Preaching Into the Void

A Virtual Gospel for Empty Pews and an Imagined Congregation Isn’t Quite the Same.

Connor Gwin / 9.9.21

As a millennial clergy person, I was made for such a time as this. Since I was in high school I have been crafting my social media identity on whatever the newest platform happens to be. I have posted videos and been tagged in well-curated, candid pictures for over a decade now. I am comfortable looking at myself on camera. I have a good deal of practice at taking as many pictures as needed to get the perfect shot. 

When the world shut down last March and all worship was suddenly online, it was my generation’s time to shine. As the first generation of digital natives, it was a breeze to shift from in-person priest to minor-league worship influencer.

And things went well. They were fine. I recorded sermons on my phone, stopping when I rambled off script into a digression that didn’t quite fit to start again. I found new and interesting locations from which to record so that I would keep the content engaging for the audience. I made sure to look right into the lens and not at myself on the screen so that I could really *connect* with the viewers at home. 

With COVID cases surging once again, a fearful thing has creeped into many church planning meetings. In whispered tones, clergy have started to ask, “What if we have to go virtual again?” And many have pulled back out of an abundance of caution and for the well-being of their congregations. 

While I am a digital native who (on paper) should be very comfortable taking the Gospel digital, I’ve increasingly become convinced that the Gospel cannot be preached virtually. When I am standing in an empty church, preaching Good News to my iPhone, it feels as though I am preaching into the void. I am preaching to the idea of a congregation; the idea of people. 

Jesus seemed utterly unconcerned with the idea of people. He was focused on the real people standing in front of him. He did not preach Good News to the generic poor and downtrodden, but to the poor and downtrodden people standing in front of him as he reached out and touched them. Jesus was not preaching to “unmarried women” or “religious leaders with questions” — he preached to a specific woman named Mary and a specific man named Nicodemus. 

Any preacher will tell you that preaching to a group of real, live people is totally different than preaching to an empty room or to a camera lens. The same is true for the congregation. While it is more convenient to be able to listen to a sermon on-demand, it is not quite the same as being present in the sanctuary listening to the real voice of a real person standing in the pulpit.

When I start to consume sermons like other digital content, I can find myself listening to a preacher while I’m washing dishes or riding the Peloton. I may get the point or grasp the main illustration, but something is missing. At its core, a sermon is not a lecture or a means of communicating theological content. The sermon is a moment to connect the real lives of people with the real grace, mercy, and love of the real God.

For the congregation and the preacher, there is power in putting yourself in proximity to a congregation of people. There is the power of physical connection, sure, but there is also the holy and mysterious power of Jesus’s promise that he would be present when we are present with each other.

This fact was illustrated in two ways as we returned to in-person worship in the past year. 

The first happened at an outdoor service last spring. Following Easter Sunday, the readings focused on the disorientation of the disciples in the hours and days following the death of Jesus. I wrote a homily centered on the grief the disciples felt and the grief we all feel. It was a heavy sermon, going right to the heart of the pain that most people are holding right under the surface of their face. 

I preached the sermon once at an indoor service that was recorded and for online streaming. As I took my seat for the outdoor service, fear set in. I looked out over the crowd and realized it was mostly families with children. I mean, a lot of children.  I quickly realized that my lofty homily on the nature of grief and pain would not land. It would not connect with the actual, real people gathered that morning. Luckily for me, I have a toddler at home who was watching the entire Frozen movie franchise almost every day.

I called an audible at the line and the gathered families heard about the grief Princess Anna feels in Frozen 2 as she sings “The Next Right Thing” and the grief of the disciples as they gathered together without Jesus.

The second moment, or more accurately moments, of realization have happened over the past six months as we returned to worship in our sanctuary. As I’ve become acquainted with the congregation that I joined during the pandemic, I learned the stories of the people that call our parish their spiritual home. I sit with them after a devastating loss and celebrate with them in thanksgiving after a wonderful joy. I get to know their struggles, their triumphs, and the intricacies of God’s fingerprints on their lives. 

Now when I stand in the pulpit and look down into the pews, I don’t see a generic ‘congregation’. I see people — people with stories that I have the honor and blessing to know. 

I can no longer preach about the big topics or theological concepts if they are at all removed from the actual lives of the actual people that will be sitting in front of me. Looking into their eyes from the pulpit, I see something that is missing when I preach to my iPhone camera lens. 

Suddenly, the void is replaced by individuals who have come to church looking for comfort or hope or, to be more direct, God. They don’t want a well-polished millennial delivering an influencer-worthy sermon on the screen — at least not really

In the course of any given week, especially the particular weeks we have been living through recently, people come to church after staring into the abyss of their social media feeds, the news, their family dysfunction, their work frustration, and the ever-present existential pandemic anxiety. People come to church to hear the Good News that “you can stare into the abyss, but it’s starin’ right back.” (“When My Time Comes,” Dawes)

The Gospel is not a soundbite or a message that occurs in a vacuum. It is the Good News that Christ came into the world to live and die so that sinners like Mary, Nicodemus, me, and you can be saved and made whole. 

I should probably amend my earlier statement that the Gospel cannot be preached virtually. That may not be entirely true. Our online and digital technologies are wonderful at connecting people together. Indeed, I am connected to the Mockingbird community because of this miraculous technology. 

But salvation — the saving work of the Church — is made plain when one sinner tells another sinner where to find bread. The grace of Jesus Christ is made tangible when a minister raises her hand, looks you in the eye, and declares that Jesus Christ has cleansed you of all your unique (and non-unique) sin. 

It seems fitting to end with an altar call as I type this article and send it out into the internet void in hopes that it lands with you, a real human being, scrolling or searching for God in the midst of your own abyss.

The Good News is found when a real person knows you and loves you anyway. The best place to find this message is the Church. So find yourself a pew to sit in. Let the preacher see you. Let your pastor hear your story. Let a congregation know you and get to know them. Listen to their stories and tell them your own. While you listen, pay attention for that still, small voice of the Father calling you His beloved.

For this is where we find hope these days: in the voice of God that called creation out of the formless void and that still calls to each of us in our own unique chaos to offer us the peace that surpasses understanding and makes us whole again.