The 20th century expositor Stephen Olford was known to say, “Only one thing will ever take the place of great preaching, and that’s greater preaching!” Is that still true today?
During the massive cultural disruption of COVID-19, every aspect of our lives has been challenged or changed. As Christians even our public worship habits have been tested. For a while churches everywhere were left with little choice but to close the doors to public gatherings and move to a completely online presence. Many are still in that mode now, and some others are returning to online-only as the virus stubbornly spreads.
What does the coronavirus and the rapid conversion of churches to online platforms have to do with preaching? The two seemingly disparate issues are actually interconnected. For instance, early research demonstrated that only a minuscule fraction of Americans planned to attend an in-person worship service on Easter Sunday in 2020, since by then most states were already under a shelter-in-place or stay-at-home order. Yet, by contrast, a striking majority of people attended an online Easter service. The number of Americans who had never viewed church online surged. Millions of people signed up for online platforms to participate in church services, with one megachurch reporting that 10 million people went online to view their Easter services.
While 10 million viewers is a notable exception to the rule, churches large and small have rapidly converted to an online platform to continue ministry and have experienced a surprisingly extensive reach. Even if a smartphone video camera and Facebook Live was the extent of the available technology, churches opted for it. In addition, it’s common to hear pastors report their online congregation is now larger than their in-person attendance had been prior to the pandemic. In other words, not only did churches rapidly transition to producing online church, the members (and others) just as rapidly transitioned to consuming online church content. We are witnessing a seismic shift in how we do ministry!
So, what has all of this got to do with preaching? If you watch online church, especially during the early days when we were all first getting used to the new option, the content was fairly consistent and mostly stripped to a minimum. Most churches offer some music, even if it’s a single guitar player singing a song of praise. Someone on camera usually offers prayer, and every church has a preacher. When millions of Americans, including many who rarely ever attended before, tuned in online for church, what were they coming for? The answer is clear. They were looking for worship and the preaching of the Word. Apparently, people’s need to hear the Word proclaimed is greater than even the most faithful practitioners of the ministry of preaching may have dared to hope.
In one respect, not much has really changed for the preacher since New Testament days. That sounds far-fetched, but after thoughtful reflection we realize it’s not. Certainly we have better technology and more immediate access to resources, but the work itself remains essentially unchanged. For instance, when Paul wrote his final letter to his younger apprentice Timothy, who was himself busy with the work of the church in Ephesus, one of the final instructions to the younger pastor was about the ministry of preaching. Paul said, “Preach the Word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2).
Ephesus was one of the megacities of the ancient world, the fourth largest in the Roman Empire. It was a cosmopolitan center of academia, boasting one of the largest libraries in the world. The city was also inebriated with sporting and entertainment events held constantly in the Great Theater of Ephesus, a magnificent 25,000-seat amphitheater, the largest of its kind in Asia Minor. Ephesus also had a dark side. Prostitution and sex trafficking was common and openly advertised and practiced throughout the city. While Ephesus may not be just like your town, one thing is certain. When Paul said to be ready to preach “out of season,” he knew Ephesus wasn’t exactly the Bible Belt. Timothy faced enormous challenges when he tried to minister.
The challenges faced by our churches during a pandemic are different but not unrelated. Ministry can be exhausting, and now it’s even harder as some of our familiar habits and expectations have been knocked off balance.
So when Timothy was called to minister in a hard place, what did Paul insist he do? Timothy was instructed to “preach the Word.” Obviously, Paul had decided preaching Scripture was a sufficient strategy to reach people in a tough context. Nothing has changed. The preaching of the Word is still what we need for hope, for encouragement, for instruction from the Lord, and for spiritual growth and renewal.
Preacher, we need your ministry right now more than ever. You may be preaching while staring at a cold, indifferent camera lens and wondering if it’s worth it or if there’s anyone out there; but we are watching, and we need a word from God. So give us the Word. Tell it like it is. Preach it brother!