Some critical reflections on preaching online

This is an Advent sermon I preached last Sunday in Maynooth Community Church. If you wish you should be able to view the video by clicking on the link.

The text was Luke 1:1-25 and the theme was ‘An Unexpected Fulfilment’ based on the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah

Some Critical Reflections

A while back I did a post linking to some very helpful short videos about preaching / communicating to a screen. It’s a very different ‘genre’ to preaching in person. I’ve tried to keep those tips in mind, and here are some take-aways from this latest outing. It was encouraging to get some very positive feedback, but there were also things I didn’t do so well. All of life is a learning experience, so these are some learning points I took away.

If you have your own to add from your own experiences teaching or preaching online, you are welcome to add them here ….

1. When preaching online, try preaching to a specific person.

It’s so easy to become ‘flat’ and rather robotic when talking to a screen. It’s harder than teaching online with a group of students on Zoom. At least there, there is conversation, Q&A and breakout rooms etc. A screen doesn’t talk back or smile – or even show it’s losing concentration πŸ™‚ I have a soft voice that doesn’t carry that well, so have to work at keeping sound and energy on the screen. Plenty of room for improvement in this sermon on that front.

One thing I tried this time was to imagine myself talking / preaching to a specific person (won’t name names here!). Keep their face in mind. Imagine responses and reactions – engage in a real dialogue. Keep it as warm and relational as possible. Vary voice pitch and speed. Ask questions. I might even put a photograph of a person up next time.

2. Keep it clear and simple

I kept this sermon to two points. All preaching should be clear and easy to follow, but I think this is especially necessary via a screen. This isn’t the same as being simplistic, but it is working hard to distill the key messages of the text into an accessible structure.

In this sermon the two points were

1. The Loving Kindness of God to individuals

There is a touching and beautiful moment in this story of how God (unecessarily) blesses Zechariah and especially Elizabeth with a child, and takes away her shame in the process.

β€˜The Lord has done this for me,’ she said. β€˜In these days he has shown his favour and taken away my disgrace among the people.’ 1:25

2. Christians are called into a much bigger story

On ‘either side’ of those two points, was an introduction about ‘Christmas Kitsch’ and how Luke (and the other Gospel writers) are anything but kitsch. And a conclusion in how all believers are called into the same story as Z & E – the story of God’s redemptive purposes in the world. Like Z & E waiting faithfully in darkness for the first Advent, believers are also called to faithful waiting in darkness for the second Advent.

3. Consider using visuals alongside video

I also decided to combine the video with a powerpoint. I used to use powerpoint a lot in preaching but these days rarely use it in person-to-person settings. It’s so often a distraction. Especially if visiting somewhere, the technology can fail to work. It is often used so much that people end up just watching a screen and not concentrating on the human communication between preacher and congregation. And you can also end up spending far too much time on a snazzy powerpoint and not enough on the harder work of exegesis of the text.

But with video preaching being a visual experience, I think it was helpful to have pictures and headings. (Images that help to illustrate, rather than lots of hard to read text.)

Rather than have to do lots of video editing afterwards to put in pictures and slides and Bible texts (which would be beyond me to be honest), I use Loom, a video programme. It allows you to record video and screen together. So you can have yourself on one side of the screen and a pre-prepared powerpoint on the other side. And then I just advance the powerpoint in ‘real time’ as the sermon progresses. The advantage is once finished, that’s it done.

4. Keep it concise

The sermon ended up at 23 minutes. While this is about average (for our church) when meeting together physically, I think it was too long for watching online. It needed to be shorter and snappier in places, and needed to get to the text a bit quicker. I think the conclusion could have made the link to Advent and our waiting today a bit more clearly. I didn’t have time to edit and re-record – the video had to go off asap. I also needed to check on my knowledge of the Matrix – Neo IS Mr Anderson – duh!

But then again maybe that’s not a bad thing. That’s what usually happens after all! You don’t get to have a second or third take in front of a live congregation ! (Many’s a time when I wish I did).

It would also have ended before a certain two daughters came in the front door laughing and cackling about something amusing @ c. 22 minutes. Not having great video editing skills meant I had to keep going without stopping!

The remaining three points are about preaching in general.

5. Pray the Spirit speaks

This applies to all preaching and Christian teaching, but any preacher needs constantly to bear in mind. Good communication skills matter – and that includes appropriate use of video technology as well as verbal communication. But such things are merely the scaffolding, not the building itself. If all the focus and energy goes constructing the scaffolding, we end up forgetting its purpose is to serve the good of the building.

In other words, preaching isn’t about the preacher or the tools he/she uses – they are not ends in themselves. They need to serve the purpose of communicating the meaning of the biblical text to the world of the listeners.

The process of preaching needs prayer – a sermon ‘evolves’ through study of the text, reflection, time and prayer. And once preached to the best of his/her ability, all the preacher can do is pray the Spirit takes his/her imperfect efforts and uses them to speak into peoples lives.

6. Be open to (constructive) critical feedback

It’s easy to be hyper-spiritual here. On the one hand, there is a tremendous freedom in knowing preaching is not just a human enterprise, the ‘success’ of which is how much it is enjoyed by the listeners. Only the Spirit can transform people. But, on the other hand, all preachers are limited. However experienced, there is always much to learn. So feedback from people IS important – both negative and positive.

But structured feedback does not happen by accident, it needs to be fostered.

In theological education there are all sorts of systems of student and peer review for teachers. I’m not saying they are perfect by any means – often they can be paper exercises. But good feedback from students and peer review from a trusted teacher who sits in on your class is invaluable (as well as a bit scary).

My sense is that most preachers / churches don’t have this sort of robust system of constructive critical review in place. It takes trust and transparency, but it speaks of a culture that is open to critique, a humility to say ‘We are all learners’, and a desire to keep growing each other’s gifts for the good of Christ’s church.

7. Deal seriously with the text and bring it to bear on the lives and hearts of listeners

I’ll nail my colours to the mast here and say that preaching that isn’t dealing seriously with the text isn’t really preaching. The text is all we have and it is the task of the preacher to do the exegesis that underpins contemporary application – to allow the text to speak.

That’s why I love expository preaching. Sure topical or thematic preaching can (and should) deal seriously with the text. But expository preaching builds on exegesis (historical background, language, grammar etc in order to understand its meaning), in order to ‘expose’ its meaning for contemporary listeners (exposition).

Doing exegesis isn’t preaching. I like the image of a chef preparing a meal. Just putting all the ingredients on the table wouldn’t make him/her very popular with the guests. The chef has to put those ingredients together in a creative way to produce a tasty meal. So expository preaching is a creative process that distils exegesis into a message that applies the living text into people’s lives.

Expository preaching is usually structured around preaching through the whole Bible in a planned way. In this way it takes the text seriously, and the whole of the Bible seriously. The danger of topical or thematic preaching dominating is that we get to choose in advance what we’re going to talk about so we avoid grappling with difficult texts or issues. We can also all too easily just reinforce our own preferences or end up using the text as a convenient ‘hanger’ for our topic in hand.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

2 thoughts on “Some critical reflections on preaching online

  1. Patrick, technology can be a blessing and a nightmare at the same time. I feel sometimes it is better to use less things that can cause complications or distractions as you said. I agree with point 6, we are all learners, I think after somebody preaches there should be more room for people to ask questions, in that way one has the feeling that we are all learners. The early church was less organised than us but I get the impression that they discussed more. I enjoy reading the book “Phoebe” by Dr. Paula Gooder, and imaginary account of the woman called Phoebe who took Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome. Gooder is a great scholar and all that she wrote is based on the research that she did. I believe that it is allowing people to question, discuss what has been preached that then it becomes part of them.

  2. I heard that book got very good reviews Ana but haven’t readi it – sounds like one for the wish list. You probably know better than I do with all your travels but I believe it’s a feature of some anabaptist communities that there is discussion after the sermon – more an emphasis on communal learning.

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