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PC(USA) pastor examines how post-pandemic preaching is changing

The Rev. Dr. Peter Henry, pastor of Davidson College Presbyterian Church in North Carolina, is the guest on ‘Equipping Preachers’

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Alexander Dummer via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — Whatever Covid stage churches find themselves in — post-pandemic, a return to in-person worship, a re-evaluation of what hybrid worship looks like, whatever the case — “we need to be attentive to the way our sermons are being offered to people,” the Rev. Dr. Peter Henry said Wednesday during the monthly “Equipping Preachers” webinar offered by the Synod of the Covenant.

Henry is pastor and head of staff at Davidson College Presbyterian Church in Davidson, North Carolina. The most recent interactive webinar, hosted by Synod Executive the Rev. Dr. Chip Hardwick, was on “Post-Pandemic Preaching” and lasted nearly 90 minutes. Watch a recording here.

An area of interest for Henry is how Presbyterians can be more in touch with embodiment while they worship. “We often act like brains on sticks with a couple of ears to listen,” he said. “I want to talk about how our messages are being shared and how that impacts what we say and how we say it.”

Online worship, says Henry and many others, “is here to stay.” Many people of faith worship both in-person and online, dropping in on worship services across the country and even across international borders. Henry said he’s seen members of the church he serves in the grocery store, people he hasn’t seen at in-person worship in weeks. Yet they tell him something they appreciated about his most recent sermon. Clearly, they’d been attending what’s sometimes called “Couch Church.”

“I thought we’d lost them,” Henry said. In his mind, that raises “a host of questions” about embodiment and relationships. “I am a better preacher when I see people and know people,” he said. “There are people who can preach to anybody anywhere, but I’m not that guy.”

Staff at the Davidson College church didn’t think of themselves as televangelists until March 2020. “We’re real preachers. We don’t do that stuff,” Henry remembers thinking. “Then we became televangelists, and it was humbling.”

Preachers quickly moved to shorter worship services featuring briefer sermons — which speaks to one study that showed Americans’ attention span has shrunk from 12 seconds to 8.25 seconds. For perspective: a goldfish’s attention span is nine seconds, making them more attentive than those participating in Couch Church.

The Rev. Dr. Peter Henry

“We’re easily distracted,” Henry said, noting Americans check their email 30 times an hour and pick up their phones 1,500 times each week. “And Peter thinks he will stand in a pulpit and have a one-angle shot for 15 minutes?” he asked. “We have some uphill battles when it comes to keeping people’s attention, especially with regard to online worship.”

Top tips for preachers include being clear with your messaging, keeping it short and sweet, remembering the power of stories and using media-rich videos and images. He asked participants: Have you made modifications now that you’re back in the sanctuary that reflect what you’ve learned?

One preacher said that after learning many viewers tune in for only about 15 minutes, “we have shortened [the online worship recording] dramatically. People may listen to a song, skip ahead to the sermon, and that’s it. We can’t do livestream well, and so we stick to a song, Scripture and the sermon. It’s working for us.”

Henry said that since in-person worship has returned to the Davidson College church worship space, there’s been “creativity in prerecorded things you can’t do in the sanctuary,” like recording the preacher sitting by a lake or conducting people-on-the-street interviews.

One participant plans to try an idea she learned during last month’s APCE annual event: using the website to gather prayer requests from those worshiping online, then displaying them for everyone to see.

The Davidson College church holds 45-minute worship services Sunday mornings at 8:45 and 9:45, with an hour-long worship at 11 o’clock. “No one under 70 asks for longer services,” Henry said, although one person “said my sermons are too short and not worth listening to.” He told Henry, “You don’t talk long enough to engage the topic. You spend too long on your children’s sermon.”

There are other considerations, of course. Several online worshipers “have never been to Davidson or haven’t been there in years,” Henry said. “What assumptions do I make about the common life we share? How much of what I share presumes membership, presumes being Presbyterian? If they didn’t come out of our faith background, do we explain who the dead white guys are,” including John Calvin?

Something else that’s changed is “what it means to tell a story about something that happened at your last church,” Henry said. Now that so many churches offer their worship services online, “there is a new ethic regarding the stories we tell about people. Word gets back to them. Have we honored the relationships and the confidentiality we have with them?”

One church member who makes documentary films drove home this point to Henry: People can forgive poor image quality, but if they can’t hear what you’re saying, they won’t stay with you.

Then there’s changing expectations among people in new member classes. In the case of Davidson College Presbyterian Church, only about 30% grew up Presbyterian. One couple told Henry they used to be “liturgically promiscuous.” Henry said that more and more prospective new members “wonder why we can’t have the best of every tradition, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Catholic. Can we have a little more of the best of everyone’s tradition here?”

The Rev. Dr. Chip Hardwick

While many figured it would be the Boomers who would be returning to in-person worship in droves following the pandemic, a Barma Group study indicates that Millennials and Gen Xers have been the quickest to return, Henry said. That fact alone can help worship leaders in their planning. “My kids have [all kinds of music] on their playlists,” he said, “and they wonder why we use only one style of music in worship.”

“Our folks worshiping online are definitely paying attention to what is the energy they see in the sanctuary,” one webinar participant said. “How many do they see? They want that vitality. We track how many engage with online worship and we try to communicate that to people.”

Another noted that few worshipers feel comfortable singing hymns in their living rooms as part of online worship. “Online is likely more of a consuming of content mindset,” this participant said, “rather than thinking of themselves as a full participant in worship.”

“Ultimately, we’re the in-house practical theologians for our congregations,” Henry said. “You can tell I am right on the ground with you all trying to figure things out. I’m grateful there is still a calling and a place for what we do as preaching and worship leaders.”

The Rev. Dr. Carolyn Helsel of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary will be the next guest on Equipping Pastors. Helsel will speak on “Preaching About Racism in an Era of Critical Race Theory Bans.” The Zoom call is set for 10 a.m. through 11:30 a.m. Eastern Time on March 1. Learn more here.

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