I saw a prominent pastor tweet a link to a CNN article on “virtual preaching.” For him, it was a triumph. Look, even CNN recognizes this trend! So many pastors have uncritically embraced this trend that I think it’s worth taking a closer look and asking ourselves some tougher questions.
The underlying assumption is that a pastor’s role is simply to “communicate a message.” Based on that premise, it makes logical sense to say that whatever technology or tool enables us to broadcast the message to the greatest number of people at the least amount of cost must be the best choice. But is the premise a true one? Is the pastor’s role simply to communicate a message?
Last week, my friend and colleague, Aaron Stern, and I had the honor of spending a few days at Eugene Peterson’s house, and while I cannot distill everything we talked about in a few blog posts, there were several things he said that spurred more examination on my part. Here are some things pertinent to the discussion of preaching and the pastoral role:
1. The Doctrine of the Trinity is Foundational for the Pastoral Vocation
God is, at His core, a relational being. We are invited into the communion that is taking place within Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are not signing up for a cause or a campaign. To be a Christian is to be in Christ, to be drawn into the most deeply personal thing there is. We don’t have a message to spread; we have a Way to draw people into.
2. The More People, the Less Truth
It took me a while to understand what Eugene meant by this. But now I realize that when Jesus addressed the crowds, they either tried to make Him king by force, or kill Him, or they missed the point of His talk altogether. Who were the ones who caught the truth of Christ’s teachings? The ones who knew Him and walked with Him. So, “the more people, the less truth” because people are less likely to hear, understand and unpack the message in the right way when they are listening en masse. It’s also the case because the more people there are, the less truthful preachers tend to be. They tend to generalize more and hand out more pithy truisms or magic formulas.
3. Both Jesus and Paul Communicated in Ways that were Personal
Jesus avoided the mass arenas that Herod had built, arenas He could have easily tried to use to preach to the masses. Instead, He walked and taught in small fishing villages. I asked Eugene about Paul. Didn’t he operate in large cities? He countered by asking if I’d ever been to Israel (I have not). Their “cities” are small towns. Furthermore, Eugene pointed out, Paul walked in the cities. It took him days to get to the center, and when he planted churches there, it was as many as could fit in a home, about 30 or so. (There’s nothing ideal about that number, and we had an interesting sidebar on the modern house church movement…house churches have problems of their own that can make them resemble cliques more than congregations…but I’ll save that for another day.) When Paul wrote, most of the time he was writing to people he knew well. He had stayed with them for years, not for a weekend of ministry. Notice all the names mentioned in Paul’s letters—all the parts of the epistles we skip over!
4. Pastoral Preaching is Formed by the Particularities of their People
Preaching, Eugene told us, is about helping people integrate and incorporate their stories into the larger story of God in the Scriptures. But how can you do that if you don’t know their stories? Pastors have long held that you cannot preach unless you are also sitting with your people. Unfortunately, it seems this is a forgotten art. Now we have effectively divorced “preaching” from “pastoral care.” Were they separate in Paul? In Jesus? Again, Paul and Jesus learned to pay attention to the particularities of their people and then spoke to it. The charge Jesus gave Peter was to “feed my sheep.” Since this was the era before feedlots and the industrialization of food (don’t get me started on that!), feeding sheep is a high-contact activity—so preaching should be. In pastoral preaching, we are not simply disseminating information; we are inviting participation in the Story of God, in the community of the people of God. As my friend Jared Anderson says, “The more people you’re speaking to, the fewer people you’re listening to.” You can’t listen to crowds of people. Pastoral preaching is built on listening and speaking.
5. Knowledge of God is Conveyed in Ways That Are Incarnational, Not Presentational
When God decided on the ultimate way to reveal Himself, He did not send a message. He did not broadcast from Heaven to Earth. The climax of John 1 is not, “And the Word got written down.” Instead, it is, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among them.” God came into our world and lived among us. To call ourselves messengers of God’s message but to ignore the very way God communicated His message is a desecration of our calling. God’s way is incarnational. It’s not broadcasting “principles” and “abstract truths.” It’s coming and living among us, walking among us, eating with us. What did God in Jesus do for His first 30 years in our world? He walked and ate and worked and wept with us. He didn’t preach and broadcast and try to “reach people.” He lived among the people. The pastor is nothing if not incarnational. He or she is to be God living among the people. Our message is not simply to be broadcast; our message must be embodied in our ordinary living, a living that is to be witnessed by our congregation.
Listen, friends, my goal is not to be critical of the Church. It is to challenge pastors to recover the sacredness of our vocation. I suppose there may be nothing wrong with using tools of mass communication. (I’m doing it right now.) But this is not truly pastoral work. So, either pastors recover what it means to preach in a pastoral way or abandon the title of pastor. Call yourself a communicator or a CEO or whatever else you’d like, but don’t call yourself a pastor. Don’t call what you do preaching, and don’t call the people who come and spectate a church.