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As I have noted here on the RJ Blog before, my Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary is now part of a 5-year grant program funded by Lilly Endowment, Inc.  “The Compelling Preaching Initiative” seeks to define what makes for compelling preaching today and what are the challenges and opportunities in pursuing it in congregations everywhere.  In 2023 we hosted 16 Peer Learning Groups that spent the year pondering issues related to preaching/worship and technology, particularly the Livestreaming phenomenon that took hold during the COVID lockdown but that now continues.  How does our techno-society influence preaching and specifically what does having an online presence as a congregation do to the reception of and even the shaping of sermons now?

As I have been poring over reports from our Peer Group Leaders as well as the data amassed by a large survey we launched for pastors and their congregants, there are loads of interesting insights to absorb.  For today in this blog I will mention just a few as they may be worth pondering for preachers as they preach and for all church members as they listen to sermons.

But first we need to note a kind of meta-issue before we get into the technology aspects of all this: most of the reports from our highly ecumenical peer groups once again bore witness to a sad state of affairs: so many pastors report feeling lonely, burned out, and vulnerable.  Between the pandemic and our fiercely partisan divides, pastors are carrying around a lot of unprocessed trauma even as they sense more than ever that their every word in public prayers and in sermons gets scrutinized (more in some congregations than others of course) in ways that make them fearful that one wrong comment could create trouble.  As I have written here before, we need to pray for pastors and congregations alike.

In terms of preaching being available online—both when Livestreamed but also after worship services are archived—there was a concern that some people fast forward through most of the service just to get to the sermon.  (And sometimes the sermon only is posted online.)  One of our survey results revealed that for people who now worship online either every week or more occasionally, 88% said the sermon is the main thing to which they pay attention.  But many pastors expressed concerns that this diminishes the context of a sermon as being just one liturgical component among many.  The sermon is supposed to be situated in a larger experience of communal worship with each element of a worship service contributing to all the other elements.  Carving the sermon out and isolating it from that wider worship service carries with it some implications that are worth pondering.

A number of pastors also noted that the technology that makes Livestreaming possible now is not neutral.  Technology carries with it its own unique telos.  Above all things like YouTube or Facebook Live encourage a passive consumption of everything that can be viewed, and for many people connected to the church that now includes chiefly sermons.  We tend to refer to online participants not as “worshipers” but “viewers.”  Yet at its best preaching, among a small host of goals, is supposed to build up a community of disciples even as it calls them to actions consistent with living a Gospel-shaped life of witness.  But the passivity built into online platforms runs the risk that sermons will be the reception of information but without that information leading to transformation. 

A somewhat related concern that was raised in peer group conversations last year is that just generally we are seeing a rise of loneliness in our society.  One would hope that church would be one place that could address this epidemic of isolation and yet by virtue of its very nature, the act of consuming worship services and sermons online may actually be making this sense of loneliness worse instead of better for some (maybe many) people.

Four years ago this week the world shut down as the reality of COVID-19 took hold.  We all went home and closed our doors for what ended up being a far more sustained period of time than we would ever have guessed up front.  Now all these years later even though it feels like the pandemic is over—a recent Pew Research poll revealed that only a small minority of Americans are even concerned or worried about COVID now—the shadow that the pandemic cast will be over us for a long time to come.  Many things will simply never be the same.  But the work of our Peer Learning Groups revealed that among the things we need to keep wrestling with and talking about in the church is the role of worship and preaching in forming communities of disciples and what about technology may actually be making that goal much harder to achieve.

Scott Hoezee

Scott Hoezee is Director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Whew. Reality. Thanks for this. This happened before, changing worship practice in response to disease, and the accommodation became the new norm, and a real loss–when we gave up common cup communion for health reasons.

  • Paul Janssen says:

    I can only speak for myself, of course, but I know that when Covid hit, at least in part, I wanted to continue being the “me” that the story I tell about myself told me I was. In other words, to be a person who speaks a good word from God into other peoples lives. The communal worship setting was the principal place for that activity. Without that gathering, the question was not only “how will the people of God hear the good news?”, but “who will I be now?” I imagine that most of us with varying degrees of critical thinking, entered into offering whatever we thought we could, for our own sake as well as for the community’s. (Don’t forget that for many people their sene of being tied to the world came through contact with the people of God-albeit attenuated- that streaming afforded.) And we were grateful for the opportunity not only to offer messages via various digital forms, but also to feel useful. I think it is important to look reflectively and critically on what we did, and in many cases are still doing, but also to look back on ourselves with some charity , because of the not only communal, but also intrapsychic issues that we were facing.

    • Scott Hoezee says:

      Thanks, Paul. All good points. I could not put everything into this blog but one thing I will note here is that livestreaming and the like do serve a purpose. Some churches shut off their Livestream once the lockdown/more acute COVID phase was over more or less to force people to come back in person. But our surveys showed that 43% of the people who mostly or only worship online now would not come back even if the Livestream of their church went offline. Mainly the reasons for this are the reasons they Livestream to begin with: they have physical difficulty getting to church, they have various social anxiety disorders, etc. So although Livestreaming and having an online presence may have some downsides to it as I detail in the blog, there are upsides as well.

      • Rodney Haveman says:

        I appreciate what you found and the additional sharing, and I have found some of the same in my congregation. Many who can’t make it for a variety of reasons, join up on livestream.
        I wonder, however, if some congregations will take this new “normal” as another reason to not make their buildings more accessible (in all the ways we could make our congregations accessible). (Full disclosure, we’re still working on it at my church.) It would be sad if we used livestreaming as another reason to avoid the hard, expensive work. You know, “now ‘those people with difficulties’ can join worship!” (not that you are referring to people that way, I’ve just heard it expressed that way).
        Anyway, lots to learn and think about. Thanks for sharing.

  • RZ says:

    I am reflecting on the phrase, “accommodation became the new norm.” It always will, I suspect, for better or worse. Another related accommodation within our current reality is the dismissive prevailing attitude toward traditions and the instititions that promote them. Some of this is good but not all. Church is in the front row here.
    I must confess I do not always expect weekly worship to “move”me. Same for daily devotions and prayer, volunteer assignments, etc. But I commit to daily prayer, weekly worship, and communal activities as disciplines that I know I need in my life. Nothing to brag about here! This is a dependancy. The repetition creates a rhythm that promotes life balance and increases opportunity for spiritual growth. And, it reminds me that life is less about me than what I can contribute to others!
    One final thought: If this is all true, we must work at ensuring that church and worship gatherings are safe zones, free from the divisive and cynical air we breathe elsewhere. Listening to and accommodating others is another good discipline and a mark of the church.

  • David E Stravers says:

    Long before the internet, didn’t the sermonic monologue pattern encourage passive listening? Isn’t criticism of a pastor’s statements also more likely to arise as a response to a monologue as opposed to a conversation where statements can be given context and explanation? Perhaps the internet has merely highlighted problems that have been with us for a long time?

    • Emily Jane VandenBos Style says:

      Yes to consideration of modes of conversation. So needed. Inperson or virtual. And, to pondering the “telos of technology,” indeed of life itself in this historical era in which we find ourselves & others, hopefully, in conversation. About matters of meaning-making.

  • Carl Fictorie says:

    “(And sometimes the sermon only is posted online.)”
    One reason this happens is the rules of copyright law regarding songs in church. If your church projects lyrics (with or without music) on screen, and then also livestreams that during the service, the church has to pay licensing fees unless the songs are public domain (both lyrics and music). If you then want to leave the video of the service online you have to pay more again. If all you post is the sermon, many of those fees go away. So there’s a financial incentive for a church to not post recordings of full services.

  • Rowland Van Es, Jr says:

    Good question: What is the role of worship and preaching in forming communities of disciples? I’d say that we gather to scatter. Worship (preaching & praying, etc) should shape us to care more for God’s world. Part of the problem of social media and passive participation is that it does not get us out of ourselves enough.

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