Thou shalt not podcast, huh?

Christianity Today has an opinion piece on How podcasting hurts preaching: sermons belong in church, not in our earbuds. It certainly raises questions.

For instance, the author of this article seems to have a very elevated view of how the sermon works when he writes that

churches could stream a message live for the appointed time of the sermon itself, but the effect on the user should be, like the kids say these days about their favorite concerts: ”You had to be there.”

Sermon podcasting reveals a utilitarian misunderstanding of how our messages create a sense of meaning. The sermon is not an interchangeable part that can be removed from the context of worship while still maintaining its power, its authority, and its efficacy. It retains at most one of these, diluting or eliminating the other two.

Do you really “have to be there”? Is the sermon the climactic moment of a seamless worship experience that creates a synergistic energy among the participants?

In most cases, listening to a sermon at home would increase its power, authority, and efficacy. I don’t actually listen to podcasts, but I have listened to recorded sermons before — for instance, chapel sermons that I really liked in college and wanted to hear again or share, and cd series on certain topics by teachers like David Jeremiah. They’ve been a great way to focus in and learn about a subject in greater depth. Also, unlike what happens when sitting in a pew, they permit me to pause the sermon when something really grabs me and stimulates more thought. If this happens in a church setting, you miss what the preacher is saying while reflecting on something particularly meaningful.

I’m also skeptical that the sermon is the multidimensional phenomenon this author seems to think it is. It’s a lecture. It takes place at the same time every week, in the same point in the service, and your role is the same: sit still, be quiet, and listen. The article’s author speculates that podcasts are partly responsible for dropping attendance:

By giving away their best material online, churches may actually be incentivizing their crowd not to attend. It’s not a coincidence that the 2015 Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Study found the greatest drops in attendance among the young, digitally connected generation.

Moreover, their number one reason for skipping church was not theological differences but boredom. Your smartphone is not boring; it has an infinity of entertainments, tools, distractions, and pleasures all within a few milliseconds of your anxiety.

This hardly supports his point, implying as it does that even outside of church, this audience is not listening to a sermon but skipping around looking for entertainment. The question is, why do they find sermons boring? One of the interesting discussions in iGen pointed out that the lecture format was the problem, and this is one way I can relate to iGen. I’ve sat through quite a number of lectures in my life, as both a lifelong church attender and a PhD. I know the drill and have demonstrated that I have the requisite attention span and humility. But the truth is, the passivity makes this format dull. In any long monologue, there are statements that bear questioning, probing, unpacking. A more conversational format that opens the door to discussion would be a far more effective way to address waning church attendance than banning podcasts, because it would permit the captive audience to become more active participants in engaging the material. But the captive audience model rules in churches, as Adam McHugh points out in The Listening Life:

Our church signs lay out the usual pattern. Come this Sunday for our message: “Where Is God When It Hurts?” This week’s sermon: “Abraham and Isaac: The Untold Story.” Sunday morning at 9 and 11: “Your One True Love.” The expectation is clear: if you come to church, you are going to listen. The church’s job is to preach, to teach the Bible and to share God’s opinions on the issues of the day, and your job is to listen to our message. We have a pulpit, and you have ears.

Imagine if the pattern was reversed. What if, instead of coming to church to be preached to, people came to church to be heard? What if the body of believers was known less as a preaching community and more as a listening community?

Along with its glorified view of the standard church service and its logical problem in trying to link podcasts to falling church attendance, there is one other problem in the article. Podcasts are simply the latest form of preserving sermons. Sermons have existed in written form, and been read, for centuries. They have never been a phenomenon reserved exclusively for the live setting of a church service. Who would have heard of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” if it was an unrepeatable live event? Who would have benefited from Martyn Lloyd Jones? Where would the darlings of today — the Tim Kellers and the John Pipers — be? Who, for that matter, would have heard of the Sermon on the Mount?

The article is mainly an alarm about how churches are giving away their “perceived value.” How is this anything more than a turf war — a frantic effort to make the modern American church service format integral to the gospel? I would propose instead that what’s happening may well be a transformation from an old wineskin to a new one. The transformation is in process, incomplete, uncertain, and therefore uncomfortable, especially to those traditionally in privileged or powerful positions. But perhaps it is needed nonetheless. G.K.Chesterton writes best about the ongoing transformation and tenacity of the church in The Everlasting Man:

Again and again, before our time, men have grown content with a diluted doctrine. And again and again there has followed on that dilution, coming as out of the darkness in a crimson cataract, the strength of the red original wine…

This is the final fact, and it is the most extraordinary of all. The faith has not only often died but it has often died of old age. It has not only been often killed but it has often died a natural death; in the sense of coming to a natural and necessary end…

Feudalism had passed away, and the words did not pass away. The whole medieval order, in many ways so complete and almost cosmic a home for man, wore out gradually in its turn: and here at least it was thought that the words would die. They went forth across the radiant abyss of the Renaissance and in fifty years were using all its light and learning for new religious foundations, new apologetics, new saints. It was supposed to have been withered up at last in the dry light of the Age of Reason; it was supposed to have disappeared ultimately in the earthquake of the Age of Revolution. Science explained it away; and it was still there. History disinterred it in the past; and it appeared suddenly in the future. To-day it stands once more in our path; and even as we watch, it grows… ‘Heaven and earth shall pa away, but my words shall not pass away.’

3 thoughts on “Thou shalt not podcast, huh?

  1. Odd that the author would consider live-streaming a service to be a better choice than having recorded messages available. I find that the most “you had to be there” part of a message is the listening/watching in community. I love to discuss the sermon with my husband on the way home from church – and like it even more when a family member is visiting us (both our families live far from us so they come to church with us when they visit) and we have an additional person or people to discuss with. Having a recorded message enables Daniel or I to still listen to the message and discuss it even if one of us is at home with a sick kid (whose sickness might mean we couldn’t pay attention to a streamed message).

  2. I, too, think it’s odd the author would have a problem with podcasted sermons when there have been radio sermons or churches recording the sermons for people to listen to at home for years. I do tend to get more from a sermon at home, too, when I can have a Word document open to take notes, a Bible site open, and can stop or go back and repeat as needed.

    But I am not against the sermon as the main part of the service. Paul preached long enough for someone to fall asleep and fall out a window. And “it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe,” although admittedly that might mean “proclaiming” rather than a 30-40 minute sermon. I think our listening habits are getting us to the point where it’s harder to listen to something that long, but I don’t think that’s the fault of the format itself.

    Most churches also have Sunday School classes or small groups that are more interactive. I’ve enjoyed many Sunday Schools, but not so much small groups. The more it’s open for anyone to share anything, the more someone goes off on a tangent or hobby horse or rabbit trails are pursued, etc. I’d much rather listen to one qualified, prepared person speak than listen to that.

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