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.