This question has been generated by the influx of COVID-19 related ministerial issues. A number of ministers have discussed the nature of our ministry now. Is it really “preaching” to “preach” livestream? Is it “preaching” to “preach” through recorded audio? And in addition, if it is not preaching, then what purpose does it serve in the life of the Church?
My short and simple answer to these questions is, “No.” No. Preaching by livestream or by audio recording is not technically preaching. If we consult the biblical data, we see preaching used solely to refer to an event in which an elder or prophet, carrying the authority of God, confronts a personal audience with the message of God. Let me hone in on that one point: every biblical depiction is one in which the preacher confronts the people personally. The gap or medium between himself and his onlookers may be one of some physical space, but it is space that enables the onlooker to personally see and hear the preacher. One could call this entire situation the “preaching event”, or the “preaching occurrence”, or “preaching instance” from the Latin eventus. It is the singular event in which preacher, attendee, and God Himself are engaged with one another. It is unrepeatable, singular, and definite. We see this particularly in the preaching ministry of Jesus Christ. I’ve often thought about his preaching, and wondered how powerful his lungs must be. He could proclaim the gospel to thousands upon thousands of people gathered around about him. He preached to those gathered in the synagogue. He proclaimed to those gathered in homes, homes so full of people that they were nearly bursting at the seems. And then the people Jesus commissioned and empowered by His Spirit preached in the same manner after their Lord. Peter stood and proclaimed the gospel, that God made this crucified Jesus both Lord and Christ, vindicated Him by raising Him from the dead, and now commands men everywhere to repent and believe in Him. Paul preached it in the streets, the synagogues, and in homes. Each of them perceived this preaching experience or event as God’s means to convict, convert, and edify the hearer. There was no preaching into a box, wondering which amorphous persons might be watching. There was no need to wonder whether people were tracking with them or not. They could see the smiles or the frowns, catch the head tilts, hear the babies crying, the children giggling, Eutychus smacking onto the ground-level floor. But what of Peter and Paul’s letters? Perhaps, by extension, they viewed their letters as a form of preaching where viewers could hear them preach from a distance outside of their personal locale, outside of a preaching “event”. Were their letters preaching? No. Nowhere do they say this, or even suggest it. What they do say, explicitly, is that their letters are authoritative, God-inspired, letters, letters that they expected to be read as authoritative commands, but also expounded by preaching!
So, “no”, is my answer. No, livestream and audio “preaching” are not preaching. And though “no” is my answer, a number of my fellow ministers have suggested an alternative answer. They say, “Yes,” livestream and audio recording are both preaching, just not ideal forms of preaching. While I find this answer tempting to embrace, I only really wish to embrace it for pragmatic reasons. It feels good to believe that the congregation is getting the same sort of thing that they got when we were able to attend public worship. But the problems with this answer are too numerous for me to embrace it. For one, how does this view of preaching compare with the use of the sacraments? Hypothetically, if congregants had some sort of device in their home that could dispense bread and wine at the behest of another user, say a minister who clicks a button from his home, and they receive the bread and wine after watching their minister instruct them to do so from a computer, would this be a genuine participation in the Lord’s Supper? I hope that my fellow ministers would shrink back at the thought. There are obvious congregational and personal aspects of the Lord’s Supper that cannot be mediated by a computer. And if the Lord’s Supper is the preaching of the gospel made visible, as Augustine argues, then how is the preaching of the gospel itself any less truncated by a digital format? What makes the Lord’s Supper impossible to practice via livestream (theoretically), but preaching possible?
Further, and from a philosophy of aesthetics, it is worth noting that “the medium is the message” to some extent. A recording of audio or video of an event is decidedly not the same thing as personally experiencing the event. A recording of an event is just that: a recording of an event. It is not the event itself. Just as a recording of an orchestra may be played in a car, and yet the car’s audio does not magically make the orchestra appear within the car, so too a recorded preaching-occurrence does not make the preaching-occurrence appear in your home or office or wherever you listen to it or watch it. Not only that, the nature of the mechanics behind “capturing” audio or “capturing” video entails a certain and extreme loss of both quality (our ears and eyes far surpass the microphones and cameras that capture these sounds and sights), as well as personal gravitas (to physically be confronted by a minister or orchestra, etc.).
So, What are We Doing?
So what, in my view, is actually happening in livestream and audio recorded preaching when there is no physical audience? Ministers may “intend” to send their recordings to an audience. They may “intend” their current preaching to be viewed by an hypothetical audience. But the audience is not physically present. I think what actually occurs in the room may be preaching. There is a man with ministerial authority from God, explicating the Scriptures of God, to explain and apply the mind of God to a person. But the only person to whom he preaches this message, physically, is himself. What is recorded and sent later, or translated through lenses and digital apparatus through a computer, is a recording of the preaching. It is not the preaching. It is a form of transcription, copying, or an analogy to the preaching.
So, What’s the Point?
So what do we do, then, with the livestream sermon or audio sermon? If it is not “preaching”, per se, then what purpose does it serve? Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath-water here (as my old philosophy professor used to say). To suggest that livestream sermons or audio sermons are not preaching is not to suggest they are unimportant. To argue this would be like arguing that books about theology or about the Bible are unimportant because, well, they’re not the Bible. This logic obviously doesn’t follow. So, though they are not actually preaching, audio and livestream sermons are important. They are especially important at this time. They give a tangible connection between ministers and their congregants. The minister intends a recording of their preaching to be received and viewed and mulled over by his people.
In addition to a tangible connection, the content of the message is likewise helpful, as helpful as, if not more helpful than, reading a transcription of a sermon. Beyond a transcription, the visual or audible recording of preaching adds the inflection of the voice or the visual appearance of the minister. The people hear or see their minister labor to shepherd them from a distance, listen to the voice of their Great Shepherd in the recording of the sermon (just as they would in a faithful book or written sermon), and they then apply what they have learned to themselves as they conclude a time of private, home worship.
Last, why should a minister record his own sermons if he can recommend someone else’s sermons to his congregation? He should record his own sermons, if possible, because it is more helpful, on the Lord’s Day, to listen to the minister of the congregation in which one is a member, than to listen to or watch the recordings of various other ministers. I would even prefer to listen to my own preaching on the Lord’s Day, as I am a minister of my own congregation, than to listen to the preaching of a random preacher who has no intent for me to hear a recording of his sermon. One minister knows you, loves you, cares for you, and seeks for his recorded sermons to be especially applicable to you. Another minister does not know you, does not personally care for you, does not personally love you, and intends for his recorded sermons to be mulled over and applied by another. Though you can benefit from the writings and recordings of men who do not know you, if the minister God has gifted to you sends a recorded sermon to you, this is far preferable to analyze and meditate upon throughout the Lord’s Day.
So, ministers, I argue that during this difficult time we are blessed by the Lord to be able to offer something wonderful to our people: not preaching itself, but a recording of preaching, not public worship but private worship. It is a time that our people will look back on, and think, “God has been so kind to us for giving us loving ministers, who labored to preach, even if just to themselves, so that they could deliver a useful thing for me to worship God and grow spiritually while I was home alone.” So may we be faithful to the task the Lord has set before us, brothers, and preach in strange and odd circumstances, in season and out of season, with hope and confidence that God intends all of this for the good of those who love Him.