Trevin Wax recently published a blog post on TGC entitled ‘Gotcha’ Sermon Clips Are Bad for the Church. The immediate question that came to my mind when encountering the title alone, was: “Can we say video clips period are bad for churches?”
In my homiletics class at Bethlehem College and Seminary under then pastor Jason Meyer, one of our semester-long assignments was to listen to five sermons by five different pastors on the text of John 14:6: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (CSB). One of the biggest elements that stood out to me in this exercise was the obviousness of the target audience displayed in the way each pastor preached. Four out of the five spoke broadly in their applications and in their use of illustrations. It demonstrates, intentionally or unintentionally, an awareness of an audience beyond those sitting in their pews at that moment.
I can only recall one of the preachers who shaped his sermon through the “lens”—as it were—of his congregation and really only his congregation. Other people might have been welcome to listen in (it was recorded after all), but his sermon was intended for his flock. As a non-member, it made listening to it a bit detaching: it was not as easy to relate to the examples, harder to apply the points made to my own context. But one could easily see how personal and applicable the message would be for the people of Capitol Hill Baptist. For those familiar with his broader ministry and writing, it should be no surprise that this preacher was Mark Dever.
Since that assignment and thinking about this particular point often, it has become my belief that this approach feels intensely right. A preacher is responsible to shepherd the flock God has given him. He is called to account for his own people. That is not something one can (or should attempt to) do for an internet audience. There is no relationship, there is no “known and being known” between a pastor and a digital reader-/listener-/viewership. A comment section cannot supplant the human relationship found in the in-person conversation. This relationship is vital for the people and it is vital for the sermon itself.
I think broadcast or recorded services create (at least) two temptations that are bearing bad fruit in our churches. First, there is temptation for pastors to shift their focus away from the local body to a broader audience. Second, it opens an excuse and a capacity for some to neglect gathering together (Heb 10:25).
First, pastors who gain a non-local following online may be tempted to speak in ways that are more broadly applicable at the expense of shepherding his people well through their own local situations. One may be tempted to make commentary on national or global events because those listening elsewhere may be impacted by those events, even when the local congregation is not. Such a move can make pastors social commentators rather than exegetes more fluent in both the Word and the people under that Word.
Second, when preaching is extracted from the local gathering, it becomes less about a people bound and formed together by the Word and more about individual information transfer. It individualizes spiritual formation and breaks down one of the means of grace for unifying the church. Bavinck notes, “Means of grace may never be detached from the person and work of Christ nor from the church he instituted on earth…. The ‘word of God’ does not come only in the form of Scripture and its public proclamation; it also comes to us indirectly, secondarily, having been absorbed from Scripture into the consciousness of the church or a society of people. Above all, it is not merely a sound but also a power and the accomplishment of God’s will.” I am not even sure we can call exposition extracted from the interaction between preacher and congregation “preaching” in the sense we usually intend it.
So, I wonder whether or not we should go an extra step beyond Trevin’s comments. Rather than “I don’t believe the widespread sharing of bad moments in preaching will make the pulpit stronger,” I would say that_ I don’t believe the widespread sharing of preaching will make the pulpit (or its church) stronger._
Objection 1: The first pushback is, as Trevin himself notes, that there are potential “gospel moments” wrapped up in these clips (or even full sermons):
Justin Taylor describes some of these [sermon clips] as “gospel moments,” whether they show Alistair Begg preaching about the thief on the cross entering heaven or Matt Chandler’s powerful illustration that says “Jesus wants the rose!” Just a minute or two of gospel gold.
And while it is true, the gospel can be proclaimed in some of these clips, and God can work powerfully in the lives of some in response to such a media and medium, that does not mean it is a tool we therefore must promote and use. One can have too much of a good thing. As one example, look at the proliferation of mobile phones. They have some legitimate uses, but not all uses have benefitted us as human beings. Just because God can work through problematic methods and make good come out of evil, it does not thereby legitimize evil.
To clarify, I am not necessarily calling video or audio recordings of sermons an evil. However, I am not yet convinced they are good. The use of video for the sake of gospel proclamation have many places in our world. There are many great tools of teaching, and reaching people with the gospel and other means of strengthening our faith. But, I do think saying that on the one hand and then turning to apply those arguments to the weekly preaching and teaching in our churches in order to advocate making our church services globally available via the internet shifts our focus in a detrimental way.
To clarify again, I also do not intend to make a blanket statement to say a preacher can never speak out into the wider world beyond the bounds of his congregation. My comments here relate primarily to the act of preaching in the context of a local church. Again, it is essentially an ontological question, i.e., what is preaching? Is the answer to this question shaped by the nature of what a church is, i.e., the gathered people of God? This is a much bigger question I plan to revisit later.
Objection 2: Some who have already given me some feedback on these thoughts have asked, “what about the shut-ins, those in COVID quarantine, missionaries, etc., etc.?” To that, I would ask how we have cared for those people in the days before video, or audio recordings, perhaps even before sermons were published after the advent of the printing press. Were there not invalid and diseased church members before the internet invaded our every waking moment? Is video enough to sustain? Does it qualify them as having “gathered” with the church? Does it allow them to partake of the grace meted out in the preaching of the Word? If we say that sermons are simply information transfer, perhaps we could. If there is something deeper at work in the act of a preacher speaking to a gathered people, perhaps we ought to reconsider.
As an aside, I think there is much we could learn from the ancient and medieval church on the practices of soul care and shepherding those who are not able to gather. I grant that we live in a far more transient and mobilized society, one which can commute from miles away to gather. Is this a good thing? As before, I think we can certainly note many benefits, but I think we often forget what we lose in such societal changes.
Lastly, to this objection, I wonder whether or not we have excused proper, in-person care of those who cannot gather because we have offloaded that responsibility to virtual, online, or recorded “services.” Does the fact that our ill or immobile members can view our services give us an excuse not to visit those in distress? In-person contact is so vital for humans, especially the elderly and infirm. This is all the more true for all of us in an age that has seen a drastic decrease in in-person interaction.
Objection 3: Finally, the irony of making observations critical towards recorded sermons based on my own listening to recorded sermons is not lost on me. Nor are my criticisms of the “always on” internet age unaware of the fact that I am writing and publishing these very criticisms on the same medium. Perhaps such and observation and communication would not be possible without such materials. At the same time, perhaps such an observation would not need to be made in the absence of such material.
Hopefully, the thoughts above are not the ramblings of someone growing older and waxing nostalgic for an era I neither remember clearly nor ever even really knew. I am well aware that nostalgia is a poor proxy for what is “good.” I do think the nature of the church—the ekklesia, the gathered people of God—must impact how we think about the practices of the gathered people: our sermons, the practice of communion, it’s size, etc. Videoed or otherwise recorded sermons arew one such practice I think ought to bear more consideration than we have given it.
Note, I did read the entire article; this is not a reaction to the title alone. And for what it is worth, I agree otherwise with Trevin’s point. ↩︎
For those interested, the pastors in question were David Platt, Mark Dever, John MacArthur, Matt Chandler, and John Piper. Two of these (Platt and MacArthur) are mentioned by Wax as men who have suffered as a result of the issue Wax is addressing. ↩︎
Herman Bavinck, Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, in Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 4; ed. John Bolt (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 441. Italics mine. ↩︎