Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Reflection: PowerPoint and Proclamation

…the college is hoping that its new, $2 million, state-of-the-art preaching center will not only highlight its mission but give preaching majors the technical skills they need to more effectively present their message.
The 12,000-square-foot facility, located in the heart of the campus, features a 90-seat lecture hall, two multimedia classrooms, four practice labs, a conference room, a commons area and a computer lab.
Last week, 24-year old [name], who is majoring in preaching and church leadership, used the new technology while giving a sermon to his preaching class. As he walked across the stage in the lecture hall, two cameras wired to mats on the stage followed his movements, recording his 15-minute sermon for his review after class.
With the click of a button, two large screens displayed a Powerpoint presentation to accompany his sermon, and when he wanted to emphasize words or pictures on the screens, he circled them on the touchscreen computer in front of him.

I know this college; the church of my youth seemed to me then an extension of it. Its professors and graduates served as our ministers and elders. One of its professors (of blessed memory) taught me the faith and baptized me into Christ. Another, I count still as dear friend and mentor in the faith. It is a venerable institution, one of the oldest American Bible Colleges, a place rich in Christian faith and practice. So, this recent newspaper article captured my attention; it is always news when preaching makes the news with any positive spin at all. And, the article has prompted some reflection on the nature of preaching, reflection that is for me a constant companion as I write and preach weekly.

What makes for good preaching: modern, multi-million dollar facilities? state-of-the-art technology – cameras, PowerPoint, LCD projectors, and touchscreens? I wonder. I have preached poor, ineffective sermons – more than I care to remember – and not one of them would have been improved by multi-media technology. Their defects ran much deeper.

There are no mysteries to poor sermons, though the Mysteries of grace abound in good ones. A poor sermon results from ignorance – ignorance of mind and heart (nous): the preacher knows too little the subject and Object about which and of Whom he speaks. And neither of these problems can be remedied by PowerPoint, but only by a cure that is well known but too little practiced.

Good sermons – not entertaining ones, but sermons which proclaim truth, transform lives, and produce saints and martyrs – are crafted on the knees; we preach as we pray. The choice between more PowerPoint and more prayer is no choice at all. The choice between computer lab and chapel is no choice at all. Only after lying prostrate before the Lord, only after soul-rending confession, only after prayer of depth and honesty that humbles me to the core, does David dare say, “Open my lips, O Lord, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise” (Ps 51). Dare any preacher do otherwise? It is from “the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person brings good things out of a good treasure,” (Mt 12:34b-35a, NRSV). And the heart is filled not primarily with rhetoric and technology, but with prayer and fasting, with the written word and living witness of the saints, with the bread heaven and the cup of salvation – the true Body and true Blood of our Lord – with the orthodoxy and orthopraxy of the Church.

Good sermons – not ones which tickle the ears, but sermons which proclaim good news to the poor and liberty to the captives – are crafted in the word: in the word written and in the Word made flesh. And here I must be clear: the first priority of the preacher is not to understand the word but to stand under the word. Academic preparation – necessary as it is – is no substitute for simple obedience. God grant us a place at the feet of simple saints rather than in the marbled halls of the philosophers. Faith and obedience are the precursors of understanding and the prerequisites for proclamation.

Good sermons – as good lives – are the result of askesis, Christian discipline. When asked why he could cast out a demon that had resisted every attempt of his disciples, Jesus replied, “This kind comes out only by prayer and fasting,” (cf Mt 17:8). So, too, with sermons: good ones “come out” only by prayer and fasting, only through obedience to the word and the Word, only through fellowship with the saints on earth below and the saints in heaven above, only through taking up the cross of Christ and bearing it daily. There are no technological shortcuts. The emphasis on technique and technology seems to me a modern form of simony – the attempt to purchase with technological currency a gift of grace that comes only through a life in the Spirit, a life of purification and illumination.

I once heard a bishop of an Oriental Orthodox church – whose name is withheld respecting his humility – preach a powerful sermon on the dangers of simony and heresy. Afterwards, I complimented his words and commented on the effort of preparing such a sermon. His response convicted me: “I do not prepare sermons,” he said. “I prepare myself for the sermon.” No PowerPoint – just power. No computer – just conviction. No touchscreen – just the touch of the Holy Spirit.

Would St. Paul use modern technology to proclaim the Gospel? Perhaps. He did, after all, by his own admission become all things to all people that by all means he might save some. But, then again, he also wrote,

And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God (1 Cor 2:1-5, NKJV).

It need not be either-or, I suppose, but both-and: not PowerPoint or prayer, but PowerPoint and prayer. Mainly, it is the balance that worries me. I know from too frequent personal experience how easy it is to mistake style for substance. And so I pray. Lord, have mercy on me, your weak and sinful servant. May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, my Lord and my Redeemer.

[1] Knoxville News Sentinel, 9/14/09.

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