ISSUES OF FAITH: The world’s our pulpit: Preaching in the church without walls

WITHOUT A DOUBT, it’s clear to all of us that for at least the last two or three years, the world of the church changed radically when COVID hit us all.

As church goers and leadership learned of new ways to deal with our current plague, such as COVID vaccinations, many traditionalists had a deep sense of relief that they could at last get back to their old ways (sermons in sanctuaries, worship behind walls, to riff on Shakespeare).

Others, myself included, found the changes that resulted from COVID could lead to new possibilities, that print and new media alike were ways, perhaps even the way, to revive what is clearly a dying church, at least in the U.S.

Across the country, church attendance numbers drop even as our parishioners age. Clergy in all orders have gone from lots of weddings to lots of funerals, and more and more of our populace are moving into retirement living.

Worse, the clergy shortage — a particularly bad omen for the church’s survival — has grown with each year.

If we choose to remain in a church without walls, in which we come to the people either in forms such as Zoom, or not at all, what will preaching in such a situation look like? Even Zoom — which only simulates the real world, even in solo actions such as preaching — mandates changes in the ways we talk about the Good News. Short really is sweet. Long theological monologues by trained seminary graduates may not match the ways in which most people think these days.

As a deacon, concerned with the marginalized, who is also a professionally trained rhetorician, I myself do not lament this change. In today’s world, short is sweeter, especially if the change to shorter forms means that more folks come and more folks then go out and do action, the primary goal of the deacon’s sermon.

But what other opportunities exist for the kairotic moment when, per the Merriam-Webster dictionary, “conditions are right for the accomplishment of a crucial action”?

My own answer is written text in public media such as newspapers. Yes, it’s old-fashioned to some, but I know my experience as a religion columnist in the PDN allows me a much wider audience than is possible for many preachers in traditional churches.

What you’re reading right now gets disseminated by the paper across the Olympic Peninsula, and read by folks in rural communities, small cities and towns in which the mainstream church simply doesn’t reach or in which the technological divide is particularly harmful to those who live where they have for decades and in which their families have lived for generations, but also in which mobility and internet access alike may be very limited.

Even in Port Angeles, which has a very fine transportation system, there is no Sunday public transportation except for a bus that runs from Port Angeles to a ferry dock that leads to Seattle twice a day.

But the big switch from a sermon preached in the comfortable walls of a church, in which the preacher may assume a friendly or curious audience (unless their politics vary widely with their parishioners), to the audience of public discourse is huge.

As a writer for the outside world, in an increasingly unchurched world, I’m not able to necessarily assume much knowledge at all of church history, theology or liturgy — all potential topics in the usual sermon.

I can’t even assume knowledge of a common text. Nor should I be able to.

That security and comfort, that ability to refer to texts recently heard, like in a church, does not exist in the world of the print columnist. For one thing, my columns have to be self-contained. Big blocks of quotes are deadly to the reader in a newspaper. They just don’t work.

Moreover, while I am grateful to my editors at PDN, and the freedom they grant me to choose my own subjects, I always have to consider audience.

In the case of the media, the creation of my audience is comprised of readers I mostly don’t really know. Writers for public spaces have to tread a delicate balance to make sure they are read.

Preachers in church have a captive audience they often know well. Writers outside the walls of the church do not, at least not in shorter forms.

I love advice columnists (I always know I could give better advice than they do, darn it!) but there is one columnist I do not read. Their texts get, well, long-winded and in the famous/infamous lexicon of the internet, TLDR; (Too Long, Didn’t Read). Brevity is key both in the world of public discourse and the church without walls.

But inside or outside the church, the task of the religious communicator, whether preaching from the pulpit or appearing in the daily paper, is the same: letting you know how much God always loves you.

As my church puts it, “God loves you, NO MATTER WHAT!”

________

Issues of Faith is a rotating column by religious leaders on the North Olympic Peninsula. The Rev. Dr. Keith Dorwick is a deacon resident in the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia.

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