By Jim Rice
Through the ages, writing was usually a solitary pursuit. Ink was applied to papyrus, by quill, pen, or keyboard, and if any feedback were to be offered, it was often long after the writing was done.
That’s all changed, of course, in the digital age. A blog entry, Facebook post, or tweet receives almost-instant response, and the writer can argue or agree with the responder, and even in many cases go back and amend the original entry.
Even more-formal writing, such as screenwriting for TV shows, has been affected by this instant-feedback loop. In a recent article in Wired magazine, Clive Thompson describes the change in the ways—and the speed—in which television writers find out what audiences like (and, more often, don’t like). Jane Espenson, a writer for the ABC show Once Upon a Time, said that when she started working for TV in the early ’90s, it often took weeks or months to receive snail-mail responses to an episode. Now she receives as many as 150 replies a day on her Twitter feed, with everything from complaints about character developments to suggestions for future story lines.
Thompson compares this kind of instant-feedback writing to live performances, such as acting in a play or being on stage with a live band, “with an audience cheering, booing, and hollering out requests.” In our online, hyper-responsive world, he writes, all art—even the work of painters, songwriters, and novelists—is becoming “live.”
What does this phenomenon mean for preachers, the performing artists of the religious world? A sermon is already a live act, and the “audience” response is readily apparent to the person in the pulpit. But other than a few comments in those churches that have a response-from-the-congregation time in their service, and a few variations on “nice sermon today, pastor” in the recession line, most preachers probably receive very little content feedback on what they preach.
They could. It’s not technically difficult to set up feedback mechanisms for sermons, to intentionally seek responses from the congregation and beyond. Some pastors post teasers of their sermon topics on Facebook during the week beforehand, and even occasionally use some of the pre-feedback in their sermon prep. Many churches post sermon texts after the fact, although few have a means for readers to offer comments. (One reason, perhaps: Preaching and trolls don’t mix well.)
While it seems obvious, especially to us “priesthood of all believers” types, that preachers ought to seek as much feedback as possible from their congregations, there’s also a possible downside to enabling too much response. While dialogue and relationship are essential components of genuine preaching in any community, a pastor has to be careful not to hew too closely to what she or he perceives as “what they want to hear.” Preaching is not a popularity contest, and there’s enough temptation to soften up the “hard teachings” of Jesus to make the gospel more palatable for those raised in a gimme-mine culture. A pastor is sometimes required to preach sermons that serve more to afflict the comfortable than the reverse, and those aren’t necessarily going to be happily received by the target audience.
Nonetheless, it’s a fairly safe assumption that increasing connection with congregants, and making it easier for people to offer their responses to sermons and other activities, would be a positive thing for most religious leaders. When used well, technology can be a helpful supplement as we seek to improve communication and strengthen community among and between our bodies of believers.
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