Preaching Through the Multiverse
Effective sermons for a digital world
The existence of a multiverse — multiple, parallel universes — is a topic of debate in some scientific circles. But for preachers today, it feels like a reality.
Sermons increasingly travel through space and time via digital platforms — reaching far beyond the walls of our churches. As a result, preachers must develop messages that work in multiple worlds, including unknown and unobservable ones.
This idea is not entirely new. Jesus envisioned the gospel traveling through the known worlds of Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria to the unknown “ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The Lord wants His Spirit-empowered Church to take the good news to all people, in all places.
Technology is accelerating this vision, with in-person and online messages often delivered simultaneously. Unlike in-person experiences, though, digital messages can continue online through various platforms.
For sermons to stand the test of time, preachers must carefully prepare messages that work here and there, now and later.
The digital age is a brave new world, but it’s not without challenges. One message can travel digitally to multiple places over time, while the speaker visits only one of them.
Although ministers tend to focus on the known congregation when crafting sermons, the days of delivering messages and then burying them in a filing cabinet are largely over. To maximize a sermon’s influence, it is worth considering who else might hear it.
It is impossible to imagine all the places one sermon can go. However, there are three identifiable worlds that establish a beginning framework: the immediate world, the mobile world, and the unknown world. Preachers must understand the dynamics of these worlds to help messages travel more effectively.
The immediate world describes the time, context and location of the sermon delivery. In this world, cultural elements, current events, and shared values help contextualize the message. The familiarity with this world gives preachers a certain degree of comfort. However, that comfort can become an obstacle hindering the transferability of a message over time and distance.
When a message moves to a digital platform, it enters the mobile world. It shifts from a static time and place to dynamic times and places. People may access it through a church website, social media page, or YouTube channel.
Additionally, social media users may encounter an isolated quote from a sermon or hear a short clip while scrolling through their feeds. The dynamic reality of this mobile world is exciting for its possibilities and also challenging because of its complexities.
That brings us to the unknown world — the unlimited spaces and times in which people may hear or view a sermon. In effect, this is the ends of the earth.
A sermon can travel across digital highways to reach a factory breakroom, a semitractor-trailer cab, or a college dorm room. Preachers have limited knowledge of these places and the specific needs of the individuals who inhabit them.
Unlike the immediate world where ministers can interact with attendees, the population of the unknown world is a mystery to the preacher (but very much known to God).
Preparing a sermon that travels well through immediate, mobile and unknown worlds requires intentionality. Among other things, it means rethinking how you share personal information, choose illustrations, and talk about dated issues.
Today’s preachers should make their messages
across multiple contexts.
People today long for authenticity. But authenticity does not necessarily equal familiarity. Assuming listeners know all about you can limit the reach of your message.
If you hope to connect with unknown worlds, you must assume there are listeners who know nothing about you. Even better, assume they don’t know Jesus and have little or no knowledge of church or the Bible.
Aiming your message at people with the least knowledge and understanding will also make it more accessible for visitors in your immediate context. This is inclusivity at its best.
Consider Paul’s example in his New Testament letters. Though he was both famous and infamous within the Early Church, Paul started most of his letters with a simple introduction about his calling as an apostle and his identity as a slave to Christ.
Paul refused to assume all his readers would know about his calling and ministry. Perhaps he knew his letters would travel to unknown worlds.
Today’s ministers should replicate Paul’s method, revisiting their stories and callings as if people are hearing this information for the first time.
Jesus contextualized His message for the immediate setting through parables. Two millennia later, His stories are still relatable because they touch on universal themes.
For example, you don’t have to be a shepherd to understand the love and faithfulness evident in the Parable of the Lost Sheep.
Today’s preachers should likewise make their messages transferable across multiple contexts. Stories, pictures and metaphors must have enough elasticity for all kinds of people to understand them.
Follow the most-everybody rule. For each illustration, ask, “Will most everybody understand this?” If not, help them understand.
During a recent sermon, I talked about driving in Pittsburgh. (Our church is located within the metropolitan area.) The local congregation smiled in agreement when I said, “The roads here are challenging.”
I then shared two pictures that prompted laughter among congregants and onboarded the mobile and unknown worlds. Without this step, my remarks might have been confusing for people who were unfamiliar with our city.
Think beyond the head-nodding crowd that sits in front of you — bringing others along on the journey as well.
Every sermon has temporal elements. But even the immediate presentation includes frequent visits to the past.
Ministers unpack the original, historical contexts of biblical passages to present truths for today and hope for tomorrow. They also use various moments from history for sermon illustrations.
Essentially, preachers are like time travelers, taking listeners through the past, present, near future, and eternal future. To avoid losing listeners during this journey, there are a couple of things to keep in view.
First, avoid sharing information that is only relevant for a limited time. These time stamps will only confuse future listeners, who may not remember the TikTok craze or television commercial on which your point hinged.
Also focus on transcendent needs rather than immediate issues. A sermon addressing COVID vaccines won’t age well. But a message highlighting the need for wisdom in a complex age will transcend the immediate context.
The digital age offers a wealth of opportunities for preaching the good news. With care and preparation, your messages can go further and reach more people than you ever thought possible.
This article appears in the Winter 2023 issue of Influence magazine.
Influence Magazine & The Healthy Church Network
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