The advent of the iPod and smartphone era has led to a tonne of great preaching content being made available on the inter-web. Listening to some of the best preaching in the world is as easy as clicking a few buttons in your web browser or smartphone.
I listen to my fair share of podcasts – 51 subscriptions currently – that I dip in and out of from time-to-time.
The proliferation in the availability of great preaching on the web is something I feel blessed to have access to but there are also some things about it that bother me. As I reflect on the relative merits of listening to sermons online, I think there are a number of pros and cons:
- Online sermons reach people and places that preachers cannot. If you can’t get to church because of old age, health issues, or work you can still ‘catch up’ on what you may have missed in your community that week and feel part of things. If you serve regularly in children’s ministry, for example, it can be a valuable way of keeping up with the series whilst you’re serving in other ways.
- The availability of podcasts has also meant that it is easier than ever to listen to some of the most gifted Bible expositors out there. I know that I have benefitted from listening to the reflections and techniques used by other gifted preachers which has helped me to communicate more effectively.
- There is a lack of accountability inherent in listening to sermons sans church. Engaging with scripture as a community involves accountability and challenge – we are encouraged to reflect and apply what we are learning in small groups to not just be hearers of the Word, but doers. Relationships are a key element of spiritual formation. In contrast, you can easily listen to a podcast online and not interact with another human being. We can’t do the Christian life on our own. I want to sit under theWord of God alongside those God has called me to journey with in my church family.
- Perhaps most importantly for me, listening to talks online can’t replace the ‘Now’ Word of God. Listening to talks online have many merits, but nothing can replace the immediate relevance of the Holy Spirit working through the preacher to convey the Word of God to the congregation in a particular time and place. Have you ever heard someone raving about a talk, only to listen to it later yourself online, to be disappointed by what you hear? I think there is something important about being there in person to sense what God is saying through his Word, that simply isn’t present after the fact.
- Linked to this, it can easily slip into being a cerebral exercise that can reflect and feed a thirst for knowledge, but gives you very little context within which to apply it. As Paul says, “Knowledge puffs up, love builds up.” God is not looking for podcast junkies, but for people hungry for him and thirsty to apply the Word of God to their lives.
- Related to this, listening to highly talented preachers via podcast – divorced from your own church context – can easily feed a culture of celebrity in the church and become ‘consumeristic’. With podcasts, you can pick and choose to listen to preachers or talks you are interested in hearing, and just as easily avoid subjects or passages that you want to avoid because you find them difficult or challenging. That is not a healthy diet.
Used well and discerningly, listening to podcasts can enrich your spiritual life and feed you deeply. But it is a supplement and not a replacement for ‘live’ preaching. Use it carefully to enhance and not detract from your spiritual formation.
I’d be interested to hear your thoughts…