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In Marilynne Robinson’s luminous epistolary novel Gilead we read the musings of the Rev. John Ames. Ames is coming to the end of his days but wants to leave behind a testament for his young son who had been born when Ames was already an older man. The novel is Ames’s extended letter to this son, reflecting on everything from family history to the intricacies of theology. Along the way Ames reflects on the arc of his own ministry as a preaching pastor and how things had changed over the years (the novel is set in Iowa in the 1950s). At one point Ames laments the increasing role that the radio was playing in the lives of his parishioners. Ames notes that as a pastor he can preach his heart out on any given Sunday clearly to proclaim certain biblical and theological truths from the orthodox Christian tradition. But more and more he sensed his influence was waning in the wake of all those radio preachers who probably did not know their theology from a hole in the ground but they end up having a big megaphone and end up engaging Ames’s parishioners for more hours per week than he’ll ever get and so what is a pastor to do? The shaping of people’s spiritual and theological sensibilities seemed more and more to be out of his hands.

It was not always so, of course. Back in the days of my great-grandparents and mostly for also my grandparents, the Sunday sermon was one of the few times — maybe the only time — in any given week when they heard a discursus on biblical and theological ideas. Preachers had no competition. Probably that is in part why in the past, barring a horribly inept communicator, preachers could survive across decades of pastoral ministry despite being somewhat lukewarm speakers. No one could go home and download a better sermon on YouTube and then make the inevitable comparison to their own pastor. And mostly — even where there were some local options — people tended to be loyal to the home congregation and did not shop around to listen to other (perhaps more lively) preachers in the area.

I recalled and pondered all this when reading an intriguing — though doubtless it will prove controversial — New York Times article on Sunday by Amy Sullivan. Sullivan’s thesis is that many who self-identify as “evangelical” seem (based on polls and other public statements) to be drawing the content of their faith less from the local church and its pastor and more from the media and for many, from Fox News in particular. On a variety of issues, public statements by evangelicals and some vocal evangelical spokespersons seem at variance with some core Christian and biblical concepts and even with some fairly clear teachings of Jesus. What explains the disconnect? “That disconnect underscores the challenge many pastors face in trying to shepherd congregants who are increasingly alienated from traditional Gospel teachings. ‘A pastor has about 30 to 40 minutes each week to teach about Scripture,” said Jonathan Martin, an Oklahoma pastor and popular evangelical writer. “They’ve been exposed to Fox News potentially three to four hours a day.’”

To be fair, one could possibly make similar observations about the shaping influence of CNN, MSNBC, and the like. The fact is that for many of us, we spend more time absorbing ideas and stances and the apologia for various stances from TV than from any pulpit. What made Fox News a target for Ms. Sullivan’s article is a demonstrably accurate observation that far more evangelicals watch Fox than other networks even as Fox tends to engage the “culture war” issues that fire up evangelical voters perhaps more than other networks.

But the challenge comes equally to all of us and calls all of us — starting with me even as I write this — to wonder from what sources are we drawing biblical, theological, and spiritual insight into the issues of the day? Beyond the obvious fact that preachers cannot possibly occupy as much time in any given person’s week as television will, how do we parse what we hear from other sources? Should it matter to us that the people who seem to have the most to say about certain issues Christians rightly care about do not themselves have any formal biblical-theological training? Should it matter that we may tacitly trust someone on TV who has no relationship with us more than our own pastors who (one hopes) have a loving pastoral interest in our lives?

Again, I am raising questions and they apply to me, too. But I confess that of late some of what seems to pass as the “Christian position” on certain issues (not all issues) seems glaringly at variance with the Bible. Huge chains of Facebook back-and-forth posts (conducted by Christian people all around) go on and on and on without anyone’s invoking Scripture, the tradition of the church, or the ponderings of even one credible theologian or Christian ethicist. Why is that?

Probably Rev. Ames was right. And if he thought radio preachers of the 1950s had influence over his flock ... well, he did not know the half of what was yet to come.


Good thoughts and questions, Rev. Hoezee.

You're right that we as preachers cannot compete for long with what is out there on YouTube, innumerable free apps for anything called a ministry or the old fashioned radio.  People do tend to exercise their confirmation bias.  So I guess ultimately they are sort of listening to themselves.  It's frustrating.

My hope is something along the lines of John 10:27 "My sheep hear my voice, I know them, and they follow me."  The preacher's job is to be faithful, of course, and winsome as possible.  To give our best in preaching will then mean that more energy must go into sermon research and preparation than in times past.  Today devoting ourselves to public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching means that whereas a pastor's energy could be diffused in times past among many ministries, now it must be concentrated more in preaching.  So the pastor has to be more selective in taking on ministry tasks; that one Sunday sermon (some of us still have two!) will need more prep time than in former years if the pastor is to be a faithful minister of the word.  Maybe others will have to join the pastor in providing pastoral care and the leading of meetings and the teaching of classes and the many other tasks that we require in church life.  Even so, it is going to be the Holy Spirit that leads people to hear in the pastor's sermon the voice of Jesus speaking through faithfully proclaimed Scripture and if those competing voices are at odds with the clear teachings of the Bible, we have to trust that God will enable his elect to discern the difference. 

I would also hope that God's elect would notice the positive difference between the Word proclaimed in a public worship service with singing, sacraments, communal prayer and liturgy and the Word proclaimed in the alienation of one's headphones.   It's not that the latter is without benefit, but it is no substitute for the former.   We are made to live and worship together.  

That's my reaction.   

I once had a parishioner gently wonder to me if perhaps I could preach more like [so-and-so] whom they listened to regularly on line.  That preacher was the top preacher of the pyramid organization formed around him.  I smiled.  Nodded and gently retorted with, "You know that's all he does right?"  "What do you mean?"  "Well, preaching is probably the guy's whole job and he likely he has a team around him who searches all those current pithy video clips and  illustrations; who edits & prepares his manuscripts for him; maybe even coaches his performance and so on.  And he doesn't have to visit the elderly, counsel couples, prepare youth to profess their faith, figure out litanies with the musicians, help with the Sunday school program, fill in weekly bulletin information, sit through a sales pitch for a new photocopier, walk with families in crisis or loss, or drop what he's working on for a newcomer visit at the office door, etc, etc."  The look on my parishioner's face filled in the rest.  He caught that his comparison was unfair to say the least.  Not that I don't strive to grow as a communicator, but such comparisons with our mega-church, broadcast preachers is like wondering with a local community league hockey player why they don't play like they do in the NHL?  Because it's not their only job.  

The one question that I have and have been thinking about lately is how to properly listen to a sermon.  when we gather for worship the the foremost thing we try to do is bring glory to God, offering praise, prayers, tithes and fellowship  but the sermon is for us. We need to hold our pastors to a high standard of truth and expect an excitement and passion for proclaiming the Gospel but we should receive it in a way that brings glory to God.  In this day and age there are thousands of great sermons at the click of a button and I can pick one that suits me , if we are discerning this can be a wonderful tool in our spiritual growth.  There is a big difference though, between watching a sermon on my computer and hearing one in a worship service gathered with other believers.  I still sometimes complain that I didn't get anything out of the sermon, and would love to hear some insights in how to listen to a sermon in a way that brings glory to God.    

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