Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Podcast Sermons: Preaching out of Place?

A letter written by Karl Barth in 1962 offers me the occasion to reflect on the proper context for preaching. For some time I've wondered if there may be a sense in which publicly available sermon manuscripts or recordings take the preaching of the Word out of its intended home, perhaps diminishing its status as an event and leading to its misuse and misunderstanding. See what you think of Karl Barth's letter to Berlin Church Councillor Wolf-Dieter Zimmermann upon request to air his prison sermons on public radio:
We are dealing here with what is a matter of principle for me. Only in the context of its delivery is a sermon, strictly, what it is meant to be. If its context in the narrower sense is bypassed to give it a wider audience through print or radio or on a record, then for decades - so far as printing is concerned - I have thought I should insist that it appear only with the preceding and following prayers (both composed ad hoc), because for me this threefold middle portion of an evangelical service constitutes and inseparable whole. Even better, when it is possible on the radio or on a record, we should have the whole service, including the introduction, congregational singing, and the benediction.

Thus the sermon (which is not a lecture) should be kept in its context for the listeners when it is played again. I do not see this as a questionable procedure, but a good one. And I have been assured by many who play the records of that sermon how pleasing it is to them - even if only in imagining the real action - to range themselves with the prisoners, to pray with them, and ... to join in their singing.... At any rate my own view is that if we are to have recordings at all, then we should record sermons with as much as possible of their natural setting.
- Karl Barth, Letters 1961-1968 (T&T Clark, 1981), 37-38
As a child of the technological age (and not one who is simply suspicious of it), I find myself agreeing with this. I don't want to condemn or abstain completely from listening to or publicizing sermons, but I do think that if we are going to make use of this medium we do well to keep some questions in mind so that the practice is kept in its proper perspective.

At what point might the publicized sermon usurp or transpose the role of preaching in the local church? How much does preaching taken from a congregational setting lose its meaning or open itself to misunderstanding and misuse? How might congregation-intended sermons change for the worse (or the better) when the preacher knows they will be heard by unknown and loosely connected masses listening in? What happens when preaching is not respected as a one-time event in the context of a community seeking to follow Jesus Christ together, and is ripped from the context of prayers, fellowship, mutual service and local mission?

(See also "All Theology is Local", posted almost simultaneously on another blog, but incredibly resonant.)


P. Smitty said...

Interesting thoughts Jon,

While I would resonate with the idea that a sermon is best heard in the context of the entire worship event - I think it's important to draw a line between the intended audience of said sermons.

In our local context we have a lot of shift workers and on-call workers who regularly miss worship for work. Publishing our messages online gives them an opportunity to stay connected within a family that they are already a part of. Now if we were publishing our messages for mass consumption online (which is always a possibility - but I'm not anywhere near arrogant enough to think that anyone outside of my flock and a few close friends listen to them) that would be different.

I don't know if that's an intelligent response of a defensive rebuttal but it's what came to mind when I read the post. Perhaps it can spark further discussion.

Jon Coutts said...

Definitely don't want to say there is no place for it. In fact, Barth wasn't saying so either. And your example is one of I'm sure many blessings that are provided. I guess the point is, when we are listening, to recall where preaching has its proper home: The context of an actual communing fellowship which is listening and offering itself expectantly to God together...

Colin Toffelmire said...

I've been a part of a couple of churches now which record and post sermons to the net, and generally I think it's quite a good practice. Recording the entire service is also an interesting and probably laudable goal...though as a guy who leads public worship a lot, I'm not sure how badly I want my amateurish guitar work available for (repeated) public consumption!

That said, giving a sermon a kind of travelling context does a couple of things. First, hopefully it reduces focus on the sermon itself, and resets it appropriately as one important element in a service with lots of other important elements. Second, I wonder if it might remind people who are listening that this is a community event (how about a mic on the congregation?), and not something less interactive like a lecture. Third, perhaps it would also serve to reduce the danger of the cult of personality that televised and podcasted sermons can encourage.

I also wonder what kind of burden or responsibility should be carried by folks who listen to podcasted sermons. When I listen to one of Rob Bell's sermons, what kind of mindset should I have, and where should I be, and how should I respond? Listeners really need to think about themselves as something other than mere passive receptors.

Pastor Brandon said...

As a young preacher who recently started publicizing my sermons through a blog, I thought this when reading this blog: WHAT? WHY? HOW COME I CANT? And wanted to justify myself in what I do.

Here's the deal: I think you have valid questions to consider. And similar to P. Smitty, I too post them for others who can't come to hear (in my case it's my youth who don't come or for people who were in the congregation who missed it, or for someone in the congregation who wanted to hear it again).

But, I admit that I desire to hear what people think about my preaching as well. I love listening to sermons and being edified by them and learning from them (I have listened to Wes Olmstead's sermon on the sermon on the mount many times).

Maybe to there is a bit of pride on my side and a desire for fame. But, I laugh when I think of that. And I will ponder it more.

Next, I think of history. It is important to study and know history and good documentation aids that. Posting sermons online will be a history lesson for someone one day. Even Karl Barth published works that were sermons. His first Romans commentary for example.

There is a major role for sermons within a service, but the larger church needs also to be kept in view. The Church is larger than one congregation and posting and publishing sermons is helpful to bridge the gap of time and space. But, in agreeing with COLLIN, the listener (and the whole church) needs to be cautioned about listening online.

In saying al that, today, when I post my sermon online, I take caution and will ponder this carefully in prayer. Thanks Jon.

Jon Coutts said...

To be clear I'm not saying not to do it (post them online), but to recognize what this particular kind of preaching is for, or where it is most at home. Surely there are sermons that speak to the whole of the Church, or to vast swaths of it at a time. And sermons can certainly be recorded for the sake of learning from each other and keeping a history of such things. But I think the preaching of the Word is an event where a fellowship prayerfully attends to the Word of God on the mouth of someone they've called to that role. They go to it expectant and connected, participant and mutually formed by it, together. The sharing of recorded sermons for posterity or for the sake of the absentee is fine, and distributing them widely can have a purpose too, but surely we are best off recognizing that these are provisional purposes and not stand ins for what we ought to be seeking in our local churches.

Jon Coutts said...

Podcast sermons make no demands on the listener do they? Podcast sermons can totally achieve their purpose without us having to interact with anyone else in a community formed around Christ. Podcast sermons can be totally individualistic and consumeristic rather than a gift of the Spirit to the Body of Christ.

Pastor Brandon said...

Totally agree that podcast sermons are no replacement for the hearing of the Word in a congregation and reaching conviction together. Thanks for the challenge though around the true purpose of sermons. Always appreciate your hard challenges.

Colin Toffelmire said...

"Podcast sermons can be totally individualistic and consumeristic rather than a gift of the Spirit to the Body of Christ."

Yes, but of course live sermons can be that too. I'd agree that the Podcast format lends itself to this individualism and consumerism more, but neither mode requires nor precludes real engagement with the worshipping community. As with all communicative acts, both sender and receiver are responsible for how things turn out.

Adam Couchman said...

This is a really interesting post, so thanks Jon. I think what Barth highlights here is not the place of the sermon, per se, but the importance of the context. The most important part of this context is its relationship to the reading of the Word itself. In speaking of my own context I find it quite distressing to worship with others and only hear a few verses of Scripture throughout the whole worship event. Sometimes, not at all (tragically)!!! A sermon is only a sermon if it is in the context of the communal reading of the Word. It is the Word that we gather around, not the preacher, and so the sermon opens the Word to the gathered faithful. I suspect that most podcasted sermons do not include the reading of the word with them. This action alone subtly elevates the sermon to a place of honour greater than the reading of the Word, which is for me a real problem. I think this reminder is well worth seriously considering, and also makes me think about what is important in worship. Is the most important thing we do on a Sunday to hear the sermon, or is it the action of gathering together around the Word of God?

Jon Coutts said...

Yes indeed, these are important clarifications, thanks!

I agree with you Colin, although the individual/consumer bent comes a bit easier when you don't even have to get out of bed, get in the same room with all those people who recognize you, and share/endure one another's company along with the sermon, don't you think?

Adam, I think you have put a finer point on it with your note about context. I do agree that that's more what Barth was after in this letter, and truth be told it is what I'm after as well. Well put. I also think your elevation of the reading of Scripture is a great point as well. A friend and I were commenting this week that it seems like reading out loud is a lost art left to the politicians and poets. Amazing if in our congregations we not only had preachers, but good Scripture readers.

When I was a kid I remember being asked to read Scripture in church and, along with other kids my age, actually being taught to do it well and evaluated on it. I got some kind of ribbon or something. I remember being totally psyched about it as a kid, and I can only imagine how much the church enjoyed it. I'd like to encourage that sort of thing in my church, perhaps even get a little team of "preachers in training" going, not only amongst children, but the adults as well.

But now I'm off topic a bit. All that to agree with you Adam.

Pastor Brandon said...

Rich stuff. Very helpful everyone. Thanks.