The Theological Impact of Microphones (1994)

People Just Don’t Shout About Heaven and Hell Anymore 

The images of the old-fashioned pulpit pounders are remarkably vivid, even though they seem locked in the past. Everyone knows that preachers used to wave their Bibles and shout. But does anyone remember what they used to shout about?

It’s easy to say that they shouted about everything. But there is truth in the old stereotype that preachers tended to work up a sweat and shout when they were talking about sin, damnation, hell, judgment and the wrath of a holy God. After talking about these hot subjects, it wasn’t surprising that preachers also tended to get excited about mercy of God and the glories of heaven.

If a preacher shouted “Sinner!”, it helped to end the sermon by shouting “Saved!”

Today, preachers rarely shout. Also, many commentators in recent decades have noted that preachers don’t seem to preach as much as they used to about sin and judgment. This, in turn, may have softened the church’s messages about salvation. How long has it been since you heard a good sermon on hell, or heaven?

I’ve been thinking about high-volume preaching ever since I spent a few days at Gordon-Conwell Seminary with Dr. Haddon Robinson, the author of the classic “Biblical Preaching.” It’s hard to talk to Robinson without being challenged to probe the act, and the art, of preaching. He has trained hundreds of preachers while teaching in Dallas, Denver and now in New England.

Today, most preachers use a friendly, conversational tone, said Robinson. They also tell gentle, humorous stories.

This raises an obvious question: Why?

The most obvious reason is that today’s preachers have microphones. Another reason is that the nice, friendly, all-knowing people on television rarely raise their voices.

“People want to hear preachers who sound like the people they like on television. They want that warm, friendly, television tone,” said Robinson, who was one of the first scholars and teachers to being talking about the impact of technology on the church. “The people who are coming back to church these days resent being yelled at. … They think you’re scolding them.”

Thus, loud, brash preachers have trouble in an age of chatty storytelling and personal confessions. But preachers who lack any sense of drama, or wit, will be tuned out, like a boring television show. Today’s preachers are supposed to offer helpful insights, not sharp judgments.

Robinson said he sees several other preaching trends that appear to be linked to modern media.

  • Most preachers used to speak for 45 minutes. Today, few dare to top 25 minutes. In other churches, 20-minute sermons have been trimmed to 12 minutes, or less. Obviously, one reason is that post-television attention spans are shorter. “The younger the audience, the more likely the sermon will get shorter,” he said. “The more secular the audience, the more likely it will get shorter.”
  • Many ministers have stopped using notes and, with wireless lapel microphones, have walked away from the pulpit. This adds an appearance of freedom, helps the preacher make visual contact with people in the pews and emphasizes subtle physical gestures.
  • Television tells stories and so do modern ministers. It’s hard to quote doctrine or the Bible to people baptized in years of media. Thus, many preachers tell stories that gently deliver moral messages. “If a preacher has lost much of his natural authority, then he tries to tell stories that have a kind of authority of their own. The story wins you over and pulls you along,” he said.

Humor is terribly important and offers preachers another way to lower defenses. But sarcasm or angry humor is rare. The put-downs is out. Paradox is in. Successful pulpit humorists offer a kind of self-depreciating wit that sees the irony in modern life.

Of course, it is hard to change preaching without having an impact on the relationship between the people in the pulpit and the people in the pews. Today, congregations want to see glimpses of a preacher’s heart, but people resent words that pry into the state of their own souls. After all, the people on television don’t pry into the lives of the people sitting on the couch.

No wonder many successful preachers are complex individuals who openly discuss the unique pressures they face.

“Many of our best preachers seem warm and likeable and outgoing and approachable, when in reality they are introverted and introspective,” said Robinson. “They are introverts, but the people who hear them think of them as extroverts. Their public image isn’t the same as who they really are.”

Clearly, this fascination with image and personality is linked to the role that television plays in our society. That seems clear.

Remember, television is a complex form of media and its use is raising a legion of complex issues, in many churches and religious groups. Meanwhile, microphones seem rather plain — simple tools that you plug into the wall. But my recent conversations with Robinson have left me thinking about two questions: Have the microphones in modern pulpits affected the content of preaching? And, has this seemingly neutral form of technology helped silence the church, when it comes to preaching about doctrines such as heaven and hell, sin and salvation?

Think about this. If microphones have had a serious impact, then perhaps it is time for churches and seminaries to do some serious study of the effects that other forms of media have had, and will have, in our pews and among the unchurched.

<<Back to Terry’s Freelance Archives