Empty Pews at Church

Virtual Preaching in COVID-19 Era

I never would have imagined that Robert Smith, Jr.’s pre-sermon preaching requirement from my homiletics class at Beeson Divinity School seven years ago would be the preparation that I needed to prepare myself to preach to an empty church every Sunday for the majority of 2020.  A week before preaching to the full class, Smith requires each of his students to preach their assigned text in full sermonic form, to him, an audience of one.

Preaching to one person in an otherwise empty classroom presents the temptation to dumb down the fervor and the intensity of the preaching moment, and to change the delivery and style in which one is accustomed to preaching. However, from the reading of the text to the style and delivery of the sermon, Smith requires and expects excellence and authenticity.

That lesson has not been lost.  Having spent the last 25 years preaching, I have had the opportunity to preach to congregations and audiences both large and small, but for the exception of Smith’s class, I have never preached to an empty room . . .  until now.

The COVID-19 global pandemic of 2020 demanded that many preachers deliver the Sunday sermon through a variety of virtual social media outlets, from kitchen tables, small pastor’s offices, dining room tables, patios, and in churches where only two or three are gathered.  For most pastors, these new virtual worship attendance realities have presented both challenges and opportunities in the delivery of the sermon. Since many churches have remained closed during the pandemic, most sermons are delivered virtually, which means that the call and response experience that many of these preachers were accustomed, is missing, since no one is in the pews.  Prominent among traditions that employ and practice the call and response dynamic is the African-American preaching tradition.

Although Cleophus LaRue makes the argument that “there is no one methodology, style, or expression that constitutes the definitive form of African-American preaching,”[i]  LaRue and several authorities of the black preaching tradition also attest that one of the most common characteristics of the African-American worship service, and particularly black preaching is “the antiphonal call-and-response ritual that the preacher and congregation engage in during the sermon.”[ii]

The communal aspect of the sermon in African-American churches is most noted in the antiphonal dynamic, known as call and response.  Those who have been submerged in and who have experienced the call and response worship culture, will attest that the experience requires the presence of people, within the worship setting, verbally encouraging the preacher during the act of proclamation, as the preacher encourages the hearer through the proclamation of the Word of God.  Call and response is a sort of homiletical ping pong, in which the verbal and emotional volley between preacher and congregation is unending.

The beauty of black preaching is due to several distinctive elements, but none more germane to the black church as call and response.  Black preaching has been noted for its musicality. Gerald L. Davis, in I Got the Word in Me and I Can Sing it You Know: A Study of the Performed African-American Sermon, captures the ethnoaesthetics of the African-American preaching tradition as oral performance by examining meter and antiphony (call and response) as distinguishing marks in the African-American sermon.

Likewise, Evans Crawford, in The Hum: Call and Response in African-American Preaching, focuses on how African-American preachers employ voice inflection, pauses, and other oral innovations, coupled with the verbal responses from the congregation as a dominant feature in the African-American sermon.

The African-American preaching event is a communal event.  Joel Gregory, co-author with Bill Crouch in What We Love About the Black Church, testifies,

These responses from the pew are welcome feedback for the minister to explore more fully and passionately the movement of the sermon.  The freedom of the congregation and the preacher in this call-and-response dynamic makes black preaching a communal experience that is proclaimed not only to the people but also with the people.[iii]

In this way, the preacher and the congregation are participants in the proclamation event. James Earl Massey comments,

Many churches of varying denominational contexts are accustomed to plan a call-response action through a reading, a litany, a chant; the black sermon is itself a call for response. The black preacher usually allows for and expects acts of communalism among his hearers, even vocal expressions of praise, agreement, encouragement, and prompting.[iv]

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced preachers who belong to a “call and response” tradition to consider other modes of delivery. However, for many if not most African-American pastors and preachers, the absence of people in the pews has very little influence on changing the celebratory and climactic delivery of the sermon. African-American preaching still thrives with style and substance in the era of the virtual worship service where there is a call from the pulpit, but no verbal response from empty pews.

African-American preaching delivery includes the genius of poetic rhetoric, imagination, rhythmic cadence, and climactic celebration, all of which are enhanced by the people in the pews, but none of which are solely dependent upon the pew for its authenticity and effectiveness; that is a critical lesson I first learned in Smith’s preaching class.  Since the pandemic, many who engage in climatic and celebratory preaching have been criticized for their unwillingness or inability to change their preaching style.  However, this constant and faithful practice of celebration in preaching is intentional and not solely due to the preacher’s inability to adapt.

The fact that there are some African-American preachers who still “whoop” in their virtual Sunday service on Facebook and YouTube Live streamed worship services from kitchen tables, is evidence of the authenticity of Spirit-inspired proclamation, rather than the preacher’s rhetorical rigidity and intellectual inflexibility.

There are two common elements that provide validity to celebration and climax as inherent elements of preaching delivery in the virtual preaching era.  There are also valuable insights and lessons that all traditions can glean and learn from the African-American pulpit. First, the African-American preaching art, whether exercised in front of one thousand or five people, is most concerned with the partnership between the preacher and the audience of One: God the Holy Spirit.  Secondly, celebration in African-American preaching stems from a spirituality that produces hope and joy as the necessary sustenance that sustains congregations and those who preach to them in their seemingly elusive quest for truth, justice, and reconciliation.

These two elements answer the question: “why continue the practice of celebration when preaching to a room where there is no verbal and emotional response from the pews?”  At a much deeper level, the virtual preaching era has challenged us to pause and consider how many of our sacred and cultural traditions and practices are affected and altered, if not eliminated in this era. For the African-American preacher and for those who hear African-American preachers, these two elements provide the pathos of African-American proclamation – both in the in-person community and the virtual community realities.

Celebration as Holy Spirit Inspired Practice

Celebration is not solely dependent upon people in pews, but rather upon the God who is present in Spirit. The climatic component of the sermon cannot be reduced to or defined as mere emotionalism. Nor can celebratory preaching be reduced to performance demanding of a crowd or gathering. The climatic component of the black preaching tradition is as cerebral and mentally stimulating as it is emotionally stirring. For the black preaching tradition, mental stimulation and emotional stirring is a Holy Spirit-inspired human performance. Call and response is not only “talk-back” it is also “feel-back,” wherein both preacher and pew are able to feel (and feel-out) the other and from that feeling, the sermon takes on a spiritual spontaneity that elicits hope and transformation.

Concerning this verbal and nonverbal experience, Teresa Fry Brown comments, “it is an exchange of information between preacher and people based on cultural experience, freedom of artistic and linguistic expression, and a belief in spiritual endowment that resonates between the preacher and the listener”[v]

Some argue that celebration has no place in virtual, empty room preaching.  Many also assume that celebration is inauthentic and manipulative.  Although manipulation is a constant temptation of the climactic portion of the sermon, Holy Spirit-inspired speech and performance allow the preacher to avoid manipulation.  Making the Word present, according to Kelly Miller Smith, Sr. “is the Spirit of God working upon the mind and spirit of the preacher with the directions that he . . . proclaim the powerful, critically relevant, uncompromising Word of the living God.”[vi]  The preacher must always be on guard against the temptation to manipulate the hearer.  However, the performative nature of the climax is not the determinative factor of manipulation; rather, the relationship of the climax with the relevant subject matter is the major indicator of manipulation. Henry H. Mitchell makes this point:

The cardinal sin of the Black pulpit is probably that of irrelevant celebration – gravy that does not match the meat, so to speak. Good gravy is always made of the essence of the meat to be served, and the same is true of the good gospel feast. When the celebration is about something else, the real message is lost, while the celebration, if it has any substance at all, is recalled.[vii]

Herein lies the reason that preachers who employ celebration in preaching, even in virtual settings should not avoid celebration throughout the delivery of the sermon.  James Earl Massey, states:

It is true that art can be exploited and turned to the false end of exhibitionism. But the prostitution of an art must not blind us to its proper end and effects. A preacher must not ignore the soundness of the theory and insistence that his sermon should produce a climax of impression for his hearers. Preaching at its best involves this, and more; but if it lacks this ability, no matter whatever else it has, such a sermon will make no difference.[viii]

For Massey, the climactic component is designed to invite and draw the congregation into the worship experience of Jesus the deliverer, of which black preaching is the central part. Celebration in preaching, in the cyber realms of virtual worship, is a Spirit-filled proclamation, emanating from the heart of the preacher, over the inherent power and promise of the Word of God.

Haddon Robinson’s definition of expository preaching captures the role of the Holy Spirit and His importance in the preaching partnership, when he argues, “expository preaching is the communication of a biblical concept, derived from and transmitted through a historical, grammatical, and literary study of a passage in its context, which the Holy Spirit first applies to the personality and experience of the preacher, then through the preacher, applies to the hearer.”[ix]  Before talk back and feel back, the preacher must be endowed by the Holy Spirit in order to elicit any verbal and spiritual response from the hearer.

Celebration as Rhetoric of Hope Amidst Injustice

In the African-American church tradition, celebration through worship is the medium by which the Christian is sustained with joy amidst realized and perceived social injustices.  The virtual era has not only been a time when the COVID-19 global pandemic has disproportionately affected African-American communities[x] but simultaneously been an era where African-American communities and churches have had to protest the injustices of brutality and racism.  The deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor in 2020 sparked nationwide protests and opened wounds in African-American communities that continue to fester.  These tragic events were and continue to be the focus of many sermons in this virtual preaching era. As in the eras of slavery and Jim Crow, the preaching event in African-American churches, through call and response, inspired hope and joy, amidst the sadness of lament.

Olin P. Moyd, contests, “African-American preaching is a weekly therapeutic injection to patients who have been victimized by racism and oppression, to give them the vitality to participate in their healing – in their redemption.” Celebration, even in virtual preaching, is resistance against these recent injustices as much as it is rejoicing in the Gospel of Christ where justice and reconciliation are proclaimed and promised.

In the virtual era of preaching, as long as injustice, racism, and disparities are overt realities in African-American communities, celebration in preaching is both intentional and necessary to sustain the community. James Earl Massey informs, “Those who make battle daily on the many fronts of personal and public life need a worship occasion that both informs and inspires them . . ., festivity in the black sermon excels in being an invitation to joy, even in the midst of sorrow and struggle.”[xi]

Preachers sent to address injustices in the social crises of the community, often employ fiery rhetoric even in the virtual preaching moment.  In fact, the display of emotion – even the emotion of anger – can be very effective when the biblical text calls for passion. The preacher is called to communicate the mood of the text. Since God is a God of justice and truth, His anger is against those who do injustice (Psalms 1: 4-6, 34:16; 1 Pet 3:12). To be true to God and true to the Word of God, the preacher is required to communicate the emotion in the text and to communicate the heart of God in those appropriate emotions. The preacher must exercise emotion, but not incite fear, anger, or alienation due to words that provoke negative emotions.

Abraham J. Heschel demonstrates the difference between the prophet’s passion arising from the righteous indignation of God and what is vengeful and incendiary in motive when he states of Jeremiah, “He was filled with a blazing passion, and it was this emotional intensity which drove him to discharge God’s woeful errands.”[xii] In presenting the anger of the text, the preacher is also communicating the love of God, for His anger and wrath are byproducts of His love. Heschel precisely captures this aspect when he writes,

Man’s sense of injustice is a poor analogy to God’s sense of injustice. The exploitation of the poor is to us a misdemeanor; to God, it is a disaster. Our reaction is disapproval; God’s reaction is something no language can convey. It is a sign of cruelty that God’s anger is aroused when the rights of the poor are violated when widows and orphans are oppressed?[xiii]

The idea is to captivate the mind and heart of the hearer, make the claim, and move them with emotional fervency toward the goal of the sermon.  Kelly Miller Smith, Sr. warns, “words in the form of mere angry rhetoric or incendiary verbalization do not constitute social crisis preaching.”[xiv]

Celebration in preaching reflects the preacher’s identification with communities who long for justice, as they wait for it in joy.  This joy comes from proclaiming and hearing the Word of God and the promise of an alternative vision where righteousness and peace reign, one quite different from that which is constructed by race and caste.  Within this communal component of preaching stands the reality that the preachers are a part of the community they are sent to address, sharing in their plight and pain. The Spirit-inspired celebration of African-American preaching is also a call to rejoice in the individual and communal transformative power of the Word of God.

No matter the space, kitchen table or pulpit, no matter the attendance, packed sanctuary, or multi-media crew only, celebration in preaching is a call, and it beckons for a response.  William Crouch explains his appreciation for the African-American pulpit when he comments, “black preaching uses energy and spirit to take the Word of God and bring it to life in a way that changes lives.  It demands that the hearer listen, think, and respond.”[xv]

Ultimately, the call is for believers to follow Christ and His ethic of love; the response, in word, worldview, and deed, is to obey the One whose presence is the most important presence in the preaching moment. He has called both preacher and pew to hear and heed the Word of the Lord. Amen.

[i] Cleophus J. LaRue, The Heart of Black Preaching, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), 9.

[ii] Ibid, 11.

[iii] William H. Crouch, Jr. and Joel C. Gregory, What We Love About the Black Church, (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2010), Chapter 5, Kindle

[iv] James Earl Massey, The Responsible Pulpit (Anderson, IN: Warner Press, 1974), chap. 6, Kindle.

[v] Teresa Fry Brown, Delivering the Sermon, Elements of Preaching, O. Wesley Allen, Jr. Ed., (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 37.

[vi] Kelly Miller Smith, Social Crisis Preaching, (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1983) 19.

[vii] Henry H. Mitchell, Black Preaching: The Recovery of a Powerful Art (Nashville: Abingdon, 1990), 121.

[viii] Massey, The Responsible Pulpit, chap. 6.

[ix] Haddon W. Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages, (Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic, 1980), Chapter 1, Kindle.

[x] The Center for Disease Control reports, “Racial and ethnic minority groups, African-Americans, Hispanics and Latinos, American Indians/Alaskan Natives, and Asian/Pacific Islanders, are at increased risk of getting COVID-19 and having severe illness.” See https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/other-at-risk-populations/rural-communities.html.

[xi] Massey, The Responsible Pulpit, chap. 6.

[xii] Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Harper and Row, 1962), 146.

[xiii] Heschel, The Prophets, 365.

[xiv] Smith, Sr., Social Crisis Preaching, 84.

[xv] Crouch and Gregory, What We Love About the Black Church, Chapter 1, Kindle.