What Pastors See as the ‘New Normal’ for Preaching After the Pandemic
Written by TM of JC on September 25, 2020
The sanctuary was empty. But that didn’t distract Claude Alexander. He had just finished preaching from Jeremiah 8 on the temptation to despair amid COVID-19 and the hope found in Christ. As he called on musicians to sing “Lead Me to the Rock,” Alexander was visibly moved to tears by his sense of God’s presence, and worship continued another 30 minutes on the livestream. For Alexander, senior pastor of The Park Church—a 3,000-member predominantly black congregation in Charlotte, North Carolina—that late-spring worship service exemplified his surprising experience of preaching through the coronavirus pandemic.
“I have had some of the most powerful times of worship preaching in a sanctuary with no people,” he said. Preaching without a congregation became “an undistracted offering to God” without the temptation “to respond to what I’m seeing in the pew.”
As the coronavirus forced pastors around the world to begin preaching to cameras rather than live congregations, not all pastors experienced the same intensity of worship as Alexander. Indeed, some had many Sundays that felt quite the opposite. Yet a diverse array of pastors interviewed by CT reported that the COVID-19 pandemic refocused them on the God-centered nature of preaching.
Initially, the changes were at a surface level. Pastors went from scanning the room during sermons to looking at a camera. They transitioned from leading altar calls to asking those with spiritual decisions to text a number displayed on their screens. Alexander (who serves on CT’s board of directors) even found himself telling listeners to tweet their responses of “amen” and “praise the Lord” when they could no longer call them out in the congregation.
As the pandemic wore on, surface-level adjustments gave way to deeper reflection about preaching and catalyzed practical changes that will persist after churches regather and COVID-19 vaccinations are commonplace. CT spoke with several pastors from a wide variety of churches to hear how moving worship services online and delivering sermons through a screen rather than to a congregation impacted their preaching in lasting ways. They all agreed that the struggles of pandemic preaching generated new insights on the task—insights they hope to retain when Sunday worship eventually returns to a post-COVID-19 normal.
Several pastors noted that the lack of a live congregation eliminated a valuable source of instant sermon feedback. This loss helped pastors place higher value on such feedback, and they’re likely to give heightened attention to it as they move forward with regathered congregations.
“What I miss the most,” said Rich Villodas, lead pastor of New Life Fellowship in New York City, “is just meeting with people afterwards and hearing how their lives are being impacted by the proclaimed message of God’s Word.” Before the pandemic, he would greet worshipers every week in the church lobby after each service and hear feedback (both positive and negative) on the sermon. At times, worshipers’ after-
service comments caused him to tweak the sermon in a later service. He has also missed seeing and hearing real-time reactions as he preaches a sermon—amens, nods, and hums—that he said “help to unlock [preaching] in the moment.”
Villodas vividly remembers a Sunday before the pandemic when a blind African American man visited his Queens church and reacted verbally throughout the sermon. Vocal encouragement from listeners “happens on a regular basis” in Villodas’s multiethnic congregation, which includes people of 75 different nationalities, but he recalls this visitor because he was particularly vocal in a way that made the sermon better. “There was a cadence to his reactions that actually paced me,” Villodas said.
Resuming in-person worship refreshes preaching, Villodas said, because it puts preachers in contact once again with people like that notable visitor, reminding expositors that the Bible is best interpreted in community with other believers. In a post-COVID-19 world, the return of once-absent nods and amens will draw heightened attention as cues that the pastor’s exegesis is on target.
Michael York, pastor of Fairview Baptist Church in Ashland, Kentucky, agreed that addressing an empty sanctuary “was probably the biggest challenge” of pandemic preaching. With no amens to affirm his exegesis and no laughs to communicate that jokes resonated, “I had no idea how people were responding,” said York, who pastored First Baptist Church in Salem, Missouri, for most of the pandemic before moving to Kentucky in July.
With the absence of verbal and visual feedback, York encouraged church members to listen actively by taking notes during sermons. He also tried to help them ingest more Scripture amid the crisis by extending his normal 45-minute sermons to between 50 and 55 minutes. Some of York’s congregants told him they made a practice of listening to these longer sermons in multiple sittings.
York says his return to a live congregation reinvigorated his commitment to respond to audience feedback. He monitors listeners’ attention and seeks to keep them engaged with nonverbal communication tools—like gestures, body position, movement, and audience participation. York says he gestured more during pandemic sermons to draw people in visually. Now, preaching in person, he tries not to over-gesture to the live congregation. York’s vocal variety in terms of volume and pitch decreased without a live congregation, but the variety is back with a regathered church, drawn out by audience response.
Silence’s Spiritual Benefit
For Bryan Chapell, senior pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Peoria, Illinois, the experience of preaching in an empty room seemed to lack power at times. After a normal sermon with a live congregation, “the music swells. I trumpet the benediction and shake hands as I go down the aisles,” he said. But after preaching only to a set of cameras, “there is suddenly this awful silence, and you kind of wonder if you just did anything.”
The bewildering feeling of “awful silence” that Chapell and others experienced gave way to what was, perhaps, the greatest lasting benefit of pandemic preaching: a renewed conviction that preaching is from God and for God. Half of the pastors CT interviewed said the lack of feedback and human interaction during the pandemic ultimately reminded them to seek affirmation from God for their preaching rather than from people. They confessed a need for affirmation and said it’s easy to seek it from church members.
“When there’s nobody there to give any affirmation, I have the spiritual benefit of needing to receive it from the Lord and nobody else,” said Chapell. “That’s got to be good for my soul, even if it’s not good for my ego.”
From Congregation to Camera
Another significant shift for pastors came in adjustments to their normal weekly rhythms for study and exegesis. For some preachers, prerecording sermons on Thursday or Friday to allow time for video editing and production before Sunday decreased the number of days they would normally spend each week on sermon preparation.
But prerecording sermons carried benefits, too. In some cases, the usefulness of watching themselves each Sunday outweighed the inconvenience of shortened preparation time. Among those who regularly watched themselves preach during the pandemic was Ed Robb, senior pastor of The Woodlands United Methodist Church in Houston, the second largest church in its denomination.
Before the pandemic, Robb rarely watched recordings of himself preaching. But during the pandemic, he spent each Sunday morning watching prerecorded sermons at home with his wife. Now, standing before a regathered congregation, he knows more fully what people are experiencing as he preaches and what keeps their attention. The change in pastoral responsibilities during the pandemic—fewer regular meetings, more open blocks of time—also enabled Robb to start his sermon preparation earlier and to look ahead further in his preaching calendar than he did before.
Recording schedules likewise affected Vaughan Roberts, rector of St. Ebbe’s Church, an Anglican congregation in Oxford, England. Before the pandemic, Roberts wrote his sermons on Friday and let them percolate in his mind on Saturday before preaching them on Sunday. During the pandemic, however, that regular percolation time disappeared. When an application would occur to him on Saturday, he thought, “It’s too late. It’s gone to the video editors.” Amid online editing schedules, however, he sought to remind himself that preaching is not a production. “I’ve got a word from the Lord,” he said, “and those people out there need to hear it.”
Striving to Connect
A lack of people in the pews drove some pastors to work harder at being present with their congregations through their sermons, though distanced. Mandy Smith, lead pastor of University christian Church in Cincinnati, discovered applications to preaching from autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR), an experience of low-grade euphoria or effervescence triggered by soothing sounds or other stimuli. The preaching connection occurred to Smith when a woman in the church said she felt closer to her pastor after hearing Smith giggle and take a breath in a video the church posted online. That experience, and some accompanying research, prompted Smith to purchase a high-quality microphone to better capture sounds during her sermons, like breathing and pages turning.
“I just wanted to make sure that, subconsciously, people were reminded that there’s a human being behind this,” Smith said. This attention to sound quality—and to the humanizing effect of small or quiet sounds—could continue after the pandemic, particularly for churches that maintain significant online ministry.
While Smith generated closeness with her congregation through sound quality, other preachers said the need to connect has driven them to use words more intentionally—and, for some, more sparingly. During online services, Roberts chose to reduce his normal 35-minute sermons to 20 minutes to optimize viewers’ experiences. “I have to hone it down,” he said, by shortening introductions and maximizing the power of words in describing the Bible passage.
Chapell made similar adjustments. Because he could not respond in video sermons to listeners’ reactions, he felt an “obligation to be more precise” during the pandemic. That led Chapell to write out his sermons in full—planning the exact words to deliver applications and theological explanations. Although this practice of full manuscripting did not continue after regathering, the experience emphasized for Chapell the need for and value of planned and precise wording in sermons alongside appropriate spontaneity.
The challenges of pandemic preaching also sharpened pastors’ commitment to preach as shepherds, not merely orators. They knew the spiritual needs of their people and worried that those needs deepened through the pandemic. They could also go unmet, pastors feared, if sermons were not aimed specifically at the individuals they pastored. To keep those individuals in mind, Roberts chose to engage his imagination. “Before I start, I am seeing those people in my mind’s eye,” he said of video preaching, “because I want to speak not to a camera, but to people.”
This heightened attention to spiritual need seems warranted. Approximately one-third of Americans showed signs of clinical anxiety or depression during the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Center for Health Statistics and the US Census Bureau reported. The Well Being Trust, in conjunction with the Robert Graham Center for Policy Research in Family Medicine and Primary Care, warned that “deaths of despair” due to drugs, alcohol, and suicides could top 154,000 in America during the pandemic and recovery.
The pandemic strengthened the sense of integration between pastoral care and preaching—an emphasis pastors hope to carry forward. “To preach as a pastor is to really know the stories of the people in the congregation,” Villodas said, “and to really preach with them in mind.”
Self-Quarantining with Scripture
In addition to focusing more intently on people, some pastors said the pandemic led them to meditate more deeply on Scripture—which both impacted their preaching and offered them spiritual nourishment. Robert Morgan, a 68-year-old teaching pastor at The Donelson Fellowship in Nashville, said he saw younger pastors learn to spend more time with Scripture during the lockdown—largely because their other time commitments were drastically reduced. Their preaching before the pandemic was not inadequate, he said, but he observed that greater study time has yielded greater depth of insight. Providentially, they had fewer meetings and pastoral responsibilities at the same moment a novel virus and inflamed racial tensions pushed them to find appropriate applications of Scripture.
One pastor in his 30s was frustrated that he didn’t adequately handle the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, at the hands of Minneapolis police. Morgan helped him think through applying the Bible to that situation and said the best application requires intense meditation on Scripture weekly. “Preachers ought to be self-quarantining every week with their Bibles,” Morgan said, “not because of the pandemic, but because of the urgency of the time, which demands authoritative messaging from this nuclear book.”
Alexander found new opportunities to meditate on Scripture because of his altered rhythms. He also realized that pandemic conditions have changed how he understands individual Scripture passages. On a walk to the grocery store, Alexander found himself pondering how Jesus would tell the parable of the Good Samaritan in a time of social distancing. The priest and the Levite in Jesus’ story were faulted for distancing themselves, he thought, highlighting the challenge of caring for our neighbors when we are required to separate from them physically. The meditation led Alexander to commit to buying groceries for a certain homeless man every time he bought groceries for himself.
Also, thinking about Acts 1–2 led Alexander to realize that the Holy Spirit’s indwelling at Pentecost happened amid a “shelter-in-place order” given by Jesus: His disciples were to remain in Jerusalem until they were baptized with the Holy Spirit (1:4). That gave Alexander hope that God would work powerfully despite America’s shelter-in-place orders. “I would not have paid attention to that level of detail pre-COVID-19,” Alexander said. “I came out better equipped as a preacher.”
The surprising spiritual blessings of the pandemic have been so good for Alexander’s soul, he said, that in one sense, “I dread having to go back” to the standard pastoral duties of a busy, in-person worship service. Yet preachers have to do just that. The silver lining is the hidden gifts from their COVID-19 experiences that continue to shape their preaching.
David Roach is a writer, preacher, and professor. He lives with his wife and three children in Nashville.