Sorting by

Skip to main content

Recently my wife and I were among just over 15,000 people in West Michigan who took in one of the six Grand Rapids performances of Aaron Sorkin’s stage adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird starring Richard Thomas.  This is not a play review (and anyway the play was first performed on Broadway in late 2018 so it’s not really a recent play).  Suffice it to say that Sorkin did a great job bringing Lee’s compelling narrative from 1960 to 21st  century audiences.  Since the core of the story centers on matters of race and racism in a story set in Maycomb, Alabama, in 1936 it was wise for Sorkin to provide some different angles on these matters.  

Both the original novel and the 1962 movie version starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch already did a good job handling sensitive matters of race.  But Sorkin was able to delve into it in ways that more align with current sensibilities, including allowing Finch’s black housekeeper to have a larger role in the play.  In particular she serves as Finch’s conscience in ways that make the otherwise enormously sympathetic Atticus Finch a real person who has his own struggles and failures when it comes to attitudes toward race.   There is, for instance, an echo from a famous passage in Martin Luther King Jr’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” when King responds to the calls of white clergy and others who kept telling black people to be patient (that letter did not of course exist at the time of the novel’s release nor the film).  When at one point Atticus tells the housekeeper Calpurnia that Maycomb just needs more time to overcome its racism, Calpurnia responds “How much time would Maycomb like?”

In any event, it made for a compelling nearly three hours with an outstanding touring cast led by Mr. Thomas who displayed a marvelous balance of gravitas, wisdom, courage, and wit.  Attending the play was a great reminder to me that although I enjoy TV shows and movies, there is nothing quite like watching a live play.  The immediacy of live theater, the relative physical nearness of the people playing the various characters, and yes the knowledge that if something goes wrong, no one call yell “Cut!” and do it over again—it all makes you lean in and become engulfed in the action.  Years ago when my wife and I saw our very first play on Broadway (Proof), by the time intermission came, we turned to each other and said “This is incredible!”

And to the surprise of likely no one reading this–given who I am, how I am wired, and what I do / think about most of the time–another fine experience with live theater reminded me of what makes preaching so compelling as well.  Christianity is the religion of the incarnation.  God did not save us by remote control nor by sending us a video of his Son working, preaching, teaching, healing.  The Son of God came down in person.  And ever since Pentecost, that Son by the Holy Spirit has been sending equally real flesh-and-blood people to preach the Good News of the Gospel live and in person.

Of course I would never want to deny that we can be moved and edified by sermon audio or video recordings or by watching a livestream of a worship service and sermon.  My Center for Excellence in Preaching has a lot of audio sermons available to inspire preachers or just to be listened to by most anyone.  But there is something compelling and even necessary whenever possible for the preacher to be physically present in the live moment of delivering a sermon.  Like the salvation that we preach, so also delivering a sermon is an incarnational event.  Or it is supposed to be.

In a time when a lot of pastors are grappling with the fact that post-COVID a lot of people have not come back to worship in person but choose to keep livestreaming, this is a point worthy of a moment’s reflection.  Yes, some people for reasons of age, social anxiety, and related issues need to worship online, and it is a blessing that most churches can deliver worship and sermons in that way.  Last year in a big survey of the pastors involved in the Peer Learning Groups of our Lilly grant “Compelling Preaching Initiative” program, of those who worship regularly or exclusively online via livestreams, 39% said they would not go back to in-person worship even if their church stopped streaming the services.  It was not because they did not want to go back but there were factors that meant in-person attendance was not feasible.  So it is a blessing to have videos and streaming services available.

Still, both preachers and congregants alike should not ignore the incarnational power of having the preacher present live and in person to bring God’s Word to life in a sermon.  Although I am sure I would still find the Sorkin play to be interesting had I only watched a video recording of it, I know that would have paled in comparison to being there in person with the actors on the stage as well as with an audience experiencing it all along with me.  Yes, preaching and acting in a fictional play are very different things but they do share in common the immediacy of an in-person event.  An in-person, incarnated event is how God saved us through Christ Jesus the Lord and ever since it is the Holy Spirit’s favorite way to proclaim that story as well.

Maybe that is why the author to the Hebrews had that well-known line about not neglecting to meet with one another.  In person.  In the fellowship of koinonia.  And with an embodied person fully present to bring the Good News.

Scott Hoezee

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


  • Fred Mueller says:

    Back in the day when TV celebrity preachers broadcasting services, a savvy billboard sprang up asking, “When was the last time your Sony served communion?”

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    What other place than a church delivers a weekly exhortation in the ways of God, surrounded by those who we consider our family of God? The corporate nature of a sermon, with many others hearing the same words, can lead to richer and deeper conversation and hopefully, knowledge and faith. Online can deliver the sermon, but can’t duplicate the essence of being present in the real place, especially if the one preaching is gifted. Finding and encouraging those with that gift is why the work of The Center for Excellence in Preaching is so important. Preachers have to be as articulate as Atticus Finch and as wise as Capurnia. Thank you for this work.

  • George Vink says:

    Ever so true and applicable.

  • T says:

    Im probably wrong but wasn’t it Calvin who said something like the preached or spoken Word is more powerful then the written because it comes embodied in the person and life of the presenter.

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    Watching TV (iPad, Computer) is a passive event. Engaging with a sermon is always meant to be an active event. There are always three actively “writing/proclaiming” a sermon-The preacher, the listener, the Holy Spirit … and not in that order of importance. It is hard to believe that watching at home perpetuates that passivity, and ultimately hurts the mission of the church. For some, this is better than nothing (shut ins, mental health, etc.). For others, it simply atrophies faith in all that it is meant to be. But it is the world we live in, so one more challenge for the church to overcome …

Leave a Reply