The Second Eclectic

Technology changes how we relate to God and each other

Preachers, Technology, and maybe God

Brandon O’Brien recently recounted the story of one preacher who, in 1768, criticized preachers who wrote out a manuscript of their sermon, arguing that they should instead speak extemporaneously, depending on the Holy Spirit. This preacher claimed Matthew 10:19 to support his argument: “God will give you the right words at the right time.” Using a manuscript, he argued, distanced a preacher from influence of the Holy Spirit.

Others heard the preacher’s argument and asked, “Couldn’t the Spirit work through the preparation of preaching, and not simply in the moment of delivery?” A fair question. It’s not an either—or. It can be a both—and.

Nonetheless, the preacher was right about one thing: Technology affects how a person relates to the Holy Spirit. No one would argue with the fact that technology changes people’s relationships with each other (Facebook, anyone?) and with themselves (just think about how mirrors impact identity). So it makes sense then that technology is also changing a person’s relationship with God.

Perhaps part of the issue with manuscript preaching is precisely the way it removes the preacher from his present context. When a preacher prepares, he is planning ahead, thinking about the future, determining what he will say. Then as he is preaching, he is reviewing aloud what he had previously prepared. In neither case, is he living in the now.

In both circumstances the preacher can tend to disengage from himself, from his congregation, and from his God. Both in writing and preaching, the manuscript inherently extracts him from the present. And, arguably, from depending on the Holy Spirit.

Let me flesh this out a little more from my own experience. As part of my job, I write reviews for people who report to me. At one point a few years into doing reviews, I found that these reviews tended to center on the written forms that we each filled out. Eventually, this caused friction, but at first I didn’t understand why. Then I realized that we were focusing almost entirely on the sheets of paper but losing sight of the person being reviewed. When I removed the written review from the equation, the review process improved. The person became the focus, not the paper.

This same dynamic can happen when a preacher is so focused on getting through his sermon notes that he loses sight of the people he’s speaking to.

In another article, David Murrow imagines the church 50 years from now, in 2062. He imagines multisite churches with video campuses dominating the evangelical landscape in the U.S. He predicts about 200 pastors will do most of the preaching for the whole country. Multisite has certainly mushroomed in the U.S. in the last decade, but Murrow’s projections are probably inaccurate for a couple reasons. First is the obvious: People simply won’t accept having such a small number of pastors wield so much power. Second, there will always be new preachers looking for pulpits and vying for attention.

On the other hand, if the evangelical church happily adopted 200 pastors to preach in most congregations in the U.S., imagine how people would start to feel: Preaching would have very little value. It would become a take-it-or-leave-it component in the church-going experience.

The irony is that today an extremely high priority on preaching is what drives the video venue trend in the first place. But if that trend reaches a tipping point, preaching will actually decline in its perceived value. Why not simply swap out one video preacher for another? Why stick to a single preacher at all? If preaching is something you just install in your worship or uninstall just as easily, how valuable is it, really? If the preacher has never seen me face-to-face, what relevance can he have in my life? What authority can he have?

But I don’t think it will reach the point. At least not by the route that Murrow envisions.

Even so, O’Brien’s “manuscript preacher” and Murrow’s “video preacher” are not so different from each other. They both face the same problem: distance that leads toward irrelevance. The manuscript preacher is psychologically distanced from self, others, and God. The video preacher is physically removed from them as well. The manuscript created a psychological distance; the video creates a physical one.

Video preaching and manuscript preaching actually have a lot in common. In both cases, content is prepared and then delivered. The manuscript preacher composes his thoughts into a coherent linear progression of ideas. He then delivers this composition by reading it aloud. He becomes, not a preacher so much as a delivery boy. He becomes the voice that delivers whatever is in the manuscript. Yes, he wrote it, and yes, he believes it and it comes as his own creation, but he functions merely a speaker when he delivers it. Anyone could do that. The authority is really in the manuscript.

The same is true with video preaching. The video preacher prepares and delivers his sermon, but then instead a manuscript record, there is a video record. The video becomes the new manuscript. Unlike the manuscript, this video can present itself, or rather, the TV replaces the preacher by “reading” the digitized “manuscript.” The manuscript and the preacher are replaced by the DVD and the television.

The manuscript preacher laid the groundwork for the video preacher. Before adopting video venues, video venues needed to be psychologically acceptable. Accepting the manuscript record paved the way for the video record. The manuscript preacher was just one step along that path. Then came the radio preacher and the sermon tape. With each step, congregations made one more symbolic transfer—the manuscript represents the preacher, the radio waves represent the preacher, the audio recording represents the preacher, and now the pixel represents the preacher.

O’Brien’s 1768 preacher sounds like a fool to us today. And Murrow’s church of 2062 sounds far fetched in our imaginations. But both point out how technology is shaping the church. As it does, the church needs to continue asking just how technology is also shaping life in Spirit.

Brandon O’Brien
David Murrow