Is Multimedia the Death of Preaching?

Thirty-to forty-minute sermons don’t work with Gen-Xers. Doing a service which does not incorporate video and contemporary music for the most part does not work with Gen-X. […] Some of the fascinating churches I have visited that are trying to reach Gen-X and are doing so well may have a thirty-minute sermon, which is broken into three segments during the course of the service. You have a ten-minute introduction to the topic, then you have an eight-minute video on that topic. Then the preacher comes back and preaches another ten minutes. Then you have a drama sketch for five to eight minutes, and the service is closed with ten minutes of preaching. That fits their communication style. It fits their attention span. It fits their style of thinking — the “mosaic” style of thinking. (George Barna)

George Barna wrote this a generation ago, but his words still have application to the modern church context. Preachers today are under enormous pressure to make preaching more savvy, more visual, more multisensory, or perhaps just get rid of preaching altogether in favour of multimedia presentations. What are we to make of this?

In my previous post I began a three-part series trying to answer the question: ‘why privilege preaching?’. In this next post, I want to tentatively suggest that preaching as a medium best corresponds with God’s primary medium in revealing himself to humanity.

Marshall MacLuhan famously said that ‘The medium is the message’. In other words, how we communicate effects what we communicate. For example, the evening news on TV – which is primarily driven by 30 second to 2 minute news segments mostly consisting of fragmented video footage, strung together by brief commentary, then broken up by commercials and ending with a heart-warming story about puppies being rescued from Chinese restaurants (joke) – communicates something about the news in addition to communicating the news. It’s saying something about the nature of life and the relative importance of world events – i.e. life is rather fragmented; news = sound bites; and puppies are as important as massacres in Syria. The medium is the message.

When you begin asking why God chose a particular medium of communication in revealing himself to humanity, it may have implications for the medium of communication we privilege to deliver his revelation.

In short, God chose words. More specifically God chose to speak his words. Even the words that he caused to be written in Scripture are, to a large extent, intended to be read aloud, re-preached, re-told, and re-verbalised, especially in the public assembly (1 Tim. 4:13; 2 Tim. 4:1). I don’t think it’s just a matter of God choosing the lowest common denominator in a predominantly pre-visual and pre-literate age (though that is true to a certain extent). I think it has to do with the nature of spoken communication.

Compare the spoken word with visual communication – e.g. radio vs. TV; a phone call vs. a text message. The spoken (and heard) word is more intimate than purely visual forms of communication. That’s why radio is called a ‘warmer’ medium than TV. The spoken word is also more relational. The further one gets from face-to-face verbal communication the ‘colder’ communication becomes, since so much of communication is meta-communication such as intonation (i.e. how we say it). Visual images and the written word have to find ways to “code in” that meta-communication in a way that the spoken word doesn’t (just think about how much more likely an email is misunderstood than a spoken word!). And lastly, spoken words have an immediacy about them that images and written words don’t. Images especially need higher levels of interpretation that are circumscribed by one’s culture. It’s not that spoken words don’t need interpretation, it’s just that since language and culture have a symbiotic relationship, once a word is spoken (or for that matter, written) in a particular language, the interpretation is more ’embedded’ in its actual usage. That’s why if you’re wanting to warn people, you’re more likely to use spoken words than simply show a picture or a sign. (A red sign in our culture means danger because that’s how we interpret the colour red, but for a Chinese person, red symbolises prosperity.)

So isn’t it interesting that when God wants to relate to people – variously to befriend them, bless them, expose their sin, judge them or give them hope – he uses words? He speaks. He preaches. He declares it so we can hear it and heed it. And note how the declarative speech-acts (such as prophecy and preaching) carry with them a certain authority. They are uniquely suitable mediums for God to communicate his words since when God speaks there’s a certain non-negotiability about it. He doesn’t leave his words open to uncertainty and leave postmodern audiences to interpret them however their personal or cultural biases might take them.

Isaiah 55:10–11 As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, 11 so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

In other words, there’s a reason why God speaks his revelation, tells his revelation, preaches his revelation, even sings (?) his revelation. The reason is the message – the gospel (by this I mean the gospel in the fullest and widest sense: i.e. God’s message of Christ’s Lordship and salvation in the whole of Scripture). In fact, the word ‘gospel’ itself reflects this since the gospel is news. News needs to be declared, announced, proclaimed and preached. When you preach the gospel (medium) you are saying something about the message – i.e. that it’s personal and relational, and yet urgent and authoritative. Thus on the flip-side it’s worth asking the question: if we decide not to preach the gospel but privilege other forms of communicating it: visualise it, enact it, multimedia it, Q&A it, does something get lost? (I’m not saying here that there aren’t many different and helpful ways to communicate the gospel; there certainly are. I’m just asking the question of ‘what do we lose?’.) Does the gospel message itself privilege the spoken medium over others?

So coming back to my initial point about preaching: I believe that because God himself privileges a particular medium of communication to deliver his gospel message, this, in some measure, constrains us also to privilege spoken and declarative communication – i.e. preaching. Multimedia may be helpful supplements to our teaching and preaching, but I think were the church to downgrade the privileging of preaching, we would lose not only a Biblical medium, but perhaps a whole lot of the message along with it.

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About Pete

I am a child of God, a husband, a father of four children, a pastor, and a church planter. I live in Sydney Australia and live to see Jesus made famous in this city and be the only God people worship.

Posted on July 19, 2012, in Media, Ministry, Preachng and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Good observations, I find I’m more engaged towards any preaching where it feels like the minister is actually making a connection with those of us listening rather than delivering a uni lecture and expecting us to soak up the wisdom they’re imparting. That isn’t to say that teaching from the Bible takes second place, only that if the presentation isn’t engaging then Gen-X and Y’ers’ brains are already heading for the exit. Ministers who over use multimedia in presentations take away the personal engagement factor and so the sermon just becomes about digesting information rather than relating it to us personally.

    If ministers want to engage people more then they need to be real, they need to talk about their faults (and not just ‘I need to pray more or read my Bible more’ sort of faults), actively caring for their congregation and they need to passionately engage with the content they’re preaching rather than delivering a pitch perfect sermon (the sort where every intonation feels practiced and delivered in the same undulating pitch).

    So yeah I agree, it’s about talking, relating and passionately engaging rather than trying to shoe-horn in unnecessary powerpoint presentations. It’s something that I struggled with for a long time because I’m such a visual/creative/hands-on person, so being stuck in a chair for more than 20 minutes watching someone read from their notes didn’t fill me with a sense of delight.

    • Thanks Josh for your comment, especially as I know you’re much more up the visual/creative end. I totally agree with you that the medium (preaching) is seldom the problem, it’s how it’s delivered and the level of engagement the preacher is able to bring to his hearers. Rather than undermine preaching, I think preachers like myself need to work harder at refining our craft for God’s glory and the growth of his people.

  2. Hi, Pete 🙂

    Are you asking me to privilege preaching above other forms of verbal communication, or just above not-speaking?

    You’ve made a case for verbal communication, and I’m all for that. But ‘preaching’ as we normally practise it (the 20–45-minute monologue to a crowd) is just one form of verbal communication. It does some things well (at least, when the preaching itself is good); at other things, it stinks.

    I guess I raise it because I don’t really think our subculture is at risk of losing preaching. (Good preaching may be another matter.)

    But I think we’ve already lost the art of speaking the gospel — of impressing it on our children, of talk about Jesus when we sit at home and when we walk along the road, when we lie down and when we get up.

    And in a culture where most are reluctant to come and hear preachers, the lack of speakers to go out to them seems rather grave.

    • Hi Stuart, as you say I think I’ve made a case for verbal communication of the gospel while tipping my hat towards particular speech-acts within that broader range of verbal communication which preaching is a subset of.

      So while the case hasn’t been made for the 25-40 minute Sunday monologue, I do think that there are certain speech-acts towards the personal declarative-exhortatory end of spectrum that I am trying to make a case for.

      I wonder if a lot of the ‘speaking of the gospel’ you mention also fall into these kinds of speech-acts and have important overlaps with ‘preaching’, even if not in a formal sense.

      I am also particularly thinking of the corporate gathering and the ‘speaking of the gospel’ in these contexts, which is why I wholeheartedly agree with your push to speak the gospel outside of these gatherings of God’s people.

      I think good preaching in the corporate gathering will generate the sorts of informal ‘speaking’ of the gospel when the gathering scatters, so perhaps a quantitative lack of the latter reflects a qualitative lack of the former?

      • Hi, Pete 🙂

        I’ll PM you some other stuff, but I just wanted to pick up the idea that “good preaching in the corporate gathering will generate the sorts of informal ‘speaking’ of the gospel when the gathering scatters, so perhaps a quantitative lack of the latter reflects a qualitative lack of the former?”

        I think good public preaching can help a little bit with this: for example, it can — under the Spirit — thrill people’s hearts with Jesus so that they want to speak about him. But it can’t do the whole job. Just because I love Jesus and want to talk about him doesn’t mean that I know how — especially if this is fairly alien to your particular Christian subculture. In such cases, we need specific training in gospel-speaking.

        Preaching can’t teach you how to do this, because it’s so different in form (we can’t give monologues to our friends) and in specificity (preaching can give general applications to a crowd; ‘teaching along the road’ can be far more pointed for my circumstances).

        Also, competence in one area doesn’t guarantee it in the other. For me, I’m far better at a prepared monologue (or, better, seminar) than one-to-one conversation. For others, the whole idea of public speaking is terrifying.

        (I also suspect that underlying this is a question about ‘which expression of church is the most churchy’: if you think that it’s the Sunday gathering that gives identity to a church, you’ll be more tempted to push everything out from the centre. If you think the church is a group of disciple-making disciples or a network of relationships, expressed in various-sized gatherings, then you’ll have lower expectations of how much can be or needs to be achieved on a Sunday and in a Sunday monologue.)

      • Hi Stuart. Once again, I appreciate you keeping me on my toes and helping me clarify exactly what I’m trying to say.

        I agree completely with your point that preaching alone can’t possibly achieve all the kinds of word-ministries (and other ministries) we wish to see in the body of Christ. By ‘privileging’ preaching, I don’t want to give the impression that it doesn’t need various kinds of other training and discipling ministries that will ensure that the word of God spoken to the corporate gathering doesn’t dissipate due to lack of equipping. To privilege preaching, in my mind, is to put it front and centre of the various ministries of the church. It is catalytic more than anything else, because the word of the gospel effects the works of the gospel.

        I think your last paragraph hit the nail on the head. What we probably differ slightly is the paradigms with which we picture the ideal ekklesia/gathering on earth. For me, the ‘Sunday gathering’ expression (which may not be on a Sunday, but you get the point) lies at the centre of expressions of church. I don’t subscribe to a largely horizontal view of the gathering. In my mind, the church gathering is a vertical corporate engagement with God that is done in the context of, and with implications for, our horizontal relationships. The church gathering in my mind, is primarily about “worship” (no I’m not with Tony Payne on this one). Discipleship and disciple-making happens as a fruit of the gathering, not as the goal of the gathering.

        So in this paradigm of thinking, you can perhaps see why the preaching and public reading and exposition of the Scriptures become privileged, central and catalytic.

        Now is my ecclesiology correct? Maybe, maybe not. But that’s for another blog post methinks. 🙂

      • Wow! Sounds like (in a Sydney context) you’re about as eccentric on church as I am, Pete 🙂 Just at opposite ends of the spectrum.

  3. P.S. Sorry about the weird italicizing there. Obviously didn’t close the brackets properly! It was just the words ‘how’ in the second paragraph and ‘my’ in the third that were supposed to be in italics 🙂

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