There was an article in The New Yorker last year that makes me sadder the more I think about it. Entitled, “What American Christians Hear at Church,” columnist Casey Cep reflected on recent trends one might find in pulpits across the United States. It’s no secret that the coronavirus pandemic has been hard on everyone, and particularly hard for the church, regardless of denomination or church size. Federal and local pressures have aggravated congregational tensions, as church members otherwise united have found themselves at odds with one another over how to cope with the novelty of the virus and the necessary safety measures the church is duty-bound to take. If you don’t believe me when I say that these last twenty-odd months have been significantly difficult for the church, just look at how many pastors have quit or resigned during that span. The casualties have been enormous.
Even still, churches, by and large, continue to see gatherings across the country, to the joy of some and the chagrin of others. What’s being propagated at these gatherings, though? Is there a theme to the reverberating echoes which emanate from the halls of churches across this nation? Those are good questions, and such is the premise for Casey’s essay, in which she interacts with a smattering of findings put forward by the Pew Research Center on the vocabulary that fills the sermons in sanctuaries all over America, entitled, “The Digital Pulpit.” This research was conducted by combing through thousands of hours of live-streamed worship services throughout the course of covid-tide. Live-stream-church was not, to be sure, a novelty of the pandemic, but that outlet of “digital ministry” became largely ubiquitous among churches as a result. It’s hard to find a congregation nowadays that doesn’t stream their worship services on either Facebook or YouTube. Whether or not that Netflix-like access to “church” is a good thing is still up for debate. The abundance of digitally archived sermons, however, allowed for transcription data to reveal common threads and themes within denominational demographics. “Evangelicals,” Casey notes, “referred most often to ‘eternal Hell,’ ‘salvation,’ ‘sin,’ ‘Heaven,’ and ‘the Bible’; mainline Protestants relied more on the words ‘poor,’ ‘house,’ ‘Gospel,’ and ‘disciple’; historically Black Protestants were most likely to hear ‘hallelujah,’ ‘neighbor,’ and ‘praise.’” These are the words that are filling the halls of churches across these United States. And that’s alarming, at least to me.
I’m saddened by the majority of what was found, I won’t lie. And no, not because of what the researchers found in the matter of sermon length. I understand that mankind’s attention-span has largely diminished in recent years. Even still, I cannot even begin to fathom trying to exposit a text of Scripture in eight minutes, as the pope advised his clergy to do. I’m not, by any means, beholden to preaching long sermons, notwithstanding what my congregants might tell you. (I’ll continue to assign that to a heritage I inherited from my dad and grandad, both of whom were pastors.) However, I am beholden to being faithful to the text and to proclaiming the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27). Can one do that in eight minutes? I’m not so sure. I will admit, though, along with Casey, that a cursory survey of just the words which make up our sermons doesn’t do justice to those surveyed. At least not totally. “Sermons,” she writes, “are not mere collections of words, and a survey of diction or duration is not sufficient for understanding the argument of the one preaching or the beliefs of those listening.” Indeed, a congregation’s context and circumstance and culture are all crucial variables to keep in mind when scrutinizing any sermon. Nonetheless, Casey’s most cogent writing comes near the conclusion of her piece, when, in her eyes, the implications of these data demonstrate that the “fissures” and divisions within society writ large aren’t being solved by the church and her sermons but are being exacerbated by them.
“This country,” Casey continues, “is filled with preaching on all sides of every political or social movement, with sermons on any given Sunday praying for the President or calling him illegitimate, arguing for reproductive freedom or against abortion, praising social welfare or condemning it, decrying socialism or explaining how Jesus practiced it. The fissures of our society are evident in our churches, as they have always been, and although the hope is that the divisions of the secular world can be erased there, all too often they are reinforced instead.”
And what, do you think, is the reason for the exacerbation of these fissures even after all this preaching? Why do these divisions still exist, fracturing relationships between siblings and friends alike? Well, the short answer is man’s sinful nature, the ever-present darkness from which he cannot escape. But did you notice what was missing from those oft-cited words Casey noted? I’m sure there are some terms you would’ve expected to see there but aren’t. What’s the most glaring absence, though, from those most commonly used terms in American sanctuaries? Well, namely, a name: Christ. I don’t mean to suggest that the surveyed preachers didn’t mention Christ, but if the aggregate shows that “Christ” is not one of the predominant themes in churches over that many hours of available data, it’s safe to say that Christ isn’t being preached enough. Instead, we’d rather piddle around with morals and politics and life-hacks. The church’s constituents should be politically active and morally upright and ethically virtuous, certainly. There are countless Scriptures which aver such things. But when a church’s political, moral, and ethical voice out-volumes its christological voice, there is cause for concern. Perhaps the reason there is no catharsis happening in churches is because noise that’s coming from the pulpit sounds all too similar to what one would find on those talking-head news shows.
I oppose the notion that political analysis ought to sound forth from the sacred desk of the church. That space is intended to be reserved for the proclamation of Christ’s magnificent name alone. Why should we denigrate it into something else? Indeed, if you ask me why I’m so caught up with Reformation theology and doctrine, and re-capturing what those 16th century reformers accomplished, it’s reports like this. If you thought that the Reformation ended centuries ago, you’re gravely mistaken. If you thought that the need for a Reformation died when Luther and Calvin did, you’re dead wrong.
I write this not as someone who’s looking to add a pretentious amount of sanctimony to an already fraught report and tense ecclesiastical landscape. Rather, I write this as someone who’s genuinely concerned that American congregants are getting bamboozled by preachers who are giving them less than what they need Sunday after Sunday. And perhaps what’s worse is that the average churchgoer either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care. Perhaps the reason these kind of reports don’t necessarily shock us like they should is because we’re okay with the status quo. We’re okay with hearing unconvicting and unchallenging sermons. We’d rather hear messages of comfort and affirmation. It makes me sad that when preachers cater to the whims of their congregants by “itching their ears” with their preaching (2 Tim. 4:3–4). It’s reminiscent of what the Lord tells his prophet Isaiah, that his people were a “rebellious people, lying children, children that will not hear the law of the Lord” (Isa. 30:9).
We are a generation of churchgoers who, despite our claim that we love the Bible, actually “despise this word,” and, instead, “trust in oppression and perverseness, and stay thereon” (Isa. 30:12). We’d rather hear dialogues of social equity and man-made justice than hear the timeless truth of God’s Word expounded over and over. Our actions and thinking can and should be influenced by preaching of all kinds, but there’s only one kind that can mold our souls. Preaching news headlines can’t do that. Preaching politics or morals or ethics can’t either. The only kind of preaching that saves souls, changes lives, and ushers in the kingdom of heaven is the kind that focuses on the King himself (Acts 2:36). Preaching can’t happen apart from the Christ, King Jesus. And so it is that Christ-centered preaching is not a gimmick. It’s not a trope. It’s not a passing fad that’ll soon be gone without much resistance, like Pogs or LiveStrong bracelets. It’s the lifeblood of the church.
It’s time for the watchmen to sound the alarms (Ezek. 33:6). It’s time for preachers to “preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:2). It’s time for our sanctuaries to rattle with the words, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost” (Acts 2:38). May the words that fill the halls of our churches forever tend towards Christ alone. Week-in, week-out. Christ only. Christ ever. Christ always.