Using Video Creatively In Parish And Family Life

By Denise Jillions

The marriage between the entertainment and leisure industry and space age technology seems to never grow stale: almost every week we hear of a better way of delivering sound, images information and even experiences to the millions of Americans whose favorite and sometimes only hobby is sitting in front of a box.

We now have boxes that can take up your entire living room, boxes that can be turned on when you’re not even home, boxes small enough to fit in your purse. We can now vicariously experience everything from crossing the Northwest Passage in a sailboat to painting a masterpiece on canvas in 30 minutes or less; preparing a seven course meal without having to wash a pot to resonating with the primordial rhythms of MTV.

The place of the video cassette recorder (VCR) in the scheme of things is something to be debated. On the one hand it gives the television viewer greater control over what he or she watches, something desirable considering how poor the average television programming is; on the other hand it can be argued that taping shows that conflict with other shows (or with real life) and viewing them later or watching a video at home rather than going out on a Friday night simply further stunts one’s real life interaction with the world and other people and makes television an even more intrusive influence on family life.


But the fact is that a piece of equipment can not be good or bad, moral or immoral. At least for the Christian the question must be to what end we are using it and whether it controls us or we control it. Television, and by extension video, is a powerful teaching tool. It teaches values all the time: how characters speak to each other, how they look at one another, what they say to one another is giving us a very explicit map of the modern world.

This is a very serious situation for our children. Even “educational” programs can have subtle messages which conflict with the Christian world view. Recently, Harvard researchers found that children bred on normal doses of “Sesame Street” had little tolerance for silence and short attention spans, having become dependent upon a high level of stimulation and activity through the “sound bite” approach to education and entertainment. (This was contrasted with “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood” where there is a slower-paced creativity and imagination, emotional sensitivity, respect for the child and purposeful activity as the core of the “entertainment.”)

It seems that the responsible way to use a powerful tool is to put it into the hands of the responsible people. And so, you have psychologists warning parents to limit television viewing, to exercise authority over what kinds of shows can be watched, to help children make positive choices based on commonly held family values.

Given the popular culture where most anything goes and indiscriminate exposure of children to adult issues and images is not particularly discouraged, the parents who take this responsibility seriously will no doubt encounter resistance—from other parents and from the children themselves. It has to be a very lonely experience for a child to not be able to join in when the kids in school are all raving about a show they saw last night that he was not allowed to watch. Or when a sleepover is planned with video entertainment and your parents won’t let you go because the video is “R” rated. Other parents may pressure you and even ostracize you and your child by not inviting you to social events. Many parents may be unprepared for such a violent reaction and may ultimately back down, not because they have changed their mind, but because they feel isolated and unsupported. This is where the church has a definite ministry to fulfill.


With the VCR becoming as common in the American home as the second car and the microwave, we can expect that a good number of parishioners in a typical parish would own one. Many parishes even have quite sophisticated equipment for church school use. It is not unrealistic, therefore, to talk about the parish’s ministry to families using video.

There are two very simple and inexpensive ways to use video creatively in parish life and thereby influence the use of video in family life. One way is to sponsor social and educational events which center around the common viewing of a videotape. The other way is to begin a parish video library which would be accessible to parish families.

Sponsoring a Video Event

For six months in 1988, Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in Rahway, New Jersey sponsored “Friday Night at the Movies” at the rectory. Taking recommendations from a local Christian video store, a group of about ten people came for a relaxed social evening to view a 30-60 minute video and then discuss its impact over cake and coffee. Because we were meeting in a private home, video rental was two to three dollars. (It is against FBI regulations to use home video for showing in a public facility.) The smaller forum created far more intimate discussion and it became an excellent way for parishioners to get to know one another better. We could easily have rotated this event to other parishioners’ homes and have had even more than one going at the same time in a different geographical area or on a different theme.

An alternative to the slumber party with the “R’‘-rated video is a youth group party with a more edifying video, one that will spark debate about values, about ethics, about the meaning of love, commitment, faith, etc. These films need not be explicitly “Christian” to be meaningful and provocative. Even the most current movies can be viewed as a group, providing a way for young people to process the experience within a Christian framework. When using video as the core of an event, encouraging youth leaders to participate in the selection of the video strengthens the peer group to make responsible choices based on Christian values, a skill, which will serve them well throughout their Christian life.

Encourage church school lessons, youth events and adult education events to be organized around themes which can be supported by video presentations. For example, the James Dobson series “Focus on the Family” has been used successfully in many parishes to provoke discussion on critical family issues. There are many well-done series for children which dramatize Bible stories, moral values and even church history. These events can be held in private homes to supplement the regular education program and give both adults and children a sense of mutual support in living a Christian life style.

A Parish Library

Perhaps the most powerful way a parish can express support to parents in this age of video is to make good video easily available to their families. A casual browse through your local video store for something edifying can be a frustrating experience. There is very little that is appropriate for young children and even less that an entire family could watch together. Although some larger churches may open their libraries to the public, and some businesses somewhat screen the videos they offer to the public, starting one’s own parish library is not a difficult or terribly expensive undertaking.

To get started, obtain catalogues from the larger outfits that supply churches with video and films. The catalogues often annotate the films or will allow you to preview them at a small cost. We found one good supplier to be:

Film Presentation Co., Inc.
669 Route 27
lselin, NJ 08830
Outside NJ: 1-800-922-3456
NJ: 201-283-1700

Local churches and businesses will sometimes allow you to preview as well. Some of our dioceses and deaneries are already developing video libraries (New York and New Jersey, for one) and are a good source for suggestions and for previewing.

From this process, create your wish list. Publish this list in your parish bulletin with the cost of each video and ask each family to donate one video. Or, take donations in memory of the deceased or in lieu of flowers for funerals. Set a goal of 20 or 30 videos as an initial stock so that families will have a selection and not be discouraged if the one they want is not available. Set up rules for borrowing and a time for browsing. Sunday coffee hour would be a natural time to return and borrow, giving maximum visibility to the library. Make sure the “librarian” can answer questions about the content of each video, the age for which it is intended, etc. Regularly update the list of videos in circulation with a colorful brochure. Include a standard and simple evaluation sheet each time you loan a video to help you with future purchases. Give the church school administration and the youth group some say over the selection of the videos for purchase and include the priest and others in the previewing. Keep up with new releases and don’t forget to update your wish list periodically.

The cost of video cassettes varies with the producer. Whereas the video rental (for public showing) runs from $15 to $40, the cost of purchase is usually $30 to $50 depending upon the length. When purchasing the videos you should specify that it is for “home use.” Most producers will allow video specified for home use to be shown in churches for study purposes in small groups (such as a church school class). Any public showing of home use video constitutes a copyright violation; a public license is necessary.


We began by suggesting that the parish has a ministry to families in the area of video because families need support and suggestions to make intelligent and spiritually sound choices for their children. But it is no less true that given these tools, the individual Christian family then has the potential to minister to other parents and children in its neighborhood by inviting them in to watch a video and sharing thoughts about it afterwards. It is by means of such personal witness and commitment to those people God has put in our path, that the parish’s witness and influence in the community will be experienced.

Denise Jillions, wife of, Fr. John Jillions, Holy Trinity Church, Rahwey, NJ and mother of two sons, is currently a member of the Pre-Conciliar Commission for the 9th All-American Council. She is the former Chairman of the Department of Lay Ministries and continues as a member.