Preaching is different on a screen

There is nothing new about sermons being passed around. Historically, pamphlets and books of sermons were printed. Then we moved into the era of the tape ministry. After that, sermons began to be recorded and kept in MP3 format. Nowadays, and especially so since the pandemic and associated lock downs, almost every church has sermon audio and video.

And none of that is wrong. Listening to sermons online and watching video of other preachers can be perfectly fine and helpful. Even more significantly, listening back to your own church’s sermons can be even more helpful again. After all, they were preached with you in mind, with the applications intended to be relevant to your context. If for any number of reasons you didn’t catch it all the first time, going back and listening again can be particularly helpful.

But I do think there is something necessarily different about listening to sermon in person and watching it on a screen. That isn’t to say it is wrong to watch them on a screen. If you were serving in Sunday School, or you were sick that week, it is great to be able to catch up with what you missed. But watching it back on a screen – helpful as that can be – just isn’t as good as sitting and listening to it a sermon in person.

The fact is, we experience a sermon differently when we listen in person, to a live preacher, surrounded by other believers. Tim Keller wrote this:

Dr. Lloyd-Jones effectively dismantles the idea that watching a video or listening to an audio of a sermon is as good as coming physically into an assembly and listening to a sermon with a body of people.

It is obviously a good thing if a person who never hears or reads the Bible listens to the recording of a good gospel message and is helped by it. But the Doctor argues that people experience the sermon in a radically different way if they hear it together with a body of listeners and if they see the preacher. Watching on a screen or listening as you walk detaches you and the sermon becomes mere information, not a whole experience. There is a power and impact that the media cannot convey.

And this is important. Preaching is not individualistic, but corporate. It is not intended to be an information dump onto an individual, but a corporate activity experienced as part of the church body. Even the very act of seeing the preacher, and him looking directly at you as he applies the passage to specific situations he is conscious you are facing, alters the way we hear his point. Being behind a screen detaches us from all of that.

I think the prevalence of sermon audio and video is a good thing. I think being able to access good preaching – particularly your own church’s preaching – is a very good thing. I think it is great to be able to catch up on what we might have missed and to revise what we missed first time around because our mind happened to wander. These are good and helpful.

But I think it is certainly true that we experience a sermon through a screen differently and, as helpful as it is, it is necessarily inferior. I think it is great for us to be able to catch up on what we missed and to get a sermon from our pastor that we wouldn’t otherwise have heard for a host of legitimate reasons. But I do not think that this is any sort of substitute for actually being in the church, with other members of your church family, and hearing a sermon delivered in person. I am glad that we have got our live stream, and I am more than happy to keep it running, but I don’t think it is an adequate or preferable replacement for in-person preaching.