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 🙂 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.

‘The Lord has done this for me,’ she said. ‘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.

Preaching to a screen

So I’m preaching at our local church this Sunday – except of course it will not be ‘at’ church but pre-recorded and broadcast during an online service.

Here’s the hi-tech preaching set up – note the garden rake holding notes in place via sellotape.

IMG_20200416_123537I really enjoyed having a go. After endless Zoom conference calls I wanted to try outside in the fresh air and sunshine (while it lasts). I always teach in class standing up, free to move about and engage with students. So I find sitting static behind a screen restrictive. Rather than preaching to a group of people with whom there is engagement and eye contact, a screen gives you nothing. And so I find communication becomes a bit flat – including non-verbal communication like tone of voice and emotion.

A couple of helpful resources I watched in preparing were these:

And also this one from Ian Paul’s blog. You take notice when he calls this a masterclass in online sermon communication by Bryan Wolfmueller, who is a Lutheran pastor in Austin Texas (don’t know what the health and safety issues are in preaching to camera when driving ..!)

 

 

 

 

Eschatology and Advent (9) Fleming Rutledge: Advent sermons – a word to preachers

And so to a flavour of some of Fleming Rutledge’s Advent sermons – which are eschatological through and through.

But first, one more post on methodology. In the Introduction she has a word of advice to preachers who want to take the task of preaching seriously.

What do you think of these three points? What, for you, are the ingredients of effective and powerful preaching?

1. Always do serious exegesis of the text

The preacher’s job is to preach the Word. To do that there is no short-cut, the text must be studied, understood and engaged with at a serious level.

The great error that lies treacherously before us all, especially as we feel we are growing stale, is the temptation to lose sight of the text itself … never fail to do a searching exegesis before you begin. (p.26)

This is not to say sermons are to be ‘academic’, regurgitating different scholars’ views, but it is to say that the preacher needs to have wrestled with the text’s meaning and what it is saying – otherwise the sermon will be just a collection of the preacher’s thoughts and opinions. While these may, or may not be interesting, it is not preaching God’s Word.

A practical question that Rutledge does not address is the practical implications of this sort of commitment. If you preach, what sort of time are we talking about here to do serious exegesis in preparing a sermon?

If, say, it is 16 good study hours (for sake of argument) that’s two days’ work per week.

And if that’s the case, what implications are there for pastors and church leadership teams in terms of realistic workloads, priorities and administration that pastor/preachers are expected to do?

2. Take yourself out of the sermon

A sermon may lead people away from the Word of God

unless the preacher can get herself out of the way. That, too, was important advice I received: take yourself out if it! (p.26)

This reminds me of a comment by Stanley Hauerwas on preaching.

The issue here is focus is off the text and on to the preacher. I like to think of a preacher like a referee – if he/she does her job well no-one particularly notices the ref. The game is not about them. If the match becomes all about the ref, something has gone wrong.

3. Announce the promises of God’s gospel (rather than moral exhortation)

Rutledge is again right on the money with a third observation – God is the subject of the verb. A sermon isn’t all about us – as if God can’t get anything done until we help out. Rutledge has strong words here:

If a sermon is an exhortation to help out a ‘dreaming’ God build the kingdom, as if he couldn’t do it without our efforts, it’s not the gospel. (p.27)

For this reason Rutledge is wary of exhortatory sermons (‘Let us …’ or ‘If only we can grasp this’ or ‘we should be doing justice, feeding the poor, fighting racism, marching for climate change etc’). Here’s why

When sermons end that way, the hearers feel defeated and powerless, except of course the few who are already doing whatever it is, who can then feel superior. For that reason, hortatory sermons are divisive. (p.27)

What’s your experience here? How does some preaching make you feel defeated and powerless ? What sort of preaching uplifts and inspires you? What place is there for exhortation in preaching?

Instead, she argues, sermons should be messages announcing God’s hope and promise. This speaks good news to everyone and such a word liberates and empowers. Good preaching happens when

Every person in the congregation should feel that a promise has been made to him or her by the God who, unlike human beings, keeps his promises. (p. 27).

Amen. Preach it sister.

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (42) Unevangelical Preaching vs Evangelical Preaching

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddWe continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

We are in the final theme in the book – that of recapitulation.

I freely admit that a post or two cannot do justice to a long chapter, much of which traces the thought of Paul in Romans.

This post is breaking in to Rutledge’s discussion of how recapitulation is preached.

To summarise, recapitulation can be seen as “Christ reliving the story of Adam.” (558). As a real human being (incarnation)

“The Son of God secures our redemption, not over against us as a divine being, but restoring our human nature to the righteousness of God from within the depths of our unrighteousness.” (588)

None of this is dependent on us, but on Jesus’ own righteousness.

Rutledge quotes T. F Torrance’s work The Mediation of Christ here (he is the quote within this quote)

‘… we are not saved by any will or any decision of our own. Our rebellious, egocentric, and disloyal human wills have been established “on an entirely different basis by being replaced at the crucial point by Jesus Christ himself.”’ (558-59)

So, if you are a preacher and teacher, how do you preach the good news of the cross? And specifically the theme that ‘all that is Christ’s becomes ours’?

Unevangelical versus evangelical Preaching

Torrance talks about ‘unevangelical preaching’ “which emphasizes human acting and deciding, and true, ‘evangelical preaching’.” (559). Rutledge quotes Torrance at length and with approval. It is worth doing the same and asking some questions as we do so …

What is your response to what Torrance says here? Exciting? Liberating? Troubling?

How does this compare to preaching you hear regularly?

Does it ‘over-do’ divine action and minimise the role of human faith and repentance in salvation?

Torrance:

“From beginning to end what Jesus Christ has done for you he has done not only as God, but as man. He has acted in your place in the whole range of your human life and activity, including your personal decisions, and your response to God’s love, and even your acts of faith. He has believed for you, fulfilled your human response to God, even made your personal decision for you, so that he acknowledges you before God as one who has already responded to God in him, who has already believed in God through him, and whose personal decision is already implicated in Christ’s self-offering to the Father, in all of which he has been fully and completely accepted by the Father, so that in Jesus Christ you are already accepted in him.

[I]t is not upon my faith, my believing, or my personal commitment that I rely, but solely upon what he has done for me, in my place and on my behalf, and what he is and always will be as he stands in for me before the face of the Father.” (559, Rutledge’s added emphasis to highlight Torrance’s use of recapitulation, incorporation, substitution and participation).

In the first paragraph, the theological point being hammered home is that ‘my faith’ is NOT what ‘saves me’ – it is only and completely the work of the incarnate Christ on the cross.

A personal comment on depressing preaching

The gospel calls for a personal response of faith and repentance; this must not be lost. But I like where Torrance is going even if I am not sure I’d go all the way with him.

I have been around a while and there have been too many sermons I’ve heard in my life (and probably preached as well) by the end of which I have ended up feeling frankly depressed!

The thrust has been ‘it all depends on us’: ‘if only we can grasp this’; this experience or that advance ‘is within our reach’; I have discovered this and ‘you can too’ and so on.

Even though God’s grace is talked about, the actual sub-text is that for it to be effective, it is really all up to us / me.

It all adds up to rather exhausting moral exhortation – hence my depression.

The focus is switched from what Christ has done (theo-centric focus), to what I must do if I am to ‘get it’ (andro-centric focus). It almost becomes a form of Gnosticism that we talked about at the start of this series – a secret route to enlightenment for the few and a second-class Christianity for those further back down the path somewhere.

Whereas the preaching of the Christian life, it seems to me, is more like be who you already are in Christ’.

The focus is off ourselves and on Jesus’ completed cross-work:  this is the good news and it is theo-centric through and through.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas (10) what is good preaching?

This is a series of short excerpts from each chapter of Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas edited by Leixlip lad Kevin Hargaden.

The outline of the book is in this post. This is an excerpt from the final chapter (8) on Preaching, Praying and Primary Christian Langauge.

Some questions discussed below are: What do you consider good and bad preaching? What form should sermons take? How should the sermon relate to the text? Should the preacher bring in personal stories or generally keep them out of the sermon? What assumptions should the preacher make about his / her listeners in a post-Christendom context? How critically should listeners listen to sermons? 

I always am trying to remind students in class that the purpose of good theology is, to use a phrase from J I Packer, for ‘doxology and devotion’. In other words, there is no artificial boundary between a life of worship and theology (thinking about God, faith, and what means to be a Christian in the modern world).

One of the many things I like about Hauerwas is his lifetime of resisting modernist epistemological dualism – the notion that there is the detached objective world of knowing and the subjective world of values, beliefs and feelings. In his life and work he has consistently prioritised prayer, preaching, theologically reflective writing and some biblical commentary. He is on record as saying this is the work he cares most about and see as most significant.

I’m focusing in on their discussion on preaching. Brock creatively identifies common themes from Hauerwas’ sermon material – which provokes this from Hauerwas on preaching on the relationship between the sermon and the biblical text:

Those are extremely interesting observations. I  always take the text very seriously. I am against idea-sermons. What you say in the sermon always has to be dependent on the text you’ve been given. One of the things I also try to do is work very hard not to exclude the Old Testament text. So I try to preach, as much as I can, in a manner that the text of the Old Testament is seen as crucial for what we’re saying in the New. So there is a certain sense that I  hope my sermons are really exegetically responsible. That involves why it is that I believe Christianity is a form of Judaism and that I don’t say that but I try to show what the implications are for the reading of the text we have before us.

To this I want to shout AMEN! Preaching, if it is to be authentic, has to engage well with the text itself – doing the work of exegesis that underpins what is being communicated. What has a preacher to say if he / she is not preaching the text? I’m sorry, but far too much preaching is ideas merely hung on a handy text. Such preaching is dismaying. The Scriptures are powerful and Spirit inspired – the preacher’s job is to let God’s Word speak.

And I’m with Hauerwas completely on how the text is best located within the wider biblical narrative.

… sermons cannot be what they are without being embedded in the story of “Out of all the peoples of the world I have chosen you, Israel, to be my promised people.” (251)

He adds this caution that while all texts are located somewhere within the biblical narrative, sermons themselves are best not stories. Because our stories can be anthropocentric distractions :

But that doesn’t mean that the sermon itself tells a story. I worry that, for example, when preachers tell the story of “When me and my wife . . .” I always think, “Oh no.” That’s just an invitation for the congregation to think, “Isn’t our preacher clever?” I don’t like that at all. I try to stay away from any self-revelations or stories that have shaped my life. (251)

Do you agree with SH here? Is the preacher best to keep personal stories out of his / her preaching?

Preaching is a wonderful privilege but also a great source of temptation. Human nature being what it is, it is so easy, even unconsciously, to be motivated by the basic human desire for affirmation, praise, admiration and respect. And so, to present a particular story about ourselves to our listeners that feeds into those desires.  The best practice I think therefore is to keep stories of ourselves and our lives out of the frame. A sort of ‘And lead us not into temptation’ sort of ethic. Yes, let’s have creative illustrations and relevant stories that illuminate the text, but let’s keep the ‘me’ out of those stories.

At one point Brock asks Hauerwas about his oft quoted proposal that sermons should be argumentative.

What’s at stake in your insisting that “sermons should be arguments”? And what kind of arguments do you mean? You elsewhere suggest that the sermonic form is a better form of argument than theoretical argumentation. (252)

Hauerwas’ point here is that sermons must engage the hearers and proposing, unpacking and defending an argument is the best way to do this. Again this is helpful – a basic argumentative form invites listeners into a conversation that ideally is relating to their lives and their world.

There is much more in this rich conversation that I can capture here. Here’s is an intriguing aside:

This is why preaching in our time is fundamentally shaped by the assumption you are preaching to people who are only half Christian. Apologetics takes over. (254)

Absolutely right. The reality of church life in a post-Christendom world means that very little can be assumed of what people know and believe. My hunch is that many sermons assume far too much and that we might be very surprised at what many listeners actually believe.

I think a good approach to this is to preach about the Christian life / gospel in a way that avoids WE and US language as much as possible. This presents the gospel and demand of the Christian life and leaves but space for the listener to be reflecting on where they are. It makes no assumptions of the listeners.

Yes, by all means stress the corporate nature of the Christian faith, but WE and US language all too easily makes a dangerous assumption that everyone present is ‘IN’. And this slides comfortably into US switching off – while there might be something interesting to think about, nothing much is at stake in the message; it is really just about helping us to do a little bit better in our lives rather than a message that calls us to come and die to ourselves and live to the Lord.

On critical assessment of preaching, Brock asks Hauerwas this:

BB: … do you have any advice on whether we should allow our critical mind to start chewing on what the minister is doing in church?
SH: No, I think that’s exactly what we should do.
BB: Why’s that?
SH: Because the sermon isn’t the property of the one preaching it. The sermon is the congregation’s reception of the Word of God. You sure better be ready to think that that word should invite some critical response. The idea that the congregation is just passive recipients of the word means that you don’t get what the word is about. (255)

This is wise counsel. The worst response to a sermon I guess is that it creates no reaction at all – just indifference. A sermon should be expecting and receiving critical response. And depending on the context, that response may welcome the Word and at other times fiercely resist it. Both responses can be reactions to what the Spirit is saying – one good soil, the other perhaps stony ground.

That critical response can also be, as Brock’s question implies, reflection on the sermon itself. The challenge here I think is for the preacher / leader not to be defensive but to take the initiative to welcome critical feedback by setting up structures in which a learning loop can happen with a small but diverse group of trusted people. However good and experienced a preacher, everyone always has more to learn.

Comments, as ever, welcome.