Future of Mainline Protestantism
"You're in My Seat:" Imagining Protestant Preaching in Twenty Years
What will Protestant mainline preaching will be like in twenty years? What homiletical options will there be for 30-year-old Ashley? Where will she sit? Where will the preacher sit? What kind of sermon will the preacher preach and the worshippers experience? I suspect that she may remember that Sunday in the summer of 2010 as the last time she ever had to compete with a preacher for a seat in worship!
Let's imagine some sermons with Ashley in the year 2030. One week Ashley will sit at home because that's where the preacher is sitting, too. Or the preacher may be sitting in the comfy corner chair at Starbucks. The preacher will be somewhere else, posting the sermon on her blog, or Skyping the sermon to others with no perceived need to gather in the same room.
Another Sunday, Ashley will sit in church with lots of other people watching the preacher preach, but, rather than being physically present in the same room, the preacher will be simulcast from the Mother Church to this satellite campus.
A third week, Ashley and her young children will be seated with other people on couches in a half-moon seating arrangement. The leader will get up from one of the couches and start the sermon off. Ashley won't be able to daydream and write mental grocery lists. She will be encouraged, even expected, to contribute her ideas and experiences. She and other worshippers will actually create the sermon together with the preacher.
A fourth week Ashley will be seated with a couple of thousand other people in a nondenominational megachurch. In this megachurch, Ashley will not be subjected to a lengthy introduction of a guest speaker that lists their education credentials, because this church will not consider a formal theological education necessary for a speaker to preach moving, relevant, humorous sermons that pack people into the sanctuary every week.
The fifth week Ashley will be seated in the small church where I met her in the summer of 2010. She and her family will be seated with her parents halfway back on the right. Just the right distance to be able to see the PowerPoint presentation on the big screen. Rather than an inductive, eighteen-minute sermon, the family will experience a forty-minute "teaching" sermon, a march through a theme, text, or doctrine with a minimum of six bullet points. After Church, in a déjà vu flashback to the 1950s, her father will say to the children, "Any one who can name the preacher's eight points can have ice cream!
By now you have thought several times to yourself, "But all these things are already happening." On any given Sunday in this country, Protestant preaching already takes all the forms I predict our grown-up acolyte will experience in thirty years -- the blog replacing or supplementing the sermon, the simulcast sermon, the emerging (dialogical) sermon, and the lengthy, "teaching" sermon. And there are all kinds of combinations of the above.
For Ashley's sake, in 2030 I hope we realize that the blog and the simulcast, while they can enhance the physical gathering of the people of God with a real live preacher, they cannot replace it. I hope we realize that charisma cannot replace the reality of careful preparation, and that bullet points, in and of themselves, are insufficient to appeal to the mind, heart, and will.
My crystal ball is as cloudy as anybody else's, but here are some predictions for Protestant preaching in the U.S. in 2030.