Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Does preaching still have a role to play in communicating the Gospel in a multi-media society? (essay written in 2009)

Written as part of the LLM Training in 2009; wow how the world has changed in 3 years.

This essay will discuss whether preaching still has a role to play in communicating the Gospel in a multi-media society. In order to do this it will define what is meant by preaching as well as exploring what a multi-media society actually is. It will then discuss the changes of the way the Gospel is accessed, understood and discussed; consider the role of sermons and then examine the way modern technology can enhance sermons. Following these discussions the essay will conclude whether preaching still has a role in society.

Preaching is defined differently depending on who you ask, from “communication of a biblical concept” (Robinson, 1980) to “spirit-empowered explanation” of the word of God (Olford, 1988); however it is generally agreed to be the proclamation of God’s Word. It is perhaps also worth noting for this essay that the thefreedictionary.com provides a definition of preach as “To give religious or moral instruction, especially in a tedious manner” (TheFreeDictionary.com, 2009) which raises the question of whether sermons are meeting their audiences expectations and needs, the essay will return to this later.

Although preaching is different for each preacher, and different again for the congregation, it will tend to include teaching on the word of God, delivering God’s message and relating this to real life in order to move the congregation closer to God. It should be engaging, introducing difficult issues and explaining complex topics in order to get the congregation to think and feel what God is saying to them. The preacher acts as a window between God and the congregation.

Since one of the skills of preaching is to relate the Gospel to real life it is important that the preacher understands the society they inhabit. As technology is advancing, people are interacting differently, becoming a multi-media society. This is no new phenomenon; the invention of the radio brought church services into peoples’ homes, the television brought sight as well as sound. However the introduction and rapid development of the internet has had the greatest impact. Suddenly there are websites providing every version of the bible ever written and sermons for the whole world to access; discussion boards and chat rooms bring Christians together from all over the world to share ideas, debate contentious issues, pray and bible study; there are even live church services available online, in real life or in virtual worlds.

One of the most profound multi-media developments in past years has been the ‘building’ of a cathedral in the virtual world of second life, the virtual world where users socialise and connect using voice and text chat. This was undertaken by an Anglican priest from New Zealand, Rev Mark Brown who, building on the Church of England’s ‘Mission Shaped Church’ publication (2004) had a mission to “glorify God; where people are, so the church needs to be also” (Brown, 2008). The cathedral holds several services a week, attended by up to 40 people from around the world, for a non-Eucharist service; they also hold bible study and prayer groups. With provisions such as these it might be assumed that indeed preaching has no role today; and yet the virtual cathedral provides a sermon at each service, confirming its value for Christians today, be they online or sat together in a building.

The subject then raised is what a sermon provides that can not be accessed through any other route. To really grow in faith it is necessary to connect to the word of God; to feel the words, absorb the emotions and share that with others. David Day states that sermons have a basic framework of “point, illustration and application” (1998), it is this which initially separates them from reading or chatting. The point has been identified prayerfully, from Gospel and then provided to the congregation, providing a link to their lives and an application for them to take away into their week. In this provision the preacher interacts with the congregation, through eye contact at the very least and often with words and actions. Through preaching, God's words are made real; they're not just read but they're heard and pondered on and interacted with. The congregation can laugh, cry or gasp; together the meanings provided and gathered are enhanced. More than that, together they can debate and wonder, as a congregation or even with the preacher. In the majority of cases the preacher is known and therefore the context they refer to is appreciated and clear.

At the start of this essay one of thefreedictionary.com definitions of ‘preach’ was provided. The fact that the words “tedious manner” were provided raises the concern that many sermons do not connect with congregations. This might be to do with the subject matter; it has been established earlier that the contemporary world is changing all the time and this makes it ever harder for the preacher to relate the Gospel to real life, but it is not impossible. It is by using experiences and stories about people that sermons become interesting, by following Jesus’ example with his use of parables God’s word comes alive.

However it is more likely that the key issue concerning tedium could be turned around by the use of different forms of presentation. Rev Brown discusses how the “perennial challenge facing the church is to maintain cultural relevance whilst retaining the core message and identity” (2008); he saw the cathedral is second life as connecting those inhabiting virtual worlds but the same is true for real life churches. There are many different ways that a sermon can be provided in a church which are not possible online, by watching a television service or listening to a radio sermon. The congregation can become a part of the sermon; they can be involved in activities, be asked questions and really feel the sermon. When this is combined in the context of the whole service, with images around the church, music in the service and perhaps the flicker of candles, a true experience is provided which accesses a deeper part of the human psyche, creating memories and triggering thoughts which can later be accessed and pondered.

In addition there is the possibility of using the very technological advances which might be felt to interfere with established church and its impact on society. The world is getting smaller and societies are more aware of their influence on each other; learning is easier and yet there is less human interaction and associated pastoral benefits. The variety and depth of information available is increasing exponentially, this has benefits for sermon preparation, and yet individuals have less opportunity to speak with others about the information they hear and the concerns they feel. These are subjects which can be introduced into sermons, as points of thought about how Christians need to be in the world.

The other side of technology is that projectors can be used to provide pictures alongside words in a sermon, changing as the sermon develops and therefore adding to the value of the word alone. It is possible to show webpages on screens, to illustrate points about the world using googlemaps or Christian Aid. It is even possible to allow the congregation to Tweet onto a screen their thoughts and on a sermon, this is certainly a new and profound idea, but it is this interaction which will keep sermons alive and interesting for the congregations of the future. As Richard Chartres, Anglican Bishop of London stated in his speech on faith in the media, “the ability to put a message on a blackberry; to produce a two minute video artfully shot …. should be part of the Christian communicators today” Chartres (2007).

This essay has looked at the society which the church currently exists in. It has discussed the role of the sermon and the way preaching is part of Christian life. Taking it back to Jesus’ own life it is important to remember that he used stories about the lives of the people he met, he taught how to preach. By following his example, being there at each service and giving a piece of their lives into the sermon the Holy Spirit is allowed to flow to the congregation.

Yet the essay has also introduced some new concepts that should be embraced by preachers. Following Jesus’ example again it is clear that doing the unexpected and often unacceptable brings impact to the listeners. In the same way, leaving a question is always better than providing all the answers and technology allows the debate to continue through the week.

Of course the sermon is not the only way that Christians will learn about their faith and get closer to God, but that is not a problem. Congregations choose to come to church for the service where they can worship together and listen to a sermon (hopefully not tedious) with no (or few) distractions in a setting focussed on Christ. That human connection between the preacher and the congregation is a channel through which the Holy Spirit can work when modems are down, computers have bugs and life needs to get back to it’s true meaning; God is love.

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