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May4WedHas pulpit ministry had its day? Wouldn't it be easier to listen to sermons from the comfort of our own homes? May 4, 2011 by Major Julie Slous
Recently, while traveling in Florida, my husband and I found ourselves touring the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. I was especially excited about taking the simulated rocket ride that would give the sensation of blasting into outer space! My husband, the more technically minded of the two of us, was keen to learn all the intricate details of launch preparation. After entering the Welcome Center, however, I quickly discovered that my husband's interests would be more immediately served than mine. To get to the main event and experience the thrill of blasting into outer space, I would have to pass through numerous displays and exhibition halls.
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- Opinion & Critical Thought
Boarding the tour bus to the first pavilion, we began our NASA experience. After a short five-minute ride and our initiation via the welcome DVD presentation, we were unloaded into a small theatre. We find our way to hard metal seats (no back rests) and a plain simple screen suspended from the wall. A Space Center employee then came to the front and explained that we would now view information on how shuttles are prepared for launching. The room darkened and the video began to play. My immediate response was, “I paid how much for this? Why, I could be sitting in the comforts of my own home watching this same content on a YouTube video. Why did I need to come to NASA for this? Where were the real-life astronauts; people who had walked in outer space? Where were the space shuttles that had toured the far galaxies? I could have probably logged into NASA's own website and found the same information I was viewing. What was the benefit of being on location?
While to NASA'S credit, the tour improved significantly in the second and third pavilions, my initial experience left me wondering whether those who enter regularly into our Salvation Army corps ask a similar question. “Why do I need to be here for this?” What is the benefit of being on location? In an age that now provides so many avenues to do church, whether it is via podcasts, online video streaming or familiar television/radio evangelists, the point is that people have options as to how and when they might listen to sermons.
It places in further question whether societal trends are now pushing out the traditional role of the preacher. Is it time to retire the preacher in the name of more technically based options that might provide more convenience, appeal and pizzazz?
Arguing the importance of keeping bodies in the pews, Winston Fletcher from the London Evening Standard offered the following parody in which he envisioned an alternative approach for preaching. He suggested that “sermons could be drafted centrally and distributed via fax.” That way we'd always get the best of the best! (I can just imagine the response from Salvation Army headquarters to this extra responsibility!) Each member of the congregation would subsequently be given a remote control consol. When bored, they would push the red button. If more than 50 percent of congregants made this response, it was a signal to the preacher to get on with it. Three red lights and the preacher strikes out! Long term, every pew would have its own monitor and would be networked to other neighbourhood congregations. Then church goers could choose which of the local preachers had the most appeal. Soon costs would be slashed and only the best two to three services would serve all British cathedrals!
So much for the traditional preacher who rises every Sunday to faithfully invite people into a text, anticipating the Spirit of God to work and move! Within this parody, we realize how significant entertainment value becomes in the context of preaching. If listeners can't grasp a message in a short sound bite, without hesitation, they are ready move on. In this regard, we can see how easily it happens and how people begin to question the need to be in church or “on location” to hear a sermon. If all good sermons are networked or available to us through electronic media, why bother sitting in an uncomfortable pew? Why take time out of a busy schedule to attend a church service? Critics would challenge us to name this reality for what it is and conduct the retirement service for the traditional preacher. He or she has had their day. It's truly time to get with the times and show our connection to contemporary culture.
There is only one problem with what is suggested, if in fact, we are going to allow the traditional preacher to enter into honorable retirement; this is not God's plan. In fact, God's best way of communicating with human beings has always been through a human voice and a human presence. The most effective way to convey a message is to do so in person. J. Kent Edwards in Deep Preaching presses the importance of this as he talks about preaching as an incarnational task. Jesus came to be the Word among us―to take up residence in our neighbourhood. When God wanted to express himself most clearly, he incarnated in a person. God became visible to us through the life of his Son. If incarnational communication was not important, Edwards argues that Jesus could have just come to earth for a four-day weekend, instead of investing 33 years on this earth. After all, would this not have given Jesus sufficient time to get the job done? In four days, Jesus could have found his bearings, made his way to Calvary, died on a cross and risen from the dead on the third day. If the plan of salvation could have been so succinctly realized, what was Jesus purpose in staying among us for so long? The answer to this question is found by understanding the importance of incarnational communication; messaging that comes in the form of a person.
As we probe the tensions that continue to batter the 21st-century pulpit, we are challenged to remember the value of face-to face communication. When a groom wants to propose to his potential bride, most likely he will plan to do this in person. I'm not sure how any woman would feel about a marriage proposal that comes via e-mail? Maybe it happens, but it certainly lacks the personal touch! If the military has tragic news to communicate to the family of a soldier, the car pulls up in front of the house, and the message comes person to person. Important messages require face to face communication.
When preachers stand in the pulpit and engage a congregation, they create this environment for person-to-person communication. Listeners are invited to experience the passion and the authenticity of the living Word firsthand. The preacher is also able to accommodate for the immediate responses of the audience. Maybe there is a need to slow down, to clarify, to re-explain. Body language may communicate something missed and a need to repeat a certain point. Face-to-face communication may even allow for more immediate feedback, questioning and response. Furthermore, according to Edwards, when a preacher shows up in person, it becomes a means of words being personally authenticated. “This is what I believe,” says the preacher. “This is what the Word of God has to say to us today and it was important enough for me to come and tell you in person.”
Edwards appropriately warns us of the danger of turning to electronic preachers just because there is a shortage of quality preachers among us. Perhaps instead of retiring the preacher, the time is coming to re-tool the preacher with resources and strategies that will breathe fresh life and energy into the Sunday morning pulpit. The electronic preacher may continue to serve some remote locations well and may actually supplement sermons that are heard on location. But, as Edwards argues, “the best sermons we will hear this coming Sunday won't be delivered by airbrushed superstars via satellite to a waiting world. The sermons that will touch lives most significantly will be preached by local preachers who know and are known by their congregations. They will be delivered by preachers who give their personal guarantee to the message they speak. Effective preachers will have way more potential of changing lives than widescreen monitors.”
So maybe we won't retire the traditional preacher just yet but search more deeply to assess what can make them truly effective in the role to which they have been called. In so doing, we may find new reason to celebrate the choice we make next Sunday to be on location. Maybe we will even bump into a real life astronaut or someone even greater who has the power to completely change our lives!