Pastors in developed countries around the world are forced into something they have only rarely attempted: preaching to an audience they cannot see. The covid-19 crisis has forced the same pastors who five years ago were writing about the theological substandard nature of streaming sermons to do just what they condemn, stream sermons. For many pastors who have joined the campus site with streaming video phenomenon, this is just one more step into the virtual direction. For other pastors, who have staunchly refused to use magnification screens in larger churches or online streaming for even average churches, they have no choice but to downgrade their commitments. Two questions seem very pertinent in a time like this: 1) How do we preach to an online audience well? 2) How can we understand this for the long haul, biblically, theologically, pastorally?
The order we think about these things is almost always backward. We have to, so how?
In this article I want to pause, and ask the second question first. How do we understand preaching via video biblically, theologically, pastorally?
3 Myths About Online Preaching
Myth #1. Theological: Video sermons are not Incarnational, therefore they are not truly preaching.
This is a common myth I have seen even practical theologians claiming. These people trained theologically to think carefully about the practices of the church. Applying the logic of the incarnation of God in the person of Christ, these thinkers argue that preaching is intended to be an inherently in-person, in-the-flesh practice. Quite a few have gone so far as to call preaching via video “gnostic.” Drawing on the historical and present day heresy that claims the physical does not matter, only the spiritual, these preachers see this as a body-free spirituality; a presence-less Christianity. And because it lacks “in the flesh” reality, it must be gnostic. Something about the live preaching of the Word is powerful, anointed, and life-transforming. With that we can agree. The question is not whether or not preaching in person is so distinct from live preaching as to not be preaching at all. Or worse, to be false preaching because of the mode of delivery. The question is whether or not preaching via video is valid as an enduring option. Even just last year some were arguing that it is not. The current situation, is hopefully shifting that thinking at least for the short term. What about preaching by video for the long tern?
Though I will debunk this myth more biblically in the section on Biblical thought below, let me say here that video preaching is incarnational. How so? The preacher is not in person you say, they are not “in the flesh.” The analogy of the incarnation is not based upon personal presence to each and every encounter. Christ was incarnated whether we were there to see it in person at the time or not. Incarnational logic asks us to enflesh, and contextualize the gospel in our preaching. It asks us to allow preaching to be “truth poured through personality” as Beuchner so famously put it. When a person preaches, no matter the medium, it is inherently incarnational because they are embodying the word by the very fact of speaking it. Crafting a sermon in their own language is incarnational. Discerning contextual implications and applications is incarnational. If the incarnation was only about real, immediate, right-now, face-to-face presence then what has been “passed to us” by reliable witnesses would have no meaning for us. For we were not there in person to see with our own eyes, and touch with our own hands. In other words, scripture itself would be gnostic because the prophets and apostles are not present with us in the flesh.
Video preaching actually is incarnational in that a person brings the Word through their personhood and body, in contextual and applicable ways. This leads to another pastoral dimension of the question: the sociological.
Myth #2. Sociological: This is a passing season which we should let pass us by
I remember sitting at a lunch table with pastors and theologians in 2008. My statement to them was that by 2020 campus sites with video sermons in churches would be as common as multiple services with different worship styles were in 2000. The argument against the idea was strong. The statements against this “fad” were interesting. 2020 was the specific year primarily because it marked the end of the next decade and gave enough time for the exponential growth to occur. At the time it was a bold claim. I believed it because I had attended a multisite campus from 2005-2007, researched the viability of campus-sites as a primary church planting method, and followed the track of expansion of campus-site ministry in the US. Most at the table felt pastors who were pursuing campus site ministry with video venues had sold out for the sake of easy growth.
– In 1990 there were only 10 multi site churches in the US.
– By 1998 there were 100 in all of the states.
– By 2005 there were almost 1000 according to leadnet.org and Christianity Today.
By 2010 the numbers became so overwhelming it is difficult to find any accurate measurement of the mushrooming multiplication of multi-site churches. Now in 2020, what seemed like a bold claim in 2008, feels like a common place statement. Multiple worship style churches have drastically diminished and multi-site churches have multiplied.
Some will argue that it will pass like the worship wars passed (I know some of you are still deep in the trenches in a worship war of your own.) Here are two key differences to consider.
A) The worship wars were driven by a multi-generational shift in style and The shift to video sermons is driven by disruptive technological inventions and a fundamental shift in society’s structure.
B) The worship wars were an internal-to-the-church phenomenon in almost every way due to the fact that worship style and format had not changed while the society around it had. The shift to video modality and online streaming is a society-wide shift. And might I add…the faction who desired to shift worship styles to reflect the younger to middle-aged stylistic preferences won the war. By attrition if by no other means. Though a small minority will hold on and are holding on to past styles, they diminish every year. Even hymns now are sung in praise and worship musical style.
Preaching via video is not a fad. It is a response to a fundamental shift in society created by a disruptive technological innovation. Church will change in ways that it cannot avoid. The local church where the bell was rung fifteen minutes before the start of Sunday School so that people would leave their front door and start walking went away. Why? The car was invented.
Video sermons are not a passing fad, they are a response to a fundamental shift in society. In that sense, it is sociological. But it is not “merely” a social moment. It will endure. The question is not if we will or if we should, but how we can best preach via video.
Myth #3) Spirit(ual): The third myth about video preaching is that the Spirit comes in a room where a pastor preaches in person in unique ways you cannot experience through video preaching.
From a pneumatology perspective (theology of the Spirit) this is strange. Think about it, God is everywhere. As my friend and colleague Chris Bounds is fond of preaching, “Where God is present in part, He is present in whole.” This flows from the doctrine of divine simplicity. It is not as if God is only partially present somewhere. So if God is present in the Spirit, God is present in the Spirit. And God is present everywhere. So to argue that the Spirit cannot be present in a room where people are gathered to listen to a video (whether a living room quarantine, or a campus site worship service) is theologically wrong. It is not just questionable, it is wrong. Jesus himself seems to speak against the concept saying “where two or three are gathered in my name.” There are too many life-transformation stories of persons coming to faith while watching a video to share them all here.
That said, of course the experience of being with a larger group of people changes things. It also changes things to know the preacher can hear you when you respond with an “amen” or a laugh, or applause. Those feelings of the moment do not define the presence of the Spirit. There are unavoidably good things that happen when we are able to preach face to face with live response, and faces we can read. That does not mean the Spirit is absent other places or incapable of working in just as dramatic a fashion through other medium. What many are calling the “spirit” is the same dynamic they experience in live concerts or comedy shows. When you see or hear in person, the crowd phenomenon takes over and a certain euphoria can sweep the room. Is that what we mean by the Spirit? Does Dave Matthews have the Spirit then? Chris Rock?
This week a pastor’s sermon delivered to 9 people in the room including the camera operators was the guiding spiritual Word for my week. As I write this article, we are in the front edge of the Covid-19 isolation period. He had no choice but to preach to a small gathering and deliver it via video. It still sticks with me on Wednesday and both inspires and convicts me. The sermon was based on Paul and Silas singing in the prison. He called us to have holy reactions to every unholy distraction in our life, to remember that even in moments of confinement and isolation, others are listening. It was a great and timely Word. The Spirit spoke from deep to deep through that sermon and I am grateful for having heard it in my living room, mirroring it from my phone to my TV. That was unthinkable in 2008. Only the early adopters had an iPhone.
Biblical arguments for preaching by video
- The Bible itself is a technology based on a new cultural phenomenon.
The invention of papyrus by the Egyptians is something we learn about in elementary school. Of course prior to even papyrus people used clay, stones, pot sherds, vellum, or parchment and of course leather skins. The invention of writing allowed the person of the author to extend a message to people to whom they could not speak directly. It does not seem coincidental to me that lion share of the first books of the Old Testament are attributed by most of church history to a man trained by the culture that invented papyrus. What material the original scriptures were written may have been varied, but each of these were materials inventions. Writing itself was a way of extending the person to others. The New Testament is subject to an even greater invention – a common language. Koine or “common” Greek is part of the reason Christianity was able to spread so quickly. The Greek letters written by Jewish apostles could be read to a Jewish and Gentile audience aloud in worship. The “preacher” was not present, but the read Word of that preacher impacted the congregation deeply and guided their life together. In a way, the entire New Testament is a record of the “multi-site” revolution required by the Christian diaspora.
- The apostles themselves made intentional use of distance proclamation.
There is no other way to truly think about the unique function of what we call “Epistles.” They were letters in a way, but a more formal, eloquent and intentionally didactic way than a personal letter. Not an uncommon practice in the ancient world, but put to new use by the enterprising apostles. “Paul, an apostle…” begins the letter. The listeners heard the words of Paul through a medium…a letter read aloud. This was used to guide congregations from afar, disciple believers from afar, and ensure the unity of the church under the leadership of the church even if the leadership could not be physically present with them.
- Something is gained and something is lost by distance proclamation.
If it were not for the use of technology and unique social conventions, we would not be enjoying the New Testament epistles today. Something was gained. Perhaps even entire sermons (Hebrews) were frozen into transferable form so we could experience some portion of them today. Sure something is lost. We do not get to shake the preacher’s hand, receive the preacher’s prayer, engage in the altar service, or experience the validation of our response as we hear and see others respond in similar ways. Something is lost. But something is gained. One of the most important things I have ever done was put hours and hours of work into a single sermon for a single congregation. I did not think about it being recorded…it was just for them. It was not until they asked for permission to post and share it afterward that I thought about the medium the majority of listeners to that sermon would experience it by. Rarely a month goes by without an email from some person scattered somewhere in the world thanking me for that one particular sermon I meant only for a single group of people for one particular weekend. When sermons are on video, we gain something the apostles longed to have but could not have: the ability for their voice to be extended to others they could not be with in person.
What does it not mean?
Preaching in person is not going away. Video sermons are not the only way to extend the reach of the gospel. Video sermons are not the only way for multi site churches to work. One of the churches I work with and preach at has grown to over 52 locations by preaching the same text, the same topic, shared exegetical notes, and the same worship set but with different live preachers at every location. Video sermons are not without their downsides. Online church is not replacing the primacy of in-person church. Yet it also is not going to disappear along with the fading effects of a temporary health crisis.
What does all of the above mean for us today?
- We should not be the small minded and backward thinking members of the church who use shallow theology to fight unavoidable technological shifts.
- We should not allow people to demean the use of technological advances for the advancement of the gospel without offering gentle pastoral correction.
- We should find what is useful and best about preaching by video and use it to the glory of God and the honoring of Christ in the church.
- And for many of us, we should thank God for forcing us into this century so that we will learn how best to reach people who no longer have to drive a long way to see and hear a great sermon. Not thankful for the crisis, but thankful for the unexpected lessons along the way.
Preaching in person is not going away, but preaching by video is here to stay.
In our next article we will discuss “10 Best Practices for Video Sermons”
Dave Ward is the general editor for Wesleyan Sermons, the Professor of Homiletics and Practical Theology for Indiana Wesleyan University, a regular visiting faculty for Asbury Theological Seminary’s Doctor of Ministry program, and a faculty member of the newly created Every Nation Seminary in the Philippines. He is a sought after speaker and preaching coach as well as the author of Practicing the Preaching Life, Abingdon Press, 2019.
© David B. Ward, 2020, all rights reserved.