Downloadable Truth: Is it Healthy?

The preaching of Jesus is a chief treasure of all real churches (Acts 5:42; Rom 1:15; Eph 4:11; 1 Cor 1:17; 1 Cor 1:21; 1 Cor 9:18; 1 Cor 15:2; 2 Tim 4:2; Titus 1:3; 1 Peter 1:25; etc.). Jesus wants a Church where he is preached faithfully, and he wants his people gathered to hear his name proclaimed (Hebrews 10:23-24). When the church gathers, we preach Christ, and we preach him live (i.e. not recorded).

Uploaded Sermons Constitute a New Context

It is a modern practice to record sermons and upload them to the Internet. Because of that, I want you to consider the possibility that something is lost when a sermon is separated from its original place — the place of the real-life experience of the church and their fellowship in the Holy Spirit.

The recording of sermons for publication extracts the preached word from its redemptive womb. The church is the redemptive voice and body, being the place of Christ-centered preaching and the home where the family members are co-nourished by the Holy Spirit through the preaching, exposition and worship of Jesus.

Downloadable truth can’t be this; it is out of context — it is in a new context (new as compared to where it was preached, and new in comparison to most of human history when there was no such thing as uploaded sermons).

Truth has a Normal and Proper Redemptive Context

The recording of truth for utility or pleasure of learning, independent of the church, is a particularly modern phenomena. To get Christ-centered preaching, one once had to go to where Christ was preached. One had to go to a church where the pastor declared the words of Christ. Cutting the church out of the picture, so that one can get the Christian sermon without the church, is one unhappy result of downloadable truth. There are positive aspects of online sermons, but at the moment, I want to think through what is lost.

Recording sermons so that they become self-sustaining vehicles for advancing truth and the cause of Christ, in an ironic way, may not be as winning an advancement for the cause of Christ as is conventionally conceived. Certainly it is not sinful, and certainly it has its positive points, but it could be strangely unhelpful to the greater good of the physical gathering, and in this short article, I hope to approximate how this might be the case. Regardless of one’s conclusion on the matter (and I am not saying that a disagreement here constitutes a deviation from any Christian norm), we should be able to agree that Jesus wants places where the preaching of Christ is central and definitive to the Holy-Spiritual identity of his congregations. He died for his Bride and established the sermon as a heightened moment of redemptive nourishment (John 21:15-18).

It is through the Bride that God, by his Spirit, normally works. That is, he uses flesh and blood envoys to deliver the gospel to those whom he is saving. Live human beings are his regular and normal means. And that’s worth a new and strong emphasis, even if it means sacrificing an Internet audio presence that could be advantageous. The history of the church is the story of worshiping congregations that gather to feast on Word of truth, and then individually those members carry the message out and share it with unbelievers. We could unwittingly subvert the whole process by uploading our best sermons to the internet.

The Normal Redemptive Context can be Subverted or Jeopardized

We could preach truth and then share it on MP3 or CD. I have met people in bad churches who thrive on obtaining such recorded sermons.  The downside is that the same folks are committed to staying in churches where Jesus is not preached, and this electronic food means they can have a good sermon and keep a bad church. This, I propose, is subversive to the church that produces the good sermon.

When I say that a church produces a sermon, I mean that the pastor writes it, but he is supported by a congregation that invests in having him minister the word. They have invested their time, money and energy in a place where Christ is preached.  Instead of going and supporting such a place, those who have their electronic nourishment can invest themselves in congregations where people are not invested in having Christ preached. I don’t have a good word for all of this, but it verges on being a misuse of technology.  Of course, this would only apply to certain cases, and not everyone would fall into this category of neglecting the good of the church. Many of us listen to online sermons, and not because we have no desire to support the church we listen to, nor because we lack Christ-centered preaching in our own church (I get that!).

For all the positive reasons that one might enjoy online sermons, my proposal seems increasingly counter intuitive: Who argues against uploading great sermons to the internet? But I propose it has strange (and sometimes tragic) effects. Minimally, I am suggesting that downloadable truth is not entirely neutral, and merits some thought.

This Problem will get Worse with the Spread of Christless Christianity

The media shapes the message, and when Christ-centered preaching is something one finds on the net (to fill in for what lacks at one’s local church — if that is why it is consciously or unconsciously sought), then the church is not served. If the truth is not found locally, then one ought to preach it! If it is found locally, then go to it. But don’t stay in a bad church because you get your fix on the Internet. Again, I am speaking to one abuse of the idea of the online sermon, even as it is one I am far too familiar with. The antidote to the absence of Christ-sermons in a church is not the Internet, but a real church. The solution is the flesh-and-blood proclamation of Jesus.

I do in fact know people (by name) who obtain sermons and lectures from the Internet because their own church is Christless. They are trapped in Christless Christianity, and are seeking help. This may not be you, but you may not be normal, and I speak as one who encounters the abnormal lives of those who speak as if they are trapped in the depths of wishing for Christ, claiming they cannot find him. The problem of a church without Jesus at the center is not my own discovery, but it the subject of recent publications. For more on Christless Christianity, see Michael Horton’s excellent book, and you can do no better than read T. David Gordon’s, Why Johnny Can’t Preach.

It is a Real Problem that People Do not Look for Christ According to His Normal Means

Jesus loves his people — he calls them his sheep. He himself has chosen that his gathered flock — the church — would be the redemptive institution in the world. The church has been set apart as the normal means by which people come to know and grow in Christ. It is that normal means that concerns me here, and is the cause for which I now write. The Lord of the Church has made the church the place of Christ-centered preaching. It is his operation. Where Christ is not preached, there is nothing left but a sad shell — something we might indeed call Christless Christianity. People who gather to heard Christless words are not hearing the voice of Christ. And it does them no good to claim that they yet want to hear Christ preached if they reject his normal means, for Jesus wants to be found according to his normal means.

If I might back up and come at this another way… I think it is an agreeable statement to say that the Lord calls pastors to feed the sheep (and of course God picks the food). He picks the diet of the sheep and if your family is attending a church where Christ is not preached, then it ought to be priority-one to find a place where there is real food. The irony however, is that families that attend churches where Jesus is lightly preached (or not at all preached) are in fact in places they really want to be. It turns out, they are not tricked into Christless Christianity because they are not really seeking Christ-centered preaching. They are part of the problem. Members of churches are individually culpable for their own continual support of such non-Christian institutions. Your job is not to stay anyway (because “this is MY Church!”), as forgoing Christ for any reason is to remain with rebels. The sheep are called to find where Christ is preached, and it may even come at personal cost (again, I can put names to these words — yes, even here in America in the Midwest).

The Media and Medium Will Slowly Shape our Ideas of  the Church

If one imagines that Internet sermons are sufficient to fill the gap in Christless churches, then one has imagined a god that is simply a larger version of one’s self. God has not called anyone to worship in a Christless church and then use MP3s as a backup. In despair, however, the idolater will suppose that Jesus would have a fix, and that he has designed things to match our situation. The solution of the idolater is to imagine a church where real-live Christ-centered preaching is optional and where MP3 sermons replace real pastors.

We know better, however. And so that I am not misunderstood, it is true that good churches upload sermons, and they are not thereby taking a position supportive of idolatry (if you hear me saying that, you are missing my point). Good churches know that the church is not optional; we share in confessing that Jesus went to great pains to secure the Bride’s place in his World. The Church is the place where Jesus has placed his affections. He died for the church, and the church was the Bride long before we could download truth, as it is a place where the Word is carried forward in the flesh.

Should we download Christ-centered sermons? Perhaps as samples or exceptional aid. But I fear that we are creating a new kind of Churchless Christianity when we upload substitute worship. The church is the sufficient and normal carrier of the Gospel, and it would only be in special circumstances where we would look elsewhere. If you belong to a place of Christ-centered preaching, then you already know that the Internet is not your surrogate church, but simply a place of extra helps. But if the MP3 has become more than that, you may be on the verge of rebelling against revealed truth.

When people ask for copies of my sermons to give to friends or family, we oblige. We all know that our friends need to be with the Bride. We also know that anything I have on a CD is a sample at best. I understand that some people first hear about Jesus electronically (another positive fact that I do get). But God has ordained the Word, the Bride and the feet of the minister who brings the good news (all three). He has ordained word and the human envoy: these are the normal means, as the medium is not neutral.

I fear we may have gained something unexpected when we embraced the use of CD’s, MP3s and Podcasts to spread great sermons. Great sermons are hard to find, but God wants people to find them where they originate. Great sermons come from great churches where the people support and advance the ministry of the word. Real live people fellowship around the Word regularly preached. Great sermons come from people who gather and sing, pray and eat together.

Everything has a Place

The Word of God is most meaningful when it is working in the redemptive body of Christ. Outside of the Heavenly Congregation, the sermon is not the same. God gathers with his people when they gather (hence Hebrews 10) and he himself treats the preaching of the word as significant, holy and separate. The church is the people of God in relationship with God by his Spirit. The CD can’t capture that. The MP3 sermon can’t place you in the gathered body as they ascend together the Heavenly mountain to meet the Risen Savior. Christian sermons belong when and where God’s people gather together.

None of this means that sermons should not be uploaded or downloaded, or that listening online is sinful; this is merely a modest proposal that internet sermons are not necessarily neutral and are extracted from their normal place. At the end of the day, my proposal may not be appealing in a consumer society…. but that is another subject (belonging to the fascinating and wonderful topic of how we can now browse for churches via the Internet).

This article was published under Holy Spirit, Interpretation, Irony of God, Jesus, Media, Preaching, Truth.

Comments are closed.