Monday, April 15, 2013

Do people listen to online sermons because their pastor's preaching sucks?

Stuart thinks so (see comment on Al's blog)

So I think it's right to make the effort each week to listen humbly (and to yearn/pray/work for a day when it's not such an effort) [to their pastor's preaching]. But I'm not convinced that all the blame lies with the listeners rather than the speakers (pace Christopher Ash) [for listening to big guys online].

So I hope that at some stage we can also have honest discussions about the quality of preaching in Australian evangelicalism — not just about our intention or our trying hard to deliver good sermons, but whether we actually achieve it. Sure, preaching elsewhere in the world has its problems (e.g. some preaching I've heard outside Australia has made only passing reference to the Bible). These are serious problems. But we're not responsible for those. I'd love for us to admit that we've got our own serious problems that we are responsible for. (That is, if my assessment's right. I'd be delighted to be shown that it's not!)

I'm not sure I agree. A few points.

1. Yes. Many sermons suck. Many preachers habitually write and deliver very poor sermons. The exegesis is not insightful or even thorough. The writing is illogical and wandery. The language is dull dull dull. The application is predictable and the overall effect is sleep inducing. 

2. Most pastors don't naturally have the personality to hold a congregation's attention for any length of time. With careful training, experience and continued hard hard hard work, many can learn to do it anyway. (I'm currently reading this book which I think should be required reading for everyone who ever stands up in a pulpit.) Some will always struggle.

3. Most of the big guy online preachers that the masses are drawn to are just natural communicators and inspirers. They could have been stand up comics or company directors or cult leaders or military dictators. They love the limelight. The come alive on stage. Some of them teach the bible as well. Bully for them, but don't imagine that is normal in any way.

4. I suspect a lot of people listen to online sermons for a buzz. You want something to shake you out of your mid-life christian stupor. You want to recreate some definitive christian experience from your past - maybe a uni camp or something. There's nothing wrong with this, but the harder gig is obedience when there's no buzz.

5. I suspect a lot of people just listen to sermons because they like noise. It's not about any inadequacy in church preaching, it's just the christian equivalent to listening to the radio. I'm an extravert. I like to hear voices around me and hearing John Piper is more edifying than SeaFM. 


  1. Thanks, Simone.

    I'm sure that there's a range of reasons for different people. My point on Al's blog was simply this: let's not focus exclusively on the failures of listeners who download great sermons. It seems from point 1 that you agree that our sermons could be better.

    I also hope my tone was more agonized than angry (as might be indicated by saying that a pastor's preaching 'sucks'). It's something I feel a genuine sadness over; something I pray about frequently; something I'm doing my little bit to try to improve in my corner of the world.

    I've got some theories about the specifics of why we switch off to preaching, and some of them are related to your point 4. That is, I think part of the 'buzz' from our uni days was due to novelty (we hadn't heard it before); partly it was because the talks were genuinely better (and had something to say about Jesus' love for us and our love for him in concrete terms); partly it was because we didn't have the life experience or theological nous to know if what the preacher was saying was…questionable, impracticable, or irrelevant.

    And this is why the appeal of the best of the 'downloaded' preachers is more than just good communication techniques: it's about the content. They know that the gospel is thrilling and dangerous; they've thought about our hearts and how to bring it to bear; they anticipate objections we're going to raise (that a point they're making is questionable, impracticable, or irrelevant), and they answer them.

    And I don't imagine that amazing preaching is normal. I don't think that sermons can be the only (or even the main) strategy for many churches to do discipleship and mission. If you have an insanely gifted preacher, then by all means, make more of your church life revolve around them. But if (like almost all of us) you don't, then don't. And please stop pretending that sermons are the main way that people are going to grow in Christlikeness or that new people are going to come to know Jesus. And please stop making outrageous claims about the value of 'preaching' in the abstract, when what you're talking about is 'good sermons' — a tiny subset.

    But these are all subjects for another time.

  2. I agree Simone that most of the time we listen not to replace our local preachers but to be shaken out of our stupor or make jogging less painful.