I have always had mixed feelings about the whole idea of sermons broadcast over the airwaves. And now with the internet we can listen to preachers from thousands of churches around the world without having to interact with a single human being.
There are, of course, great benefits to the dissemination of all these sermons. But there are distinct liabilities, as well.
Below are some of the PROS and CONS of ‘sermons sans church,’ as I see them. I’m sure there are other arguments on both sides of the ledger. In fact, I hope this post will generate a helpful string of comments that will result in a much more nuanced evaluation of the practice of listening to recorded sermons than I am able to provide.
Recorded sermons have much to offer. First of all, they can get to places that preachers cannot. During the years of communist rule in Eastern Europe, for example, Christian radio remained one of the few avenues to communicate the Gospel to that part of the world. Secondly, people who cannot get to church, for reasons of age, health, or work, can listen to their pastor’s Sunday message, find great encouragement, and feel connected to their church family. And those Christians who do get to church can receive even more good Bible teaching during the week from other preachers, especially if they’re stuck in traffic on an L.A. freeway! Finally, young pastors and seminarians can learn a great deal by listening to sermons from gifted and effective communicators. These are just a few of the potential benefits of the medium of recorded sermons. Perhaps you can think of others.
Listening to teaching alone, apart from both the pastor who’s doing the teaching and one’s fellow Christians, contributes to an inadequate view of spiritual formation and biblical ecclesiology.
The Pastor-People Dynamic — In the early church the Bible was taught by pastors who were there, in person, with their people. And these pastor-teachers also shepherded the people they taught. Church members knew their Bible teachers as brothers and sisters, because they shared life with them on a regular basis. Canned sermons provide a context for none of this crucial pastor-flock interaction. [This, BTW, is why I don’t buy the ‘video venue’ approach to church, in which one pastor (a talking-head) teaches the congregation, while a ‘site pastor’ does the shepherding. But that’s a topic for another post.]
The People-People Dynamic — It is not only the relationship between the preacher and the congregant that suffers when an individual Christian listens—alone—to recorded sermons. We should also consider the ways in which live Sunday preaching subtly but effectively leverages relationships among those present, in such a way as to encourage community building and spiritual formation. Listening to a sermon with others on Sunday reinforces a tacit but very real sense of mutual accountability to the message that is preached: a ‘you-know-what-I-heard’ and ‘I-know-what-you-heard’ kind of dynamic. This, too, is lost when we listen to sermons on the radio or our iPod.
More than a generation ago Marshall McLuhan noted that the medium is the message. The message that the medium of recorded sermons subtly communicates is that we can divorce biblical knowledge from human relationships: I don’t need my pastor nor my fellow Christians to acquire biblical truth. I can get my theology all by myself, off the internet. This is profoundly unbiblical, as C. S. Lewis discovered during his own pilgrimage as a young believer:
‘When I first became a Christian, about fourteen years ago, I thought that I could do it on my own, by retiring to my rooms and reading theology, and I wouldn't go to the churches and Gospel Halls.
If there is anything in the teaching of the New Testament which is in the nature of a command, it is that you are obliged to take the Sacrament, and you can't do it without going to Church. I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music. But as I went on I saw the great merit of it. I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off.
I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren't fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit.’ (C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock.)
Mark that one: ‘solitary conceit.’ Paul didn’t say ‘knowledge puffs up’ for nothing.
A second problem I see with the wide dissemination of recorded sermons is a kind of celebrity-ism that results when Christians get attached to a favorite superstar preacher.
A friend of mine was a real podcast junkie. John had a radio preacher whose every sermon he downloaded and played repeatedly. Pastor Bill’s theology was John’s theology. Pastor Bill’s interpretation of the Scriptures was John’s interpretation. I knew John was in trouble when he would quote Pastor Bill to me instead of the Bible. Well, Pastor Bill fell into immorality. More than once. But because Pastor Bill was John’s celebrity, because he was bigger than life, John just could not accept it. Despite the fact that Pastor Bill lost his radio show and was removed from his church ministry, John refused to believe what had really happened. John insisted that Pastor Bill was ‘set up.’
Now John’s was an extreme situation, to be sure, and probably a rare one. Much more common are those Christians who just can’t resist comparing their favorite media preacher to the guy they hear on Sundays.
I consider myself a decent preacher. On a scale of 1-10, I’d give myself a 6-7, maybe an 8 on a real good Sunday. The other men who share the pulpit at Oceanside Christian Fellowship are similarly gifted. Inevitably, over lunch or breakfast on occasion, I’ll be asked, ‘Why don’t you guys preach like John MacArthur?’ Just last week, in fact, after I preached my heart out on David and Goliath (it might even have made it to a ‘7’ by the time I got to the third service), a guy in our church sent me a link to a sermon that, he assured me, would ‘take my preaching on David and Goliath to a whole new level’ the next time I preached on 1 Samuel 17. Thanks for the encouragement, brother!
For every homiletical superstar there are hundreds of average preachers, all over America, teaching the Word of God Sunday after Sunday. One unintended and highly unfortunate result of the flood of superstar sermons on the internet (and many of them are 10s!) has been a whole lot of discouragement among these faithful servants of the Lord, coming from persons in their churches who have become enamored with virtual preaching and are now less-than-satisfied with the real thing.
MAY INVOLVE SELF-PROMOTION
A final problem I have with canned sermons has to do with self-promotion. I put the word ‘may’ in the heading above, because I don’t believe that this is always the case. But it would have been for us at Oceanside Christian Fellowship.
A few years ago, we were contacted by a local Los Angeles Christian radio station that wanted to put our sermons on the air. At first, I was flattered but, due to the above convictions, I decided to say ‘No.’ Then I found out that the request was actually a sales pitch. As it turned out, if I had said ‘Yes,’ the church would have had to pay for air time on the station to get our sermons out there. ‘Well, duh, Joe! Of course! How do you think the station makes its money?’ [And here I was thinking that they really wanted Brandon and I on the radio solely because of our stellar sermons. Yeah, right!]
But all this got me thinking. Does this mean that those preachers I hear on that major Christian station are paying to have their voices heard out there? I don’t know that this is so in every instance. But it would have been so in our case. And for all the pure motives that might be present in such a venture, the temptation toward self-promotion seems to be wired right into the system.
That’s my read. What say you? Other benefits? Other liabilities?