I love being taught, lectured or preached at. I used to have to attend conferences to hear the finest preachers, theologians and apologists, not any more. I can just download their materials. And I’m not alone. I know that many at CCB feast on the best of Keller, Piper and Driscoll, to name a few. And I’m all for it. But what do we make of this phenomenon? Is it all good? I’m not so sure.
I want to encourage people to grow in their faith through listening to the word of God and being built up in the faith. In that sense listening to online sermons is a little like reading a Christian book. But I have a few reservations. Let me try and articulate them.
1. We can’t see their lives
I have no idea how Don Carson treats his wife. I have no insight into the family life of Mark Dever. I don’t get to hang out in the pub with Dick Lucas. I have no reason to doubt that they are godly men. But I don’t get to see it. And that’s not enough. I don’t just need to know what godliness looks like on the page, I need to see what godliness looks like in the flesh. I need it modelled. Of course, even local church pastors can pull the wool over our eyes. We may have little idea of the secret sins that take place behind the front doors of the Vicarage. But if a man who runs his family well stands up and talks about how to discipline his children, I’m all ears. If a man who lives an evangelistic life offers a seminar on explaining the faith to others, I’m there. Many will have heard the sad news that Mark Ashton, the Rector of STAG, in Cambridge has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. He announced to the church that he ‘counted it a great privilege to show them how to die well’. You can’t do that online. We need to see how our pastors live.
2. They don’t know our issues
As brilliant as he is, John Piper doesn’t know how my life needs to be reformed by the word of God. I’m sure he’d work it out, but he doesn’t know what it’s like to be a Dad of three small children, living in an aspirational inner city suburb in 21st Century London with a mortgage, some unbelieving mates and a church plant. And I’m not criticising him for that. He’s addressing his own church situation in Minneapolis. A friend nailed this issue for me when he wrote, ‘A sermon is not (or at least, it shouldn’t be!) some timeless exposition of a Scriptural text that is delivered irrespective of a particular group of hearers; it is a passionate and persuasive exposition of a Scriptural text that is aimed fair and square at a particular group of people, exhorting them to mature and active faith in Christ’. And so we need to remember that God is more concerned that we listen to our local church sermon than we do to something travelling through the ether from the other side of the world. And so when we’re downloading sermons make sure that the first sermon you listen to is the last one you missed at your local church.
3. No one can compare with ‘the greats’
I’m no Tim Keller. No really, I’m not! I’m an average preacher. I’m not the worst but I’m not the best. There are many like me. We’re just ordinary pastors who try and understand, teach and apply the scriptures to the local congregations in which God has placed us. But if we constantly compare the average with the exceptional then we’re in danger of disparaging the pastors God has given us. If God thought that I needed Vaughan Roberts he’d have given me the brains to get an education at Oxford or made him a pioneer church planter with a predilection for getting up the nose of the Anglican authorities. But He didn’t, because I don’t. And so let’s value the average pastor teachers that God has given us and beware of dissatisfaction because they compare unfavourably with ‘the greats’!
4. They can’t lead us from afar
We’d never go online and ask someone on another continent to be our virtual Dad and take over the running of our family, no matter how good they were at parenting. Neither should we allow any of these terrific preachers to become our virtual pastors. But that’s often what happens when we begin to be influenced by and submit to the leadership of others. They become our de facto leaders. Be wary of inadvertently seeking to undermine local church leadership with an ever growing allegiance to someone else.
5. Nothing replaces reading God’s word
When I’m tired it’s easier to listen to a sermon than it is to read the Bible and pray. Occasionally that’s fine. Trouble is I’m often tired. And so the regular healthy habit of listening to God’s voice in the scriptures and responding in prayer can easily get ditched in favour of a much less demanding activity. That can’t be good. Somehow I need to carve out time in order to diligently study the scriptures and feed on God’s word. So if I’m going to listen to online talks I need to make sure that I do so with an open Bible and an open mind. I need to test what’s said by the scriptures and ensure, as I should with all teaching, that I believe only what can be substantiated from the text.
Generally speaking I’m enthusiastic about the wealth of online evangelical talks, sermons and theology. Of course, if you really want to have your life shaped by the brilliant men whose sermons we download then move! But just in case you miss my sermons you can find them online!