The implications of “The Hidden Medium” for preaching.
The homily during the Middle Ages was in Latin. Most people spoke the vernacular, but Latin was the scholarly language. A Latin homily was not something to get new insights. You listened to the sounds, almost like music.
With the invention of the Printing Press, everything changed. The pulpit displaced the communion table and it gave birth to church as a lecture hall. And the whole point of church was to get new information, to understand new things. You had authority to preach, based on 1) the wood pulpit you stood behind, 2) intellectual acuity and theological precision; how “smart” you were. Sermons in the print age would last up to 2 hours. And these were the sermons for the masses.
The print age created intense left-brain intellectual capacities. Read these sermon titles as an example:
An Exhortation to the People of God not to be Discouraged in Their Way, by the Scoffs and Contempt of Wicked Men. — Hebrews 4:9; George Whitfield
A Preservative Against Unsettled Notions, and Want of Principles, in Regard to Righteousness and Christian Perfection. — Ecclesiastes 7:16; George Whitfield
The Sole Consideration, That God is God, Sufficient to Still All Objections to His Sovereignty. — Psalm 46:10; Jonathan Edwards
The Broadcast era turned church into a television studio. And people no longer thought abstractly, but concretely. And suddenly, you had authority to preach based upon how attractive, likeable, entertaining, and practical you were. Titles for sermons include “Your Best Life Now,” “Five Steps To A Better Marriage,” “The Purpose Driven Life.”
We become what we behold.
The internet radically changed everything. Church became the coffee shop. The reason is because authority in the coffee shop is ignored. There is not one voice, there are multiple voices. Everything is conversational. The internet is not based on one single authority, but many voices and many interactions. That’s why spaces are in circles, not lines or squares. Preaching gets shifted. We become “dialogical” and a “facilitator” of a conversation. The ending is perpetually uncertain, and you let the community decide what to end on.
The coffee shop is not the new thing. Why? Print and broadcast are still in existence. The complexities are vast. [See Kevin Kelly, and the idea that new technologies do not make old technologies obsolete.]
Because we no longer live in a print age, the capacity of our audience is shrinking rapidly. Because that capacity is shrinking, the preachers are having to find a way to fill in the gap. It has never been harder to preach than now. What is demanded of preachers is only going up.
I want to now talk to you as a pastor, a student of the art form of preaching. These are just things that I’ve practiced that seemed to have worked. I think the language of art is really, really important when we talk about the sermon. That metaphor is hugely important. To understand the sermon as an art form is hugely helpful for us because it helps us become virtuosos. It helps us pursue mastery of an art form and it helps us participate in God’s creative work as co-artists with God.
Two practices I have found that seem to have helped.
THE ART OF SURPRISE
Keep people guessing. That helps them stay with you.
Exegetical Surprise: The “archaeological dig.” Get everything you can get your hands on that illuminates the context of the Bible. It’s well worth the effort, because if you do it, and you discover it, it’s gold. It’s so helpful for people. There are two components. Begin with Questions. I prefer “counseling” the text rather than “interrogate” the text; gently coaxing it. Not every question is appropriate in a counseling setting. Same with exegeting the text. The trick is knowing where to look for the answers.
Rhetorical Surprise. The way that you get to the end is extremely powerful in evoking a surprise. It happens when you lead them into the desert, you get them thirsty and uncomfortable, you wait, and then you give them water. Rhetorical surprise is about creating dissonance where there may not be dissonance. It is a way of making something familiar, unfamiliar. This is the peanuts at the bar to get them thirsty.
Linguistic Surprise. Words are like stones at the bottom of a river. Over time they become smooth and lose their edge. They wash over us. This is learning the art of language, so that you can recharge words and let them rupture the mind in new ways. This is where you re-establish the barb on the wire where you snag people. It’s crucial to the surprise.
THE ART OF LETTING GO
I was far better at helping someone in a counseling session when I completely divest myself of the outcomes.
This is just simply true of life. Free yourself from the outcomes, and you become a more powerful communicator.
May we all learn the art of letting go.
— VIA —