Have you heard the phrase, “The Medium is the Message”? It was once penned by a ground-breaking Canadian philosopher named Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980). He taught that a communication medium, like live-streaming, is so powerful that it actually shapes the message being communicated. The medium embeds itself in the message and influences how the message is perceived.
Let’s apply McLuhan’s principle to a sermon delivered and received. The preacher may deliver a sermon in front of a live audience in a sanctuary designed like a lecture hall. The preacher may record the message by way of Zoom from his or her home, then upload that sermon to YouTube. The preacher may deliver his or her sermon as a manuscript to be read at one’s leisure.
The preacher may employ three different methods to deliver his or her sermon. And the listeners will receive three slightly different messages. The sermon received in the sanctuary will differ from the one listened to in the living room and both will differ from the one read as a manuscript.
My personal experience listening to sermons confirms that the medium influences the message. The message I perceive while in the presence of a worshiping community differs from the message derived while I sit alone in my living room watching television, and varies from the message I discern by reading a manuscript.
Personally, I prefer the live experience. The people around me, the space, the relationship between the preacher and the people, and the energy of the room (dare I say, the Holy Spirit?) shape my reception of the message. My second choice would be reading a manuscript of a sermon as it allows me to meditate on the message. My personal library includes several collections of sermons by Frederick Buechner and others.
Listening to recorded sermons is my least favorite medium. I don’t fully understand why I feel this way. I have noticed that I prefer reading over listening and my life as a pastor supports that preference. If I was still driving a garbage truck, as I did until I was nearly thirty, I am guessing I would have subscribed to TED talks or any number of podcasts so I could listen to them while I drive.
Still, I don’t think I would have ever view recorded sermons as superior to the live experience. The recorded sermon feels more like a speech or lecture, essentially no different than a TED talk. I listen to and benefit from recorded sermons but, in my experience, they do not have the same power of the live preaching moment. My experience recording sermons for a congregation during the pandemic echoes those thoughts.
Why is this important?
During these unprecedented times many congregations have not been able to gather weekly for worship. Congregational leaders have responded by either live-streaming worship services (with some or no congregants in the room) or by prerecording a service.
The wide scale practice of live-streamed or produced worship services has been received well by those who enjoy the convenience of staying home on Sunday morning. Their popularity has congregational leaders wondering if people will return to the sanctuary.
I believe they will for one simple reason: the live worship experience provides a more powerful medium for delivering and receiving a sermon. (It also provides a more powerful context for congregational singing, prayers, and fellowship.)
The reason for this is that when we gather as brothers and sisters in Christ, we are not a bunch of spectators at a stadium cheering on our God. We are not at a PTA meeting dreaming about how to improve the educational experiences of our children. We are not a political party promoting a platform. Instead, we are the church, the people of God, the local bride of Christ, the temple of the Holy Spirit. We are a living, breathing, community of Christ.
There is a lot going on behind the scenes when a sermon is delivered in person, in a sanctuary, to the gathered community. The Lord is invisibly present through the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is mysteriously active in the hearts and minds of those gathering, as well as through the exercise of spiritual gifts. The apostle Paul speaks to this live experience in his first letter to the Thessalonians: We thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe (2:13).
You might counter that the Spirit may work in the same way through live-streamed services and sermon manuscripts. Perhaps. On this point, the Bible is silent. In contrast, the Bible, the history of the church, and the testimony of countless pew-sitters confirm that, by and large, the medium of the live experience far surpasses other methods.