Pastor friends, you have a unique role right now. You are leading an organization that is having to be quickly adaptive. Making decisions like deciding on a Thursday or Friday to livestream your worship services for the first time on Sunday. You’re shepherding people, having to figure out how to meet the needs of your church and how to serve your community through all of this. You’re pastoring people, providing wisdom and insight as to how to engage in the reality of our lives right now. And you’re doing so much more. I have so much respect for you as you lead through this right now.
I’m in this unique position having pastored and led in a local church for over 20 years, and now engaging with several different churches, helping serve them in different ways, while also still teaching ministry students how to preach. So, yesterday as the majority of churches shifted to provide online worship services, I had this unique perspective as someone who just a few months ago would have been leading that, to now being someone who was engaging it.
I took the opportunity yesterday to get to “visit” several different churches, and honestly, I enjoyed the experience way more than I expected to. Each church was unique in the way they adapted their worship services for this, some having had more time to think about how they wanted to present an online worship service than others.
There’s a lot that you’re having to figure out very quickly. After participating in several church’s online worship services, as someone who teaches preaching, I wanted to offer a few thoughts on preaching during the coronavirus crisis.
1. Your Non-Verbal Communication is Amplified
Whenever you communicate, what you are saying nonverbally is always significant, but when I’m watching you on a large screen in my home, and it’s solely focused on you, your nonverbal communication gets amplified 10x.
I will often teach my students that what they are doing nonverbally needs to match the message that they want to communicate verbally. If you are teaching on ideas such as experiencing peace and non-anxiousness during this time, and yet you communicate it in a way that feels rushed or even over-hyped, you communicate anxiousness.
If you’re not used to preaching without an audience, this is difficult, because you’re used to reading and playing off of your audience’s reactions. Your natural reaction is going to be to rush, to not allow for appropriate pauses, because it feels awkward to. You need to slow down more than you probably feel comfortable with, you should intentionally plan out where to allow for pauses in order to let your words hit, and remember that there are so many voices that are communicating anxiety, let the way that you preach and communicate through this be one that helps calm people rather than creating more anxiety.
(Also, look into the camera when you’re speaking. It’s super awkward, but your eye contact will help us engage)
2. Being More Specific and Concrete is Always Better Than More General and Abstract
I often tell my students that something is trite or cliche not because it’s not true, but because it’s communicated without specificity or concreteness. It becomes an easy go to phrase that leaves your audience without actually knowing what it means or how it actually is lived out, but it gets an easy Amen because it’s generically true. Statements that are trite and cliche are born out of abstract generality.
When you use phrases like, “choose faith not fear” or “just trust that God is in control” they can easily come off as trite and cliche. They may be true statements, but especially when people have very real reasons to be afraid, when people have had real experiences that are causing real anxiety about the present and future, those sort of statements can feel calloused, unengaged with reality and not very helpful.
Instead, try explaining to people what you hope for them without using a pithy phrase. How would you explain it to me if I asked, “but what does that mean for me? How do I actually do that? What does that look like in the reality of my life after I leave this livestream and have to deal with losing my job, being isolated and alone, showing up at the grocery store and not being able to buy any of the staple ingredients I need for my family to eat this week” When you can give me concrete examples, when you can use specific language, it lessens your need for the pithy phrase, because that specificity has made it memorable and doable.
3. Recognize Your Audience is Engaged and Fairly Informed
Unless you have a congregation that is largely not engaged online, your audience is already very informed. Most of the people I’m talking to have all of the same information that I do, and are getting it as quickly as I am. For quite a while the pastor has been moving away from being the informed expert who people come to in order to be told what they’re supposed to do and know and something like this heightens that reality even more. Instead, you are a fellow journey-person, who is on the path with us, helping to point us in the right direction by helping us to make sense of all of the information and helping us to appropriately process it.
This changes your basic posture of your message and the specific kinds of things you’ll communicate. I don’t need you to tell me not to hoard at the grocery store, I’ve already had 4,721 people on Facebook tell me the exact same thing and if I’m not listening to them, then I’m not listening to you (not me personally…but you get it). Instead, I want you to teach me how to pray through this, I want you to encourage me with ways to love my neighbor while also maintaining social distancing, I want you to help me process the news and to remind me of the ways that Christians have always engaged in moments like this and to help me imagine what that might look like in this time and this place.
I’m often reminded of something I once read that NT Wright wrote about Paul. He said something to this effect, “Paul wasn’t telling people what to think, he was teaching them how to think. Now that the Messiah had come, he was teaching them to think messianically about the world and the way they lived in it.” I wonder if the same might be true for us as we are preaching today. Perhaps our role in preaching during this isn’t telling people what to think as much as it is helping them learn how to think as a people who are being formed in Christ in this specific and unique moment.
Pastors, you’ve got this. You are leading well through this. No one is expecting you to do this perfectly. In fact, no one needs you to do it perfectly. But what we do need you to do is to be attentive to the voice of God in this moment and then to communicate in a way in order to best help me to receive what you have to communicate.