I recently came upon a Christianity Today article titled “How Podcasting Hurts Preaching” that bowled me over with its seemingly total ignorance of the history of sermons and technology. That the article is written by Mercer Schuchardt, associate professor of communications at Wheaton, makes its lack of historical context only more baffling.
Up until what seems like just yesterday, Christians had to show up in church to hear the sermon on Sunday morning.It happened in real time, once a week. If you missed it, you might get the highlights from someone else, but if not, you had to wait until next time. Part of the motivation to get out the door each Sunday was getting to participate in a completely unrepeatable moment in time.
Anyone who has ever read Pride and Prejudice knows that this is simply not true. We, after all, well remember Mr. Collins reading aloud from Fordyce’s Sermons.
Reading sermons aloud was common in many households in colonial America and the early republic—in fact, sermons were published in book form from the earliest days of the Reformation. Martin Luther himself published his sermons, either individually or in collected volumes. According to historian Candy Gunther Brown, who has written about evangelical writing and publishing, from 1640 to 1790 sermons ranked third as a proportion of total texts printed, after newspapers and government publications.
Schuchardt does not appear to know this history. His assertion is not simply that podcasting sermons is new, but that until “just yesterday” a churchgoer had no way to access the full content of a sermon if they missed it on Sunday. For much of Protestant history, that has simply not been true. Pastors and religious leaders—particularly those with the widest following—have always used the latest technology to distribute their ideas, including their sermons. Consider Christian radio and TV broadcasting.
And let’s not forget that in my day, pastors recorded their sermons on tape, which they then sold at their welcome tables. That’s right—if you missed a sermon at my parents’ church in the 1990s, you could buy a cassette tape of it the next week and listen to it at home. But Schuchardt does not acknowledge any of this. He seems to believe that the podcasting is the very first time sermons have ever been disconnected from Sunday morning. Coming from a communications professor at Wheaton, this ignorance is bizarre.
Schuchardt acknowledges that putting sermons online can come with good motivations—to give the elderly and infirm access to the weekly sermon, for instance. But even here he is only willing to bend so far.
(For the few who sincerely can’t make it on Sunday, pastors should also be visiting them in person, bringing the Eucharist, and perhaps dropping off a text of the sermon or a USB drive of the sermon.)
In some cases, churches could stream a message live for the appointed time of the sermon itself, but the effect on the user should be, like the kids say these days about their favorite concerts: ”You had to be there.”
This feels harsh. What about someone whose work schedule prevents them from coming to church on a given Sunday? Letting them stream the sermon but only at the exact time it is being preached does not do them any good at all. What about those who are out of town and on the road? And frankly, that Schuchardt can so flippantly suggest making a text copy of a sermon but only giving it to those deemed to have legitimate reasons for not being there is part of why my generation is so disenchanted with the church. We don’t like the legalism, the barriers to access, the scrutiny and the purity tests. We start to feel smothered.
But Schuchardt believes in enforced scarcity.
For churchgoers to perceive value, churches have to maintain the scarcity of the once-a-week, in-real-life sermon experience. When pastors push their sermons far and wide via podcast, they unintentionally devalue the message they have worked hard to create and communicate. They remove the sermon from the time, context, and body of the liturgy where it belongs.
By giving away their best material online, churches may actually be incentivizing their crowd not to attend. It’s not a coincidence that the 2015 Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Study found the greatest drops in attendance among the young, digitally connected generation.
Millennials are not skipping church because they can podcast sermons. People do not go to church to hear the sermons; they go to church to fellowship with the people. Podcasting cannot replace the social experience of attending church—and people know that. I’ve never heard of someone asked why they don’t attend church responding with “because I can listen to sermon podcasts.” There are other reasons keeping Millennials away from church, and if Schuchardt’s solution is restricting sermon access he’s never going to find those reasons.
Now really is a good time to ask, “What would Jesus podcast?” The answer is: nothing. In fact, Jesus was so against any form of mediation that he never did anything unless he was there, live, in person, embodied, to see to it personally.
He never once wrote anything down. He never once asked any one of his disciples to be the group secretary or disciple’s scribe.
Jesus could not write! His disciples could not write either! It’s kind of hard to write things down when you cannot write. But you know what Jesus did do? He sent his disciples off two by two to preach the word in surrounding areas. It is simply not true that Jesus “never did anything unless he was there, live, in person, embodied, to see it personally.” He used the forms of communication available in his day—sending off his disciples two by two—to spread his message as wide as possible.
I’m honestly feeling very unimpressed with the quality of education provided at Wheaton right now, if this is a fair sample.
If Schuchardt had simply set out to remind young Christians of everything they receive from attending church—fellowshipping with other believers, sharing the communal experience of hearing and responding to the same message together as a body, communal worship, and so forth—I would not have batted an eye. This full-throated Luddism accompanied by a mangling of any context whatsoever is something else entirely.
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