By: Will Wold
Preaching virtually is not the same.
Our lives are full of screens. From Macbooks to T.V.s to IPhones, people everywhere can be overwhelmed by them every single second of their day. However, it is in times like this, I am both fortunate and grateful those often overwhelming screens are what allows people watch us preach virtually every week.
When you are preaching in person and connecting with human beings in front of you, it is as important as it is valuable. If you are like me, you have taken that for granted. Sunday morning felt like an ongoing dialogue, and now it could easily feel like a lonely monologue. Even if you have shared your sermon through a live stream in the past, now more than ever, we must learn how to craft a sermon designed only for virtual worship. How best can we share the feeling of love and belonging with the rest of the world?
Here are 4 tips for preaching virtually:
1. Be Yourself
Live stream has become the main stream. The ubiquity of online services now means that you can scroll through Facebook live at 11:30am on a Sunday and see every preacher friend you know preaching. Every church is live streaming not only to preach a sermon, but to also continue to connect with their congregation. In the past month, I have had the great joy of watching close friends preaching, watching new services being created, and listening to several magnificent sermons.
Truly, I have appreciated watching all of these services; yet the shadowed side of it all is that I have easily fallen into the trap of comparing myself to other preachers. Watching from my screen at home, I see a preacher beautifully illustrate scripture with a graphic or I see a preacher eloquently describe a story that makes the sermon come alive. Of course, my Spirit is moved. However, I can’t help but have a brief moment where I question my own preaching. I hear the internal the questions highlighting my perceived inequities: “Why didn’t I think of that?” “Why can’t I be more like him/her?” “Why can’t I tell story like that person?”
Live streaming has unintentionally made “preacher comparison” easier than ever before. However, we must remember that Spirit is using US to preach hope, peace and love. We, the preachers, are the medium in the art of preaching. We are the mud used to sculpt the sermon. We must remind ourselves that living as the pastors God has created us to be, liberates us from comparison to others. When we don’t fall into the “preacher comparison, we are able to focus on the unique gifts we each have as preachers. We are all story tellers and we are called preach and share those stories with our irreplaceable gifts.
The great Dr. Seuss once wrote, “Today you are you, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is you-er than you.” You are the preacher that the Spirit is using to speak words of love and hope into the world. You are the preacher that Spirit is using to share those words with your grace and abilities, along with your quirks and peculiarities. The hundreds of people behind those screens, need you to be you, and that is truer than true.
2. Go into the “feels”
Preaching virtually has caused me to experience all of the “feels.” Shock, grief, anger, joy and hope all have surfaced in my emotional frequency- sometimes experienced at the same time. My feelings have been yanked around like a yo-yo.
Preparing a virtual Easter sermon in the midst of the pandemic was one of the most challenging messages I have written. I began by writing a first draft about The Road to Emmaus from Luke 24. However, after completing the draft, something wasn’t quite right about the message.
A few days later, I awoke out of a deep sleep at 5AM with an idea for a whole new sermon. I grabbed my phone on the nightstand, trying to avoid waking my wife, and vigorously wrote a second draft of the sermon in an Evernote file. I practiced preaching that sermon a few times before Sunday, but something about it was still awry. So, I sat down and wrote out all of my feelings on a piece of paper. As I did that, I had moment when I felt the Spirit working. I recognized the number of different feelings the disciples had on the Road to Emmaus as I recognized my own feelings. I realized that my “Road to the Easter Sermon” was just like the Road to Emmaus. Shock when Jesus was crucified, grief over the loss of Jesus, anger toward an unknown man (who the reader knows is Jesus), joy of eating a meal together, and hope when their eyes are opened to see that the man was Jesus.
This Easter sermon surfaced because I recognized my feelings and Spirit moved through them. If I had not gone into the “feels,” the message would not have emerged in this way. Does that mean that we have to explicitly name our feelings every time we preach? No, not at all. Preaching is an art form and our feelings can implicitly inform our sermons without making a direct connection. However, your emotions must be aligned with your sermon or you won’t be authentically preaching. (See #1 on “Be Yourself”)
As preachers, we must acknowledge our emotions, even in a virtual atmosphere- more than likely, our audience is experiencing them as well.
3. Carve out creative time.
Typically my days consist of meetings, phone calls, answering emails, completing projects, and supervising staff. As a preacher, there are always things to do and I generally thrive in this atmosphere. There are days where I can run through my to-do list for 8 hours straight without ever having a chance to breathe. Lately, preaching virtually has added to my to-do list and increased my already rapid pace.
Still, in order to create empowering sermons there must be moments in your work schedule where you do nothing. These built-in times are called “white space.” Jocelyn K. Glei writes “If we want to create an environment that nourishes innovation and imagination, we need to build quiet counterpoints into our daily rhythm. These small moments of ‘white space’— where we have time to pause and reflect, or go for a walk, or just breathe deeply for a few moments — are what give balance and flow and comprehension to our lives as a larger whole.” These sacred “white space” moments are opportunities for spurring new thoughts and ideas surrounding Scripture. If you don’t allow time for “white space,” it may significantly impact crafting a sermon.
Every preacher creates white space differently. One preacher I know does his exegetical work ahead of time and then walks his dog. As he walks his dog, he speaks his sermon out loud. Every dog walk thereafter, his sermon slowly becomes more concise and coherent until he is ready to preach it. I like to think that his “white space” are those dog walks.
Another preacher intentionally calendars one hour a day to do nothing. She closes her door and stares out a window thinking about the message.
When I create a sermon, I do what I call a “Brain Dump” about the topic or scripture passage. I close out all of the windows on my computer except a word document, set a timer on my phone for 30 minutes, and then write everything that is on my mind about my potential sermon. Sometimes I remember stories from my childhood and write those down; there are other times I am reminded of books I have read. Occasionally, I remember quotes from TV shows or movies that might weave their way into my sermon. The 30 minute “Brain Dump” exercise helps me get away from my to-do list and becomes my “white space.”
How can you make time in your schedule for “white space?” Does your brain function best in the morning or evening? Do you need a computer to type or a blank sheet of paper and a pen? (In the past, I bought an elegant fountain pen and a leather-bound journal and physically wrote down all of my thoughts. That worked for a season of my creative process.) How can you create that “white space” and hold that time as sacred.
It’s easy to let things add up on your calendar. Especially as we face the challenges of preaching virtually and living out of home offices. A 15 minute meeting Zoom meeting here, a phone call there- without realizing it, your calendar can be full of little blue meeting boxes leaving no room for “white space.”
4. Embrace the first pancake
Recently, I was talking with a friend named Bonnie, and she told me about how her family are expert pancake creators. (Not what you were expecting? Stay with me.) She explained the steps in detail: (1) Mix the batter to the perfect fluffy consistency. (2) Heat the pan to the optimal temperature. (3) Pour the batter into the pan and let it cook. (4) Scrape the first pancake out of the pan and throw it away because it always gets burnt. (5) Pour a second scoop of the batter again into the same pan where the first pancake burnt. (6) Let it cook till it has a flawless brown hue on both sides (7) Devour the pancake with all of the fixings.
After explaining the process, Bonnie was adamant in reminding me that the first pancake is the key. She explained that the first pancake serves to grease the pan for the second pancake.
Now that we are preaching virtually, most churches have found themselves in uncharted water. Recording sermons, video editing, proper camera angles, audio quality, the list of new responsibilities on a Sunday morning goes on and on. Especially when preaching virtually, we are acutely aware of how many people are now tuning in on livestream. It can add on the pressure. I am reminded of what Bonnie told me about the importance of the first pancake. The first pancake must be burnt in order to grease the pan for the second one.
What if we saw a Sunday morning live stream blunders as greasing our pan for future sermons? What if our perspective shifted from that technical issue or sound check misstep? How can we embrace the first pancake?
Preaching virtually requires trial and error. It takes practice and discipline. Yet, it is one of the most privileged experiences I get to have as a pastor. Every Sunday, despite the current circumstances, people at home set aside time in their day to listen to me speak words about God and the Holy Spirit. It is truly an honor to be able to preach love and hope to all people.
It is a gift we have the opportunity to give to the world.