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"...if anyone makes the assistance of grace depend on the humility or obedience of man and does not agree that it is a gift of grace itself that we are obedient and humble, he contradicts the Apostle who says, "What have you that you did not receive?" (1 Cor. 4:7), and, "But by the grace of God I am what I am" (1 Cor. 15:10). (Council of Orange: Canon 6)

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  • « Bill Clinton the "Calvinist" | Main | Human Language & Inspiration »

    Online Sermons

    Maybe this has been said before; people listen to too many online sermons. Sure, the problem is probably limited to reformed-ish churchgoers, but that's the tank I swim in, so it seems like everybody. I've noticed a few damaging side effects that I would like to share with you, maybe to encourage you to listen to less online sermons, but at least to help you use your "I've Heard All of Piper's Sermons for Seven Years" Powers for good and not for evil. I'll be brief.

    First, let me state some of the positives of online sermons:

    1. Some preachers are brilliant, and their sermons rightly should encourage multitudes throughout history.

    2. Some people miss a Sunday or two every once in a while, and it would be nice to hear what their community (read "local church") is thinking about in their absence.

    3. It makes it easy for churches who want to learn more about potential pastoral candidates.

    4. There are undoubtedly others—supply some in your comments!

    I have friends who listen to 4-5 sermons a week by the heavy hitters: Keller, Piper, Driscoll, Carson, Dever, Sproul, etc. That's 3-4 hours of online sermons per week. Maybe that's 3-4 hours of otherwise wasted commuting time being redeemed. Maybe it's 3-4 hours of time each week that could otherwise be used in practicing what that Christian already knows from hundreds or thousands of hours of sermons. Who knows? But that's 156-208 hours per year. Just thought I'd add those hours up for you.

    Here's the real problem. When you listen on a regular basis to some of the best sermons in the history of the world, your expectations change. Suddenly you become a first class sermon critic (even if you're not a seminary homiletics professor). You think more about the structure and delivery of sermons than letting the content have its way with your heart and mind. You begin to have all kinds of advice for your local minister (even though he didn't ask for it). You won't vote for that good minister to become your minister because he doesn't preach a top-notch sermon (even though the Gospel is warm and clear in his preaching).

    Suddenly it becomes pretty easy for your faithful pastor to feel second-rate, and for you to feel dissatisfied in your local church, needing to get your sermon fix online during the week because that guy in the pulpit just doesn't feed you like [insert preaching hero]. Who cares that your pastor was well trained for years, pours out his lifeblood for the flock, and does the best he can to be faithful with what talents God has given him, often to the poverty and suffering of his entire family for the sake of the Gospel? Who cares that the man knows you, and knows how the Word of God applies to you in your particular culture, workplace and family?

    I'm not saying the online sermon is always an impersonal, nonthreatening, general theological address—but it's hardly ever aimed right at your soul, with your pastor's labors and prayers driving it home for your eternal good. The benefit of living in a real community with a spiritual shepherd (or shepherds) intimately watching over your life and doctrine should not be supplanted by anything, yet the excellent online sermon can be a subtle usurper.

    What, then? I don't know, maybe listening to all those online sermons has convinced you that your preacher actually is a heretic, and you need to find another church! But (more likely) maybe you could survive with less online sermons, and more direct Bible reading. Maybe you could use that time you usually set aside for online sermons to volunteer somewhere, like your kids' school or the local shelter. Maybe you could meet with your pastor and let him tell you what you need to change.

    However, you probably at least should pray that you don't become an online sermon elitist who wishes you lived in [insert preaching hero]'s city so you could go to that church every Sunday. You have a church. You have a minister. If the man's not a heretic, commit yourself to prayer, that you would be content—even happy—with where God has you. Certainly, be thankful that you live in an age when God's truth abounds, so that you have access to life-changing preaching as quickly as you can click on that bookmark. But let that truth work in you a real love for your own Gospel community and shepherd, however simple they may be. If you've really heard all those sermons by Piper & Gang, you know they'd probably say the same thing.

    Posted by Eric Costa on February 18, 2009 05:08 PM

    Comments

    I respectfully disagree with much of your premise in this post. Should I also listen to very little Christian Music, so my own church's praise team doesn't sound bland?

    Joel

    Thank you for "respectfully" disagreeing! Maybe you noticed all those "maybe"s that I used when recommending a course of action, but that my main advice was to watch how your attitude and expectations were shaped by listening to online sermons.

    Listen to Christian praise music (or online sermons) all you want, but if it gives you a condescending attitude toward the worship (or preaching) of your own local church, that's probably bad. Maybe that means you should listen less, maybe that means you just need an attitude adjustment.

    Online sermons are also great for finding a Church. One doesn't have to waste Sundays searching for a Pastor who preaches the Word. Just listen to his last 4 or 5 sermons. Then if he's true to the Word, then it's a Church worth checking out for more than one or two Sundays.

    Jason

    Good point. Thanks!

    I'm a pastor and I wish I lived in Minneapolis so I could attend Piper's church!

    Semi-kidding aside, I would have no problem knowing my people were listening to preachers far better than myself during the week. Temptation to sin will come at them from every angle. At least if temptation comes from their sermon listening habits it comes while they are also being fed the word. If it makes them worse members in my church, there were probably other things going on.

    Now, what I have in mind is more the commute sort of listening. If they are wasting their day sitting around the house and listening to or watching sermons and never get out and do any service or fellowship, then I would have a bit more of a problem.

    Chris

    Good comments. Don't get me wrong—I also like to see the people in the church growing in their knowledge of and appreciation for the Word, which often comes through listening to online sermons. I know it has for me!

    But I grow weary of receiving multiple comments after sermons on how Keller preached that passage. These comments almost always turn into an offer to provide said sermons for me, and suggestions for next week's sermon. Maybe you haven't experienced that, but I'm surprised at how many people seem to pay less attention to what you said because they've already heard it said better by [insert preaching hero]. The attitude seems to be, "If you would just preach it like him, I might be able to apply it to my life!" And I've definitely seen it become a hindrance to real respect for pastors (not just in my own example).

    Eric,

    What a timely post. You know, I am that person. I listen to online sermons several hours a week and I've actually been so edified and encouraged by them in the fact that I can pick and choose which topics/books I can learn about, or have the Gospel intravenously pumped right into my brain on a regular basis.

    I have also been considering looking for another church -- one that preaches as passionately and strongly as my fav's. I've been quick to criticize and condemn. I have torn apart the "watered down" gospel message that seems to come from my pastor's pulpit (man he uses John 3:16 alot! -- no he's not an Arminian).

    You've given me something to seriously think about. I appreciate that. I know I won't stop listening to sermons during the week, for their content is challenging and God-centered. But I think I'll be less critical of my home church.

    God bless
    John

    I like to download sermon podcasts and listen to them during the commute. Helps me keep the Word going through my head. Since I'm a pastor I don't know if I get critical about sermon quality, but it sure does drive me to study harder!
    Grace to you,
    mark

    "But I grow weary of receiving multiple comments after sermons on how Keller preached that passage. These comments almost always turn into an offer to provide said sermons for me, and suggestions for next week's sermon."

    That's clearly out of place and, I would agree, born more of a desire to parade around a 'how cool am I, eh?' sort of mentality more than anything, I suspect. Yes, yes; a generalization, I know.

    But the first part of the sentence doesn't seem to be that worrying to me. I can't seeing anyone getting bent out of shape over talking about Calvin's insight into a passage, or how Spurgeon preached on the text in question, or just quite what Augustine saw in the relevant passage.

    People are hungry for meaningful relationships and often it can be very hard to forge intimate bonds with Christ-focused men. Both because there are not others out there with whom one can bond, but also sometimes because listening to sermons online can be a bit like "Spiritual Porno" - all the fun and none of the commitment on the part of the hearer. Often, however, the "Oh, CS Lewis once said..." can be a clumsy attempt to try and communicate that the person is interested in advancing a spiritual relationship with someone they see as a mentor, without actually saying "I'd like to monopolize an hour of your time to talk about spiritual stuff regularly."

    I'm not saying that's true in every case or applies to anyone in your circle. I was listening to a sermon on the radio by Paul Shepherd (Sorry, couldn't resist!) and he used the phrase "Not you! Not you! But people on your row..."

    John

    Thanks for your comment—that's what I'm talking about!

    Mark

    I also have gained a lot of insight and motivation by listening to better preachers.

    David

    I totally understand the distinction you're making. Good point. Yes, I'm definitely focusing on the more "spiritual porno" version of online sermon listening.

    I mainly listen to Sermons (and audio bible) while jogging or driving around the city. It's a fantastic "double" use of time and I'd recommend it to everyone.

    However audio sermons off the net from some random preacher should never replace hearing a local preacher regularly because there is an important link between being pastored and being preached to. Listening *only* to audio stuff of the net is no replacement for that link with your pastor/preacher.

    Thanks Eric for the wonderful advice. Those descriptions definitely apply to me, and it is something I truly need to work on. Appreciate the encouragement and the insight.

    Eric,
    I too know the problem you mention above with sermons. Whether it's MP3, Cassette Tape or CD, it's all the same. My heart becomes discontent with my current pastor for whatever reason; I hear this new pastor via the media platform above and the Word of God becomes alive, fresh and anointed. The Word penetrates my heart, I feel more conviction to get right before God, I earnestly desire to obey God's Word. I become a consumerist, having to acquire and ingest as many sermons from the new pastor as I possibly can.

    Example of my early life as a Christian: So the online sermon is over, a few days later, I attend Sunday morning service at my home church. My pastor preaches a topical message. It doesn't connect with me. From that point on through the following Sundays, I slowly but surely grow discontent with him and his messages. That afternoon, I decided to listen to another sermon because I felt gypped. I could find on my own a better sermon to listen to, to get fed. Over time, my thought life thinks, "Man, the grass is greener over on the other side. The grass here at my home church is sure brown." My desires for bigger and better overwhelms my thinking. I want to leave this church and go over there. So I left, I went to this new church, after a few months of listening to this new preacher sermons that I thought was great, the newlywed phase wears off, I become disappointed with him and the new church. I realized now the grass that I thought that was greener was actually spray-painted green over brown grass. These new people disappoint me, my expectations were to high, so I now go back listening to a new online sermon from a new preacher that I have found. I then begin the cycle anew.

    So my problem was with my heart. My heart was self-centered, discontent and consumeristic. I wanted the church service to be about me. How I can get blessed, never about how I need to bless others and serve them. Until God graciously revealed my heart, I would have stayed in this cycle.

    Paul

    Eric, I can certainly appreciate your concerns of elitist forms of abuse, but I disagree with your premise.

    Are you not confusing the medium with the mistakes? Would you say that some Christians read too many theology books? I've known more bookish people to be irritating to their leaders than anything else. Study Bibles are the worse. But I would never suggest not to own a study Bible because of potential abuse.

    And quite frankly, many preachers deserve the pressure, and the flock needs better preaching than they are getting, even in Reformed circles. I believe one of the means of the Reformed awakening of the past few years is the proliferation of good sermons posted online.

    We should not discourage a believer's hunger for good preaching, no matter what the motive. After all, Paul said that he was pleased that Christ was preached whether from pure motives or not. Should the same hold true for listening?

    The premise of your post should be "Listen to online sermons responsibly", not "don't listen to so many online sermons."

    Todd

    I don't think we disagree in any fundamental ways. I would just point out that the "premise" of the post is not that people should listen to less sermons (though that was the hyperbolical "hook" in the first sentence). If it were, I probably wouldn't have suggested various ways in which online sermons are good. So no, I don't confuse the medium with the mistakes, because I don't condemn the medium—only the abuse of the medium. I would say your proposed premise was the premise of my post.

    I would disagree, though, with the idea that listening with bad motives is comparable to what Paul said about preaching Christ with bad motives, because hearing and receiving with humble faith (good motive) is the whole point. If one listens with a know-it-all attitude, flaunting his knowledge, then one becomes like a Pharisee, seeking self-righteousness which is antithetical to the purpose of Scripture.

    Thanks for the post.

    I can definitely see what you are saying. On the positive side it was great last year when I started a new job that had a 3 hour daily commute to listen to some great preaching and teaching. I devoured the iTunes podcasts by RTS and must have listened to about 3 or 4 entire seminary modules. It was a fantastic way to use my commute to learn a tonne of theology.

    On the negative side I think you are right that excessive listening to disconnected preaching can lead to unrealistic expectations of local ministers. Moreover, I think over the next few years this will become more of an issue as social networking, online sermons (even blogging!) become more mainstream. How will this change how we understand what "church" to be? How will churches respond? Its tempting to try and chase after culture to be seen as relevant, but there is no replacement for real face to face relationships between fellow Christians. This is what fellowship means, not posting a comment on a blog...as I am doing just now! ;)
    There's a place for all these things, but in moderation and not as a substitute for the real thing.
    Thanks for the challenging post!
    Martyn

    "even though the Gospel is warm and clear in his preaching"

    But what if it is not? Personally I was blessed by God with the ability to learn English (as I'm not a native speaker) and I listen to 4-6 online sermons weekly while commuting and while I noticed the problem you tickled in this post myself (and in my self) some time ago I'm more than grateful that problem I have to deal with (even if it is each sunday) is this 'somewhat criticism' one than being confused about the Gospel. So I think the problem is twofold -- the one is -- if we put the wight of our expectations on someone else we should help them to bear it and pray that Lord would bear us all in the same time; but the second one is the problem of people who don't have the luxury to attend a church where the Gospel is preached clearly most of the time/all the time.

    Warm regards,
    a.

    As an atheist and logical thinker (albeit not always a good one), I would ask... What exactly is the purpose of a sermon? Probably should start there. Are sermons always from God, and infallible? People probably don't always agree on the answers to these two questions.

    If the purpose is to lead us to God and/or the purpose God gives us, I don't see why its wrong to listen to hours upon hours. Especially if you believe that preachers are called on by God. I mean, if I truly believed that the words they speak have been stamped approved by God, I wouldn't want to stop listening for the most part.

    I disagree that listening to hours and hours of sermons will somehow make you a critic... it has more to do with what you believe about sermons to begin with.

    Liz

    Thanks very much for your comments!

    Sermons are not always "from God"—only when they are squarely grounded in his Word (the Bible). And they are not "infallible," since the only Word that fits that description is Scripture itself. But they can (and often do) certainly convey God's truth in very important ways. So you're right—we should listen to sermons in order to hear about God and his purpose for our lives!

    Listening to hours of sermons doesn't necessarily make someone a "critic" (or "critical" in a negative way)… actually, our own nature is to twist even the good things in our lives to our own less-than-perfect purposes. It's not the sermon that makes us critical; we're naturally critical, and constantly seek for things to boost ourselves in relation to others. Christians just often do this by their knowledge, which they frequently seek through listening to many sermons online, disconnected from application in community.

    The solution is to rest in the Gospel. Jesus Christ died to forgive us our sins and failures, and to assure us of God's love for and acceptance of us. We don't have to one-up each other with our knowledge; we don't have to criticize others (i.e. preachers) for not being perfect, or up to some imaginary standard. Instead, we can be thankful for the gifts God has given to each of us; humble with regard to where God has placed us; gracious toward those who minister to us, whether their name is Tim Keller or Joe Schmo.

    I remember my college days when I attended very small church that was financially struggling. My pastor has to put his own money to sustain the "Campus Ministry." Back then, whenever I attend the big conferences and exposed to great sermons, I always wondered why my local church doest not have the same standard of sermon, and I waited for those major conferences with my calendar open. However, now that I look back, my college time is the time when my spiritual growth was really taking place despite average quality sermons from my local church. I still consider my old pastor from my college days as the true hero who influenced my spiritual growth the most. From this, I can only conclude that sermon can not explain everything about one’s spiritual growth and the quality of your pastors. In heaven, who knows God may cherish your local pastors more so than “power preachers.” In Korea, one of the most respected pastor who is known for preaching the best sermons was involved with the financial mishandling just before his retirement. It was really disappointing for many Korean Christians who used to listen his sermons all the time. I just want to emphasize that nothing can replace the personal commitment to daily quite time and regular prayer life, From that aspect, I have an utter most respect for my old pastor. Being addicted to online sermons myself, I am trying to hard to read bible regularly and get the insights and grace directly from our true guide and teacher, Jesus Christ.

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