By Scott Hudgins
Director of CBFNC’s Helping Pastors Thrive Ministry
A few Sundays ago, I took the opportunity this pandemic provided to drop in on worship in each of the congregations where I have belonged over the course of my life. Given that they are all online, it was really a remarkable experience and a possibility that could never have been attempted before this season.
In visiting each of the services, I found myself confronted with a recollection of my life’s various chapters, and an overwhelming recognition of how significant my time in these congregations had been in my life. I was struck by the diverse production approaches each utilized to provide church members and other online viewers with a sense of continuity and familiarity. Nowhere was the diversity more pronounced than in how each of the pastors sought to present the sermon.
One pastor stood behind the pulpit in the sanctuary, preaching to rows of empty pews. Another sat on her back porch with the ambient sounds of birds and children playing in the background. Yet another, fully robed, sat in his office in front of a bookcase, offering what in the winter might have seemed like a fireside chat. Each one in their own way staring into a camera and faithfully proclaiming the gospel in a setting that seemed both awkward and a bit odd.
I shared my Sunday experience with a pastor friend and he responded that trying to preach in this time of physical distancing has been the most difficult aspect of his ministry. “I enjoy crafting the sermon”, he shared, “but then I start having to think about delivering it in front of a camera and I get depressed and anxious. Preaching from such a distance is so hard.”
His comments reminded me of how challenging our ministers may find this time, and how I need to express to my own pastor my awareness of the difficulties she faces in keeping the church together; a simple acknowledgment and affirmation of what she might be feeling preaching in this environment without a physical audience.
Preaching from a distance is hard work.
The Christian tradition is rich with resources that can help us reframe the challenge of preaching from a distance. As a matter of fact, some of the most life-changing and transformational sermons ever preached are literally ones given from a distance. And they continue to shape us in profound ways.
One could point to the Apostle Paul and his letters, all by their very nature, arrive as sermons from a distance. Paul even leveraged the advantage of his distance when writing the Corinthian church: “being more bold toward you when I am away, humble when face to face” (2 Corinthians 10:1-2).
In May of 1943, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, detained in Tegel Prison in Berlin, offered a wedding sermon for his niece Renate and friend Eberhard Bethge, drawn from the first chapter of Ephesians. “It is not your love that sustains the marriage”, Bonhoeffer proclaims, “but from now own, it is your marriage that sustains your love.”
Martin Luther King, Jr., in perhaps the most penetrating “letter” of the civil rights era, preached from his Birmingham jail cell in April of 1963, “justice too long delayed is justice denied”.
And most recently, we awoke on July 30th of this year to read in the New York Times, a last sermonic charge to a grieving nation from the late Rep. John Lewis. As if beyond this life itself, Lewis concluded his words by urging us “to walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”
I am looking forward to a day when we can regather with our families of faith. Distance is hard. Yet our tradition provides a deep resource for sustaining us in our time apart, offering to reframe how we think about our ministry and our proclamation.
Being church amid distance is a challenge. And my pastor friend is so right; preaching from a distance is hard work. And, it always has been.