Updated: Sep 11, 2022
With the advent of new technology, new possibilities are introduced to the human experience. The rise of computers, the internet, and smartphones has—for all intents and purposes—shrunk the world into our hands. We have access to almost anyone, anywhere, and anything with a few taps on our Iphones (what’s an Android?)
And technology has been hugely beneficial in so many ways. We all experienced its benefits when Covid shut the world down in early 2020. Many churches were (with a learning curve) able to transition online during the shutdown. Some resumed in-person services fairly quickly; others took their time before coming back together. Either way, we entered a new era of “The Screen Preacher.”
Some of my own congregants sent me pictures of them watching me on the screen while they lounged comfortably in their easy chairs and sipped their coffee. Some even threatened never to return because of this new found ease and comfort (they were kidding, of course…I think).
Many larger churches have been experimenting with screen-based services for several years, even before Covid hit. Mega-Churches with multiple services and multiple campuses sprawled around a city, most of which use a screen to watch what goes on at another location.
There is even talk of virtual-reality Church with Facebook's new platform, Meta.
But, before we just receive all the advancements of technology without questioning anything, we should ask ourselves, is screen preaching and screen worship the best option? Just because it's available, does that mean it's good? Is that how God intends for us to gather and worship? Is there something better, more real, and spiritually beneficial about being physically in the room with the Elder as he opens the Word of God for the people of God?
I was thinking about this recently as I was watching one of my own sermons on our church Youtube page—something I do somewhat regularly. We livestream our services (a product of Covid) and our main motivations for live-streaming is twofold:
First, we have the livestream for our members who are not able to join us in person—mainly the elderly and shut-in, those who are immunocompromised and cannot safely get out, and those members who may be traveling that week.
Second, we record and stream our services in order to build a theological resource library for our people.
Anyhow, I was watching myself preach and started to sense an odd feeling of artificiality. It felt fake.
As I continued to watch, I was also thinking, “Why does this feel so strange?” I was the one delivering the sermon. I also remember delivering the sermon. I remember making facial expressions and bodily movements. I remember it. But still something felt off. The screen was betraying something that left me feeling artificial…there was something missing.
And then it hit me…The people were missing!
The congregation to whom I was preaching…they aren’t in the view. They cannot be seen. And because of that, my sermon delivery in the video is only partial. What I was seeing on the screen cannot be fully understood because half of the equation was missing…even for me, as I watched myself, the one who delivered the sermon.
An Embodied Act
That brings us to an interesting point: Preaching is an embodied act. Embodied means, “in the flesh,” so, preaching is most effectively and rightly done in the flesh, face-to-face, among a particular people. Preaching is one of the most fundamental shepherding acts a Pastor/Elder can do among his people as he opens the Word of God before their living faces.
In fact, as we think about this embodied act, we understand that it is not just an embodied act, but an incarnational act. Preaching is incarnational.
-In the Christian theological tradition, the Incarnation refers to the eternal second member of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, putting on a human body, thereby becoming both fully God and fully man. And, this is now His nature forevermore (Phil. 2:5-11).
When we apply that to preaching, it means that when the Preacher stands before his people, he is bringing the realities of the risen Lord Jesus to bear on those people, in that place, at that time.
The sermon itself might be preserved for future reference, but that incarnational occurrence of the sermon in its delivery will never be replicated again.
The Elder who opens the Word of God on any given Lord’s Day is incarnating the risen Christ to those people.
I do believe this is part of what Peter means when he says to the asian Elders, “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight…” (1 Pt. 5:2)
But how does this happen?
How does the Pastor physically being present with his people accomplish what I’ve written above? What are the important elements?
Body language: A pastor communicates not only with his words but also with body, his posture, arm movements, facial expressions, tone of voice, and more.
These things don’t often communicate well via a screen. They are embodied acts, usually in response to a point being made, or in response to the audience.
Personal knowledge: A good Elder is not only going to carry a prepared sermon into the pulpit; he’s also going to carry a deep knowledge of his congregation with him. A knowledge that tells him the various realities, situations, and struggles of the people to whom he’s preaching.
He is going to know how certain elements of his sermon are going to affect individuals in his congregation. He’s going to see the faces of his people as they receive the Word of God. A good Elder is not going to change the Word based on people’s response, but he is going to respond to what he sees, perhaps applying the gospel in more specific ways as the Holy Spirit gives guidance in those moments.
History: As the Pastor rises to the pulpit, he is (hopefully) picking up where he left off last week. One of the tremendous benefits of a healthy, regular preaching ministry is the way it builds on itself. Week after week, the Pastor(s) unfolds the Word of God in a consistent and thorough way so that His people receive the Truth of God’s Word regularly and consistently.
A church will also know that the physical presence of their Elder(s) is a reminder of the Word of God for them as His people. God places Elders among each of His Churches (Titus 1:5) so that His Word is ministered particularly and effectively.
Future: Preaching to the same congregation week after week has numerous benefits, but one of them is knowing, “We’re going to do this again next week. This is going to keep happening” The physical presence of the Pastor with his people is a promise of continuity and stability. And, more even than the stability Elders can provide, the physical presence of Elders among the people is God’s promise that He will continue to speak and shepherd us until He comes.
The physical presence of Pastors is God’s promise for the future.
Shepherding: A final thing that makes in-person preaching superior to screen-preaching is that the members of the Church are shepherded. As the Elders preach and take notice of how the members receive and respond to the Word of God, they will make notes on who to pray for, who to follow up with, and who to watch after.
Preaching in the presence of their people allows Elders the opportunity to perform their God-given task of shepherding and overseeing.
People need their Preachers, and Preachers Need their People.
The great Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, longtime preacher at the Westminster Chapel in London, helped me to understand something important about preaching.
First, the Pastor ought always to strive to get the sacred Text of the Scriptures right; to rightly divide the Word of Truth (2 Tim. 2:15). This is the Pastor’s primary preaching responsibility.
But second, the Pastor ought to strive to get the sacred Text of Scripture right for his people. Too many preachers—and I have been guilty of this—feel their preaching task is complete when they explain the Text itself. But preaching is only half done once the Text is righty explained. Good and helpful preaching occurs as the Preacher rightly applies the timeless Truths of God’s Word to the specific people who sit in front of him.
There's always more to say, but we'll land the plane for now.
Join with your church, sit under good Bible preaching. Be present.