After my recent post about projectors in worship, someone wrote to ask about using videos of sermons. If a church is vacant or its pastor is on vacation and no preacher can be found to fill the pulpit, is it okay if the church watches a video of a pastor preaching elsewhere? This would be done in place of having an elder read a sermon prepared by a pastor.
This question especially seems to have come to the surface after everyone’s experiences with worship in COVID. Many churches had “online worship services.” Congregants became accustomed to listening to a pastor preach on the screen. They found it could be edifying. Some pastors were also pre-recording their sermons. Moreover, if you happened to be in a vacant church and there was an online service with an elder reading a sermon, there was nothing to stop you from searching online for video of the minister who wrote that sermon actually preaching that sermon. Wouldn’t you rather listen to the minister himself, especially if he’s skilled at lively and effective delivery?
This isn’t the first time I’ve been asked about this. Some months ago a church asked me for advice on it. With so many vacant Reformed churches in Canada and elsewhere, it’s likely this possibility will be explored more often.
When it comes to anything in worship, our reflex action should be to search the Scriptures. Does the Bible have anything to say about virtual preaching? Reformed churches hold to the regulative principle of worship: we are to worship God in no other way than he has commanded in his Word. This is one of the things taught us by the Second Commandment (see Heidelberg Catechism QA 96). With this principle there’s an important distinction between elements and circumstances. Elements are the things God has commanded in Scripture. These we may not add or take away. Circumstances are matters surrounding the elements – these can be variable from congregation to congregation.
Preaching is an element, governed by the regulative principle of worship. It’s commanded in Scripture (2 Tim. 4:2). Public worship must include the preaching of God’s Word. How that preaching is delivered to us (whether in person or via video) would be considered a circumstance. As a circumstance, it’s a matter of wisdom informed by the Bible rather than of direct biblical injunction. Consistories have to weigh whether it would be wise to have virtual preaching instead of having an elder read a sermon.
One of the factors needing to be considered is the message communicated by the medium. What does it say to the congregation about preachers and preaching when we use a video of a pre-recorded sermon from a pastor somewhere else? It subtly suggests that preaching can be disconnected from the physical presence of a preacher (or in his absence, someone reading his sermon). Since preaching is a central element of worship, it may also suggest that worship can be disconnected from the physical presence of anyone – including a congregation.
Another factor has to do with customization. That pastor preaching that sermon is preaching it tailor-made for his congregation, wherever that happens to be. When I upload a sermon to theseed.info, I remove much of the local colour and detail that would be inappropriate, irrelevant, or confusing elsewhere. When elders read my sermons, I often get requests to customize the content for their context and I give a lot of freedom to do that. Even when sermons are being read by an elder, they should be thoughtfully tailored for their audience.
Next, elders have a responsibility for the pulpit. Elders should vet sermons carefully. Sadly, not all pastors have a philosophy of preaching which is consistently gospel-centered and Christ-centered. Assuming elders would watch sermons first before showing them to the congregation, it’s an accepted fact that critical analysis is far better served when done with a written text than with the medium of video.
Finally, consistories also have to consider the time in which we live. People watch screens all the time and a lot of what’s portrayed on those screens is fleeting and insignificant. We often subconsciously associate screens with things that can be safely ignored. Think of how many people talk to one another during a TV show. Surely there’s something to be said for a worship service where a clear distinction is made from the often light and fluffy screen time that’s otherwise so common in our lives.
I understand why people get frustrated at times with reading services. I also understand why people are drawn to technological solutions. However, rushing to adopt these solutions without carefully considering the consequences could cause greater long-term trouble. Reading sermons isn’t a task to be taken lightly. It requires a lot of preparation. Some naturally do it better than others. But here’s the thing: if they want to, sermon readers can improve. In fact, because the worship of God is at stake, they should want to. There are different possibilities for that, including Toastmasters. In my congregation, I’ve run a sermon readers workshop. But technology isn’t always the answer to every problem. Sometimes we just need to work harder.