In our COVID-remapped world, commutes and work and family rhythms have been permanently altered. So have attitudes toward church participation. I spoke recently with a woman passionately committed to her Sunday-morning regimen of livestreaming her local-church service. Of course, many people have pulled back altogether from church involvement in favor of consuming the podcasts and broadcasts of well-known preachers.
This is not okay. Setting aside for a moment the Bible’s urging of every Christian to practice one-another ministry (an exhortation that’s difficult to obey from your couch), it’s clear that God has a different vision of how his people are to hear his word. We are embodied people.
Therefore, the best preacher for each one of us — the preacher we really need — is an embodied one, someone who stands in our physical presence to proclaim God’s word to us. We need more than a voice in our ears; we need a life before our eyes. Podcast sermons from people we don’t know are potentially a tremendous supplement — and certainly a terrible substitute.
I’m a pastor and a preacher. On most Sunday mornings for the past fifteen years, I have walked onto a platform, turned to face the congregation, and proclaimed God’s word. But I have many more years of experience being pastored and receiving preaching. I was shepherded by many pastors before I became one. And as I recall those shepherds, certain memories stand out.
“We need more than a voice in our ears; we need a life before our eyes.”
I remember the many times when, as a young boy, I confessed to my dad (who was my first pastor) the sins I was ashamed of anyone else hearing. He would patiently, gently reassure me of God’s love. I remember when, much later, another pastor laid his hand on my head and prayed for God to heal me from sickness. Later still, two of my pastors huddled together, praying earnestly for me and my future ministry. I recall sitting at a table with the man who shepherded me during graduate-school years, engaging with him in passionate debate, and feeling somewhat miffed at him afterward. Each of these memories is vivid. Here’s what they share in common: all were embodied encounters with the men God had appointed to preach God’s word to me.
When I consider those who have shepherded my soul, I recall them expositing the Scriptures, and I remember times when their preaching spoke deeply to me, firing my passion for God. But I also remember the times when we sat together and argued, or I confessed sin and they reminded me of God’s grace, or they prayed for me. And these moments mattered for how I heard their proclamation.
Best Preacher for You
Our answer to the question “Who is the best preacher for me?” will depend in large part upon who we understand ourselves to be. If we consider ourselves to be mainly thinking beings, formed mostly through ideas, then spiritual formation will consist of finding and consuming the best thoughts about God and the Bible. In You Are What You Love, James K.A. Smith points out that this has been the approach of many evangelicals for many years. If we want outstanding content, why not turn to the well-known television/Internet/podcast preachers? After all, they’re well-known for a reason. They’re often more compelling, more interesting, and more informative than the preacher at your local church.
But this approach builds upon an inadequate view of human persons. Certainly, we’re not less than thinking beings. But we are far more. We are imaginative. We are intuitive. We are passionate. We are filled with longings and desires and affections. We are formed through habits and relationships. We are embodied.
In the Bible, teaching is understood not mainly as a conveyance of ideas from brain to brain, but as the formation of a person in the context of embodied relationship. The apostle Paul wrote to one of his congregations, “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me — practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:9). Notice, they didn’t just hear Paul — they saw him. Paul urged another congregation, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).
He was voicing the conviction of the Jewish and Greco-Roman world of his day that learning is accomplished through hearing and observing a teacher. We learn best when we see behavior and imitate it. Peter told elders to be examples to the flock (1 Peter 5:3). The author of Hebrews instructed his readers, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7).
Life Shining Through Sermons
George Herbert, one of my favorite poets, compared preachers to stained-glass windows.
Doctrine and life, colors and light, in one
When they combine and mingle, bring
A strong regard and awe; but speech alone
Doth vanish like a flaring thing,
And in the ear, not conscience, ring. (“The Windows,” lines 11–15)
It’s better to hear words spoken through the embodied life of someone you know than to hear the disembodied voice of a stranger (even a very gifted and godly stranger) in your AirPods. Why? Because, to use Herbert’s image, when a life shines through words, it’s like the sun shining through a stained-glass window. The colors pop. You catch your breath. That beauty produces “a strong regard and awe.” Words backed by a life go deep into your inner person, your conscience.
I learned much from the lives of the pastors who shepherded me throughout boyhood and young adulthood. I watched them endure discouragement, criticism, hospitalization, a cancer diagnosis. I observed them during church services. More than two decades later, I regularly think of one former pastor who threw himself passionately into congregational singing. His preaching pierced deeper because I saw his heart for God before he entered the pulpit. I regularly receive Communion with my congregation just after preaching the sermon. It’s an opportunity for all of us together to admit our dependence upon Christ’s finished work. It’s important for my church to see that I’m as desperately in need of Jesus as they are.
It’s dangerous to allow ourselves to be spiritually formed mainly through a disembodied voice, through the preaching of a stranger. There’s no accountability or reciprocity. We can’t check words against character. Of course, even your local pastor can deceive you about his hidden character. Greater proximity does not always equal deeper authenticity. But within a local church community, there’s far more opportunity to perceive patterns of sin and defects in character. And as a fellow church member, you can exhort your pastor toward love and good deeds. You can help to form the character of the very man through whom you will hear God’s word.
The best preacher for each of us is the one we know. And it goes the other way, too. The best preacher is the one who knows us.
Pastors and Their People
Every time I turn to face my congregation, I’m preaching to people I know: the man who’s waiting for biopsy results, the mother of four who struggles with anxiety, the teenager working through the death of his dad, the young man hanging out with the wrong friends. I pray for them by name in the mornings. I’ve officiated their weddings and dedicated their babies. I’ve buried their spouses and, in some cases, their kids. There’s time and trust between us. We share investment and affection.
“There’s a special, irreplaceable value in sitting under the preaching of one who knows you.”
Of course, podcast sermons from gifted preachers can be immensely valuable. I’m not saying we should learn only from people we know personally (in this article, I’m communicating with many readers whom I will never meet). But think of all that’s lost in a sermon preached for mass consumption. When it’s intended to be universal and evergreen, it loses specificity and immediacy. When it needs to hit a certain time mark, it loses spontaneity. When the audience is wider, it loses a measure of vulnerability. By aiming to go far (not necessarily a bad aim), its substance will necessarily change. There’s a special, irreplaceable value in sitting under the preaching of one who knows you, is praying for you, is committed to you. Please don’t miss that gift from God.
Preachers, let’s never allow a desire to be heard by many people we don’t know cause us to waste the advantages of embodied preaching to people we do know. Let’s preach to the people right in front of us. Let’s love them in all their glorious specificity. Let’s pray for the word to pierce these particular people, in this particular place, at this particular time. This local preaching will go places where a streamed sermon heard by tens of thousands simply never can. Let’s be willing to preach as embodied individuals, weak and needy, reliant upon grace, eager for more of Christ.
This is the kind of preacher our people most need.
Credit: Stephen Witmer