Unplugging Church: The Vital Role of In-Person Sermons

The Pew Research Center recently revealed that about a quarter of U.S. adults are regularly turning to the digital sphere to experience religious services. Convenience and personal safety are the two most cited reasons for this shift toward digital sermons. But in this age of lightning-fast internet and streaming services, do we lose something vital when we trade the pew for the couch?

You might be asking, does it really matter whether we listen to sermons in person at church or privately on a computer screen? After all, isn’t it about the message and not the medium? During the recent pandemic, many churches turned to sending out written sermons or pre-recorded messages. But is this digital conversion an equivalent substitute for the traditional Sunday sermon?

Many would argue that far from being a mere matter of personal preference or comfort, there’s something profoundly unique about experiencing sermons live, in person, and surrounded by fellow believers.

Understanding the Power of Common Knowledge At the heart of the in-person sermon experience is the creation and reinforcement of “common knowledge.” In a nutshell, common knowledge isn’t just about everyone knowing something. It’s about everyone knowing that everyone else knows that thing.

Consider a choir rehearsing for a Sunday service. If each member practices a different hymn, the result will be a discordant mess. But once the music director informs everyone of the hymn choice, they all not only know the hymn to practice but also know that everyone else knows. This common knowledge ensures they’re all in harmony come Sunday.

In much the same way, the sermon serves to distribute common knowledge to the congregation. It sets a communal agenda, guiding the focus and efforts of the church body for the week.

From Individual Application to Congregational Action The power of a sermon isn’t merely to provide individuals with a biblical lecture. Its real test is whether it convinces the mind, moves the emotions, convicts the conscience, and sets a personal agenda for each listener’s life. More than that, a sermon isn’t just delivered to an individual but to a community of believers.

When believers hear a sermon together, they all share in the experience, and it unifies their response to the application of the message. For example, a sermon calling for encouragement (drawing from 1 Thessalonians 5:11) becomes a rallying cry for the entire congregation, not just a personal challenge.

Unfortunately, we often approach sermons from a self-centered perspective, forgetting that the community dimension is crucial. The ultimate goal isn’t just individual transformation but communal growth, and the communal setting of in-person sermons is key to this.

The Disconnection of Digital Sermons The convenience of watching a sermon online may be alluring, but it removes the communal experience and shared understanding that comes with a traditional sermon. When we listen to sermons alone, they become less of a call to communal action and more like individual lectures. While these can certainly still impart wisdom and knowledge, they lose the power to unify and guide a congregation.

In our current circumstances, there are undoubtedly times when online sermons are the only option, and they can be a lifeline for those unable to attend in person due to illness or other barriers. Yet for those who can, it’s essential to remember the importance of congregational worship.

Hebrews 10:25 tells us not to neglect meeting together. Let’s remember this call as we look to the future of our worship practices, understanding that the in-person sermon is not an outdated tradition but a vibrant and essential tool for communal growth and transformation. In an increasingly disconnected world, perhaps it’s time we re-embrace the power of shared spiritual experiences and return to the pews.