We live in a day of instant access. Digital media has made most things available to us with a single click. This, of course, has brought untold benefits. We have more opportunities and resources at the tips of our fingers than any other generation in the history of humanity. But it also comes with its cost. I suspect one area where this is true is the modern phenomena of audio sermons.
Now, to be fair, the mass production and distribution of sermons isn’t new. For instance, when Joseph Passmore and James Alabaster began printing and distributing Charles Spurgeon’s sermons in The Penny Pulpit they could hardly keep up with the worldwide demand—though, I should note Spurgeon’s own hesitancy in this endeavor. But the instant access has become even more instant and we have available to us—literally, millions of sermons from tens of thousands of preachers. This has many of its own benefits. I, for one, am grateful for every contact the people in my church can have throughout the week with the Word of God. I’m also glad for the chance they have to benefit from particularly gifted preachers in a way that perhaps they cannot benefit from me. As Richard Sibbes once wrote: “God gives a variety of gifts to his ministers, that they may knock at the heart of every man by their many gifts.” But it may be worthwhile to sound a note of caution. Even Martyn Lloyd-Jones struggled privately and publicly with the recording and distribution of his sermons. Despite the possible benefits he suggested it may dishonor the Holy Spirit. What is so commonplace among many shouldn’t be done without a degree of Christian discernment. So, with that in mind I want to ask several discerning questions.
DO I UNDERSTAND WHAT PREACHING IS?
I wonder if audio sermons have subtly encouraged us to lose sight of what preaching actually is. I may be one of those old school folks, but I believe preaching is the primary way God communicates his grace to us and is, if I can put it this way, where the brunt of Christian discipleship takes place (Romans 10:17). So we—meaning preachers and hearers—cannot afford to be confused about preaching. And, to put it simply, preaching is not merely what comes out of your computer speakers or headphones. Or perhaps I should say, preaching is much more than that. Preaching is worship, and the very act of preaching creates its own environment. It is where God manifests his gracious presence by the power of the Holy Spirit in the midst of his people for the gathering and perfecting of the saints. There is absolutely no substitute for that. We have such a ready access to sermons I’m suspicious many of us fail to distinguish between what is casually downloaded and heard on any given day and what occurs when we gather together for corporate worship and hear the preached Word. They’re simply not the same thing.
DO I APPRECIATE MY PREACHER?
In reflecting on audio sermons Sinclair Ferguson cautioned: “What effect is this having on our affection for and appreciation of the preaching and the preacher in the church to which we belong? Are we engaged in an activity that, without placing a guard on our hearts and lips, may lead us to demean the servants of the Word God has given to our churches and families?” That’s a fair and searching question. I hope no preacher feels the particular need to be the favorite preacher of the people in his congregation. But I also hope that people in the congregation realize that John Piper isn’t praying for you every single day, or John MacArthur isn’t going to weep with you over the latest doctor’s report, or R.C. Sproul isn’t going to visit when your baby is born, and Joel Beeke won’t be there when your marriage begins to fall apart—unless, of course, they’re your pastor. They may be celebrities and very gifted preachers, but it’s not their interaction with you that informs their preaching.
DO I RECOGNIZE THE TARGET FLOCK?
A preacher worth the weight of his pulpit is one who preaches to those in his church. As Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote: “If a preacher does not preach to the congregation that is in front of him, he had better get out of the pulpit.” From a preacher’s perspective, the people I have in mind and heart when I prepare, pray, write, and preach is not just anyone. It is very much intended for the congregation that has called me. I try to ask the questions they would ask, use vocabulary familiar to them, connect with them in my pleading and exhortations, and apply it to their lives. No offense to anyone else, but they’re my primary target. In that way I think every preacher tries to make his preaching meet the particular needs and diet of the flock they have the privilege of shepherding. That doesn’t mean others can’t benefit from the preaching. But it does mean they only benefit as eavesdroppers.
DO I AVOID SOLITARY CONCEIT?
Reflecting on his own experience as a young believer, C.S. Lewis wrote: “When I first became a Christian, about fourteen years ago, I thought that I could do it on my own, by retiring to my rooms and reading theology, and I wouldn’t go to the churches and Gospel Halls.” He called this his “solitary conceit.” I don’t want to discourage private worship and devotion. After all, “it is most necessary, that every one apart, and by themselves, be given to prayer and meditation.” But we live an evangelical day where our piety is more shaped by individuality than community. All media–but I especially think audio sermons–may tempt us toward solitary conceit. Don’t want to go to church on Sunday morning? Stream a sermon! Perhaps we’ve been desensitized to the value of needing the preached Word in the corporate body–together “until we all attain the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:14).
DO I CAREFULLY WATCH MY EMPHASES?
One of the preacher’s primary tasks is to preach the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). Of course, that also means that all hearers are to hear the whole counsel of God. There’s a necessity to maintain a steady and balanced diet and if we aren’t careful a little too much of this or a little too much of that may have serious consequences on us spiritually. It’s easy, when we listen to more sermons online in one week then we get in a month of attending church, to focus on one or two hobby horses. Again, Sinclair Ferguson asks: “Am I fully aware of the emphases to which I am allowing myself to be exposed? Is it a ‘Christ-full’ emphasis?”
This isn’t to say there aren’t benefits to listening to audio sermons. There are many! Personally, I profit week in and week out from listening to one or two of my “favorite” preachers. But, as in all things, we need to weigh carefully the consequences, guard our hearts and minds, and be sure that even in our permissible private endeavors, we’re not working against the ordinary means God has given us.