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.