As more evangelicals begin to wrestle with questions of technology and how it shapes our local congregations, I suspect there will be many who sympathize with the position articulated quite ably and boldy by John LaGrou:

The virtually-connected church now has on-line access to the finest teaching and preaching imaginable, accessible at their convenience, 7 x 24 x 365. Of what value is physically proximate information (e.g., stage-centric pastor) when the average person can now access the best sermons, preaching, teaching, and cross-referenced commentary on-line?

Though John doesn’t point it out, the question does not simply cut against the virtual church, but against those churches who utilize video sermons.  Fundamentally, there is no reason why any local church should continue to listen to Pastor Bob drone on and on when they can get the video of John Piper instead.  What’s more, why simply have John Piper when you can alternate with Mark Driscoll?  The use of video among multi-site churches (and, full disclosure, I attend one, though not for this reason) destroys any in principle reason why such an ‘all star’ conglomeration of video sermons shouldn’t be employed.

It has been my hypothesis of late that the rapid development and adoption of new technologies is exposing our anemic ecclesiologies and misguided understanding of the role and nature of the proclomation of the Word.  Until evangelicals properly articulate why the Church gathers and hear’s the Word of God, and then shapes its churches accordingly, we will continue to be co-opted by technologism.

And that is probably the strongest statement I’ve ever made publicly on the matter.

At its core, John’s insistence on preaching of a certain sort denies that the Church is shaped by the Word of God, in favor of the quality with which it is explicated.  The use of video screens and the virtuality of the Church depends upon us coming to hear Pastor Bob preach the Word of God, rather than to hear God in His Word through Pastor Bob.  If the latter, then we are called to open ourselves even to the least of preachers, in order to ensure that we do not miss God’s word for us.

In this way, John’s rejection of ‘comparatively mediocre religious talk’ is instructive.  Most local churches are comparatively mediocre.  But they are not ‘talk.’  They, even the least skilled among them, are charged with proclaiming the Word of God, and in no way is that comparable with a lecture or a transmission of information.  It is on a different plane, for it is a plane where God speaks through His word.

Such speaking, of course, may sound to our ears dull and prosaic.  As Augustine points out in his Confessions, Scripture is not Scripture because of its aesthetic qualities.  While the Psalms are doubtlessly masterpieces, the bulk of Scripture is relatively prosaic compared to the masterful heights of Greek drama and poetry.   A similar principle is, I think, at work in the act of preaching.  And as JT has reminded us, a mature person is easily edified.

All of this amounts to a defense of mediocre pastors and the recognition that even in their proclamation they are not alone.  It is the duty of the congregation to seek, to listen, to ask the God who speaks to speak through His humble servant’s lips.

John is right:  the local sermon will not go away.  But the foundations for it are crumbling, and it is encumbent upon conservatives to articulate reasons for it, lest it go the way of the marmoset.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

5 Comments

  1. I take it that when you say we need to go to church to “hear God in His Word through Pastor Bob” you mean that we need to listen to the pastor give a sermon. But why do we need to hear sermons? Why not just go to hear a reading from Scripture? Do we also need to hear the Scriptures expounded and exegeted?

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  2. Gary,

    Yes, I think that Scripture in church should be accompanied by exegesis. As such, preaching is a real office of church ministry and discipline. Why do I think this? For one, that seems to be the pattern that we see a lot in the NT, where the OT Scriptures are read and then commented upon. But I can think of other systematic reasons as well. Note that this might be a point of difference between Protestantism and RCism or Orthodoxy. One of Barth’s polemics against RC theology in the CD 1:1 is that they ignore the role of preaching in the proclamation of the Word and skip straight to sacraments.

    matt

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  3. […] a post that seems to take up where I left off, Matthew Anderson challenged evangelicals to “properly articulate why the Church gathers and hears the Word of God, and then shapes its […]

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  4. Hi Matthew,

    Thanks for engaging with this.

    My core purpose in questioning the sermon is less about the sermon itself and more about finding ways to make our physical gatherings more participatory, more engaged with each other as a community, more inclusive and body-oriented. When everyone spends most of their gathered time facing a stage, the physical ecclesia becomes more of a consumer event which perpetuates an artificial duality of “lay” and “clergy.”

    I appreciate the attempts at justifying this all in the name of “hearing the word of God” but recall that >90% of the NT population could not read. “Hearing” was the only way people learned about Jesus. Fast-forward to today — my son and his tribe are now the most communicative text-centric generation ever.

    I’m inclined to think that NT references to “hearing” are more a product of evolutionary history than some eternal, unchanging truth. I’m not convinced that there is something magical about “hearing” versus “reading” whether it be exegesis or straight text reading. Moreover, I’m inclined to think that “being” and “doing” the “word of God” are ultimately more central to ecclesia than “hearing” or “reading.” Alas, “being and doing” can only occur when we are truly -engaged- as a body of Christ, not simply a gathering of believers fixated on a stage.

    I offer that today’s physical-ecclesial gathering is imbalanced and due for some fundamental change. Such change rarely initiates from established power. But I think emerging virtually-connected generations are going to usher in these changes organically, not as protest, but as an outgrowth of their virtually connected lives and communities – a natural progression which reflects new ways of community interaction.

    That’s just how I envision it. Could be totally wrong :-).

    Did you and Andrew have your debate? Is it on-line anywhere? V best, JL

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  5. Here is an example of what Matt is talking about, i.e., the need for preaching to accompany the reading of Scripture:

    Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people…. [T]he Levites helped the people to understand the Law…. They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading…. And all the people went their way…to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them. (Nehemiah 8:5-8,12)

    This is copied from John Piper’s most recent blog post, very apropos.

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