Monday, May 18, 2015

How to Do Church When People Don't Read

           The verdict on television and every other form of contemporary multi-media has been in for some time. Watching electronic screens, even infrequently, has a profound impact on nearly everyone’s desire to read, ability to read deeply, and ability to read for any length of time. All of it makes us—well, if not stupid—deeply distracted and increasingly shallow.

            I’ve written about how this is so for years (here, and here, for example) and reflected on this insight as one of the basic shapers of contemporary faith in my book, Not Sure. I’ve also spoken frequently about how preachers and worship planners might adapt their approach to a changing audience. I’ve based some of my ideas on Walter Ong’s insights about how oral audiences—that is, audiences from the time before most people could read. What follows are talking points—ten ideas that might have some traction.

One: Practice Simplicity. Today’s audiences are made up of people who read less. Many know only what they remember or Google. They are often not reading scripture either, and almost certainly not reading much about scripture, unless it is something in the health and wealth genre. So, when preaching, keep it simple and forget the huge swaths of doctrine. Augustine said preachers should leave difficult matters to books. Walter Benjamin says that Berthold Brecht kept a toy donkey on his desk with a sign around its neck: ‘I too must understand.’” The Bible says that the common people heard Jesus gladly. And he kept it simple. Think parable, think the Sermon on the Mount’s proverbs and beatitudes, think of illustrations that will make children smile. Keep it simple like Jesus did.
            Simplicity is not an excuse to practice shallowness, however. And there lies the great challenge for most preachers today. And by the way, preaching a ten-point sermon with the help of a projector is not simple. No one can go home and remember ten points. If you do this, do it once a year to mix it up, and make sure all your ten points are really restatements of one core insight.

Two: Don’t shy away from pathos. Digital audiences respond more to honest emotion than to carefully constructed rational arguments—which they can’t remember ten minutes later anyway. Leonard Sweet once wrote something like, “Postmoderns don’t come to church wondering, ‘is it true.’ They want to explore whether or not it is real.”
            I don’t mean you should get on the pulpit and cry. Pathos is a seasoning rather than the main course. But audiences resonate with the authentic emotional life of the preacher. A bit of self-deprecating humor is good, too.

Three: Be local. Fill sermons with local color, local personalities, today’s news, familiar memories and stories. Fill sermons with the everyday stuff that people are going to talk about after church, no matter what you preached about. Like Jesus did in his parables. His sermons brought people into their homes, marriages, businesses and fields. And his audiences were with him.

Four: People whose memories are not shaped by the patterns written words make, or by the interior journeys that are so much a part of modern literature, usually do resonate with amazing battles in the heavens or our mythic cities. This is called agonistic storytelling. Stories like that of David and Goliath, or Moses and Pharaoh, or Harry Potter, or The Lord of the Rings are heavy on plot and action, miracle and spectacle, and that makes them memorable to non-readers and readers alike. These stories can hold a non-reading audience’s attention. Walter Ong says that, “Oral story tellers played to audiences who wanted action and movement and thus the stories showed no great command of character drawing.” So make up amazing stories, or retell them, or refer to them. The Bible does.

Five: Preach as if the rest of the liturgy matters. Digital audiences love the clutter of multiple channels of communication—even though this clutter can also get in the way of focus. Church services ought to be full of song and bulletins, of visuals on the wall and in the classroom, of liturgical smells and bells as in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, of processions of laughing children and solemn adults. A wise old document of the Reformation, the Belgic Confession, notes that God added the sacraments to the Word because people sometimes couldn’t understand the Word without signs and seals. Right. We need church that is much more than sermons made of words.
            By the way, this does not mean church has to be “high,” as in the Anglican or Catholic traditions. It needs, rather, to be visual and diverse. At Lawrence Park Church, we’ve decorated the sanctuary as the Emerald City and members came dressed as Wizard of Oz characters for a sermon based on that book. We’ve done a series of four sermons on Les Miserables using the music from the Broadway production as the clothesline on which the rest of the service was based. We put the words of choir anthems on overhead TV screens and have a children’s sermon every week.

Six: Practice the Way of Beauty. Beauty is the Spirit’s favourite path into our hearts. That’s why Psalms and Songs have always been important; why banners and children’s art and solos and sermons that are full of aesthetic delight grip people of every time and era. Sermons should always “make sense,” of course, but to the degree that they can also be poetic, they should be.

Seven: Preach as if words matter. Perhaps this is just another way of stating point six. But there is a peculiar kind of heaviness of heart that goes with sermons preached as if they were books. This heaviness is predicated on the notion that if a preacher says it, the audience must listen; but if a preacher says it like a professor might write it; the audience must listen without smiling, for written words know little of mirth. Well, while this approach to preaching makes sense in graduate schools, it makes a mockery of the many varied and rich and aesthetically delightful ways words can be used to become more than truth—they can become good news, too. Preachers who preach as if words matter spend more time writing and editing sermons than they do studying their sermons.

Eight: Learn from the ancient storyteller. More on point six. The preaching that works for digital audiences uses the ancient storyteller’s bag of tools: rhyme and repetition, assonance and proverb, parallel structure as found in the Psalms, and rhythm. Rap music was designed, from the ground up, as music for a digital, oral audience. Preachers can learn from that. Sweet says, “Postmodern storytelling is a plague on both houses; it is abductive—concurrent, stacked, loopy, nosequential and image-based,” like ancient storytelling and modern TV, both.

Nine: Preach short. This is related to command one, “be simple.” The bottom line is that people who watch TV have shorter attention spans than people who don’t. Too many preachers preach far too long. Give people one thing to remember, and finish. They might remember. Give them two things, or three, or four to remember, and they are likely not to remember anything at all—even though you took twice or three times as long to say it. I try to keep all my sermons for to less than twenty minutes. Many are fifteen minutes long. It takes a lot more work on the preacher’s part to achieve this, but I never met a person at the door who said, “boy, I wish you went longer, pastor!” A few masters can go longer, especially when their audience is more literate. But I know my weaknesses in this area. Do you?

Ten: Encourage high levels of literacy. This is counter-intuitive, perhaps. But the truth of the matter is that even in our reading-bereft society, deep literacy is a very valuable commodity. In part this is because historically, the leadership of all societies since the time of the Sumerians and Chinese has always inordinately represented by highly literate people. The highly literate control the flow of information and ideas. Why shouldn’t those highly literate leaders be Christians?

How do we encourage literacy? Well, great schools are part of the answer. But in my family, we threw out the television altogether. Not because we objected to what was on TV, but because of what TV does to our habits of mind when we’re not paying attention.  

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