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Today we live in a world where pastors of churches large and small post their sermons online almost immediately. Many live-stream and some churches even offer sophisticated viewing experiences allowing viewers to provide feedback. What’s more, the advent of smart phones and social media has made Sunday sermons an interactive experience. Social media on Sunday is filled with comments and quotes drawn from the church service. Christian conferences are chronicled live on Twitter with special hash tags, Instagram pictures, and commentary.

Some lament (link mine) this new reality. They say we are eroding the value of the incarnational experience of hearing a message. This is a valid concern, but pastors and church leaders must deal with the world that is: a digital conversation that is here to stay. So preachers must reckon with reality: when you walk up to the pulpit or lectern, you are not merely speaking to the room. You are speaking the outside world as well.

This reality shouldn’t change the substance of the old-time gospel story. But it should cause us to think through the content we deliver, knowing we are often speaking simultaneously to both the choir and to outsiders, some of whom are ready to pounce on every stray word.

So far as it goes, this communications advice Dan Darling offered to pastors on preaching in the age of podcasting is sound. If you’re a public figure who makes a living communicating, you should follow his advice unless you want to end up with a massive PR nightmare on your hands. Yet what’s troubling about the piece is perhaps precisely that point: I could give the exact same advice to any other communications professional without really changing any of it. Note how effortlessly Darling assumes that pastors do record their sermons and make them available as podcasts. The unjustified assumption behind this piece–left unjustified, one assumes, because no one bothers to argue against it these days–is that pastors should make their sermons available as podcasts. But why do we make that assumption so effortlessly? Why should we record and podcast sermons? There are, after all, very good reasons not to record them–we just have forgotten them.

The first and most important reason to not publish is that sermons are a form of rhetoric meant to be delivered orally in person within the broader context of the church’s liturgy for public worship and the pastor’s particular knowledge of (and affection for) that particular church. The sermon as a piece of rhetoric cannot be understood apart from the pastor’s role as a soul carer and not merely an inspirational speaker or Bible lecturer. Sermons assume personal proximity and a pastoral relationship–or at least the potential for one–between the preacher and the hearer. The sermon is meant to aid the congregation in spiritual formation through the preaching of the Gospel and explanation of the Christian faith. It’s not just a data dump, in other words, but is rather a highly contextualized message meant to help the church members mature in the faith.

Evangelicals are, thankfully, beginning to be more clear on this point. When I was growing up, the sermons I heard were zoomed in on specific texts to such a degree that the sermon sometimes turned into a Greek word study or an exercise in listing parallel passages without ever connecting that text to the broader message of the faith or the person and work of Christ. That is changing though, as the ongoing discussion of Christ-centered preaching amongst reformed evangelicals demonstrates.

We recognize that if the sermon simply informs the hearer about certain facts or moral lessons in a given text without relating that to God’s redemptive work in some way, then that sermon is missing something significant. (This is not to say that every sermon preaches the Gospel in the same way or talks about the same exact things–we are called to preach the whole counsel of God. But preaching as an act is unintelligible apart from the reality of the Gospel, which must be clear in every sermon.)

When people attempt to decontextualize other elements of the liturgy, more reflective evangelicals wisely raise concerns. We understand–or at least we should understand–that Jack Christian can’t go down to the store, buy some Oyster crackers and grape juice, go home and consume them by himself and say he participated in the Eucharist. There is an understanding in these areas that when these acts happen within the Christian liturgy they possess a unique coherence and integrity that disappears when they are removed from that setting. So why do we understand that with the Eucharist but not with preaching?

This brings us to the second concern, which is that the pastor is not a spiritual CEO or–wretched phrase–“thought leader,” but a shepherd of souls. Though becoming a celebrity preacher is not by definition inimical to being a good soul carer, it does seem to be incredibly difficult based on the exceedingly questionable track record of many celebrity preachers in American Christianity.
This is a particularly important concern today in an era when experts are given a quasi-divine status. In politics, we are only six years removed from the Messiah fervor that surrounded President Obama’s campaign. In journalism we have websites built around single individuals as well as the rise of the wonks and the attendant hope that if we just unleash a group of hyper-competent geeks with calculators they will solve all our problems. In the business world, we have the personality cults built around self-help gurus and the LinkedIn influencer channel–which is as nauseatingly careerist as it sounds. (Before I entered the business world I struggled to imagine a group of people who could do greater violence to language than what is routinely done by politicians. Then someone introduced me to TED talks.)

Within this atmosphere, it is very easy for pastors to become a spiritual-sounding Oprah or Seth Godin. They get hip glasses, turn the weekly sermon into a podcast, and release a few books. With a bit of luck (or enough money) they can end up on a bestseller list and reap the considerable cultural benefits associated with that.

Because such cults are something of the default social body today (personality cults and the state are often all that’s left after the disintegration of society’s little platoons) they are incredibly versatile: More conventional types can maintain a pretty strong personality cult within their local church while more radical sorts can simply port that cult over onto a TV network and go on tour with Oprah.

But in both cases, the office of the pastor has been eaten up by the forces of the market and our obsession with experts. And when you lose track of the pastor’s actual role, the local church itself begins to lose its coherence. Rather than being a visible manifestation of God’s covenant people, bound together around a shared Christian life grounded in Word and Sacrament, it becomes little more than a group rallied around a charismatic individual that offers its members some good feelings and nice social capital.

Interestingly, we have precedent in church history for choosing not to publish sermons. In the 16th century, John Calvin strongly resisted attempts to publish his sermons. This isn’t because Calvin disliked publishing in general. He published his Bible commentaries and, obviously, The Institutes. But Calvin believed those works could be understood intelligibly outside of the liturgical context in a way that sermons could not.

Calvin, unfortunately, had his hand forced by the release of fake sermon manuscripts. But most of today’s pastors are under no such pressure to publish their sermons. And so I ask: Why do we simply assume that sermons ought to be recorded and made available for free online? Why do we take it for granted that people will treat the sermon as a disembodied piece of information to be relayed at any time in any place? And why do we encourage them toward that end? If we wish to have a record of the sermons, why not record them and simply make them available to those who need them, such as shut-ins or people who missed the sermon that week? Reactionary Ludditism obviously doesn’t help the church, but neither does a thoughtless of technological trends that treats those trends as being value-neutral. If we shape our buildings before they shape us, then our use of technology isn’t simply a question of how to use neutral tools, but of how we wish to be shaped as churches. In other words, the church’s relationship to technology is not purely pragmatic, it is also formative.

Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy, and son Wendell. Jake's writing has appeared in Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play.

  • Anecdotally, what I have seen recorded sermons used for in the past 15 years:

    1. Required listening for any small group/cell group leaders who for whatever reason were not there on Sunday as weekly bible studies and discussions were often centered around the Sunday sermon. I’ve seen this in several churches that required a high level of involvement, both Reformed and Charismatic instances. They were viewed as key tools to get everyone in the congregation “on the same page”.

    2. Used by people moving to the area to find a new church. Rather than visit 10 churches and be adrift for 3 months after relocating across the country, the spend an evening sampling sermons and narrow the list of places to try down to 2 or 3. Have increasingly heard this as a reason given by visitors for their initial presence.

    3. You mentioned that sermons can be made available upon request to people that missed them and really want to catch up. Logistically, this takes more work and inevitably, someone makes a request that falls through the cracks. The obvious solution is to just post everything. The effort could have just as likely have been lead by the church secretary rather than a pastor trying to promote himself.

    4. Since most evangelical churches do not follow a lectionary or some similar topic list, sermons are typically designed entirely from scratch. Many pastors desire to expound on a particular subject in great detail, requiring a long sermon series that spans 4-10 hours-length sessions. Sometimes the messages are also written to be self-contained, but frequently not. In that case, both the speaker and the interested listener will feel more compelled than usual to “not miss an episode”. This has likely also driven more than a few sermons online.

    5. One should not forget the incredible impact that cassette tape sermon ministries had in the 1980s and 1990s. Though the Reformed tended to be more influenced by swapping books around, I know of quite of few of them, as well as a multitude of Charismatics and even Catholics that were highly influenced by these audio-recordings – often available for just the price of shipping. In a sense, putting your sermon on a podcast is simply an extension of the same routine rather than something new this decade.

    6. I think that often the largest consumers of pastor’s sermons are in fact other pastors, not general parishioners. I recently asked casually at a gathering of local pastors from several traditions what they liked to listen to (music, etc.) and discovered than nearly everyone in the room had Tim Keller on their iPod. Why? To help improve their craft. He’s really good and worth emulating. Someone might make a similar suggesting that N.T. Wright should be read just to see how top-notch New Testament studies should be conducted. Musicians, especially people in jazz and folk traditions, spend an incredible amount of time listening to recordings for just such a purpose.

    7. This brings me to my last point. Besides preaching, what is the other major component in worship services? The music. And the dominant form of music pedagogy long ago shifted to recordings. That sermons should follow suit and be listed side by side with the tunes is not something that has happened in isolation. For better or worse, a great number of things we do each day have been modularized and digitized.

    I agree completely that this use of technology is not neutral and has real consequences. I just wanted to point out some other possible motivations behind all this in addition to the ones you suggested. Thanks for the piece Jake!

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  • It’s good to reflect on our use of technology, and not just to adopt it uncritically, but I do find sermon podcasts helpful.

    I particularly find it good for catching up on sermons from my own church if I’m away. It’s no substitute for being physically present, but helps me to stay connected with what’s being taught rather than missing out completely. I also listen to sermons from my previous church in another city and by preachers I know personally, probably more so than “celebrity” preachers.

    Perhaps a good option for churches to consider is not to make sermons permanently available, but just the last couple of weeks, or current sermon series? That way it offers the “catch up” option for attendees and something for enquirers to sample, but lessens the risk of building a celebrity cult around particular preachers by having large quantities of material online.

  • Luke Taylor

    For no spiritual reason at all, I put my sermons up on the site for two reasons: one personal and selfish, and one practical.

    The first is because I hate the idea of doing the study, saying the words, and then having them disappear after that night. I’ve grown up in an age where everything is available seemingly forever. If I watch a good movie or hear a good song, I want to revisit it; I don’t want a re-performance, I want it to be the same as it was the first time. If I hear a really good sermon, I want to listen to it again just like I rewatch my favorite parts on The Empire Strikes Back. The idea of hearing “Pompeii” by Bastille just one time and never getting to hear it again is painful for me to imagine. And a sermon can be so deep and my brain so shallow and forgetful that it can be good to revisit the message at my own convenience or necessity.

    I also put my sermons up for transparency. I’m a youth pastor. I don’t want my senior pastor or any of my teens’ parents to wonder what I’m teaching, so I make my sermons public ASAP so that if someone has a problem with something I said- or if a kid misunderstands my message and misrepresents what I actually- we can go back to the original and find out who was in the wrong. Maybe it even was me, maybe I need some correction; that hasn’t happened yet, but I’m not perfect.

    Recently someone from California was complaining to me about their pastor. They said he was preaching on Jonah and taught it as a legend, not as historical narrative, and this guy was mad about it. I went to his church’s website, listened to his pastor’s sermon, and realized that the guy complaining misunderstood his pastor. His pastor was merely comparing how some scholars look at Jonah to orthodox beliefs; he wasn’t downgrading Jonah to a story. Apparently the angry Californian wasn’t paying enough attention to his pastor and missed the point. In this case, the church making their sermons available publicly protected their reputation.

  • David

    Thanks for the blog post. I love listening to sermon podcasts, and do so almost every week. However, I share your concerns. I did a D.Min. dissertation studying the subtle influence that podcasting can have on preaching at the local level. It is difficult for a preacher’s communication to his congregation to be unaffected by the knowledge that the rest of the world will be eavesdropping via the internet on everything he says. The danger is that we might gradually begin to preach to our unseen cyber-listeners rather than to the men & women God has called us to feed. Some pastors have developed ways to guard against this influence, but most of us are adopting new technology without engaging in any reflection at all. Secular communication theorists have much to teach us about the impact of technology invariably has on human communication.

  • wyclif

    I’ve been an early adopter of a lot of technology. Personal computers? Check. Mobile phones? Check. Blogging? Check. Streaming music? Check. Public bookmarks? Check. Twitter? Check. Podcasting? Check.

    But I don’t put my sermons online, and Jake has admirably explained many of the reasons why I don’t. The sermon is not, as he puts it, “a disembodied piece of information.” It doesn’t matter to me if everybody—or at least, all pastors that I admire—do it. I don’t need to contribute to this trend of decontextualisation, and I believe the dangers outweigh the benefits.

  • Craig Bogins

    A friend of mine wrote a paper on just this topic a few years ago (2010) for the Evangelical Homiletics Society: http://ehomiletics.com/papers/ . . . it’s worth reading.

  • Man, what a better church we’d have if Augustine and Chrysostom and St. Peter (Acts 2) and Luther and Wesley had just proclaimed their sermons and then burned the manuscripts…. :-/

    I do take your basic point about technology, embodiment, presence and community… but still believe the overwhelming witness of history and experience shows that the published (and now podcasted, streamed, vidcasted, etc) sermon has a valid and valued place – not to take the place of the “live” proclamation to the sacred assembly, but as an extension of it, and a tool the Holy Spirit can use to do transforming work.

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  • Chris E

    Should worship music be recorded?

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