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Preaching at a Crossroads: Mary or Martha?

I have been interested to see the different responses that preachers have made to the Covid-19 crisis. Is preaching at a crossroads?

One younger preacher asked if I have ever had to deal with a situation anything like this.

In nearly forty years of pastoral experience there have been strange and difficult times before:

the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland,

difficult economic down turns,

anxiety surrounding the nuclear threat,

tension and wars in the Middle East in the wake of 9/11,

but nothing like this.

Often it has felt as if I’m a spectator looking at something from a distance.

This time a real and present danger lurks in my country, my town. This is a crisis that has an impact on my daily life, my family, work, social interaction, shopping, and travel.

Perhaps for the first time in the history of Christianity, the doors of every church building have been closed.

What have I observed during this time?

1. Sermons have changed shape and got shorter.

It is interesting to reflect on what is needed in this context. Clear, concise and constructed seems to be the watchword. Sermons that follow the guidelines of the long running radio show, Just a Minute. In this show contestants need to speak for 60 seconds without hesitation, deviation or repetition.

2. Preachers are learning to preach in a more conversational tone.

Have you heard of the preachers’ wife, who complained, “When he speaks to me it’s as if he’s addressing a public meeting?” Jesus knew that there was a different approach to be taken with a crowd, the twelve, the three (Peter, James and John), and the individual. The preacher online is inviting the hearer to come into their world, to inhabit their space.

Maybe this leads us to ask the very important question: ‘What do we mean by a sermon?”

We know that one of Paul’s sermons was so long that a young man fell asleep and then tumbled from a window seat!

Yet there is no definitive biblical direction on one set length, form or style of sermon. Forty-minute sermons are not intrinsically superior to twenty-minute or 10-minute sermons. It’s a bit like people’s approach to packing a case. Some people have a way of getting more into a small case than others manage to cram into a large one. Preachers have to be nimble and adaptable, adopting length, form and style that will carry the freight of the message, and do so in a way that can be processed by the hearer.

3. Churches have struggled to replicate the dynamics of worship when the church is not physically gathered.

Seeing a worship leader strumming a guitar in their lounge does not feel the same as when they’re leading in church on a Sunday morning. There is something about being there. Churches have done well with the smaller more intimate aspects of their church life. Well organised small groups seem to have functioned well with a digital connection.

In response to the death of his young son, the singer Nick Cave set up a website that inviting questions of any kind. Here is an extract from a recent letter that addresses the question:

What does a person who isn’t particularly creative do in isolation? I haven’t got a clue.

“My response to a crisis has always been to create. This impulse has saved me many times…Together we have stepped into history and are now living inside an event unprecedented in our lifetime…As an artist, it feels inapt to miss this extraordinary moment. Suddenly, the acts of writing a novel, or a screenplay or a series of songs seem like indulgences from a bygone era. For me, this is not a time to be buried in the business of creating. It is a time to take a backseat and use this opportu

nity to reflect on exactly what our function is — what we, as artists, are for. Love, Nick”

Perhaps this is a Mary or Martha moment for preachers.

Are preachers to chase their tails being a different kind of busy or are they going to sit back for a moment and pay attention to Jesus?

Maybe this is not only a space to do things differently for a season but an opportunity to recalibrate our ideas of ministry in the long term.

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