Preaching through a camera: Four ways to 'be' for your congregation

April 24th, 2020
This article is featured in the Sustaining Worship issue of Ministry During The Pandemic

Over the past decade I have thought, written, debated, and even argued about the pros and cons of video-venue preaching. Full disclosure: I’m convinced the long-term cons outweigh the short-term pros. A video venue start-up is efficient, and the most effective preacher gets projected for a culture that is screen-enamored. However, video-venue preaching is not authentically contextual, since it is designed for the live congregation not the venue, and projecting one preacher in multiple settings keeps other preachers from being developed. Plus, a disembodied, projected preacher proclaiming a God who came in the “flesh and dwelt among us” feels like a theological contradiction.

But, whether we like it or not, COVID-19 has forced preachers to now look into the lens of a camera instead of into the eyes of our people. Most pastors, even those like me with serious concerns about the propagation of video-venue campuses, must embrace the technology that allows us to preach good news to people forced into social distancing because of a novel virus that has shocked the world. Ready or not, live-streamed and recorded sermons are, at least for now, the only option for congregations still wanting to “gather.” The question is, how can we preachers who value the preaching event as a time and space encounter between God, congregation, and preacher redeem the moment? There are a few preaching practices that can keep us from losing our sermonic soul during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Be Contextual 

Even though we are forced to look into a camera lens these days, it doesn’t mean we have to preach generic sermons for a general audience. Now, perhaps more than ever, we have to preach to the hopes and hurts, dreams and disappointments of our particular people. Use the name of the church several times in your sermon. Shoot, use names of actual people in your flock, assuming you’re not publicly calling out individuals for their private sins. Do whatever makes your congregants feel as if the sermon is designed and delivered specifically for them. You might find it helpful to pray your sermon focus or main point through your church directory of specific names and faces. This will ground your sermon contextually and incarnationally in the realities of the real people to whom you preach. Include content that would make your sermon unpreachable for another congregation without adjustments.

Be Personal         

"Preaching with Empathy" by Lenny Luchetti. Order here:

Some of us are stoic when it comes to sharing a personal piece of ourselves in the sermon. Now, perhaps more than ever, is the time for the preacher to be human. I’m not suggesting we preachers should make the sermon about us when it should be overtly about God. But I think the preacher needs to voice for the congregation the gravitational pull she feels toward fear, anxiety, loneliness, and grief as the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths rises daily. While the sermon should always be hopeful about the good news of God’s grace, it needs to start by being honest about the bad news we all feel. The more that listeners feel the weight of the honest bad news early in the sermon, the more fully they will embrace the hopeful good news when the preacher gets there. Preachers don’t have to be technological robots, immune to the pain and angst of the human condition. Feel and name the grief of the current global crisis for your people so you can lead them into the good news of God’s grace in Christ.

Be Theological 

This is not the time for life-application how-to sermons that offer advice about finances, dating, and time management. Your people don’t need good advice; they need God. Many people are wondering these days if God has retired to a beach house in Florida where he golfs a round daily, reads a Grisham novel weekly, and plays bridge monthly. The sermon needs to explore and name the presence of God in the midst of human anguish. People are hungry for hope. Ultimately, they view our sermons online looking not for answers or advice, but for the presence and power of God. Remind your people that God is with them always, “even to the end of the age.” Tell them that because Jesus suffered “he is able to help those who suffer.” Gently proclaim theological pain points: God is not to blame for pain (Genesis). God is with us in our pain (Hebrews). God redeems our pain (Acts). God eradicates our pain (Revelation). Avoid offering simple answers to complex questions. The human race needs God, not merely good advice and easy answers.

Be Pastoral

While there is a time and place for prophetic preaching that represents a holy God to sinful humanity, now is not that time. The preacher is not only to offer prophetic exhortation but also pastoral empathy. Sermon delivery during a global crisis is an act of pastoral care. Our congregants need the preacher to be not only a prophetic truth-teller but a pastoral grace-giver. Prophetic preaching is to and at people, while pastoral preaching is with and for people. What impact might this have on your sermon delivery? Well, for starters, now is the time to preach more to people than paper. Look through the camera lens into the hearts of your people, as opposed to being more in love with the paper that houses your well-manicured manuscript. Simply put, get away from your sermon notes. If ever there was a time to preach without notes or minimal reliance on them, this is the time. Looking into people’s eyes, albeit via a camera, communicates love and value. Stand up behind a pulpit or sit down on a stool; the context will help you choose. But, for Christ’s sake, preach to people not paper.

More could be said about preaching through a camera to a congregation in times of crisis. A shorter sermon than you’re used to preaching may be warranted. Consider cutting your sermon length by 1/3. If you usually preach for 30 minutes, go for 20. It seems to me that attention spans diminish as we move from physicality to virtuality. If you’re a multiple points preacher, try a one-point sermon. Aim for clarity over complexity in these chaotic days. And, most of all, preach with optimistic hope in the redemptive power of God. The same God who redeemed the persecution in the 1st century (read Acts!) will, I’m convinced, find a way to redeem this pandemic in the 21st century.         

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