Our relationship with culture is one of reciprocity, of mutual formation. The artifacts, technologies, and webs of meaning we make open new opportunities, normalize new expectations, and give birth to new pressures. We’re largely unaware of these pressures, but they’re powerfully formative. We create culture, and culture, in turn, creates us.
As a narrow illustration, consider the effect of email on our work. We can communicate instantaneously from any location in a way that promotes efficiency and coordination (opportunities). This ability raises the bar of what we feel we ought to accomplish, reinforces our individual sense of control over our lives, and introduces new codes of etiquette (expectations). But there are pressures, too: the obligation to respond immediately, the guilt of being unreachable, the feelings of powerlessness and isolation when we’re disconnected, the lingering sense that we’re never really away from our work. It’s not so simple, after all.
An integral part of ministry involves helping Christians recognize how our culture is forming us so we can intentionally pursue gospel-shaped formation in our cultural moment. Pastors must ask, “How can I help the church discern the forces of our culture?” We also must ask, “How do the forces of our culture shape the way I minister?”
Preaching in a Digital Age
The digital revolution has introduced all sorts of benefits. The possibility of recording sermons, for example, means God’s Word and our words can reach farther faster than ever before. In sermon preparation, we can hear how other preachers from across the world have handled a passage and applied it to their context, enriching our appreciation and appropriation of Scripture.
But the digitization of preaching has also had unintended, sometimes unacknowledged, consequences. Reception of the preached Word has been separated from the physical gathering of the church. Christians are often “pastored” by shepherds they’ve never met. And these dynamics have helped birth the assumption that the church simply exists as a content producer with preachers as purveyor of goods.
The advent of the MP3 has created opportunities and shaped expectations in preaching. And in this milieu, new pressures have emerged.
Three Pressure Points
Pastors are called to herald the eternal Word of God. But in a digital age, our words feel eternal. They’re recorded; they’re transmittable; they seemingly last forever. And that pattern introduces a number of pressures—most of them unconscious—to the preacher’s task. Here are three.
1. The Pressure of Perfection
For most of history, a preacher’s words would ring out from the pulpit to those gathered, echo off the walls, and fade to silence. Delivering and receiving a sermon was a transient experience. Now, sermons persist through time as they remain in digital form. That permanence magnifies the anxiety many preachers already experience: If I get this sermon wrong, it’ll be wrong forever.
A good sermon can stand as a monument to your pastoral wisdom. A bad sermon smolders as a memorial to your insufficiency, taking the Monday morning blues to a whole new level. Preachers have always been tempted to pride and despair, but when your words are permanent, sermonic idolatry can manifest itself in new ways.
2. The Pressure of Exhaustiveness
Concision is a learned skill. Every preacher—especially the rookie—struggles to kill the exegetical and applicational darlings that fascinate and edify but bloat a sermon. The underlying desire for faithfulness to the text is a good thing, but the result is often less than helpful.
But when a sermon exists forever, the pressure to say everything that could be said is intensified. We begin to think, for instance, that instead of delivering a sermon on Psalm 22, we’re delivering the sermon on Psalm 22. It’s my one shot to get the text right. It’s the sermon I’ll point people to if they ask me about this passage. So I need to say it all.
Every sermon then becomes a potential stand-alone message, able to be removed from the progression of teaching that preceded and followed it. And this dynamic magnifies the pressure to treat a text exhaustively in ways that can detract from a sermon’s effectiveness.
3. The Pressure of Universality
Recorded sermons can travel the globe and be retrieved years after they were first delivered. That’s an extraordinary blessing. But it can lead to a shift in our intended audience. Rather than preaching for the local church, we preach with digital listeners in mind. The sermon must therefore be geographically and culturally unbound, we think. It needs to be timeless. It needs to apply to the person five years from now and a thousand miles away who may download it.
But this perception pushes against one of the primary purposes of preaching, since it decontextualizes the application of God’s truth from the particular time and place in which we live. It’s good to seek comprehensibility, but not at the expense of our unique flock’s concerns. Striving for universality ends up depriving the sheep under our care from the specific comfort, warning, and call to discipleship they need to hear most.
Combating the Pressure
Most of us don’t consciously bend under these pressures. They’re simply part of living in a world where our words have the illusion of eternality and permanence. But we must consciously combat the pressures if we’re to remain faithful to our Lord, to our people, and to our task.
This means we as preachers have to understand the formative potential of the technology we use, the proclivities of our own hearts, and our calling as shepherds.
We must battle the pressure of perfection with the humbling news that our status is given by God in Christ, not gained through homiletical greatness. We must battle the pressure of exhaustiveness by taking the long view—seeing sermons not as totalizing feasts but as one (potentially forgettable) meal that, through the work of the Spirit, can nourish believers on the long road to maturity. We must battle the pressure of universality by privileging the local church and shepherding the flock among us (1 Pet. 5:2) through wisely contextualized preaching.
Should you keep on recording your sermons? Sure, but do it as a steward of the eternal Word rather than as the source.