To reach people in today’s communication environment, expand your one shot Sunday sermon into multiple communication channels.
by Justin Rossow
Our communication culture has been shifting for awhile. Covid may have pushed it the rest of the way over the cliff. When I was a kid, “regular worship attendance” meant going every single solitary week, even if you had to visit a different congregation on vacation. Now, even the most faithful attenders miss at least one out of four Sundays, and “regular attendance” has dipped to once a month if not once a quarter. And now, this: worship online, or streaming, or on Facebook of all places, or YouTube…
As Covid drags on, the temporary spike in online attendance has continued to taper off, leaving congregations and pastors wondering how to reach people with the Good News we so desperately need in a world gone crazy. Do you preach to the camera, just like you would to the pew? Should your sermons be shorter? Longer? Use more stories? Or more teaching?
Recently, a pastor friend even asked me if I thought sermon series had any value in an age of Covid. His point was this: people are often missing at least half of the sermons in the series. Even when they do watch from home, kids, pets, breakfast burritos, and any number of other distractions mean they may still be missing half or more of the sermon. So what good is it to try and pull a common thread through a month or more of sermons? Should each video stand completely on its own?
I think the answer to that question about sermon series gets at the heart of how to communicate not only during Covid, but as we continue to move forward in a multi-platform communications environment. It doesn’t matter whether you are following the lectionary, preaching 4-6 week sermon series, or some combination of the two. Covid is a great chance to experiment with a preaching ministry that is 1) multi-resource instead of one shot; 2) multi-faceted instead of linear; and 3) integrated with rather than segregated from daily, family devotional life. Today’s blog will look at Part 1).
Part 1) Multi-Resource Sermons
I think one of the hardest things to do as a preacher is to cut something good from a sermon. Can I get an amen? I hate deleting whole paragraphs I have worked so hard on, especially when they contain a particularly insightful (or clever) idea or teaching or a really engaging story. And besides that, editing takes work. I think it was Mark Twain (quoting Blaise Pascal) who quipped, “I would have written you a shorter letter, but I didn’t have the time…”
That’s “one shot” thinking. I have to say *this awesome thing* in the sermon today, otherwise it will be lost forever. I only have one chance to get this message across. The people are already at the table, buckled into their pews, and fighting to pay attention to the sermon … what’s five more minutes?? It’s now or never! And I am not throwing away my shot!
Covid culture highlights what has been true for awhile: people aren’t listening to your whole sermon anyway. You don’t usually get up and make more coffee and toast a bagel when you’re sitting in a pew, but that option is easy and available to you at home. If you have a room full of kids or grandkids, getting through a 35 minute sermon might be near impossible (just check your YouTube stats for when people stop watching). And you always have the option of watching the sermon again later to see what you missed (even if you never actually do).
If you only have one shot at the sermon, those realities are devestating.
What’s the alternative?
Instead of packing everything we want to say about any give verse or topic into a single, non-irreducible, always expanding, one shot sermon buffet, what if we spread the sermon out across a variety of times and resources? What if the Sunday sermon on your YouTube channel was just the tip of this week’s homiletical iceberg, the first course in a repast intended to be enjoyed through the week? What if we conceived of the sermon not as a single communication event delivered all at once, but instead imagined the sermon as a weekly meal plan, network of communication events that worked together to bring God’s Word to God’s people in a variety of ways and media beyond Sunday morning?
In today’s communication culture, we don’t just listen. We do that, too (sermons, podcasts, audio books, radio, etc). But we also watch (YouTube, Facebook Video, Zoom meetings, etc) and read (ebooks, web pages, tweets, even print material). And we move seamlessly between those media.
On any given day, I will search for something on Google and read an article or PDF on my computer. I’ll check my news feed and maybe watch a brief video on my phone. I’ll have a podcast or audio book in my earphones while I walk, or playing in my car as I drive. I’ll talk to someone on Zoom and then pick up either my Kindle or a hardcover book I am currently reading. All those media and more I access all day, every day, without missing a beat.
How is your one shot sermon buffet supposed to compete with that?
But you can begin to expand the ways you communicate to hit a wider variety of communications media. As you do, you will feel less like you have to say everything “during the sermon” and you will begin to wonder which communication channel best communicates what you are trying to say.
Here’s a risky experiment you can run as a preacher. (Get your elders on board before you do. And you might want to let your congregation know you are just trying something different for the next four weeks; no need to panic.) This Covid season is the perfect time to try something out of the box, as long as you go back to your “regular” preaching for at least a month after the experiment so you have some time to evaluate and see what if any changes you are prepared to make long term.
Prepare your next four sermons the way you normally would, and then cut each of them in half. Of course you shouldn’t divide them right down the middle. Of course you should pay attention to the dynamics of Law and Gospel (“Come back next week, and I’ll give you the Good News….!) And of course you should be selective in what you cut: this isn’t just editing. (You should do that, too, but before this step.) This is strategically taking elements out of your sermon manuscript to put in other communications media during the week.
Could that personal story work on Facebook live? Could your exegesis of that one phrase turn into a single page PDF you email your congregation on Wednesday? Is there any reason why you couldn’t turn that one particular move into a blog you can post on WordPress, or a set of discussion questions you could explore on Instagram or Twitter this week? Could another staff person interview the preacher and ask a follow up question that lets one part of your sermon shine?
Don’t think of this as down-sizing your sermon; think of it as expanding your sermon into other communication channels. Set a goal to have at least one thing people can watch, on thing people can read, and one thing people can listen to during the week. Cut the time you spend preaching on Sunday in half, and take that extra content and push your delivery method into modes outside of “listening to the sermon,” whether that’s live or online.
You will be able to evaluate how effective this multi-resource sermonizing is in a couple of ways. You got your Elders and Church Counsel on board before you started this experiment; use them to debrief how it went. Did they engage the different content streams? Why or why not? What have they heard from other people?
You can also check your stats on social media to see if people are receiving the expanded sermon content or not. It’s hard to move that needle in just four weeks of preaching, so be patient. And seek input from people you trust. My hypothesis is that you will lose less viewers during your shorter sermons and increase conversation around your sermon during the week.
Think about that for a minute. If you could get people to listen better to your sermon on Sunday and engage your sermon material more during the week, wouldn’t you want to do that?
One big barrier to delivering shorter sermons as a preacher is a fear that you have only one chance to say everything. Ironically, one big barrier to engaging sermons as a hearer is having only a single (long) experience to try and digest in one sitting. Serve the sermon in smaller bites through multiple media channels. You’ll get a better result than the all-you-can-eat buffet once a week.
That’s all for Part One of this series on how you might shape your preaching ministry in new ways in response to the communications culture brought to the fore in an age of Covid worship.
We thought we would practice what we preach and make the rest of this series a combination of blog, video, audio, PDF, and discussion questions. Let’s run an experiment together to see if we can find innovative ways to reach people with the Gospel of Jesus.
If you run an experiment and learn something in your current preaching environment, please share it with Innovation@findmynextstep.org. We’re pulling for you and we love to hear your stories!