In the first part of this two-part series, we looked at the nature of the emerging digital media ecology and the way it has transformed both culture at large and the individuals who comprise it, profoundly altering our collective psyche, methods of thinking, and self-understanding. All this, we said, results in a world very much different from the typographic world in which the Protestant and Reformed tradition came of age. As Neil Postman indicated, “the world of the printed word, with its . . . emphasis on logic, . . . sequence, history, . . . exposition, objectivity,” is gone. In its place is a new world, a digitized one, which “emphasi[zes] imagery, simultaneity, immediate gratification, and quick emotional response.” Postman wasn’t altogether happy about that, but he was good to recognize that there was no going back. Once a new technology has arrived on the scene, he observed, the entire ecology is changed.
We noted that this then begs the question, “How then shall we preach?” In answer, I suggested three ways in which preachers might re-approach the preaching process: (1) be captivating, (2) be succinct, and (3) be narrative. Here I provide three more: (4) be savvy, (5) be deep, and (6) be imaginative.
4. Be Savvy — If, as Postman contends, the ecology has been altered by technological developments in media, then those who hope to navigate the terrain of the new ecology would do well to become acquainted with it. Just as missionaries of old studied maps of the terrain they planned to traverse, so must today’s preachers acquaint themselves with the maps and terrains of the current digital ecology. (Perhaps someone might, or already has, written for the church a digital-cultural equivalent to Jordan Peterson’s Maps of Meaning).
A cautionary note is in order here, for too often when pastors hear this call, they hear it to mean that they must adopt every new digital medium and proceed to utilize them. This typically results in an uncritical adoption of these technologies, which are then used ad nauseam. To borrow a comment from one of the people I interviewed for this article, “The current generation can smell that coming from a mile away.” Instead of appearing savvy, you end up appearing precisely the opposite, like a novice hiker who shows up at the trailhead donning every gadget REI had for sale at the check-out counter.
What McLuhan and Postman both remind us is that while the older medium has been supplanted and modified, it is never completely abandoned, and that there is in fact some portion of our listeners—even the digitally-native among us—who prefer the familiarity of the older mediums; it’s just that they prefer them in new ways. For instance, consider the now ubiquitous TED Talks™. Just when we thought that people of the digital era no longer had the patience for sitting and listening to a guy talk for thirty minutes, suddenly we find an entire industry born around the concept. TED Talks™ receive, at last documented count, approximately 1.5 million hits per day.
But as writer and phenomenologist Malcolm Gladwell points out, those talks differ from the sort of oral speaking featured just a couple of decades ago; the contours and rhythms of the talk, the way it is delivered and presented, reflect the sort of patterns of thinking and self-understanding characteristic of current media forms. In other words, the “talk” has taken on a different shape. Gladwell opens the Audible™ version of his most recent book, Talking to Strangers, by noting that he has adapted the presentation of it so that it features the actual voices of those he had interviewed, with the intent that it might “resemble more the form of a podcast” than it does a book. Showing himself media-savvy in the truest sense of the word, Gladwell comments that he felt “the content was better suited by it.”
He succeeds, in my estimation, in achieving just that effect; the book feels unmistakably far more like a podcast-listening experience—a form that is increasingly popular not just for entertainment but also for education and information. The genius in what Gladwell has done is to adopt the form subtly, without drawing too much attention to it, without looking like he’s trying too hard, and thereby giving himself away as an outsider. Having immersed himself in the media of the day, he has, knowingly so, been shaped by it, so that when he carries it over to the speaking or reading event, rather than trying to demonstrate his media savviness, he is confident that it won’t show; it will just “feel like home,” to borrow a phrase from author J. K. A. Smith.
And therein lies the lesson for preachers: not to adorn your preaching with every one of the latest technological gadgets, but to utilize them as one who is familiar with their deeper patterns, having immersed yourself in the current media forms, and then adopting their forms in ways still suitable to the speaking event, so that, to the listener, it “feels like home.” To quote a recent presenter at one of the Evangelical Homiletical Society’s annual conferences, “preachers should learn to talk more like TED.”
What might this look like practically speaking? It may feature the display of a map to help your listeners visually immerse themselves in the context of the Scripture text. It may feature a still shot of a character or icon you use to illustrate the essence of a text. It might feature the reading or even brief singing (if you can pull it off) of a lyric from a song or poem. Media ecologists call it being “multi-focal,” involving a multiplicity of the senses. And while purists might decry such measures as capitulating to culture and ruining the purity of the preaching form, others like David Seel would call it “a healthy corrective.” While there are certainly other technologies that could be utilized here, I’d be remiss if I didn’t provide one important prohibition: to paraphrase filmmaker and educator Brian Fuller, my first and most influential media ecologist and friend, “Never, ever, show a film in the midst of a sermon. The moment you turn it off people will have irrevocably tuned you out. You simply can’t compete with the production value.” Take Fuller’s word for it, lest you learn the lesson for yourself the hard way. Rest assured, it is a lesson learned but once.
5. Be Deep — Reports of this generation’s intellectual demise have been greatly exaggerated, to borrow a line from Twain. To be sure, there are mixed reports and data out there, but here’s what we do know: todays emerging generations are processing data at higher rates than ever before, and they are synthesizing that data at ever-increasing rates. Quite simply, they are not only capable of receiving more, they demand it! Having been conditioned by multiple streams of media coming at once, the brain has adapted (neuroscience has much to add on this score), and having adapted is not wont to slow down. It prefers a steady stream of new things to chew on. A bored brain is a brain that turns the channel, picks up the all-in-one mobile device, and/or mentally tunes out.
This flies in the face of much of what previously passed for instruction in preaching. I can remember my first preaching professor telling me quite the opposite almost; that the brain couldn’t keep up with the information it was taking in audibly, and that the important thing was “repetition, repetition, repetition.” Those laws no longer apply. This was brought home to me just a few Sundays ago, when after a particularly dense sermon packed with information, ideas, and various streams of thinking, a woman approached me saying, “Oh, I loved that. So full and rich. I’m tired of all those preachers who just repeat the same thing over and over again throughout the sermon! I want to go back and listen to that again.” This came not from some millennial, but from a woman in her fifties!
And by being “deep” I mean not just in terms of volume of content or conceptual difficulty—although your listeners are capable of both. I mean also emotional depth. Our current generations are feeling more and more acutely an existential angst; the flatter the world gets (see J. K. A. Smith, Charles Taylor, David Zahl, et al. on the secularization of life) the more acutely one feels the vanity and futility of it all; thus, the more deeply inward the individual is driven, and the more fearful at the silence one finds there. In the words of Mark Sayers, people feel increasingly “psychically ill-at-ease.” In other words, this is a deeply contemplative generation, driven to distraction in hopes that it might be able to keep the existential angst at bay.
My advice to preachers: cut through the distraction and go to the deep, pressing questions. Show that you’ve sat with those questions and fears, walked (and are presently still walking) through that very same existential angst, and out into rest and life. Show how the Scriptures matter; take the paths they lead one down, even if those paths—maybe especially if those paths—lead you into the weeds. Because the weeds are where your people in this generation are at, and they are looking for someone, some-thing, that can lead them out. Show them how the God of all Wisdom in Jesus Christ, by his Spirit, does precisely this.
And no oversimplifying here; no patronizing, bumper-sticker theology filled with cute anecdotes and trite little aphorisms will do. To quote Os Guinness (and this from the early 2000s!), “Evangelicals, . . . once known as ‘the serious people,’ are today . . . among the most superficial of religious believers—lightweight in thinking, gossamer-thin in theology, and avid proponents of spirituality-lite in terms of preaching and response to life.” That is, it may not even be so much that an unbelieving world finds the faith unbelievable; it may well be that it just finds our answers—namely, the way we answer—unbelievable. If, as we believe, the gospel of Jesus Christ is the answer to all the intellectual, emotional, physical, spiritual, and psychical needs of humanity, then by all means let it be us preachers who show plainly how he answers them.
6. Be Imaginative — Socially imaginative, that is. This harkens back to something I made brief allusion to in the previous installment. In his wonderful trilogy of books on the liturgical nature of human being (Desiring the Kingdom, Imagining the Kingdom, Awaiting the King), James K. A. Smith speaks a good deal about the socially imaginative nature of human beings, that contrary to the linear-typographic anthropology—the way we, especially in Reformed circles (to which I belong) tend to see people through an intellectualist lens, conceiving of them as essentially “thinking things who think their way through the world”—Smith instead posits a different model, an Augustinian one. This model sees human beings as essentially “liturgical animals” who love and feel their way through the world in pursuit of “the good life,” driven by impulses that are largely “operating under the hood.” In this model, human beings do not navigate their way through the world by intellectual knowledge, but by what Smith calls “kinaesthetic” knowledge, an “embodied know-how and orientation to being in the world.”
What this means for the preacher is that logical arguments and intellectualist appeals, relying heavily on reason, do little in the way of actually influencing the minds of our hearers, as counterintuitive as that might sound. Instead, our listeners are in fact more deeply influenced and moved—their minds renewed and transformed (see Paul, Rom. 12:2)—by the more imaginative depictions of what life in Christ actually looks, feels, sounds, and acts like. That is, when the preacher holds out the kind of renewed life that Jesus holds out as being possible, as being his intent, for those who are by faith “in him.”
In a sense, the preacher stands here on the feet of Madison Avenue and the marketers, where the work of preaching is one of portrayal of “the good life.” Only here, with the preacher and his Holy Scriptures, he has a better, truer, fuller script from which to work as he turns over and holds up this Jesus, the true Divine-man, in order that the people might be captivated, heart and mind, by who he is, what he has done and continues to do, the place to which he has gone as mankind’s true pioneer, and the place he beckons that we go with him, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually—and one day, in full—bodily.
In a sense, this is nothing new; as Smith contends, it’s at least as old as St. Augustine himself, which means it’s almost as old as the church.
Which I suppose brings us full-circle round, back to Marshall McLuhan, who said that in some ways, technology had sped up so quickly so that it felt like it had “lapped itself,” and in a sense at least, sent us “back to the future.”
Dr. Joshua Schatzle is Pastor of Charlottetown Christian Reformed Church on Prince Edward Island, and a 2019 graduate of Covenant Seminary’s Doctor of Ministry (DMin) program.
 Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York: Vintage, 1993),16.
 Postman, Technopoly, 18.
 Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), 47.
 Timothy Keller, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Viking, 2015), 64.
 Malcolm Gladwell, Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know (New York: Little, Brown, 2019), audio version, introduction.
 Jake Hovis, “EHS Papers 2018.Pdf, ‘Preach Like TED,’” http://ehomiletics.com/conference/papers/7/
 David John Seel Jr., The New Copernicans: Millennials and the Survival of the Church (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2018), 18.
 See http://brianfuller.org.
 See Mark Sayers, This Cultural Moment: The Portland Sessions, podcast, https://thisculturalmoment.podbean.com.
 See J. K. A. Smith, How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), which explores this concept in depth.
 Os Guinness, Prophetic Untimeliness: A Challenge to the Idol of Relevance (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2003), 77.
 Smith, JKA, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2013), 72–73, 77.
 Smith, Imagining the Kingdom, 3.
 Smith, Imagining the Kingdom, see 56–62.