Jay Akkerman has always looked ahead. Twenty years ago, he was wowing seminary professors and students alike with over-the-top PowerPoint presentations when most of his peers submitted papers using the old “hunt and peck” finger technology. While pastoring, a strong interest in visual media, prompted him to write a D.Min. thesis on preaching in a post-literate age. As professor of pastoral theology at Northwest Nazarene University, Akkerman is looking ahead again to consider how the sermonic experience needs to be rethought in light of the internet and other dialogical forms of communication. Grace and Peace Magazine met with Jay to ask him his thoughts on the future of preaching.
Grace & Peace Magazine: How do you see the state of preaching today?
Akkerman: We live in a visual age. We also live in a time when people, if they want to know about something, go online and find out about it. Literally, one moment you can be looking at your hometown newspaper and the next, you can be on the other side of the globe reading what is happening in Calcutta or London. We can do that without even batting an eye. Yet even 20 years ago, we would have been amazed at what we are doing now. People can find an expert on whatever they want to know about and interact with that expert. If they like what they hear, they can dig deeper with that person. They can ask more questions; they can say, “This is why I wonder about these issues,” which is dialogical. Yet in our churches, we still expect congregations to politely sit and listen for 20 minutes or more on any given Sunday.
I can’t think of any other place where people invest as much time listening to one person as they do in church. That is a wonderful thing. However, I’m not sure we are using those minutes and engaging people like they need to be or want to be. The engagement could be far more conversational than our churches practice today. That is an issue I am trying to explore with my students. Having been on both sides of the pulpit, I think it offers great promise for the church and for preaching.
G&P: Sometimes parishioners don’t share how they feel about the sermonic or worship experience. What can we do to engage people and broaden participation?
Akkerman: The good news is that there are many ways to close the gap between a passive congregation and one that participates in the worship experience. I believe parishioners would like more engagement in the service. I think a more dialogical experience in the church would really enhance preaching, while meeting that need in the congregation for more participation.
For instance, some pastors use their websites to ask their congregations about upcoming sermon topics. They might write, “I am going to be speaking on this particular passage or theme, and I am curious about where you stand. How do you view this particular character in this biblical story? Or, is this story easy for you to connect with or not connect with?” This gives the people in these churches a way to become more involved in the Sunday worship service. It also gives interested people in the community a chance to “dip their toes into the pond,” before actually visiting the church, when they see such questions online.
There are a variety of things preachers can do to engage people during the week, yet on Sunday, still make the sermon mostly one-directional, from the preacher to the congregation. Using the website for dialoging about the upcoming sermon is one way. Such an approach won’t solve all the issues with changing expectations of the parishioners, but I think this is one way to begin to foster more conversation between the pastor and the congregation.
Having been a senior pastor myself, I know the tyranny of the Sunday sermon. When you are preaching, every day feels like Sunday. I felt tremendous pressure to fill that 25 minutes in the service. To be honest, I was so focused on filling up that time spot that I didn’t spend a lot of energy thinking about what ought to happen in the lives of the people experiencing the sermon.
After a few years of this, I began to think with more clarity about the people. When I really began to focus on what I wanted to have happen in the lives of the congregation and doing that prayerfully as a shepherd, it took my preaching in a new direction. I focused less on filling that time slot and more on where God was leading us through worship.
Now, when I visit churches, there are times when I leave, thinking, “I wonder what that pastor really wanted to have happen today? What was the outcome he or she was seeking?” It is hard work to focus on the desired outcome God is calling us to on any given week. But it’s also enriching when you begin to see the fruit of your labors.
G&P: You talk about the need to fill time. When you pastored, did you feel like you had to have something fresh or to be entertaining? Was this a pressure?
Akkerman: I don’t think you can preach today without being mindful of the fact that so many people in the congregation have devices that entertain them far more than your sermon is likely to do. So, you have to find a way to connect with where they live. Again, this is another good reason for finding ways to be in dialogue with the people in your congregation. The more you do this in your worship setting, the better, because you may be able to draw the people’s attention away from their electronics. Now, most of us worry about where this might lead us. I think one reason so many preachers like preaching is that they get a chance to say what they think, and there isn’t anybody who will stand up and say, “Well, what about suchand- such?” We need to get past some of these fears and take risks, because the result is worth it. I’m not saying it’s easy, but I think it’s worth the risk.
G&P: You mentioned the word “dialogical.” What have you seen in some of our Nazarene pulpits (and maybe outside) that illustrates this idea?
Akkerman: In the Church of the Nazarene, I see the dialogue taking place in the week before the Sunday sermon and also in the days following, likely in some online form. I have a number of friends in the pastorate who are doing things like this, saying, “Hey, this coming week we’re talking about such-and-such,” and inviting those who are tuned in to an online forum to share their stories, observations, and “hiccups”—the good, the bad, and the indifferent. I think it is valuable when those pastors are able to say on Sunday, “This week, Bill, in our online forum, was talking about such-and-such,” and use an example or a media piece that grew out of that encounter. People will begin to recognize that they can say or contribute something that might make a difference in the pastor’s sermon. Or maybe, in the follow-up after the sermon, they might give more feedback about how to respond to the sermon. I see more and more of that happening.
I think we’re going to see a growing trend that way in preaching. We are going to see more preachers who see their role in the worship experience as that of engaging the congregation more and to journey with them together. Not that the preacher doesn’t have to plan a sermon any more. If anything, you have to be more on your toes and know what you want to say in a dialogical approach than you do when you get the microphone for half an hour during worship.
To some extent, these kinds of ideas seem more likely to be oriented toward young adults or church plants. I think that is certainly appropriate. However, I don’t think this kind of change is limited to a particular age level. I challenge my students to think about a really engaging Sunday school teacher they have had, somebody who knows their stuff and comes into class prepared, yet doesn’t do all the talking. That’s been going on a long time, and illustrates more and more of what many of our parishioners would like to see happen in the sanctuary.
This is a way of bringing the congregation together as a living body of believers, hopefully to make preaching more engaging, more meaningful, more life-shaping— and helping people grow deeper in their walk with God. I’m encouraged about the future of preaching.
G&P: You have written a good deal on preaching in a postliterate context. When you say “post-literate” what do you mean?
Akkerman: When I’m talking about post-literacy, I’m talking about how we live in an age where we increasingly get our information by means other than the traditional printed page. We have cable, the internet, Facebook, blogs, Twitter—these are largely electronic, digital ways of communicating. These means of communication are far more interactive than what we find on the printed page. I don’t think we’re going to see the end of reading any time soon; however, people are more often using electronic means than the printed page to engage the world.
G&P: How is the internet and post-literacy a challenge to the preacher?
Akkerman: People read along and see some hyperlink and click for more information, and that leads to another page with more links to click on, and so on and so on. All the information we encounter has led to short attention spans, and that’s a real challenge for the preacher every Sunday. When the congregation is used to being able to click and learn more, how can we engage and somehow hold on to them? Once again, I think we need to take advantage of the knowledge of our congregations. We have fantastic lay people in our churches, who have an incredible amount to contribute. Their insights, their questions—the members of the congregation are one of the greatest resources available to a pastor.
G&P: What are the benefits to a more collaborative and dialogical sermonic process? Can this create a more meaningful experience?
Akkerman: It’s much more creative, but also more effective. I think for the preacher, it will be much more meaningful because what motivates a preacher, apart from wanting to do our best for God, is to know that what God has led us to say has actually touched the lives of the listeners. Part of the downside to preaching as we have in the last hundred years, is that preachers get very little feedback about how the people are responding.
Our congregations want something to walk away with. Unfortunately, there are these twin paths that aren’t meeting like they could. That is why I want to challenge preachers to step outside their comfort zones and trust that God’s prevenient grace is also at work in the congregation. Maybe God wants to add more to that dynamic in meaningful ways. It is creative, but the creative piece isn’t nearly as important as the ministry value of actually connecting with people.
We have a great opportunity as pastors to be in conversation with the people in worship, to be able to engage with them as we talk about and wrestle with the Word of God.
JAY AKKERMAN is Professor of Pastoral Theology and Director of Graduate Theological Online Education at Northwest Nazarene University
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