The hugely popular sixth series of the police drama Line of Duty has had record numbers of viewers on the edge of their seats right up to the final episode. 12.8 million viewers watched that episode, just a shade lower that the figure of 13.6 million that tuned into Prince Philip’s funeral a couple of weeks before.
What is the attraction?
It can’t be the constant use of police jargon and in-house abbreviations. Nor can it be the tension of an old institution struggling to see its flaws and dodging any attempts to deal with them.
Maybe that would be a little painful for church leaders who have more than enough jargon of their own. In addition, the idea of a flawed institution that is often slow to listen and act on what it hears, is too close for comfort for the church.
Perhaps it is merely that some people like a bit of drama at 9pm on a Sunday evening. Line of Duty provides plenty of drama, and an intriguing plot with lots of unpredictable twists and turns. Line of Duty probably has a few too many twists and turns. It is the television version of a rollercoaster ride.
Preachers could learn from the way that a series engages the viewer with a gradual build up of suspense. They can be value in a congregation not quite knowing what is going to happen next. This is one of the qualities we observe in Jesus the preacher, especially when he spoke in parables.
As P.G. Wodehouse put it in his inimitable way, “A parable is one of those stories in the Bible which sounds at first like a pleasant yarn but keeps something up its sleeve which suddenly pops up and knocks you flat”.
I guess that is what comedians mean when they talk about a punchline!
“We must be prepared to begin reading a parable with one set of expectations, only to find that the parable resists and finally overthrows that expectation.” (Tom Long)
Preachers learn how to investigate Scripture texts to uncover for the hearer a message that goes beyond the obvious so that the hearer can say, “Ah now it is clear”.
Now, coming back to Line of Duty. One of the complaints about the final episode was that, although it promised much in the way of resolution, the series ended with less of a bang than a whimper.
Now, just in case you have not seen it, I am not going to do the classic preacher’s thing of being a plot spoiler.
Whenever preachers begin a sermon, they are making an implicit or explicit promise.
Sermons offer a promise that the preacher hopes the congregation will want kept.
If it promises clarity on a difficult question the sermon should seek to provide it, even if the conclusion is honestly tentative.
Sermons need to end with some information that teaches, some promise that consoles or motivates, some implication that stirs us into reflective action, or some insight that helps us to encounter God.
Yet sermons often over-promise and under-deliver.
The result is disappointment and a growing cynicism concerning the claim that the Bible Speaks Today.