It’s been hard to practice online preaching during the pandemic. As we preachers are familiar with preaching in the brick-and-mortar church with actual people in it (i.e., in-person preaching), preaching in the empty church or office to the digital screen (i.e., online preaching or digital preaching) has been really hard. Above all, preachers had to do this out of blue, completely. On a certain day, preachers were “required” to practice online preaching without much preparation of digital infrastructure or mind. Most importantly, online preaching has been hard to practice because a theology of online preaching was largely absent. At the seminary, preachers typically learn a theology and practice of in-person preaching, but not a theology and practice of online preaching. Of course, we cannot blame the seminary for this. The pandemic happened so abruptly, thus the seminary or preachers had no time to prepare. Thankfully though, recently many theological schools have started their theological and pedagogical works on online preaching.
Given the situation, in this article I want to briefly discuss a theology of online preaching, specifically by asking this central question, “What is theological uniqueness of online preaching?” In other words, what unique theological traits does online preaching have? I want to state my conclusion first, and then discuss this matter in detail based on and moving beyond Karl Barth’s theology of preaching. The proposed conclusion is that online preaching adds to existing preaching theology the following seven techno-theological traits; fluidity, usability, ubiquity, connectivity, instancy, artistry, and shareability. I think that these seven traits are key “suspects” that make online preaching really hard or unfamiliar to conventional in-person preachers.
According to Barth’s theology of preaching, the Word of God has appeared in human history in three prime ways; the written Word (Scripture), the incarnated Word (Jesus Christ), and the proclaimed Word (preaching). He believes that because the theological core of preaching is Jesus Christ and the life of Jesus is uniquely recorded in Scripture, biblical preaching itself must be considered the holy Word of God. Obviously, many preachers of the East and the West have cherished this preaching theology of Barth or something similar as their own preaching theology for centuries.
This Barthian idea of the threefold God’s Word convey the following six important theological traits; immutability and reliability of Scripture, proximity and presence of the incarnated Word, and transformativity and assurance of the preached Word. To break down quickly, preachers recognize immutable Scripture as the unique reliable source for God’s Word, and the incarnated Jesus as bringing the holy Word of God to the mist of human lives. Finally, Scripture-based and Jesus-oriented preaching, preachers believe, can transform individuals and the community. These six theological traits of preaching strongly undergird the actual practice of preaching and the preacher’s vocational identity on multiple levels.
During the pandemic time, these important six theological traits of preaching have been challenged by the emerging seven techno-theological traits of online preaching (or God’s Word) aforementioned above. 1) the immutable and reliable Word of God has been challenged by the Word’s fluidity and usability (e.g., the possibility of wide-open biblical interpretation thanks to free Bible translations and various commentaries available immediately on the smart phone), 2) the incarnated, earthly Jesus can be now ubiquitously experienced in a connective virtual space as artistic digital image or character (or even as avatar), and 3) the transformativity of God’s Word can be now instantly quantified by the click numbers of “Like” or “Share” on Facebook or YouTube. All these challenges were simply and really hard for the brick-and-mortar preachers to accept and adopt.
For sure, on the one hand, these seven new theological traits of online preaching have posed several challenges. But, on the other hand, we may like to consider these traits not challenges but new opportunities of the new era. We may want to remember that during the Reformation the printing industry, one of the most cutting-edge technologies of the day, radically changed the perception of God’s Word and preaching practice in many positive ways (along with many challenges, no doubt). Likewise, online or digital communication of our day might be able to promote and further develop certain positive aspects of preaching ministry. Combining the conventional six theological traits and the emerging seven will help us in doing so.
As the pandemic is now wavering gradually, the demand for online preaching may diminish soon, too. Yet pastors and practical theologians anticipate that online preaching or online biblical teaching may continue in various ways due to people’s new spiritual needs developed during the pandemic. Further, we can easily imagine that there might be certain occasions in the future when online preaching may become a primary tool again due to unexpected situations like a big climate change making in-person meeting unfeasible. Thus, it would be wise that we now start thinking of the best ways of online preaching practice and its theology in order to better serve God’s people in this new era and in the future.
The Rev. Dr. Sunggu Yang, PhD. Yang, an ordained pastor of PCUSA, is an assistant professor of theology and Christian ministry at George Fox University. He teaches Christian worship at Central Baptist Theological Seminary as Supplemental Lecturer. He is the author of three books: Arts and Preaching (fall 2021), King's Speech (2019), and Evangelical Pilgrims from the East (2017).