Preaching needs faces.
Digitally pontificating about grace cannot replace what God intends to do in you and through you in the auspices of skin-and-bone life and ministry.
I’ve been doing a bit of reflecting, lately, on what the pandemic has taught me. Truth be told, that’s probably a very long lesson, with a bevy of sub-lessons still yet to be teased out. The ramifications of present-day decisions likely won’t be felt till years later. Be that as it may, one of the chief conclusions to which I, and many others, have come is: digital ministry is an operation of diminishing returns. I should probably just let Mockingbird writer Connor Gwin take it from here since he articulates what I’m trying to get at so supremely well. This excerpt comes from his latest article, entitled, “Preaching into the Void,” in which he reflects on the frustrating experience of preaching to an empty sanctuary, looking into the eye of a camera lens, during quarantine. He writes:
While I am a digital native who (on paper) should be very comfortable taking the Gospel digital, I’ve increasingly become convinced that the Gospel cannot be preached virtually. When I am standing in an empty church, preaching Good News to my iPhone, it feels as though I am preaching into the void. I am preaching to the idea of a congregation; the idea of people . . .
When I start to consume sermons like other digital content, I can find myself listening to a preacher while I’m washing dishes or riding the Peloton. I may get the point or grasp the main illustration, but something is missing. At its core, a sermon is not a lecture or a means of communicating theological content. The sermon is a moment to connect the real lives of people with the real grace, mercy, and love of the real God.
For the congregation and the preacher, there is power in putting yourself in proximity to a congregation of people. There is the power of physical connection, sure, but there is also the holy and mysterious power of Jesus’s promise that he would be present when we are present with each other . . .
The Gospel is not a soundbite or a message that occurs in a vacuum. It is the Good News that Christ came into the world to live and die so that sinners like Mary, Nicodemus, me, and you can be saved and made whole.
For many churches in the United States, and around the world, the pandemic ushered in a new era of ministry, wherein they were forced to reckon with the notion of taking their church services online. Many church bodies were already using the digital sphere to varying degrees of effectiveness, but many more were not. But notwithstanding one’s acumen with digital technology and its intersection with ministry, one of the prevailing lessons the pandemic brought to bear was the flimsiness of “digital ministry.”
Tendering the good news, proclaiming the evangel of Christ crucified, loses its potency so long as we’re gearing that proclamation for mostly faceless avatars. The ministry of the gospel is about bringing the reality of God’s redemption to real sinners, in the midst of real problems. That’s why no amount of online worship will ever substitute for the flesh-and-blood gathering of God’s people. Because people are the point. Preaching is not about posturing polemical dogma but about consoling real people with the glad tidings that their sin has already been shouldered and paid for by the blood of the Lamb.
And I get the irony of talking about “online ministry” online. But that’s why I’ve always tried to relegate this space to my own “thinking out loud” instead of perfectly tailored pieces of digital content. There will always be a difference between online readers and those with whom I do life, those right around me. And the difference is, while online followers can give me the emotional boost of likes and comments and the empty currency of “online credit,” my friends and neighbors offer a connection and relationship that’s infinitely deeper than anything digital. There is no substitute. Digitally pontificating about grace cannot replace what God intends to do in you and through you in the auspices of skin-and-bone life and ministry.
May you be enriched and encouraged by the grace of Christ’s Spirit to continue pressing into the relationships God has given you. May you find joy and fulfillment by doing life not with profile pics but with the faces God has put around you.
Grace and peace, friends.