Fifteen years ago, an outlandish sermon clip made the rounds on YouTube. It was a shock-jock independent pastor ranting in front of a tiny congregation about modern Bible translations. It was comical, unnerving, and cringe-inducing. And I shared it on my blog.
I was new to blogging, and around that time I asked an older, wiser pastor to speak into my writing. He asked a pointed question: “Who is edified by that sermon video?” And then he encouraged me to resist the urge to share something just because it was outrageous, entertaining, or a cautionary tale of how not to preach.
Sermons and Sermon Clips
I thought about that conversation recently, as it predated Twitter and Instagram and the prevalence of sermon clips that now circulate far and wide.
In the past decade or so, more and more churches have begun posting video and audio of previous sermons. For the past 500 years, sermons were spread mainly in the form of pamphlets and books. A century ago, radio stations began broadcasting sermons around the world. For decades, prominent pastors had “tape ministries,” but now most pastors are expected to have both video and audio of their preaching available, and the pandemic sped up the move toward livestreaming.
There have been outliers, of course. Martyn Lloyd-Jones believed people experience a sermon differently when they hear it with a congregation and see the preacher in person. The power of the preaching moment itself cannot be replicated via the screen or speaker.
Today, not only are sermon podcasts and videos made available online, but sermon clips circulate on various social media platforms. Justin Taylor describes some of these as “gospel moments,” whether they show Alistair Begg preaching about the thief on the cross entering heaven or Matt Chandler’s powerful illustration that says “Jesus wants the rose!” Just a minute or two of gospel gold.
Weaponized Sermon Clips
But there’s a flip side to the sharing of “gospel moments.” Many sermon clips go viral because of how bad they are. We gawk at examples of sloppy or heretical preaching.
Social media accounts now feature the most outlandish moments from preachers or teachers who belong to another “camp” or “tribe.” Some of these point the spotlight on “crazy fundamentalists” while others root out the “most woke”—in either case we’re introduced to preachers who seem determined to live up to the worst caricatures. At times, we see clips from charismatic megachurch pastors delivering inspirational drivel rather than sound biblical teaching. The intended reaction, it appears, is to name and shame the “bad preacher” and to shake one’s head in pity or disgust.
Even worse, in many cases, sermon excerpts become ammunition for ongoing battles. Each clip becomes another piece of evidence that the evangelical church is quickly becoming “woke,” or that evangelicals are becoming “white nationalists.” Even well-known and respected pastors with many years of ministry experience, men like John MacArthur and David Platt, are subject to the forces of this online dissemination. MacArthur becomes an example of being “anti-religious-liberty” and David Platt an example of “wokeism”—all because things they’ve said, perhaps sloppily, have been weaponized against them to cast doubt on the rest of their Bible teaching.
I don’t believe the widespread sharing of bad moments in preaching will make the pulpit stronger. The weaponization of preaching clips as ammunition in intramural warfare isn’t a healthy and life-giving development.
Anyone who seeks to rightly handle the Word knows the feeling the inadequacy in preaching and teaching. I look back to sermons of mine from just a few years ago and find points I would make differently, analogies I’d cut, and things about the Trinity that—while not heretical—are sloppier than they should’ve been. The more I’ve grown in my skills as a preacher and thinker and theologian, the sharper (I hope) my messages have become.
I shudder for the 20-something just learning to preach, knowing that any potential misstep, bad analogy, or aberrant theological point could be taken from a sermon and broadcast to thousands of people as an example of “what not to do.” How paralyzing for the young preacher with a lifetime of learning ahead!
The church has endured bad and sloppy preaching through the centuries. You don’t have to look hard to find cringe-inducing moments in the sermons of Augustine, Chrysostom, or Luther. I suppose one could start an Instagram account that excerpts these terrible moments from the church fathers (perhaps highlighting antisemitic tendencies, or strange hermeneutical leaps, or their view of women, etc.), but does this build up the church?
Does It Edify?
I can hear the howls of protest from some of my pastor friends who share bad or bizarre clips on a regular basis: We’re protecting the pulpit! We’re instructing our people so they don’t fall for this kind of bad preaching! We care about doctrine, and when we see such slipshod preaching, it’s good to point it out.
I get that. And I want to believe the best about people who share and comment on outlandish sermon clips. I too care about doctrine. I care about avoiding analogies that confuse more than clarify. I’m not opposed to using social media to talk about good versus bad preaching, or to bring up examples that should be reconsidered.
Yes, we can (and sometimes should) have substantive disagreements with sermons. We shouldn’t cover up Luther’s antisemitic writings but recoil in horror at those sentiments and how they were used, sometimes verbatim, by Hitler hundreds of years later. It’s good to engage with preachers and sermons, illuminating where they’ve gone wrong in the past, and where people may be off base even in the present.
But surely there’s a difference between careful, instructive engagement and a social media-driven “gotcha” clip that stirs the mob mentality.
Does the sharing of bad sermon clips really help our people in the way we like to think it does?
Is it possible that this phenomenon trains people to be ever on the lookout for sloppy moments in preaching? To be good critics more than good listeners? To approach the pulpit with the eye of the cynic rather than the mind of the Berean?
Do “gotcha” sermon clips build up the church and honor the gravity of what happens in the moment of preaching? Or do they risk reducing a pastor to a bad moment, reinforcing a stereotype that may be unfair or false, when considered in isolation from the rest of his ministry?
I just don’t see how the ministry of the church is strengthened by showcasing bad examples of preaching on social media. For that reason, I don’t want to be a part of it.
Whenever these clips come across my feed, I’m committing instead to pray that God will give grace and discernment to pastors as they seek to divide rightly his Word. And I’m going to pray that in those times when we fall short in our preaching, he will give grace and will work despite our weakness, to build up his people.
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