The Digital Sermon
Over the years, thoughtful pastors and teachers have raised a litany of warnings about the dangers of making the online ministries of preachers a replacement for–or the standard by which we judge–local church pastors. Additionally, many have rightly noted the impropriety of replacing the real presence of the preacher with the streamed in digital pastor. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, for instance, vocalized his disdain for audio and video sermons (a sentiment which you can ironically hear on his recorded talks on Preaching and Preachers). Tim Keller explained:
“Dr. Lloyd-Jones effectively dismantles the idea that watching a video or listening to an audio of a sermon is as good as coming physically into an assembly and listening to a sermon with a body of people. It is obviously a good thing if a person who never hears or reads the Bible listens to the recording of a good gospel message and is helped by it. But the Doctor argues that people experience the sermon in a radically different way if they hear it together with a body of listeners and if they see the preacher. Watching on a screen or listening as you walk detaches you and the sermon becomes mere information, not a whole experience. There is a power and impact that the media cannot convey.”1
These warnings are right and good; and, we will never outlive our need to heed them. However, there is an opposite danger (especially for ministers of the Gospel) with regard to the digital pulpit–namely, the danger of neglecting the enormous databank of theological and homiletical tools that God has given uniquely to our generation. Like incorporating the best foods into a well-shaped diet, a healthy dose of audio sermons can be an enormous aid to our spiritual formation. Furthermore, listening to the sermons of the most faithful and gifted ministers of our generation can be a substantial benefit to the homiletical formation of pastors. It is this latter benefit to which I wish to turn our attention.
In the early days of preparation for ministry, I had compiled around 5,000 audio sermons on a hard drive (which is actually quite a small number of audio sermons today). Thanks to the diligent labors of John Hendryx at Monergism and other audio sermon sites, I listened to somewhere between 5-10 sermons or lectures a week. It would not have been unusual to find me mowing the yard while listening to a D.A. Carson lecture, or to find me cleaning the house while listening to Sinclair Ferguson or John Piper. I owe so much to my early spiritual and homiletical development to the ability to listen to these great men of God. This is a practice that I have continued (with a bit less frequency) throughout my pastoral ministry.
Realizing the spiritual benefit that one can accrue from listening to sermons, I would offer to duplicate the sermon audio library that I had amassed for fellow seminarians. On one occasion, a fellow student responded to my offer by saying, “No thanks. I don’t want to be tempted to preach the sermons of other men. That’s why I don’t listen to the sermons of other men.” I was shocked when I first heard it. I am still confounded when I recount that story today. Why in the world wouldn’t we want to listen to and learn from the most theologically robust and homiletically gifted men of our day? The irony, of course, is that my friend admitted that he used the books of men when preparing for a sermon. So, why not listen to an exposition on the particular text on which you are preaching?
A minister may be tempted to inappropriately borrow too much of the labor of those to whom they listen. We may allow ourselves to become exegetically lazy. We may even fall into the snare of seeking to imitate their intonation or mannerisms. We may also fall into the trap of downplaying the work of the Spirit of God among the congregation under the live preaching of the word. Nevertheless, these should not be deterrents to our eagerness to listen to the great wealth of digital sermons that God has given us. We are called to learn from those who have gone before us and to pass on what we learn from them. As the Apostle Paul charged Timothy, “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2). There is absolutely no good reason why listening to the audio sermons of faithful ministers shouldn’t form a part of our sermon preparation.
People have often asked how many hours of sermon prep I do every week. I don’t particularly like answering that question on account of the fact that the past 16 years have served as a sort of unceasing sermon preparation time for me. Everything that I’ve read, every experience that I’ve had and every sermon or lecture to which I’ve listened have become part of weekly sermon prep. If that is true in my experience, how much we should value the fact that it is true of those to whom admire as pastors and theologians. If 40 years of preparation lays behind a 40 minute sermon by Sinclair Ferguson, why wouldn’t I want listen to and learn everything that I can from him?
Many young men have never had mentors. While having personal mentors who love, pray for and pour into you are an incomparable and irreplaceable blessing, many never get the privilege of experiencing that blessing. Listening to the audio sermons and lecture of the most gifted and godly ministers is one way that we can sit at the feet of the great men of the earth and learn from them.
I also find listening to audio sermons to be a thing of supreme importance for my soul as a senior pastor of a highly transitional church. I preach and teach 95% of the time in our church. I don’t have the privilege of sitting under the ministry of the word of fellow pastors in a worship service very often. I also don’t have the opportunity to sit under the preaching of the word in other settings on any kind of significant basis. This is yet another reason why ministers of the Gospel may find listening to audio sermons to be of such great value.
Although, as we noted above, we want to vigorously avoid the snare of seeking to imitate all of the intonations and mannerisms of other ministers, there is so much that we can learn from their intonations and mannerisms. In an essay that he contributed to Zondervan’s 2012 edition of Preaching and Preachers, Ligon Duncan gave the following autobiographical reflection on the impact of listening to Martyn Lloyd-Jones: “I was greatly impacted by the power of his sermons, even in printed form. Sentences and paragraphs from these sermons still grip me, utterly. I only heard audio recordings of his messages later, and the medium of his voice added a layer of effect that I had not been able to appreciate before.”
So fellow pastors, don’t let the dangers of listening to the audio sermons of the great ministers of the 20th and 21st Century hinder you from giving yourself to a diligent appropriation of them. Your soul will be fed and your preaching will almost certainly improve.
1. An excerpt from Keller’s 2011 blog post, “Lloyd-Jones on the Primacy of Preaching.”
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And it’s worth remembering that Keller, who you quote, is a great example of this – he’s listened to vast amounts of Lloyd Jones and Dick Lucas in preparation for planting redeemer, and, I believe, still listens to several sermons a week.
I myself have found the cure for imitation is not listening to fewer sermons, but more, so that you have more angles on a text and don’t have your mind dominated by any one preacher.
Hello! I am not a minister or pastor (I am female), and yet, there is something about this post that somehow resonates with me. Thank you for posting this… And the last sentence in Sam’s comment is true! 🙂 Avoiding listening to audio sermons could be an ascetic tendency that will not promote thankfulness for God’s good gifts…
This was a great read; after all, while digital and online sermons can be immensely helpful in today’s age, you really do need to seek a balance. As is pointed out, there is a reason that we have access to this kind of technology in today’s age, so it helps to use it to spread the word of God. After all, with online sermons you could be able to listen to some of the best preachers that you would never have the chance to travel to and listen to in person.