A good bit of my summer was taken up by my hosting five listening sessions with groups of pastors. The purpose was to try to understand how the preaching landscape has changed since COVID and a welter of political divides have shaken the church along with the rest of society and indeed the whole world. My research was in service of a grant program my Center for Excellence in Preaching is hoping to pursue in coming years and so I traveled to California, Oregon, Iowa, Maryland, and Colorado to meet with groups of pastors from a variety of denominational traditions.
Each region had its own distinctive flavors and insights but there were also a number of common themes that emerged in all five listening sessions. And the bottom line could be stated this way: these are exceedingly difficult days for preachers and for the church generally. In this blog I cannot even begin to summarize everything that was shared but a few highlights may suffice to convey the idea that the church today—and those who lead churches—are facing significant challenges and it is by no means clear how this may all eventually shake out.
Perhaps the most common theme tied in with the lingering effects of the earliest days of COVID when the lockdown made all churches become virtual churches at least for a season. But although in-person worship resumed in most all places a while ago already, it is clear that hybrid worship is here to stay. Not everyone has returned in person. And even some who have come back are not present in church in person every week but sometimes opt to watch the Livestream or the recording of the service at some other (more convenient perhaps) time of the week.
Preachers shared various challenges related to achieving effective communication both for the people in front of them and for those online. But preachers noted some other unhappy side effects of how worship and sermons are viewed now. Several pastors noted that people now consume sermons on a screen the same way they consume any other YouTube video or other streaming videos online: passively. The idea of a sermon as a living Word from God fades when the sermon becomes just one of scores of videos people watch in any given week. Also, like other videos, people may not be averse to fast forwarding through what they deem the “slow” parts or just switching it off altogether if it’s not quite grabbing them. (Some of this may even carry over into how people receive sermons when they are listening in person.)
People treat sermons, one perceptive pastor noted, like a commodity now, like a product. Unsurprisingly, this commodification of preaching also leads to worship service videos and the sermon portion of such videos as something in competition with all the other videos being promoted on the side of the YouTube screen or on the Facebook Live page. Preachers are now more easily compared to lots of other preachers whose sermons are online and it may be easy for someone’s eyes to stray over to some other sermon video and then give that one a whirl instead.
Beyond these challenges related to hybrid worship are the expectations of many congregations when it comes to the content of sermons. In recent years many people have felt like we are in a constant state of crisis as we ricochet from one piece of bad news to the next, one political crisis to the next, one health crisis to the next. Thus there is a temptation, as one preacher put it, to adhere to “the Lectionary of CNN.” People expect their pastors to have something to say about the crisis of the moment, even though most preachers do not feel qualified to do so and are by no means certain it is their job to provide such running social commentary.
But when a given preacher refuses to cave in to this expectation, people get suspicious as to why. Just generally the majority of pastors to whom I listened this summer lamented that almost every word of their sermons now (and of also their public prayers) is scrutinized to see if there are any encoded messages. Say one thing about justice and some will slap a “woke” label on the pastor and for some folks, that will be the end of wanting to listen to that pastor. Say a certain word or phrase and the pastor is identified with the “elite” or with Black Lives Matter or with being anti-Trump or pro-Biden or . . .
Preachers in many places are trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea: they are expected to speak into the cultural moment whatever that moment may be but the minute they do so, they risk alienating one segment of the congregation or the other.
The acoustics in the church have altered such that pastors can get in as much trouble for what they don’t say as for what they do say. The divides of the culture war run right straight through congregations and since not a few people sized up their pastor’s socio-political views based on how that pastor reacted to the pandemic (the pastor insisted on masks, believed in social distancing, supported suspending in-person worship for a time OR the pastor did the opposite of all those things), what people decided on a given pastor’s socio-political views back then is the filter through which all else is heard now.
And there is more. But suffice it to say: if you are a member of a congregation, do what you can to support your pastor. He or she is walking a tightrope these days, more so in some congregations than others of course. Yes, I write as a pastor whose friends are mostly pastors and so I am biased. I am not blind to the fact that pastors can make egregious mistakes too and sometimes may alienate people in ways that are singularly the pastor’s own fault. True.
But many pastors feel stuck, discouraged, at sea, and not a little afraid. Pray for them and for the fractured wider Church of Jesus Christ that these pastors are endeavoring to serve.