Two weeks ago I was privileged to sit in on a consultation on preaching hosted by my colleagues at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. The group of two dozen consisted mostly of people who do work similar to what my colleagues and I do at Calvin Seminary's Center for Excellence in Preaching; viz., provide resources and inspiration and help to pastors who are engaged every week in the vital work of preaching God's Word. The people who gathered for this meeting work via radio and via websites, they plan seminars and conferences, they make videos and write preaching manuals all in an effort to assist the proclamation of the Gospel. It was a wonderful gathering and a rich couple days as we shared best practices, frustrations, and new ideas.
One theme we circled back to often had to with the use of social media in the preaching event. Increasingly pastors are using Facebook and Twitter to promote conversations about a given sermon before the sermon is preached--soliciting questions or thoughts about the upcoming Sunday's preaching text--or after the sermon as the conversation continues. Some pastors are, of course, doing both. Many of us who were at the consultation had been pastors of congregations in the past and we admitted to each other that it's an odd thought to ponder someone in a pew Tweeting about a sermon even as we are delivering it. I have been out of parish ministry for going on 8 years now and seeing as back then--and even up until just a few years ago actually--something like Facebook or Twitter was non-existent, real-time interactions with my sermon in such formats was never something I pondered for two seconds when I was preaching.
But now preachers are pondering it and wondering how best to tap into the social media phenomenon/explosion. Part of me is much intrigued by this. All of us who preach have an interest in having our sermons reach as many people as possible with the Good News. So if a Twitter feed or various Facebook posts drove more people to check out online recordings of our sermons--much less ended up attracting some actually to attend and maybe some day join the congregation--then there would be much to celebrate in all that.
And of course part of me feels vaguely wary of all this, too, and makes me wonder about the church's ability also to be counter-culturally critical of some of the ways by which people relate and communicate today. If in the church we embrace sound-bite Tweets of sermons on a par with what celebrities observe as they Tweet from the Golden Globes ceremonies or what this or that commentator Tweets about the Super Bowl as it's happening, does this change the preaching event in ways we have perhaps not yet thought through? Honestly, I am raising questions here to which I have no answers. But there is something about the segmentation of our communication that social media has brought about that makes me wonder if slicing and dicing also sermons into status updates and Tweets might not over time influence both how preachers craft their sermons and how people listen to those sermons and I wonder if that influence has as much potential to be negative as positive.
Again, positively I see vast benefit in the pastor's using Facebook and the like to bring the congregation into the sermon-making process before the sermon is written and then to continue a lively conversation with people after it is delivered. There are even pastoral care possibilities here that may be pretty wonderful. What's more, we preachers need all the help we can get most of the time and should never want to be isolated from feedback or input. But as users of Facebook (and to a lesser extent perhaps Twitter) know, the ease with which status updates can be made and the swiftness of the average Tweet has also contributed to the idea that everybody is equally an expert on most every topic and that there is no opinion or snap judgment that should not be put "out there" for all to see whether it's particularly informed by due consideration and deliberate thought or not (and let's face it, a lot of times it's the "not" that rules the day).
Preachers who have grown up with "the new homiletic" have long known that the day of the "sage on the stage" whose authority was absolute and unquestioned is long gone. Fred Craddock's landmark book title "As One without Authority" said it all in terms of the need today for preachers not to assert top-down authority but generate authentic authority for the Word preached by appealing to listerners as a fellow disciple whose messages experientially appeal to our lives together in ways that create community. So my wariness about instant sermon Tweets or Facebook posts that could question what was said in a sermon does not stem from a desire for me as a preacher to be the sole voice of authority in all this such that no one else could possibly have anything to contribute.
No, but I do still see preaching as a Spirit-led exercise done by people both trained and gifted for this very specific, very vital task in the life of the congregation. So in our day of "everyone's an expert" in which Facebook posts ballyhoo and reject the careful opinions of scholars and authors and--perhaps increasingly--also preachers and theologians I wonder if there is a possibility that something of the sacred, event-ful character of preaching could be eroded as the preacher's thoughts, too, could become easily dismissed or caricatured.
Again, I have questions and no answers. But if upon reflection a given pastor or congregation decided it was well to suggest that the worship service was a great time to switch off the Twitter and unplug from social media generally so as to listen to the Word of God in the community gathered, would that be the worst thing a church could suggest?