An elderly grandmother sits in the pew visiting with a friend and pulls out her smartphone to share a family photo she recently posted on Facebook. She stows the phone as worship begins, but its influence remains.
“We now live online,” said Mark Johns, associate professor of communication studies at Luther College, Decorah, Iowa. “We carry the Internet in our pockets, and we spend all day looking at screens. Gone are the days when people divided existence between what happened online and ‘in real life.’ The online is real life.”
Johns says it’s too early to tell how the digital age will ultimately change preaching because we’re barely 25 years into it. But he encourages preachers to try new things to engage listeners, especially because of our short attention spans and a Twitter world of 140 characters.
“A preacher has to earn the attention of the listener every 30 seconds or less, or the listener will drift off,” Johns said.
And today’s media are increasingly visual. Twitter has photos. Instagram and Pinterest are all about pictures. “The use of images is increasingly important,” he said.
Still, words matter. Ten years ago Johns wrote an article titled “Modern Media and the Sermon” (Lutheran Partners) in which he stressed to preachers the importance of delivery and storytelling.
“Narrative is still the most basic form of human communication in whatever medium the story is told,” he said.
There are downsides to the constant access to information that’s literally at our fingertips.
“One of the negative components of living in the digital age isn’t that we receive information differently, but the increase in the volume we receive,” said David Lose, president of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia and former homiletics professor at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minn. “We are supersaturated by information and we are in some ways numbed by it.”
The Enlightenment made preachers feel they had to explain the faith, Lose said. The “three points and a poem” philosophy took hold and preaching became more like a lecture. Today preaching that focuses on giving listeners even more information won’t be helpful and will contribute to the overload they’re already experiencing, he said.
Lose believes we need to change the way we view preaching.
“People are not hungering for more information. They can find everything they need on the Internet,” he said. “What people hunger for is a story that can give them deeper identity. The great thing for us is that we have a fantastic story and our understanding of that story is deeply rooted in relationship.”
Preaching in the digital age will continue to be more narrative and relational, Lose said. To him, preaching through the lens of faith formation helps listeners construct their identity as Christians navigating a complicated world.
“Preaching also needs to be more participatory because [we] learn best by doing,” he added.
Some simple steps can move us in that direction.
Preachers may ask questions during sermons which may, or may not, be responded to during the sermon. They might also invite people to write down responses to questions or encourage listeners to look for examples in their lives. Some even invite worshipers to email the preacher or post a response on the congregation’s Facebook page during the week.
An exciting time to preach
“That’s the real value of social media and the Internet — that [we] are able to continue conversations,” said Lose, emphasizing the importance of continuing conversations “because Sunday morning is no longer a reserved space in people’s busy lives.”
Some pastors invite people to use social media during worship, such as sending tweets to those not present so they can still connect with the day’s message. Many have their sermons posted online or shared as podcasts so the evangelical reach is wider.
“It’s made me realize how big the church can be and that those who may hunger for the gospel are not necessarily sitting in our pews but rather listening online,” said Lisa Dietrich, pastor of Fredsville Lutheran Church, Cedar Falls, Iowa, whose sermons are heard by more people online than in the pews.
“Some may be shut-in members, but others are servicemen and women, members of former congregations, or people who just happened to find a word they need to hear,” she said.
Many pastors see the digital age as a gift for the preacher. Websites like www.workingpreacher.org and www.textweek.com offer resources for Bible study. And Facebook gives a window into what parishioners are thinking about during the course of a week.
“I thank God that I get to preach in the digital age for it allows me to connect with people in a way that I don’t think I’d be able to do otherwise,” said Karen Torrez, pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church, Bridgeport, Ohio. “Social media is the map that shows me where people currently are. Facebook gives me an incredible insight into what is ‘trending’ in people’s lives.”
Last summer’s TED Talk-style sermon series at Maple Leaf Lutheran Church, Seattle, had Julie Blum, pastor, saying something similar. Worshipers “enjoyed a new way to hear and engage the gospel,” she said, as they watched a different video each week, followed by an activity or reflection.
But while the digital age offers challenges and possibilities, it may connect us more deeply to our roots than we realize. Paul Lutz, a pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, Lansdale, Pa., said the digital reliance on storytelling is not so different from the aural culture of Jesus’ day. Stories and the relationship with the listener remain paramount.
But preachers in the digital age are called to be aware of their task more than ever — lest even Grandma pulls out her cellphone and tunes out.