Why Some Pastors Preach Extreme Sermons to Go Viral
I am preaching on Jeremiah 24. It’s about two baskets of figs as a symbol of God’s righteous judgment against the nation. Let’s say that I’ve put together a great sermon on this chapter, and I’m attempting to engage our community.
I will put together a graphic centered around the sermon and invite people to hear the message. I’m trying to reach millennials who are turned off by the church. Which of these two titles should I choose:
Option 1: Two Baskets of Figs
Option 2: Gettin’ Figgy With It
Okay, I know that the second option is a corny joke, and some might not even get the reference. But it’s clear that option two grabs your attention more. If my goal is to reach as many people as I can with the gospel, why would I not pick that second one?
What Goes Viral?
We live in a world with an overabundance of information. What we lack, what we are striving for these days, is attention. How do I say something, write something, present something, etc., in such a way that I can grab your attention for just a few moments?
Many preachers have taken Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9:22 to heart:
I have become all things to all people, so that I may by every possible means save some.
Whatever it takes to reach people, right?
How do we reach people in the 21st century? We must have an online presence, right? We reach people through virality. And what helps a sermon, concept, or a vision to go viral?
Studies have consistentlyshown that “virality is driven, in part, by activation and arousal. Content that evokes either high-arousal positive emotions (awe) or negative emotions (anger or anxiety) tend to be more viral.” If you want to go viral, you need to be extreme.
If a pastor wants to grab attention and build a brand (all for the glory of God, of course) then being provocative seems like the preferred path.
Have you ever studied what happens to lottery winners? What about those who experience quick fame? Most end up in tragedy. There is something about quick fame or fortune that leaves us broken rather than blessed. Proverbs 13:11 seems to apply to far more than material possessions:
Wealth gained hastily will dwindle, but whoever gathers little by little will increase it (Proverbs 13:11).
Australian cartoonist Ben Ward coined the phrase, “milkshake duck”, which perfectly encapsulates this experience.
In a tweet, Ward quipped, “The whole internet loves Milkshake Duck, a lovely duck that drinks milkshakes! *five seconds later* We regret to inform you the duck is racist.”
The whole internet loves Milkshake Duck, a lovely duck that drinks milkshakes! *5 seconds later* We regret to inform you the duck is racist
— pixelatedboat aka “mr tweets” (@pixelatedboat) June 12, 2016
That provocative sermon clip might gain attention and thousands of followers today, but because it was built on sand, it will end up in the rubble. But being relegated to eventual obscurity isn’t the biggest threat. The greatest peril is to our soul.
A couple of hundred years ago, John Newton spoke to the danger that popularity can have upon a minister. He warned a young pastor this way:
“But, alas! you cannot yet know what dangers popularity will expose you. It is like walking upon ice. When you shall see an attentive congregation hanging upon your words: when you shall hear the well-meant, but often injudicious commendations, of those to whom the Lord shall make you useful: when you shall find, upon a notice of your preaching in a different place, people thronging from all parts to hear you — how will your heart feel?” (Work of John Newton, Volume 1).
Newton later likened the combination of popularity and pride to fire and gunpowder. Noting that “you will hardly find a person, who has been exposed to this fiery trial, without suffering loss.”
Newton is correct. Virality has a way of shaping us. It can make us think that our words are more significant than they actually are. It can shift us away from our focus on Christ.
I’m reminded of what the Scottish preacher James Denney once said, “No man can give the impression that he himself is clever and that Christ is mighty to save.”
Paul and Virality
How would the Apostle Paul have used the internet and social media? Anything we say here is mere speculation, but I think we can piece together how Paul used the mediums of his day.
One of those mediums was the letter. A good chunk of the New Testament is comprised of Paul’s letters; the social media of his day.
Yet, Paul did not follow every single custom of letter writing. He was subversive. He was anchored in Jesus. And as near as we can tell, none of his letters had the purpose of virality — yet they indeed “went viral.” Paul was speaking of local things to local people.
Paul’s aim was to do people good — it wasn’t to go viral so that later he could do people good. His letters were not a means to a self-serving end. They were meant to edify.
And therein lies a massive difference between Paul’s use of social media and the preacher who is being intentionally provocative in order to gain attention for Jesus.
Paul believed that the means to accomplish something were often just as important as the thing itself. This is what he said in 2 Corinthians 4:2,
Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.
When we read that Paul “became all things to all people,” we shouldn’t read that as if Paul embraced sin in order to reach others.
Nor should we read that as if Paul cut corners when it came to character. He would have followed his own advice in Philippians 4:8 concerning the true and pure and lovely.
A Call to Faithfulness
In his diary, written almost 200 years ago, Robert Murray McCheyne wrote of his battle with popularity. McCheyne was “going viral” with his preaching within his Scottish community.
The people were loving this young preacher — and the young preacher was loving that they were loving him. And so McCheyne wrote in his diary this simple sentence: “I need to be made willing to be forgotten.”
There was an article I read a few years ago by David Murray: “Don’t Live For a Legacy.” Though it’s popular to talk about the legacy you leave, Murray made a counterargument that we do far better to not live for a legacy.
One of the statements Murray made in that post was this: “most of us have ordinary ministries, and our ministries will die with us.”
But what about gospel influence? Shouldn’t I pursue a wider reach? If more people read my stuff, hear my sermons, and engage my work, then isn’t this a benefit to the kingdom of Christ? Sure. But shouldn’t I leave that up to the Lord’s discretion? Our goal should be faithfulness.
Do I want virality or fidelity? It’s possible to have both, but not if you pursue them both. You can pursue fidelity and stumble upon virality.
But I don’t believe you can pursue virality and stumble upon fidelity. The Proverbs outline the wise and yet much slower path of faithful plodding.
For further reading:
Why Are There So Many Angry Pastors in the Church?
Why Do People Stop Going to Church?
Who Holds Pastors Accountable?
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