Over the last 8 years, I have listened to hundreds of sermons online. As a preacher myself, it is a way to hear the Word proclaimed in new and challenging ways and, more importantly, in the car. My commute becomes more like a mini-Sabbath when I do this.
Sometimes I tune in to preachers whom I know very well. I cherish hearing their voice, even their “preacher” voice. (Yes, everyone has one.) Other times, I purposefully sneak into the digital first pew of preachers I don’t know, except perhaps by reputation. I was surprised by what has mattered most in these digital worship encounters.
The importance of digital hospitality
Does your congregation post the manuscript right away? Only the audio, with text “coming soon?” Do they upload whole enchilada, a live stream video of the whole service? Is there a fancy icon on the homepage with audio and video of just the sermon? Those choices have a way of highlighting what matters to a congregation.
I have found that churches tend to fall in one of three categories:
“You had to be there.” These congregations tend to downplay sermons on their website. They may post the text at some point, but they believe, intentionally or by practice, that something happens in the physicality of the church space that can’t be lifted up online. They aren’t sure anyone would want to listen online. Indeed, nothing can replace corporate worship. We are meant to be together. Community is essential. However, in an era when most people check out the church website before coming through the doors, this online posture may accidentally project a clubby mentality at work in the church. And in a time when people travel more than ever, listening to the sermon is an important way for members to stay connected.
“Click here, then there, then there. Wait here.” These congregations have sermons posted online, but it may be behind three or four click walls, “About us” >>> “Our worship” >>> “This Sunday” >>> “Sermon Archives.” Scroll to the bottom. Click on the prayer hands. Another window opens where the sermon slowly uploads. An anthem could be played before one can hear the sermon. Most churches don’t situate the main entrance doors three hallways away from the sanctuary. There should be similar thought in the layout of the “digital plant” of the church.
“Here you go!” These congregations have podcasts of sermons and/or audio-visual sermons on the home page. It is intuitive and friendly. It is like greeting a digital visitor with a smile and a lemon bar.
The sound of fatigue
When a pastor is exhausted, it is audible. I was surprised by this. Their voices crack. They gloss over the joy in their words. Congregational leadership is often about much more than preparing a sermon, especially during weeks when a beloved church member passes away, when the boiler breaks or when a ministry program is going full speed. Walter Brueggemann coaches preachers to “order one’s priorities for the sake of one’s best energy.” Preachers often cut a sermon to make sure it fits the timing of a worship service, however, it may be just as important to cut back on responsibilities that hinder the energy of a sermon.
But, I have been touched when preachers allow themselves to be human beings, even in delivering a sermon: a pause to reflect, a real laugh, a word that gets caught in the throat because it is too weighty, too beautiful to be said matter-of-factly. That sounds like love, and I thank you for being the vessel of God’s love, week after week, Sunday after (yet another, gasp) Sunday.
The discipline of naming hope
Preachers’ bookshelves are bulging with books about what makes a good sermon. Be funny, but not fluffy. Be intellectually stimulating, but not boring. Include heart-warming illustrations that make congregants feel as if they have been bathed in a Puerto Rican sunset, but don’t be schmaltzy. Make the text come alive like resurrected Jesus. Speak truth into people’s hearts like Dr. Phil but with the brevity and sweetness of Puxatony Phil. There are too many expectations. I get that.
Still, I am convinced that everyone comes to a sermon hungry for hope. Sermons that are disciplined in naming the hope of Jesus Christ always satisfy, even if the wording is choppy, even if the jokes fall flat, even if the preacher’s voice cracks and a baby cries loudly through the whole message.
Tell me, every time, about hope in Christ. It doesn’t get old.
Becca Messman is the associate pastor at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Herndon, Virginia. She leads “Lunch for the Soul” – a ministry with Hispanic day laborers. Her other passions are preaching and offering pastoral prayers, leading retreats, energizing church leaders to serve the community around them, youth and young adult ministry, and cultivating the “fear and trembling” holy journey of parenting. She lives in Arlington, Virginia with her husband Dave, her two young children, and her dog Luna.