Why you don’t have to turn the TV off when the pastor visits

Yesterday, Jeremy Walker made the following comment on twitter:

Now, I have heard these comments many times before. I remember one pastor – when I pointed out that having the TV on was a working class thing – insisting that it was distracting and rude and the people were not giving him their full attention and he could not concentrate with it on. I have heard this sort of comment over and over again. Almost always, from middle class quarters.

I don’t want to belittle pastors who struggle to visit people with the TV on. I am sure they do. But I am also sure that much of their concern is cultural. In their middle class culture, it is the appropriate thing to turn the TV off when you have visitors. I appreciate it can be hard to concentrate when you have been trained to operate a particular way and it can be difficult to recognise that what you’ve always been told is rude might, actually, be okay. What many fail to realise, however, is that the TV being on – far from making it harder for your host to concentrate – might actually be helping them engage with you better than were it not on.

Let’s start with what should be evident to all of us (but bears saying because it seems many do not find it evident). The Bible does not insist that we turn the TV off when we have visitors. Of course, there is no prooftext for any of us here, because TVs were not around when the Apostles were writing. Whilst everyone recognises that, many insist there is a principle of giving someone your full attention.

Three things are worth saying in response to that. First, I’m not sure there is any such biblical principle. I don’t read anywhere in scripture anything even approximating an imperative to give people your full attention. It is said with such definitive certainty that this must be right, but I see no biblical case for insisting it is so. There just isn’t anything in the Bible that says all distractions of any sort must be removed before we can say anything important.

Second, I’m not sure why the TV gets singled out at any rate. Loads of things can become a distraction that we don’t insist on removing before we will speak with someone. Why is the TV a distraction that absolutely must be switched off but screaming toddlers aren’t forced into the garden for the same reason? Why are eyes drawn to a TV a terrible distraction but eyes drawn to the titles of books on a bookshelf, or pictures on a wall, not a distraction that must be covered? Why, if it’s the noise we’re concerned about, does just about every cafe, pub and restaurant up and down the land, play music in the background when people are out together for a drink or meal presumably trying to chat and give each other their attention?

Third, even if we concede that first point, why do people assume that having the TV on necessarily means someone is not giving you their attention? Growing up in my house, we had the TV on all the time. When I went round my grandparents house, we had the TV on all day. We all engaged with each other over the TV, talking over the programmes, and nobody felt the least bit like they were not being heard. I appreciate that you may find it hard to concentrate and give your full attention to someone when other things are going on, but why assume everyone is like you? Anyone who has ever spent time with their mates down a pub knows a wealth of distractions are at play. Everyone is talking, TVs are usually playing some sport, quiz machines make noise in the corner, someone is probably on the pool table. Very few people who have spent time with people in the pub feel like they don’t have the attention of the people they are with or that they are being ignored the whole time even though there is far more noise and many other distractions than a TV being on.

For those reasons, I don’t think we have good grounds for insisting the TV is necessarily a distraction. I appreciate some people might find it so, just like anyone might find any particular thing a distraction. But I don’t think we can insist it necessarily is for everyone nor that there is some moral imperative that means the TV necessarily must be turned off when we visit someone. There is nothing in scripture that says it is so and many settings where it isn’t the case. At best, there may be a middle class cultural view that leaving the TV on is rude. That is fair enough and should be borne in mind if, as a pastor, we are going to visit a middle class home. But it also means we shouldn’t try and impose that cultural standard on working class homes where middle class cultural expectations are an alien culture.

I could stop there and say there is nothing unbiblical, nothing morally wrong, nothing inherently or objectively inappropriate about leaving the TV on when having a visit. But I want to go a bit further. I think, for many people, there is something particularly helpful about having the TV left on. There is something about keeping it on that might mean people engage better with what you are saying than if you turned it off.

It is not exactly unknown that blokes in particular tend to bond over doing stuff. Men tend to prefer having a task to do whilst chatting with other men. The reason is that they find it less awkward to chat, and leave long bit of silence, when they are engaged in a task. So, you might be building something, painting something, doing a thing with others and – as you chat – conversation will ebb and flow. But it is palpably less awkward for people to endure the silence when they have something else they are doing, rather than just blankly staring at the other person as they either collect their thoughts or wish to skirt around the subject altogether.

In exactly the same way, having the TV on for many people accomplishes the same thing. There may be an awkward lull in conversation. That’s okay, it happens. But if you have the TV on providing some other noise, those moments of awkwardness are less, well, awkward. Similarly, if you are having a serious conversation with someone and they need time to collect their thoughts and respond in a helpful way, sometimes having a bit of distance between you and the piercing silence can be helpful. Again, TV on in the background gives some people the room to think without the pressure of the silence demanding an immediate response. If our churches are full of people who are nothing like each other (as they should be) – from different classes, cultures, backgrounds and generations – sometimes having the TV on gives us some shared context beyond the church that we can chit chat about too. I can prat on about stuff I’m interested in, but that may be no good for the person who is neither my culture, background or generation. What I might be able to chat about, even a little bit, is the quiz show (or whatever) that happens to be on the TV. Having the TV on at least gives the opportunity for gentle ways in to other conversations we might want to be having.

There are also folks who struggle in all sorts of ways. Whether they are neurodiverse or they have mental health issues, sometimes having the TV on provides a bit of relief to an otherwise difficult conversation. If concentration is hard to come by, a little break having a look at the TV might be helpful to some. Indeed, it might actually help them tune in to the most part of what you’re saying rather than tuning out your monologue after the first few minutes because concentration has already gone.

Perhaps most significantly, if we do want a biblical principle in any of this, the one we might want to land on is preferring other’s needs above our own. You might well find it easier to concentrate without the TV on. You might well think it best to turn it off. You might well feel your serious discussion will be given due weight if the TV is turned off. But what if the person you’re meeting just doesn’t agree? What if they will concentrate better with it on? What if they find the awkwardness will be unbearable if it is turned off and may even go in on themselves and not engage with you at all because of it? What if having the background noise gives them the space to think about how to react and respond to you better? Isn’t the biblical principle to prefer the needs of others above our own? Isn’t the right thing to do to say I might well concentrate better without the TV on and feel like you are giving me due respect by turning it off, but if you feel differently and will benefit by keeping it on, then I am happy to set my desires aside for you? Might we be in danger of insisting the Bible says something it doesn’t or, if we’re not raising it to that level, doing specifically what the Bible tells us not to do; namely, making people bow to our preferences and giving no quarter to theirs?

After all, there is no biblical command to turn your TV off when the pastor pops round. And, let’s be honest, for some of us pastors might be quite alright with the TV on. Maybe there is some football on that I’m happy to watch with you. Maybe I’m glad to spend a bit of time watching pointless with you. Maybe I am glad of something to punctuate the awkwardness of the particularly difficult conversation I know we are about to be having and I might appreciate the background noise to reduce the deafening silence as whatever I’ve said sinks in? Maybe having the TV on when the pastor visits isn’t a matter of right and wrong at all and we should stop insisting that cultural views and personal preferences must be adhered to. And maybe, just maybe, keeping the TV on might actually be helpful, at least some of the time.