Spring 2020 will go down in history as the time that changed the way that everybody thinks about church.
There will be lots of debates about what it means to gather as a church, what it means to take communion together and what it means to preach.
Different preachers will reach different conclusions about these issues but what is clear is that this is a strange season for preaching.
Many preachers have found that despite all the benefits of live streams, pre-recorded services and Zoom, something vital is lost in the process. It requires imagination and skill to make a remote event connected and intimate.
How do we make people feel ‘there’?
Recently I read a timely new book by Rob Parsons, The Heart of Communication. It’s timely because it coincides with this stage in the history of the church when preachers are wrestling with the task of communicating with their congregations digitally at a time of lockdown.
If I were to summarize this book in one word, it would be: “connect.”
Rob Parsons has a unique ability to make everyone in a room think that he’s speaking directly to them.
What do we need to remember when preaching online?
1. Be personable. You’re a human being connecting to other human beings.
2. Remember that you’re talking to ordinary people.
This might seem obvious but the lack of a congregation before the preacher makes it harder to think about the range of people who are listening. The dynamic of face to face preaching contributes to the shaping of the preaching task.
Preaching online requires more empathetic imagination on our part to reflect on the real-life situations and struggles of our hearers.
3. Make sure that the sermon has a sense of movement to it and gives some clear turn signals.
4. Be engaging
Preachers have invested time and effort in preparing a sermon. Hearers are investing their time and attention in the listening process. In this contract between preacher and hearer, the incentive to get on the bus of the sermon and to stay on the bus until the end of the journey must be clear.
There needs to be as much attention given to the ‘how’ of preaching as to the ‘what’ of preaching.
Augustine begins what is one of the first great books on preaching with the words:
“There are two things on which the interpretation of scripture depends: the process of discovering what we need to learn, and the process of presenting what we have learnt.” (Teaching Christianity New City Press p. 106)
Yet, he also warns us:
“There is a danger of forgetting what one has to say while working out a clever way to say it.”
Preachers need to see that there is a difference between faithful creativity and the pursuit of novelty!
5. Think about the nuts and bolts and try to get the small things right.
Preach in a well-lit room but not with a window behind you.
Reflect on position and posture.
The size of a crowd tends to have an impact on how we do emphasis, facial expressions and gestures. It’s worth thinking about what is appropriate for an online sermon.
It is worth noting that in the most famous sermon ever preached, The Sermon on the Mount, Jesus preached sitting down (Matthew 5: 1–2).
Speak with a background that is not distracting.
When the congregation is thinking about what type of cereal is in that box behind you, or a pile of ironing, they won’t be able to concentrate on the sermon.
Try not to look as if you got dressed in the dark!