The Interactive Sermon II: Web 2.0
By David Lose
Excerpted and adapted from Preaching at the Crossroads copyright (c) 2013 Fortress Press. Reproduced by permission of Augsburg Fortress.
One major problem facing Christians in the twenty-first century is an overwhelming plethora of sources from which to construct religious identity, none of which hold a privileged place. This captures in a nutshell the reality of living in a postmodern, secular, and pluralistic world. Christian congregations will therefore thrive in this environment only to the degree that they offer the biblical narrative to their members as a creative and compelling resource with which to create an identity that brings greater understanding of both self and world and invites them to see God in their everyday lives. For this to happen, Christians churches cannot be content, as I've suggested, simply to promote biblical literacy (knowing the content of the Bible), but also and more importantly biblical fluency (the ability to think-without thinking-in the target language).
How might Christians develop this kind of fluency? Two options animate the contemporary religious scene. A conservative, traditionalist approach confronts the postmodern, pluralistic challenge by constructing a religious identity for its adherents that stands over and against other sources. Preaching, from this framework, is equal measures (1) teaching of the basic worldview and how to apply it to life and (2) exhortation to do so. The dominant homiletical preference of this orientation has naturally been expository preaching, where the preacher isolates the central cognitive idea of a passage so as to apply it to the life situation of the hearer today. The enduring concern for traditionalist preachers is fidelity: has the sermon accurately and convincingly presented the cognitive truth embedded in Scripture? . . .
In contrast, the mainline, cosmopolitan impulse has been to engage culture, confessing that the work of the triune God is manifest in culture as well as the church. Consequently, mainline preaching has been far more interested in facilitating an experience of God through its interpretation of the biblical text-preaching as event-rather than isolating a cognitive truth. Narrative preaching has lent itself to this goal by placing the biblical story alongside contemporary stories from art, culture, and current events so as to invite hearers to make experiential connections between the two. The pressing concern for narrative preachers is not so much a rigid fidelity but instead relevancy: does the sermon help hearers make sense of the biblical story in light of their immediate context? . . .
It would seem that we have reached an impasse: either adopt a rigid formulation of a Christian narrative that negates much if not most of the cultural forms we live with, or affirm those cultural forms at the expense of the primacy and even relevancy of the biblical narrative as constituent to our religious identity. It's at just this point that turning to recent trends in the ongoing development of the Internet may be instructive.
In many ways, the Internet epitomizes the relativistic world of competing value systems and sources for religious identity in which we preach. The ability to click between alternating, even opposing narratives instantaneously captures the essence of lives in a digitally pluralistic world. While we may visit the website of our local congregation or national denomination, we know those sites are only two of literally millions that offer the resources from which to construct a compelling narrative identity.
Over the last decade, however, observers of the Internet have noticed an increasing preference among users not only to receive information but also to interact with it. A dozen years ago, this was represented by the growing phenomenon of chat rooms; today you see it in social networks like Facebook, e-commerce sites like eBay and Amazon, which rely heavily upon user ratings of their experiences, the immense success of a volunteer-driven encyclopedia like Wikipedia, and the actual cooperative production of open-source software. Even now, this kind of interaction is being pushed further, as Second Life and similar avatar-driven, virtual worlds allow users to construct and experiment with multiple digital identities.
The heightened value that users assign to interacting with and through computer programs has not gone unnoticed by software developers. Recognizing that interactive use not only leads to greater fluency with and allegiance to particular Web-based platforms like Twitter, but also leads to better technology as in open-source programs like Mozilla Firefox, programmers have increasingly designed software that is not "complete" apart from user interaction, adaptation, and improvisation. This emerging trend has been named Web 2.0, a term first coined by Darcy DiNucci. Writing in 1999, DiNucci predicted, "The Web we know now, which loads into a window on our computer screens in essentially static screenfuls, is an embryo of the Web as we will know it in not so many years . . . [when] the Web will be understood, not as screenfuls of text and graphics but as a transport mechanism, the ether through which interactivity happens."
I am intrigued by the possibility Web 2.0 holds as a metaphor for an approach to bridging the gap between the identity and meaning making that we experience on Sunday and that of the rest of the week. For instance, what if we imagined that the purpose of Sunday worship, and in particular the sermon, was not to present "screenfuls of text"-a finished message, an artful interpretation of the biblical text-but instead as "a transport mechanism, the ether through which interactivity happens." What if the sermon provided not simply the content of the biblical narrative as a source for religious identity, either in the "strict" prescriptive form of conservative preaching or in the "lenient" suggestive form of mainline preaching, but also promoted lively interaction with that story? To put it another way, is there room in our homiletical imagination for an interactive sermon?