A debate’s been raging in my mind these past two months that I’m just now bringing to an admittedly uneasy conclusion: Is preaching to an empty room in front of a camera genuine preaching?
Part of me says, Of course it’s preaching. It’s the same act as always, only there’s not a live audience. But then part of me responds, No, it’s not preaching. It’s like what you do in a seminary classroom, only worse since there’s no one present, no congregation, which makes the worship inauthentic.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, preaching on Facebook Live, YouTube, or another platform has become the norm in recent weeks, as the virus has led churches to suspend in-person worship services and “gather” separately by virtual means.
But for myriad good reasons, we don’t like it. It’s weird and, for the preacher, it’s hard not to feel awkward. Preaching into a camera before a mostly empty room doesn’t feel right—because it’s not. I don’t mean it’s wrong in a moral sense, but it’s not right as in “something’s off,” since circumstances are, to put it mildly, unprecedented for us all.
Most pastors are accustomed to addressing their people, their spiritual family, face-to-face each Lord’s Day. That crucial element of embodiment is missing, so is it really preaching?
Preaching, but Maybe in Name Only?
I would argue that what we are doing now—what many pastors will be required to do for the foreseeable future—is preaching. By preaching in an unprecedented time by unprecedented means, pastor, you are being as faithful as circumstances allow, even though it may not feel that way.
Preaching the Word (2 Tim. 4:2) is both the central act of Christian worship and also one of the marks of a true church. Thus, to fail to preach the Word if we possess the means to do so is to disobey God.
To fail to preach the Word if we possess the means to do so is to disobey God.
We are also commanded to hear the Word as a means of conversion and sanctification (Rom. 10:17). Preaching on the part of qualified men (1 Tim. 3:1–7), and hearing on the part of God’s people, can both be accomplished through technology.
Reformed Christians who hold to the regulative principle of worship make a distinction between the elements, forms, and circumstances of worship. Whether or not you subscribe to the regulative principle, I think this distinction is helpful when assessing our Lord’s Day worship services during COVID-19.
Scripture authorizes certain elements to be used in worship, such as singing hymns, prayer, giving tithes and offerings, teaching, and preaching. These elements are to take certain forms. For example, preaching is the spoken and proclaimed Word, not the danced word. Choosing the wrong form compromises that element.
Then there are the circumstances of worship, which I think helps here. Circumstances answer such questions as: Do we need a sound system to amplify our music? Is it better to meet at 10 a.m. or 6 p.m. for Lord’s Day worship? By what means could we worship together during a crisis when we can’t meet in person?
At the moment, circumstances in most places dictate that we not gather in order to help preserve public health, as recommended by governing authorities. We have a biblical duty to obey the authorities as Romans 13:1–7 and 1 Peter 2:13–15, so long as government doesn’t ask us to disobey Scripture. Governors have asked churches and every other kind of gatherings to stop meeting temporarily.
Due to the particular responsibilities Scripture places on civil authorities, it is right that churches obey in this circumstance. If government singled out churches, it would be necessary for them to disobey peacefully and suffer the consequences. In light of the pandemic, obeying governing authorities now also fulfills Romans 13:10: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”
Only for a Limited Time
I’ve talked to dozens of pastors during the coronavirus shutdown, and I’ve yet to meet one who’s comfortable with preaching into a camera. We’re uncomfortable because we know what we’re doing proves the enduring truth that preaching happens in its Spirit-anointed fullness when the body of Christ gathers together physically.
Virtual church and virtual sermons as a lifestyle commitment are not warranted by Scripture and, long-term, are not healthy for the body of Christ.
Virtual church and virtual sermons as a lifestyle commitment are not warranted by Scripture and, long-term, aren’t healthy for the body of Christ. This is why pastors and church members alike are so uncomfortable with the recent arrangement. Online worship and virtual preaching are a sort of circumstance, permissible now but by no means permanent. It’s the exception that proves the rule. It’s provision for the circumstance of the moment, but it by no means replaces the corporate gathering.
Advertisers love to appeal to our desire for instant gratification by offering a product for a limited time. Virtual worship and its sermons are for a limited time. They come with an expiration date. And, along with other eager pastors, I’ll be glad when that day arrives.