Preaching during the Lockdown – Problems or Possibilities?
Every week since the start of the lockdown an open invitation has been given to pastors and church leaders to meet online to share, encourage and pray for each other. This meeting has become known as 'Teamtalk'. It has been a privilege to be part of these meetings and listen to what God is doing in and through the spectrum of leaders and churches that are represented. This article is based on one of those meetings.
To give some background, three pastors were asked to give a personal account of how they were finding preaching during the lockdown. Two of these friends and brothers represented opposite ends of the spectrum – both were fully committed to serve their people and to reach out to their communities, but one was finding preaching difficult and the other was finding great freedom. Their personal and honest accounts are recorded at the beginning of this article and give some context and perspective to the task of preaching during lockdown.
The third pastor looked at some of the theology of preaching during lockdown with the aim of providing some guidance, and helping us all to become better ministers of God’s word during this time.
Following the contributions there was a time to share and discuss what others found helpful. We have included some of the more practical ideas at the end. As God’s people it is good that we listen to each other with a loving spirit of mutual encouragement and we pray that this article will benefit and encourage those who are tasked with bringing God’s words to us at this time - Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
Preaching in Lockdown – Personal Reflections by Phil Swann (Llanelli)
We have had the privilege of livestreaming our preaching of God’s word in Llanelli for several years, and will continue after the current restrictions are lifted. We recognised that as new covenant Christians we were not tied to a place for the preaching of God’s word, and the flexibility of the internet opened many doors that were otherwise closed to the preaching of God’s word. We wanted to be both reaching unbelievers in the marketplace and providing support for housebound Christians, and I thank God for the blessing that this has been. As this was already in place with us it meant the initial adjustment was easier for us when current lockdown descended.
I deeply miss the usual context for fellowship and it can be disheartening and disorientating that we cannot meet in person to sing, pray, talk, listen, bless, and encourage one another. It can also be difficult to preach as I miss the visual cues and affirmations, but I have come to the conclusion that not a lot has changed for preaching under the Covid19 restrictions. I understand preaching to be the explanation and proclamation of God’s word, to people who are listening, in the power of the Spirit – and so by this definition, not a lot has changed when it comes to preaching in lockdown. I still preach the word to people (though now through YouTube, Zoom, Facebook, Twilio or whatever else we can get our hands on), and though our current circumstances feel unfamiliar and the changes forced on us uncomfortable, the preaching of God’s word continues unhindered. The current situation is challenging but we must resist the temptation to confuse personal discomfort and upheaval, with a lessening of what it means to preach God’s word and we must work through our own personal disquiet to, ‘preach the word… in season and out of season’ 2 Tim. 4:2. It is possible that this is a disquiet that may affect some preachers more than others, and may have a lot to do with our differing temperaments and styles.
For decades we have seen God using media in the lives of many people through tapes, CDs, and digital audio ministries. For many years I was a Trustee of the Martyn Lloyd Jones Recordings Trust and John MacArthur’s Grace to You (UK). I saw first-hand the pastoral and evangelistic impact audio ministry can have on people and it was thrilling. Rarely a week would pass when I was not asked by the director of the Trust to input into a pastoral issue or question that a correspondent had sent in. It was a reminder that the Holy Spirit is never limited by our lack of physical contact with those to whom the word of God is preached. We can probably say the same about letters Paul wrote to the churches he never visited too – is he not preaching in his letters to the Romans and Colossians? As mysterious as Col 2:5 and 1Cor 5:3,4 are they make it clear that something of the preacher is always present with the listener. And though we miss seeing the subtle nuances in a congregation when we preach, this is no obstacle to applications. Preaching online (through a lens) is never preaching in a vacuum without application, and this is because we know our people, we hear and read their responses to your preaching, and we know the needs of your own heart as well. There is more than enough to exegete both the word and our context, and to keep our applications relevant and fresh.
Without a doubt my own experience has been that God is using the weekly preaching of His word, during the current crisis. I detect a greater responsiveness from my own people, obviously not in the moment of preaching, but afterwards as my phone lights up with texts and emails. It has been more than a casual, ‘thank you’ (for which I am always grateful) but now the responses are more thoughtful, reflective, and engaged. It seems that though we have a longing for one another’s physical company, it is eclipsed by a greater longing for God that is being satisfied by the hearing of His word. Our longing for God is not frustrated by the closure of a building, He works through His word and by His Spirit and is comforting His people.
I am also experiencing regular freedom and liberty when preaching during the lockdown. Behind the camera lens are the people I love, and further out is the world I am part of. Both need God’s word and I have little problem opening both my heart as well as the text to them - the need is everywhere around us. I have found that I’ve been gripped afresh by the awareness that scripture is the word of God (regardless of who is, or is not in front of me, and irrespective of how I am feeling) and that word must be preached with all my energy and gifting, because ‘Faith comes through hearing the message and the message is heard through the word of Christ’ Rom 10:17. Preaching has become more like the experience of prayer to me, though the building is empty I know God is present with me and it has been personally energising.
At the same time and in God’s providence the situation we face has opened a wider hearing for the gospel. The recent Tearfund survey claims that 25% of the UK population have now listened to a church service, with this escalating to 33% of 18 to 34-year olds, so it appears more people are now hearing the good news than usual. And it appears this is not just the case with preaching, as some churches report greater engagement and higher numbers at their Zoom online prayer meetings. It is quite possible that we may look back on these days of restriction, as days of great opportunities for the gospel. This again is deeply encouraging and should inspire us to work, while these opportunities are available to us. It is hard and challenging work but as in fishing we cast the line into the water not seeing the fish, but believing they are out there, and that we have the right bait. Shouldn’t there be something of this, in us right now? A holy excitement and anticipation that behind that camera lens and somewhere ‘out there’ are needy and yet listening people, in need of the gospel we preach. This is surely a great perspective to approach our preaching in these days.
I recognise that what I write here is my own personal experience and I wonder how helpful it is to those who are struggling. I sympathise if you feel it is not, but however you read my personal reflections, ‘my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain.’ 1Cor. 15:58. We need to push through our personal discomfort and feelings of inadequacy and, ‘lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’ Is. 40:9.
Preaching in Lockdown – Personal Reflections by Jeremy Bailey (Port Talbot)
I will say it right away, I do not think that recording a message on camera, or live streaming in real time on a Sunday is preaching. From the beginning of lockdown I have been very uneasy about assuming that we can simply take what we do on a Sunday, in our church buildings, with a gathered congregation, and transfer it to a study, front room or empty church building with just a camera in front of me. You see it immediately in the pronouns: what we do in our church buildings...and a camera in front of me. Am I right to call it preaching? Is the fact that a congregation is missing, that it is not live, of such significance that it alters everything I am doing and reduces it to something less that preaching?
Essentially most of our churches have gone online. Whether we had an online presence before or not, if we have the ability, we have had to switch our services to provide our people with something that looks like church and can keep them both informed and fed spiritually. Now I am not suggesting that we should not be doing what we are doing. We have a duty of care to our people and we want to encourage them to worship God and to feed on his word during this Covid 19 crisis however long it lasts. In addition to this, we see an opportunity for online evangelism as we are still gospel men. What I am suggesting is that what we are missing is so significant that we should not assume we are doing what we have always done. There are three reasons for my conclusions:
Firstly, preaching is more than explaining and applying the text. Many commentaries do that extremely well, but we would not think that reading a commentary is preaching. There is always going to be something missing when we are in our studies reading notes or speaking in an extemporary fashion. We all know as preachers that there is often something outside of ourselves that comes upon us and the congregation when we are truly preaching. Even if we do not feel it, we know that as Lloyd Jones says, you walk up the steps of the pulpit with a few notes that don't amount to much and then you find that the Lord takes you up and takes the congregation up as well and something extraordinary happens. I would define preaching as not simply truth through personality, but a preacher taken up by God as he delivers God's word to God's people on a particular occasion when all are gathered together physically.
Secondly, preaching is more than talking to a camera. When I talk to a camera, I do not think I am preaching, because there is no-one immediately receiving it. Even if I live stream, I cannot see the congregation. That means I cannot pick up the cues that are so necessary in preaching and hearing. I cannot see if my message is being received well or badly, whether it is being understood or I am confusing my hearers. I cannot see if they are troubled by what I say or encouraged. I cannot see if they are attentive or asleep! Also, I cannot see who is there. In church I can see when unbelievers are present, and I will adapt my application accordingly. I can see if children are present, or if those who are grieving are there. All this will make me alter my sermon to fit the congregation or emphasise one application over and above another. This is part of the interaction I was speaking of. None of that is possible while looking at a camera.
Lastly, preaching is a means of grace that takes place in the congregation of God's people when the Holy Spirit is present. I suppose this is my main point. Preaching, like prayer, the sacraments and Public Bible reading, is a means of grace. I would argue that they can only truly be experienced when the church is gathered together. It is not preaching unless we are together as the gathered people of God.
I think this is important and I have two serious concerns about embracing the “new normal” without careful self-criticism.
There is a danger of assuming that church online is as good as, or better than, meeting together. It is accessible, technology makes it possible, and it reaches more people outside our own congregation and possibly outside the church in terms of potential evangelism. In emphasising the positives, we can easily neglect the negatives. How many church members and attendees are we excluding because they have no access to the internet? What do we miss by not meeting together? In Psalm 42 David mourns the fact that he is unable to meet with God v 2 He remembers the times when he gathered with the Lord’s people for worship amongst the festive throng v 4 This makes his soul downcast and his spirit disturbed v 6. His only consolation is that he looks forward to the day he will be once again with the Lord’s people praising God. That is his hope v5. Even if we accept the difference between the outward worship of God in the Old Testament and the inward worship neither in Jerusalem or Samaria but in Spirit and Truth (John 4), there is surely still a lesson here. David could pray and worship God alone, but he still saw something vital in the gathered congregation. My concern is that we may be neglecting that vital aspect. It is where brethren dwell together in unity Psalm 133 that God commands his blessing, not where they are sitting in their respective homes watching on a screen.
But my greatest concern is that in quickly adapting to the new normal we may be missing the lesson the Lord is teaching us. We were quick to suggest that this might be a judgement on the world for its godlessness. That may be true, but what about 1 Peter 4 v 17? Ought we not to be asking, "Why has the Lord closed the doors of our churches? Why has the Lord stopped us meeting up for prayer and worship?" Before the Covid 19 crisis the church in Wales was declining rapidly. Even our evangelical churches were shrinking. Prayer meetings were by and large declining. Where they still existed, it was mainly older believers meeting together. Where is the honour due to the Lord's name? Isn't this a time to humble ourselves and reassess our attitude to the Lord and to one another? How much do we really value fellowship? How much do we really love the gathered church? How precious to us is the worship of God? How much do we actually love God? Isn't 1 Peter 5 v 6,7 relevant?
We must adapt to the new situation. We have the technology to do so. It is right to put things online. What I am unsure of is what this will mean for the worship of God as a gathered church when this is all over. In the meantime, whatever else I am doing on a Sunday, I do not think I am preaching!
Preaching during lockdown – some theological reflections by Mark Thomas (Wrexham)
What is preaching?
I regard preaching as delivering a message that comes from God, through his Word, to the people who are listening. There are therefore vital elements that make preaching truly preaching:
A Message from God - Preaching is more than explaining a passage of Scripture. The preacher needs to have a message from God for the people, that he was given in his preparation, and that means preaching must include relevant application.
Through his Word - A preacher is not to give his own opinions, rather he is to bring things “new and old” out of God’s word, the faith “once for all delivered to the saints.”
To the People who are Listening - We preach to the people we have, not the people we wish we had!
Tare four aspects of preaching that I would like to mention:
We are passing on a message we have been given, and as such it needs to be proclaimed without fear or favour. For the preacher, the truth of God’s word can be like a fire that burns in his bones, and he will want to proclaim it to whoever will listen.
We see this with the prophets and the apostles:
Jer. 20:9 Then I said, “I will not make mention of Him, Nor speak anymore in His name.” But His word was in my heart like a burning fire Shut up in my bones; I was weary of holding it back, And I could not.
Acts 4:20 For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.”
Should this not be true of us also?
Good preaching honours God and is faithful to his Word.
Tailoring the Message to the Hearers
Our preaching must be adapted to what our people need to hear and what they are able to take in. Some people need to hear comfort or encouragement, while others need to hear challenge or rebuke. Some can take big portions, and some are only able to take smaller portions. Some need meat, and some need milk:
1 Cor. 3:2 I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able;
Meat only does us good if we are able to digest it, and an infant is better off on milk. Even for our mature hearers, the truth only does them good if they are able to process it, that is, understand it, work out its implications, and be changed by it. While we can make profound truths easier to understand by dressing them up in simple words and pictures, they still must be digested, and this takes time. We should not expect too much, too soon.
This means we need to know our hearers and tailor our preaching accordingly.
Good preaching is preaching that does good.
There is a dynamic in preaching. We are affected by the congregation, and the congregation is affected by us. We are often not only affected by who is present and what we know about them as individuals, but by the more general “feel” to a meeting. We notice this in the way that some congregations are easier to preach to than others, yet the reasons for this are not always readily apparent. In response to a congregation, we tailor our words and our illustrations, and sometimes find that we are led by the Lord to say or not say certain things “in the moment.”
Good preaching responds to the condition of the hearers.
God’s Presence and Blessing
In addition to the above, there can be a nearness of the Lord, producing a stillness in the congregation, and a sense that we are being led along as we preach. It can seem as if someone else is preaching and we are merely observing what God is doing. Then we find that people are clearly dealt with, and their faith rests in the power of God.
Good preaching is totally dependent on God for blessing.
What then of the lockdown?
In our present situation, many of us are recording or live streaming our sermons through preaching to a camera lens. The difference between this and what we have been used to is that our hearers are not physically present with us.
We notice that in the New Testament, the apostles long to be present with churches, rather than just write them letters. There is a recognition that something dynamic and two-way happens when we are together:
2 John 12 Having many things to write to you, I did not wish to do so with paper and ink; but I hope to come to you and speak face to face, that our joy may be full.
Rom. 1:11-12 For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift, so that you may be established— that is, that I may be encouraged together with you by the mutual faith both of you and me.
Writing their letters from a distance was of great value, but it was not the same as being there, face to face, either for the apostles or for their hearers.
There are also parallels between preaching and prayer and praise. There is a difference between personal prayer, corporate prayer and leading in prayer in a meeting. There are some things we would pray about in private that we would not mention in public prayer. In corporate prayer, we are often aware of being helped by those who are praying with us.
Similarly, there is a difference between private and corporate praise. There can be great spontaneity in praise as we see in the spontaneous outbursts of praise that sprinkle Paul’s letters:
e.g. 2 Cor. 9:15 Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!
But in public worship we also need to consider the kinds of songs that are appropriate to the message preached, and the spiritual maturity of the congregation.
Also, there is the effect of the praise of God’s people on one another when they are together:
Col. 3:16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.
What then do we say?
In the light of all this, I would argue that there are certain similarities and certain differences between preaching, prayer and praise when a congregation is present and when we only have the camera. As regards preaching:
Proclamation is the same. It is to honour God and be faithful to his Word.
Tailoring the message to the hearers is harder, especially if we do not know who is listening.
Direct interaction is absent, although the Spirit of God can help us here.
God’s presence and blessing can overcome all obstacles, and we must be thankful for that in these strange times.
So now, as much as ever, we have need to pray that the Lord would bless his word:
So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth;
It shall not return to Me void,
But it shall accomplish what I please,
And it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.
Some practical ideas and suggestions:
Photos – some pastors had found it helpful to print and place photos of members of the congregation above the camera when preaching. This helped them focus on the hearers of the sermon and gave encouragement to look at the camera.
Texts – some pastors would ask members of the church to text them before the live recording to say that they were listening. They would write these names down so that they could preach as if they were in the room.
Watch yourself – it may not be the easiest thing in the world, but it can be helpful to watch yourself a few times. Speaking to camera is not the same as speaking to a room of people. It is also helpful to ask others for practical comments to ensure that you maximise the opportunity of bringing God’s word to people. There’s also a good video here to help with this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UyLeB6VtFVE
Consider different formats for different purposes – many pastors have noticed that their preaching is more evangelistic in sermons that would be available to anyone. Recent statistics clearly show that there are non-Christians listening and tuning in to services – this is most likely going to be through church websites, Facebook, Vimeo, or YouTube. Some churches have found that it is easier to preach to the ‘church family’ freely through Zoom where a degree of interaction and control as to who is listening is possible. Some have therefore split their meetings – Sunday morning is more evangelistic and on YouTube etc., where Wednesday evening can be aimed more towards Christians in the church.
Ask the church to prepare and pray – many commented that they had sent direction as to how to listen to a service online and to make sure that they prayed especially for the preaching of the word.
Ask people to comment – ask people at the end of the service to get in touch, especially if they are new. This not only encourages people to reach out to your church, but can help with sermon application for next time.
Look at viewing figures – it can be difficult to look at viewing figures and not compare with others, but it is good to get as much information as possible as to who is listening and watching. YouTube give analytical information and allow you to see who has watched the service from beginning to the end. This can give you an indication if more than just the church members are watching and can therefore help with your sermon application.
Prepare as normal – although you may need to change some things about preaching online such as length, illustrations used, and structure, it is important that you prepare as normal as far as this is possible. It may be helpful to remind yourself of some basic techniques that you have learned over the years by going back to a basic book and read it again with fresh insight into your new situation.
Depend fully on God.
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