Wheaton College Professor Says Sermons-as-Podcasts Actually Hurt Preaching and the Sunday Morning Experience

Sermons belong in church, not our earbuds.

by Read Mercer Schuchardt

Up until what seems like just yesterday, Christians had to show up in church to hear the sermon on Sunday morning.

It happened in real time, once a week. If you missed it, you might get the highlights from someone else, but if not, you had to wait until next time. Part of the motivation to get out the door each Sunday was getting to participate in a completely unrepeatable moment in time.

This is why churches need to rethink the recent trend in making sermons available online. Churches, like any other institution, cannot simply adopt the latest communication technology with impunity. There are profound consequences for doing simply what is possible and popular in our culture without considering what is prudent. But for the church, unique among all institutions, this is a particularly serious problem.

Of course, churches’ motivations are sincere: They want to provide preaching for the shut-in, the elderly, the infirm, and those incapable of traveling. They also want to spare you the solitary hell of a daily commute that amounts to hours stuck in traffic each week. (For the few who sincerely can’t make it on Sunday, pastors should also be visiting them in person, bringing the Eucharist, and perhaps dropping off a text of the sermon or a USB drive of the sermon.)

In some cases, churches could stream a message live for the appointed time of the sermon itself, but the effect on the user should be, like the kids say these days about their favorite concerts: “You had to be there.”

Sermon podcasting reveals a utilitarian misunderstanding of how our messages create a sense of meaning. The sermon is not an interchangeable part that can be removed from the context of worship while still maintaining its power, its authority, and its efficacy. It retains at most one of these, diluting or eliminating the other two.

If value is a function of scarcity, then we must understand just what scarcity means. Scarcity can either be real and produce actual value, as in gold, virginity, and integrity, or it can be manufactured and produce perceived value, as in Pokémon cards, bitcoin, and diamonds. What the church has done successfully for millennia is to produce perceived value—through rules and restrictions, limitations and taboos, thou shalts and thou shalt nots—until its users come to recognize that this perceived value is really an actual value.

For churchgoers to perceive value, churches have to maintain the scarcity of the once-a-week, in-real-life sermon experience. When pastors push their sermons far and wide via podcast, they unintentionally devalue the message they have worked hard to create and communicate. They remove the sermon from the time, context, and body of the liturgy where it belongs.

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SOURCE: Christianity Today

Read Mercer Schuchardt is associate professor of communication at Wheaton College. He and his wife, Rachel, have ten children.