Unwanted retronyms and the physicality of preaching

Retronym (noun).

A new term created from an existing word in order to distinguish the original referent of the existing word from a later one that is the product of progress or technological development.

An acoustic guitar was simply a ‘guitar’ until the electric version was created. Then a new name was needed for the original in order to distinguish it from its more technology advanced offspring. Likewise, the analogue watch was simply a ‘watch’, until its digital counterpart came along.

Retronyms are a strange linguistic phenomenon, and two I wish we could have done without are ‘in-person church’ and ‘live preaching.’

The pandemic forced all of us to become televangelists, embracing the digital space and exploring its possibilities for online church. Many are determined never to go back. I’m not an early adopter when it comes to technology, but nor am I a laggard. I typically fall in the ‘early majority category’, and I’m happy to innovate and try new things. Certainly there have been benefits to doing church online, and I’m grateful for those who will continue to do great work there in the post-pandemic world. But speaking personally, if I never have to preach to the back of my iPhone again, I will be quite happy.

On Sunday I get to preach live, in-person, for the first time in 2021, and only the fourth time since the pandemic began! Given that prior to March 2020 I was preaching live and in-person three-in-four Sundays, this has been a strange old season. And it also feels bittersweet knowing that our time at Christ Church London is coming to an end, so I don’t have many more sermons in the diary!

In anticipation, I jotted down a list of things I’m looking forward to. In no particular order:

  • Looking into the eyes of the people to whom I’m preaching. I wish I could see their whole faces, unmasked. Smiles, frowns, and all. But the simple joy of seeing people’s faces, knowing who I am preaching to and responsible for communicating to is something I have missed. There is something beautiful about seeing the diversity of ages, backgrounds, skin colours, emotions, and life-stages of your audience. It’s a great reminder to apply your message in a way that will really help and resonate not with people ‘in general’ but these people in particular.

  • Equally, seeing the faces of people I don’t know! It’s a precious reminder to keep thinking about the new person in the room, who may or may not share my faith position.

  • Losing my place, stumbling over my words, misspeaking, and not having the option to hit stop and do a retake. Pre-recording sermons has been a killer for the perfectionist in me. I’ve found myself tempted to retake over and over, about the tiniest little things, and I love that live preaching forces you to get over that and kill your idols. If you make a mistake in the moment, you just have to deal with it, course-correct and move on. It’s way more conversational, authentic and – for me at least – healthy.

  • Enjoying the London skyline as I’m driven between our Stockwell and Central London services, crossing the Thames from South to North. That view down the river never gets old.

  • Not having to watch my own face on a screen!! I very much believe that a preacher should first of all preach a sermon to themselves. But I prefer doing that internally in the preparation stage, rather than pre-recorded on a Sunday service! It means I can actually enjoy church for church, not listening to myself and critiquing my talk as it is presented to me.

  • Making jokes in the moment that bring joy and laughter to a room.

  • Making jokes in the moment that bomb, and having to make a mental note to ditch that for the next service!

  • Being able to communicate with the full use of my body. Having a camera zoomed in on my face has been interesting. I have enjoyed the fact that I can use my facial expressions and hand gestures in a close up way that everyone can see. But I think a preacher’s posture, stance and movement are just as important, and a cropped screen has limited the tools I’ve had at my disposal. I tend to be quite intentional about the way I walk on the stage, using the whole space to communicate. Sections of the stage can represent points for contrast and comparison. Adjusting my proximity to the audience can convey levels of intensity or intimacy. Leaning in when I want to connect deeply, resting casually on a lectern when I want to help people relax. Standing behind the lectern and reading your script can help your hearers know that you want them to work hard intellectually. Walking casually across the stage can help them relax and catch a breath while you’re telling a story. Communication should be a whole body thing.

  • Inviting the band back up.

  • Noticing that a point didn’t land – that the people in front of you didn’t get it – and course-correcting mid-sermon to find a different way to help them understand my meaning.

  • Asking God in between the services “Is there anything I need to change, ditch, add, or rephrase for this next context? Is there anything different you want to do that I hadn’t picked up in my preparation?

  • Asking those same questions mid-sermon, and having that internal dialogue with the Spirit, as I try and sense what he is doing and what he wants me to do. Then wrestling for the courage to adapt and follow him.

  • Being able to comment on things that have happened that day, or that week. If a world event has cast a shadow across a weekend, or the cultural mood has shifted since you pre-recorded your talk, there’s no flexibility to address it.

  • Being able to respond to things that have happened in worship. The most precious moments in preaching can be when someone brings a contribution that resonates deeply with what you’re about to preach, or there’s a shared experience that everyone has had through encountering God in the worship time, and the preacher is able to build on that or adapt because of it.

  • Talking to a taxi driver between services 1 and 2 and having to answer the questions: “So what are you doing today? … A church? Really? In a school? And a theatre? … What are you going to be preaching about?” The number of times I’ve been able to share the gospel on the journey between my sermons has been a real treat.

  • Wearing shoes as I preach! Not going to lie… I’ve enjoyed preaching in my slippers. But that season is over and it’s time to dust off my preaching boots! I mean, I don’t have special preaching boots… But I do have some that I haven’t worn for a while, and weirdly, I’m really looking forward to wearing them again! They’re not anointed or anything! But hey, Isaiah 52:7; Ephesians 6:15!

  • Preaching in the context of worship. Having spent time focussing on God alongside others before delivering the sermon, rather than just doing it in my house, to a camera, following on from whatever task I was doing beforehand.

  • Praying “Come Holy Spirit” and not knowing what’s going to happen next.

  • Having to think of the practicalities of the day: travel plans, keeping my iPad charged, getting slides and scripts to the right people, liaising with hosts and worship bands, wearing a microphone. Some find those things laborious. I enjoy them. They remind me I’m part of a team, and I need others. They keep me from feeling like I’m some kind of superstar, and they help me stay humble.

  • Receiving feedback. Both in the moment while preaching, and also after the service (as much as the rule of 6 allows.) Answering questions. Getting to clarify things that didn’t make sense. Knowing if I’ve upset someone, and having the opportunity to apologise and make amends. It’s a certain type of person who takes time to email a preacher with a question or comment after the Sunday, and there are many people who will never bring their questions to you unless you intentionally make yourself available at the end of a service. They can be precious conversations.

  • Feeling that I am preaching within a community of which I’m a part, rather than to a community through a screen, separated from them by time and space.

  • Millican’s Law.

  • Getting to the end of the day and handing it over to God. Fighting the temptation towards pride, and giving Him the credit for everything good that has happened. Fighting the temptation towards despair, and trusting Him to use my imperfect work in ways I couldn’t imagine.

Preaching is an art and a privilege. It can be a joy and a slog. Don’t get me wrong, preaching online has been necessary, a learning curve, and no less a privilege. But if anything it has taught me how much I value the physicality of live preaching at an in-person church.

Or as we used to call it, ‘church.’

Photo by Dylan Ferreira on Unsplash

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