Preaching to an Empty Room

by Alyce McKenzie
Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship, Altshuler Distinguished Teaching Professor and Director, Center for Preaching Excellence

Our current situation calls for a change in wording of the childhood rhyme:
“Here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors and there are the people.”

Our revised Covid 19 version is:
“Here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors, where are the people?”

The answer is, at home. In this odd situation, the room is empty, not because no one is interested in being present, but because they are social distancing to prevent the spread of Covid 19. As they watch the livestream, or follow on Facebook live, we preachers are presented with a very strange assignment: preaching in an engaging and passionate manner to rows of empty seats. As one who has done quite a bit of preaching and teaching to empty rooms, I have a few theological reminders and a homiletical suggestion. They address the question: how can we preachers appreciate and make the best use of this mandatory opportunity to preach to an empty room?

First, a theological reminder: the room is never empty.

My colleague at Perkins, Dr. Mark Stamm, in a recent article focused on a collect he has written, “Prayer for a Denomination in Troubled Times,” points out that all Christian prayer is corporate prayer. In the Lord’s Prayer, God is addressed with “our,” not “my.” Says Stamm, “So, then, even when we pray by ourselves in a solitary place, we should imagine that we are joined spiritually with our sisters and brothers around the world…” “All Christian prayer is corporate, especially prayers offered within the worshiping assembly. Read the article by clicking here.

What appears to be solitary prayer is never just solitary prayer. The same can be said of preaching to a virtual audience. It’s not a game of solitaire. Every week we preach, even to a crowded sanctuary, there are additional invisible worshippers present: the communion of saints. I hold the whimsical hope that they gather more closely around us to encourage us when we preach to empty seats. The room has never been empty and never will be.

Second, a homiletical reminder: In a physical setting that shouts “MONOLOGUE!” we do well to remember that preaching is (or should be) deeply dialogical. Preaching to an empty room calls for the accentuation of the preacher’s discipline of prayerful, empathic imagination in the preparation of our sermons. It is a commonplace of homiletical textbooks to encourage preachers to be in relationship with their congregations beyond the pulpit, to know their fears and dreams, their strengths and shortcomings, and to engage them in dialogue, both real and internal, in the process of preparing to preach. Sermon preparation involves exegeting the congregation as well as the text, allowing congregational considerations to shape the sermon’s theme and purpose, its use of image and story, and its communication plan. Perhaps the most eloquent expression of this advice is Fred Craddock’s emphasis on “empathic imagination.” He advises the preacher to go through the congregation, picturing individual’s faces and asking, “What is it like to be…?” A single mother struggling now more than ever to pay the rent. A gym owner who has had to close his doors and lay off his trainers. A doctor who has had two patients die of the Corona virus in the past week. A healthy 25 year old who feels the lockdowns are an overreaction. An elderly couple who are already socially distanced whose medications are running out and whose fridge is almost empty. “What’s it like to be…?”

Simply put, the preacher needs to take care to cultivate the dialogical quality of the preaching event in preparation for an occasion where it looks monological.

Next, a word about the preacher’s presence.

Preaching to an empty room calls for the cultivation of the preacher’s presence. In reflecting on this quality of the preacher, I’m indebted to my colleague Dr. Ron Allen in his book Interpreting the Gospel: An Introduction to Preaching, in his chapter “Embodying the Word.”

Allen is convinced that the most important aspect of embodiment (a word he prefers to “delivery”) is the preacher’s sense of presence. This quality is hard to define. It cannot be isolated in the way we can catalogue voice, eye contact and gestures. It permeates and empowers all those things. It is communicated by the preacher’s posture, tone of voice, and movement.

It is something the congregation can feel more than describe. Some call presence passion or conviction. It is the sense that what the preacher is saying really matters to her and ought to matter to me. It is an inner intensity that spills into the sermon. Presence, from the perspective of listeners, is a sense that the preacher is aware of the immediacy of the living God, fully present with the congregation, and centered within themselves. Presence is called forth by the awareness of God with us, by the congregation and by the occasion.

Ironically, this quality of presence is most difficult to convey where its lack will be most sorely felt: the virtual pulpit.

Ron Allen points out that the preacher cannot put on presence like an Alb, Geneva gown or John Wesley preaching robe. It grows from prayer and other Christian practices, a deep certainty of one’s call, and from being in relationship with God and the community.

Simply put, the preacher needs to cultivate presence in preparation for an occasion that seems to be more about absence.

Now, a few homiletical suggestions for online preaching/worship.

To enhance the dialogical quality of the event:

  • Build in dialogue by following the preaching with zoom conversation in small groups.
  • Break the sermon into several segments, each offered by a different preacher.
  • Break the sermon into segments, each followed by conversation/questions.
  • Do a live twitter feed during the sermon.

To enhance the sense of the preacher’s presence:

  • As always, but with perhaps greater intensity, prepare spiritually for the event.
  • Precede the sermon by a mantra that calms and energizes you. “Thank you God for this opportunity.” I suggest writing an opening prayer a few days prior to the preaching event and letting it marinate in the mind and heart. Here is one I have used.  “Thank you for your Presence, for the communion of the saints, for those worshipping online, for one another, for this unique occasion. We know that nothing can separate us from your great Love. In gratitude for that knowledge, we now gather, separate from one another, but united in You. Amen.”

More from Dr. Alyce McKenzie:
Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship, Altshuler Distinguished Teaching Professor and Director, Perkins Center for Preaching Excellence.