‘Show, don’t tell’: bad preaching and mock reality TV for kids

Our seven year old daughter is presently obsessed – like, watching every episode three times on iPlayer obsessed – by a CBBC show called ‘The Next Step’. I have grown somewhat used to children’s TV over the past fourteen years; most of what the BBC, in particular, broadcast is of some worth. Some of it is in dubious taste, but funny and educational (Horrible Histories); some of it really rather charming (Arthur). When it comes to ‘The Next Step’, however, I’d rather watch Jose Mourinho explaining smugly why his genius won him the cup, or Iain Duncan Smith being evasive about benefit sanctions. It would be a close-run thing with a One Direction video. I stand up and leave the room when the show comes on.

Recently I finally worked out why. It’s because it is far too like bad preaching. And I hate bad preaching (particularly when I am the preacher).

The show is set in a dance school, and is a mock reality show, so after every little event we cut to the protagonists, and the observers, speaking to camera explaining what they were feeling and why they reacted like they did. This falls foul of the most basic rule of storytelling for adult audiences – ‘Show; don’t tell.’

Applied to adult fiction writing, ‘show; don’t tell’ is an instruction to demonstrate your character’s feelings, rather than announcing them. Of course, for a seven year old, cutting to a character explaining in detail her motivation (‘I said that because I was pleased that she failed the audition after what she said to my boyfriend last week…’) allows the child to follow more complex and emotionally-satisfying narrative arcs than she might otherwise find comprehensible, and so makes the show attractive.

For any adult viewer or reader, however, telling instead of showing is boring and insufferably patronising, and so must be completely avoided in any narrative remotely worth reading. Nabokov never tells us that Humbert is infatuated with Lolita; Tolkien never tells us that the Ring is an increasing burden for Frodo (He allows us to overhear Frodo telling Sam about it from time to time, but that is different);  E.L. James tells us about twice every page that Anastasia finds Christian Gray’s riches and arrogance unaccountably attractive.

It must be avoided in any discourse worth hearing, also. I am presently preparing once again to teach a brief class on homiletics. One of the maxims I offer to, and explore with, my students comes from the person who, more than any other, taught me to preach, Michael Quicke. Michael proposed that as well as saying what the text says, a good sermon does what the text does. In other words, ‘show; don’t tell.’

Bad preaching is often marked by such comments as ‘this is a really exciting passage’. No. Don’t tell me it’s exciting. Make me feel excited. There’s a world of difference. Bad preaching is like a stand-up comedian saying ‘and what happened next was really funny because it turned out that the woman I’d been talking to was my girlfriend’s sister…’ Tell the joke; don’t explain how it works.

Of course, it’s much easier to explain the joke or the passage, particularly because, in preaching, commentators have done all that work for us. ‘This parable would have shocked and offended the hearers…’ we are told, feeling utterly unshocked and unoffended ourselves. And so the parable drifts over us in being preached, never touching our hearts and our guts, which is where it was aimed. And which is where it must be aimed again, if it is to do its work.

Bad preaching is a description of how the text did its work; good preaching is an event in which the text does its work again, provoking, inspiring, challenging, questioning, undermining, destabalising, reassuring, or whatever its purpose is. Don’t tell me how the text might once have made someone like me feel; make me feel it – Show; don’t tell.


  1. The Next Step Fan
    Aug 25, 2015

    Personally I think The Next Step is great. Good post apart from that, well, the bits I bothered reading anyway.

    • steve
      Aug 25, 2015

      Yeah, but you like One Direction too. Where did we go wrong as parents?

  2. Dave Faulkner
    Aug 26, 2015

    As the father of a twelve-year-old girl who also loves The Next Step, I would add that where it does show but not tell it sends out a dreadful message – namely that to be successful you must be incredibly good-looking and seek fame. We’ve already limited how much our daughter can watch the Disney channels, because their shows almost uniformly plug that same message implicitly.

    With regard to ‘show, don’t tell’ in preaching, we have inherited a legacy of lecture-type preaching that goes against this, and sadly I know very little literature that helps me to adopt a ‘show’ approach in sermons. Any suggestions? Thanks.

    • steve
      Aug 26, 2015

      Thanks for stopping by, Dave. There’s a whole literature that goes under the title of ‘the new homiletic’ (mostly American) that is all, really, on this issue. Eugene Lowry, The Homiletical Plot and How to Preach a Parable, might be good ways in. Also Ron Boyd-Macmillan, Explosive Preaching: How to Detonate the Gospel isn’t only on this, but is a really good book, and Michael Quicke’s own 360 Degree Preaching is a (excellent) homiletic manual which takes these ideas seriously.

      • Dave Faulkner
        Aug 26, 2015

        Thanks for the recommendations, Steve, I’ll hunt down some of these.

        Always pleased to get recommendations from someone at St Andrew’s – I did an MPhil at Manchester under Richard Bauckham.

  3. Pamela
    Aug 26, 2015

    Yes, too much lecture-style preaching! Something to do with all the lectures preachers have to sit through during their training? Also with the elevation of the intellect, coupled with the woeful neglect of (not to say discouragement of) the imagination in many churches.

    This may not be what you’re looking for, but… Including in sermon preparation a search for material developed with an eye to the participation of children, such as this randomly chosen example http://www.barnabasinchurches.org.uk/mission-malta/ , could be helpful. It might provide ideas for helping those listening to connect their imagination with the story being told, to recognize how they might be feeling in similar circumstances and so on – touching hearts and guts, not just informing.

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