Preachers online: to sit or to stand?
Most preachers are keen not to be thought of as posturing and posing while preaching.
Yet online preaching has made us all reflect on the best choices concerning posture and place.
Some online services are recorded live with the preacher in the pulpit, to make it look as if we are experiencing church as we know it. Ohers are sitting comfortably on a sofa with a cup of coffee in hand, inviting us into their homes. Some choose a half-way house of standing up and preaching with a neutral background.
Some preachers can’t imagine preaching without standing up. For them this is the best posture for communication. It helps the breathing, projects the voice and suits the declaratory nature of preaching.
The popular TED talks are delivered standing up; (they are also no longer than 18 minutes long; might that say something about the optimum duration of an online message?)
In John’s Gospel Jesus stands when he wants to make a statement at the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem:
“On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink.” (John 7: 37)
By contrast, the fact tends to get missed, but I find it fascinating, that the most famous sermon of all time was delivered from a seated position.
“Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them”. (Matthew 5: 1–2)
Jesus, like Abraham, Moses and Elijah before him, chooses a mountain for this significant revelation. In choosing a mountainside, with all its biblical associations, Jesus seems to be seeking a place that fits his weighty words. Yet unlike Moses:
“He does not stand before Israel holding the 10 Commandments over their heads; he sits and offers various kinds of wisdom utterances”. (Ben Witherington)
It’s also worth noting that the uniquely authoritative preacher Jesus’s sitting down is part of the regular way that Jesus is pictured in Matthew’s Gospel as the teacher. In addition to 5:1, Jesus sits down to teach in 13:1–2; 15:29; 24:3; and 26:55.
It reminds me of the 1993 album by Rod Stewart: Unplugged and Seated. The more intimate nature of the event is reflected in being seated rather than the usual rock star pose of standing and strutting.
I don’t really think it matters if the preacher is sitting or standing; the choice needs to be governed by whatever seems to suit the situation.
Perhaps one of the main things that has been diminished in this season of online preaching is the sense of eventfulness: the dynamic of the preaching moment, the gathered church, the preacher in real time and space, and eye contact with the congregation. All preachers long for the levels of expectation expressed by the household of Cornelius in Caesarea:
“Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us.” (Acts 10: 33)
Another thing to note in the preface to the Sermon on the Mount is the presence of the disciples and the crowd. Jesus teaches the disciples, but the crowd is present. The disciples are hearing the sermon, the crowd is overhearing the sermon.
That is not so very different from what seems to be happening at present in our online services. The services are targeting local church congregations, but many churches report a higher number of people tuning in than would normally gather on a Sunday.
The crowd join in the response to this astonishing sermon:
“When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.” (Matthew 7: 28–29)
What an outcome it could be if some of those overhearing our sermons are drawn to admire and trust Jesus.