Nobody expected the COVID-19 pandemic. Life in the United States was going just dandy as we entered January 1, 2020. With the ubiquitous spread of this virus in the past several weeks; however, we have all been forced to learn on the fly how to preach sermons in a digital-church age. While there are tremendous challenges of this novel era, one of the ecclesial benefits is that potentially more listeners are clicking on our worship service(s).
For example, I listened to a few sermons this past Sunday, from a few different preachers, at a few different-sized congregations. And I noticed a common theme. The sermons were light on Scripture and heavy on anecdotes, psychology, videos, cultural analysis, politics, and emotions and fears. Rightly so. We are a nation that is deeply hurting and grieving. We want to pick people up emotionally. We want to get people out of their spiritual malaise. We want to encourage the helpless and hopeless with inspiring stories. It’s tempting, therefore, to dumb-down our sermons with less exegesis of Scripture and more exegesis of the culture.
Having authored a book called Preaching with Cultural Intelligence, I am a firm advocate of cultural exegesis. We must, as preachers, understand our wider culture. And, yet, at the same time, preaching with cultural intelligence does not mean preaching devoid of Scripture or preaching less Scripture. Rather, preaching with cultural intelligence means we understand God’s Word first and God’s people second. It’s preaching that’s robust in biblical exegesis and cultural exegesis. In this new digital-church age, let’s guard ourselves against preaching Scripture-lite sermons.
Here are three temptations which may try to lure us away from the Bible and get us to focus the sermon on ourselves and on our pressing societal concerns.
Going Digital Means Temptations Toward Entertainment
The battle of time management is profound in our “shelter-in-place” culture. More than ever, it’s easy to get distracted from our pastoral responsibilities. Many of us are spending a lot of time trying to figure out how to livestream a worship service and discovering ways to make ourselves available on a screen without being physically present with our people. This digital-learning curve eats up precious time and energy resources, while still coming to terms with our own laments, disappointments, and fears. It’s easy to spend countless minutes and even hours flipping through the latest news feeds and articles surrounding COVID-19. Yes, we need to be informed as Christians, but what we need more is spiritual power from the Holy Spirit.
Perhaps, more than ever, we and our congregants are numbing our pain and cabin-fever through entertainment such as watching movies and television series. One of the byproducts of this entertainment-driven lifestyle is that we subconsciously think that we must cater to the entertainment-driven world in order to be effective.
Going digital does not mean we must succumb to the idol of entertainment. We don’t need the slickest worship service, multi-angled video capabilities, or visually top-notched sermons.
Rather, spend your sermonic energies on helping your listeners faithfully interpret and apply God’s Word during this precarious season of life. We do not need fancy backgrounds, musical instrumentation, dramatic skits, tasteful artwork, clever memes, or clips from movies or television shows, to preach God’s Word effectively in a digital-church age. Don’t listen to and succumb to the devil’s lies. He may even want you to enjoy the “lime light” of preaching “on camera.”
Allow your Scripture text to speak to you and speak to the people. Allow God’s voice to communicate louder than what the culture is consumed by which is incessant worry, anxiety, fear, depression, and hopelessness.
Going Digital Means Temptations Toward Speaking to Our Usual Listeners
While potential visitors may not drive ten or twenty minutes to visit your church service, they may be willing to click a button and log in to your digital worship service on a Sunday morning. That means that we have the potential to reach more “unusual” listeners who do not currently attend our churches. They may have thought about checking out a service in the past, but now they actually will, even if in a virtual way.
COVID-19 has presented us with a unique window to preach the gospel to skeptics, the unchurched, wayward Christians, and adherents to other world religions. We now have the ability to share God’s redemptive plan with them during this COVID-19 pandemic.
My charge to all of us is to not let this opportunity slip by. We do not want to preach only to our usual listeners. We also don’t want to water-down, dumb-down our sermons because we’re afraid to offend seekers and the lost. Rather, we want to continue to demonstrate faithful interpretation of Scripture and to preach the gospel as much as possible.
While pastoral perspectives may differ on this topic, this may be a unique season of ministry where we have the opportunity in every single sermon to present the life-changing gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: his perfect sacrificial life, his death on the cross, his burial, his resurrection, his ascension, and his return.
As you think about preaching to unusual listeners, preach in such a way that makes the Bible attractive and Jesus attractive. Preach with a sense of curiosity by asking probing questions and by providing persuasive, apologetic arguments in a way that will intrigue those who do not yet know Jesus as Savior and Lord. Preach with a sense of urgency that this may be their one and final moment to receive Jesus as their Lord and Savior. We do not know what tomorrow will bring. They or a loved one may succumb to COVID-19 or some other disease and may never hear the gospel clearly presented to them.
Going Digital Means Temptations Toward Less Bible Exposition
A third reminder is that even if we have to sacrifice other ministerial responsibilities in a given week, don’t shortchange your time in sermon preparation and Bible teaching. In the first preaching class at Gordon-Conwell, one of the exercises is to have novice preachers preach an eight-minute sermon. Many students ask, “How much Bible exegesis can I actually include in such a short sermon?” The truth is: A lot. It depends on our priorities.
We may be tempted as we preach shorter sermons to focus less on Scripture and focus more on addressing listeners’ concerns and fears. We may be tempted to tell funny stories to lighten their burdens. While there is a pastoral responsibility to care for the flock, remember to keep the attention of your sermon on the Bible.
If you are already doing this, I encourage you to do so all the more. But, if you have felt the subtle or overt temptation to move away from rigorous biblical exegesis and time learning about the biblical author and the ancient world, I simply remind you of your God-given pastoral responsibility to feed God’s Word to God’s people. Pray against the temptation toward Bible-lite sermons.
Preaching in a digital-church age may stay the course or may last for a season. Only our Sovereign God knows what will happen in the weeks, months, and even years to come should the Lord tarry.
Preaching in a digital-church age invites unique challenges and opportunities. Press on in the Lord. Your work is not in vain. Focus on the Word. Focus on the gospel. Focus on exalting our God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Focus on loving your church members and preaching with a view toward Christlikeness. Focus also on delivering the unchanging Word and unchanging gospel to unusual listeners. Thank you for your faithful service to the Lord and his people.
This week I share the privilege to preach via live-stream for a local congregation. As I join you in this important pastoral endeavor, we pray together as Jesus prayed, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”
Matthew D. Kim is Associate Professor of preaching and ministry at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and the author of Preaching with Cultural Intelligence: Understanding the People Who Hear Your Sermons (Baker Academic, 2017).