of Scripture makes it clear that believers are not to have a “hint” of sexual immorality in their life (Eph. 5:3). Streaming filters will greatly sanitize your movie nights. However, I would like to offer three cautions regarding these services: 1) While they can clean up the show, they cannot clean up the plot. Some plots are so vile, that cleaning them will literally wipe out the entire show; 2) A steady diet of inappropriate, filtered shows does not help kids and teens discern the course for their media future; and 3) You can’t filter a person’s heart. Ultimately, we can rightly use filter services all while our hearts remain unchanged. We must prioritize evaluating our hearts, and helping our children understand theirs, by constantly asking if our motivation and desire is to honor God with what we watch. 

Lastly, don’t forget about the joy of reading. This probably depends on how you are wired, but visual media tends to create a desire for more and more screen time. A gripping story or a hilarious character always seems like a great way to end a stressful day. Even if you enjoy reading, heavy media consumption tends to lead one to say, “Eh, I think I’d rather just zone out tonight. I’ll get back to that great book tomorrow.” When you see this habit forming, that’s when it’s time to make yourself read more. You may need to declare, “Tonight is a reading only night!” You also may learn to multitask and read while other things are going on. Regardless, make sure that you don’t push the importance of reading, especially the reading of good Christian books and the Word of God, out of your life. 

There are many more things that could be said. As with everything, we must call out to God for wisdom. We must be determined to watch what we watch with godly discernment, for the sake of pursuing holiness. While we will make different choices regarding our media consumption, we must spur one another on to walk in a manner that is worthy of the gospel (Phil. 1:27) in the midst of what feels like an anything-goes culture. As we seek to live in the world but not of it, may God make us more like our Savior and use us to point to the better, more satisfying way that he offers. 

Cliff Lea

Cliff is the lead pastor for both teaching and church leadership at FBC Leesburg in Florida, and has served there since 2007. He is a graduate of Southwestern Theological Seminary and has authored several books. He and his wife Suzy have five sons. He is passionate about God’s Word, time … Read More