Is Preaching Still Relevant?

August 3rd, 2016
This article is featured in the Does Preaching Matter? (Aug/Sep/Oct 2016) issue of Circuit Rider

In our information and technology age, some observers question the relevance and legitimacy of preaching. In a few cases these observers question even the validity and relevance of the Bible itself. Some suggest that preaching is not a valued source for change and reform if it’s drowned among many other proliferating founts of information and motivation.

Let’s remember that competition with dominant forms of discourse was not so different for Paul and the early church. Paul said the Jewish leaders considered the gospel message “a scandal,” and the Greeks considered it “foolishness” (1 Cor 1:23). The gospel always has and always will struggle to be considered relevant amidst the information and motivational systems of human culture. Indeed, we should worry about a gospel that’s too mainstream, too legitimated by the status quo. The gospel must challenge the status quo and even those who challenge the status quo.

Though the gospel runs counter to culture and will always strive for legitimacy, the struggle takes a very specific form in our web-based information age. Despite the almost overwhelming democratization and multifaceted proliferation of information outlets, most of us get our news, information, inspiration, and motivation from sources that favor our already-decided opinion. Those of us who live in the American context live in a divided country, and most of that segmentation is biased by the news, information, talk radio, blog, and cable outlets we consult for information and motivation. We often encounter echo chambers of “group think” rather than diverse perspectives that seek to create mutual understanding from divergent opinions.

Given this competition from the flattened internet news and social media culture, which challenges the legitimacy of proclamation, preaching content and method appear to be changing.

First, I worry that more than ever before people want to hear a gospel that agrees with their favorite information sources. Many preachers cannot preach certain texts or take certain positions without risk of harassment or threatened job security based on the worldview, opinions, and values of particular congregations and their members, who are aligned with perspectives articulated by sources of information and opinion on the left and the right. Does this risk mean that these information sources are more credible than the preached word of God? Or does it still mean that religious perspectives and commitments are compartmentalized as the spiritual aspect of life and not valued outside of that box? After the Pope took a position against unfettered capitalism, one loyal Catholic said to me very authoritatively, “The Pope does not know anything about economics. He should stick to religion.” The preacher and the church should be concerned about serving the God who benefits our selfish interests, especially when the core meaning of metanoia is a changed heart and life.

Second, in my experience the preacher must have an even greater intellectual integrity in his or her preaching because people can instantly check and contest the sources of the preacher’s information. For example, when the preacher states facts about Paul’s life, the preacher better assume that someone will check those facts, even on the spot during the sermon. A certain kind of looseness with facts or sources is dangerous and taints the intellectual credibility of the preacher, which is very important in this database era. Some listeners feel that if they can get information on their smartphone or tablet instantaneously, why can’t the preacher do his or her homework? Intellectual sloppiness is punished in this information era, and the gospel message is discredited by it.

Third, by listening to the millennial generation, I have discovered that they’re not as interested in what the church or preacher says as what the church and preacher do. The congregation offers a tremendous amount of preaching, but millennials are concerned with the nature of the agenda after the benediction. Millennial movements can happen on very short notice, through alerts and notifications fed to their phones. Like-minded people can gather in minutes to support a cause or address an injustice. Millennials wonder why it takes the church so long to take action. If Jesus worked on behalf of the poor, why does it take the church so much discussion to get to any action? This information age highlights the inactivity of the church in justice causes, and this inactivity in the name of Jesus is a credibility gap.

Fourth, while older people, such as myself, are dependent on more traditional outlets for information and motivation, young people seem more dependent on social media. With groups such as Black Lives Matter and the realities of the Arab Spring, we discover that groups can broadcast a live narrative that’s often in contrast with traditional news media. These groups broadcast their own narratives live from the scene. As an older person, who is not as familiar with social media and more adept at traditional media, I often miss the perspectives and thoughts that are delivered instantly across platforms that are outside my skillset.

If we don’t adapt to the communication systems of our time, then our lack of information will create a credibility gap for the church and preacher. I recently secured a digital media coach to help me understand how to preach and communicate the gospel in this information age. I’m learning Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Soundcloud, and Periscope, to name a few. While some of these platforms are ever changing, I’m discovering that these tools can help reach people. I wonder if the church loses credibility because it will not do at least some of its communication with the tools of the information age. Putting up a website is not enough.

Preaching is changing because the currency of credibility has changed. The currency of credibility in the new information age is authenticity (connection between words and deeds), intellectual accuracy and honesty, social action, and a willingness to at least learn and sample the proclamation tools that now drive formation of audiences and human cultures. We can only reach people in this internet age, and especially and particularly people who do not come to church, with their currency of credibility. We must struggle even more with the question: How do you get the word of God to people if they’re not coming to church? The apparent answer is through authenticity, intellectual accuracy and honesty, social action, and a willingness to sample the new tools for proclamation and communication.

Despite all of this change, one thing seems to stay the same. In times of national crisis, such as 9/11, mass shootings, or natural disasters, church attendance rises and the preaching of the clergy—not only Christian clergy but also imams and rabbis—becomes a valuable source of love, grace, strength, and encouragement. This purpose for proclamation during crisis might be a form of civil religion, but I believe that life is fragile and vulnerable enough that we will be pushed to go beyond our divided opinions to a timeless message of truth and hope. The church will not need to strive for legitimacy; rather we will be asked for our perspectives and opinions. What would normally be considered foolishness and a stumbling block will be sought after again. My prayer is that the church will be ready with its message of faith, hope, and love in traditional congregations and in virtual or alternative communities.

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