3 Keys to Preaching Effectively in a Pandemic World
January 24, 2021
“Is not my word like fire,” declares the LORD, “and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces? (Jeremiah 23:29)
Preaching God’s word is needed in this season more than ever before! Verses like Jer 23:29 remind us that Scripture are words spoken from God’s heart for specific occasions. God’s Word is relevant to our times and is meant to convict the hearts of our members like fires and hammers to their hearts!
Yet, it is challenging for preachers to master “relevance” and “conviction” in sermons this season due to the many changes in our member’s lives: our landscape is fluid, our world has turned upside-down — because of the Pandemic!
I have spoken to preachers who struggle with the learning curve of preaching through videos. Some were criticized for the lack of eye contact and wonder if they should use a teleprompter. Then as onsite services began, some found preaching with a face-shield difficult. And pastors are not immune to feeling depressed, where the entire preaching landscape has changed and they need to find relevance in preaching as each phase of the pandemic changes, bringing new challenges!
Let me share with you 3 ways to sharpen your preaching in a pandemic world:
1. Seek God for where He is moving in your church
Nothing happens by chance. God’s sovereignty makes this pandemic a time of fulfilling His purposes. Where is our Sovereign God moving His church?
Does God want the church to ‘hunker down’ and wait out the pandemic until things go back to normal?
Does God want the church to push into digital discipleship and see “online” as a new frontier for discipleship?
Churches that seem to be doing well are those who have set clear directions and who have decisively navigated the changes as they occur.
There seem to be two dominant ways of thinking in the minds of pastoral leaders:
- Will life ever go back to the past or will it never be like it was before? What’s the probability of there being more recurrences of “lockdowns”?
- To what degree is a physical gathering essential to Christian community? What will we lose as a church if we go online completely? Will we still be a ‘church’? Can our church still thrive?
Depending on your theology and assessment, you may be leaning towards the former, the latter or somewhere “in-between”. To preach effectively, you need to be convicted of what God is doing and what God’s call is for your church. This will come through in your imperatives and mental posture as a preacher. Your clarity as a preaching-leader will be blurred if you waffle between these two views and take a “let’s wait and see ” approach toward the pandemic.
While it is impossible to make perfect decisions, a church consultant I know observed that the churches that seem to be doing well are those who have set clear directions and who have decisively navigated the changes as they occur. The churches that take a “wait and see” approach seem to flounder more due to the uncertainty and constant change of the times.
Seeking God, sensing His leading, getting the validation of godly pastors and leaders, and ultimately making a decision for your church’s direction through the Pandemic will empower your preaching with conviction and leadership!
The other aspect has to do with discerning, “what God is saying to my church members?” In the midst of the pandemic, what is the narrative in their minds? How are they making sense of all that’s happening and what is the word they need to hear that can help them to live with hope?
Recently, I preached a message titled “A Pandemic-Christmas” where I shared the perspective that God was giving us a gift of 3 opportunities through this Pandemic season: An opportunity of seeing beyond what we normally see in our circumstances, of growing beyond our past assumptions, and of a seeking a closer personal encounter with God. Through this I tried to help people make sense of what God is doing through the first pandemic Christmas.
In the Straits Times opinion piece, Henry Mance wrote,
…with the 1920s, when, after a world war and an influenza pandemic, Americans flipped into a
decade of consumerism and decadence. “If history is a guide, it seems likely that consumption will come back with a vengeance,” writes Yale sociologist Nicholas Christakis in his book Apollo’s Arrow
…. [through the pandemic] many of us have often seen life differently – and vowed to become a
more wholesome version of ourselves. When the vaccine arrives, will we remember, or will we do everything possible to forget?1
Will people learn precious lessons and live better through this time? Or will they return to the
former with a vengeance?
What is God saying to our sheep in the midst of job struggles, family stresses and financial
As a sovereign God, He uses the pandemic to shape the heart-postures of our members in this season for His purposes. If we can talk more and understand the struggles of our members, and put ourselves in their shoes, we will be able to seek God and preach out of that space.
2. Find new stories, examples and illustrations that speak to a pandemic audience
There has been such a marked change to our world because of the pandemic that I felt the illustrations I collected over years have become irrelevant. I remember reading that John Wesley threw away his sermons every 7 years to restart and write fresh sermons—it was his way of not depending on the past and staying fresh in his anointing for preaching. I wonder if God is calling me to do something similar—to look at this season with a fresh start and rebuild my pool of sermons and illustrations?
Good illustrations are difficult to find in this season, especially Emotional Testimonies2. The pandemic is a recent phenomenon, creating a new wave of life-struggles and overcoming stories. We need to listen to our members and journey closely with them in order to understand what illustrations would minister in this season. This is made more challenging by the fact that the lock-down and small-group restrictions don’t lend to easy pastoral visits and “catch-up” conversations.
There are 2 ways I try to illustrate and apply while preaching for the pandemic:
i. Find good illustrative stories that are relevant for today
In every point of teaching, I try to explain ways that the truth can be applied in this new, pandemic life in a mindful manner.
In February, the news of Covid-19 in Wuhan was just breaking out. I was in a pharmacy, about to make my purchase when I saw a Chinese lady at the cashier. Seeing that she had on a mask and a Chinese passport in hand, I decided to take one more walk around the pharmacy hoping she would be gone when I returned! But when I came back, the lady was still there! This time, the cashier waved me over, “can you help me translate for this lady? I don’t speak Mandarin.” Apprehensively, I went up to the lady to try to help.
At the same time, a gentleman stepped in beside me and asked in a thick Chinese accent, “This medicine, can it treat this problem?” This man was not wearing a mask. I ended up spending over 15 minutes explaining to the man, and then walking with the lady a few stores down to where she needed to go to get her medicine. This time, I noticed that her eyes looked sad and tired.
I confess I was more than a little frightened that day. I feared for my health, what if I caught something! That day, God was pushing me past my fears to teach me a lesson: despite all that we were going through, there are others in greater need around us. He wants us to trust Him, and reach out to those in need to be a blessing to them.
We need more stories like this that are real-to-life and relevant to a COVID world. They connect and open people’s eyes. To pick up such stories, we need to reflect on our personal experiences, and journey with friends, members and colleagues with a listening heart.
The pandemic is too recent. All of us as preachers are starting from “ground zero” in growing such illustrations. As pastors and preachers, let us share our pandemic stories honestly with one another, including the ones that show our weaker selves!
ii. Angle applications to meet pandemic-related concerns
As the initial shock of the pandemic passes, pulpit preaching will start to shift from faith in fearful times, to faithful Christian living in contemporary times.
As we move believers to this diet of Scripture, what I’ve found helpful is to apply every teaching point to a pandemic concern.
For every teaching point, I would use scenarios and examples that apply in our pandemic context.
If it’s a teaching about God’s providence, I would paint scenarios of anxiety and uncertainty in jobs threatened by the recession and how that truth can be applied.
If it’s a teaching about God’s assurance, I would paint scenarios of disrupted industries, disrupted school-terms and how that truth would apply.
If it’s a teaching on worship and devotion, I would talk about how to create worship and devotional moments in a work-from-home context.
In every point of teaching, I try to explain ways that the truth can be applied in this new, pandemic life in a mindful manner. This takes discipline. It also requires us to consider how our members in different life stages are experiencing life in a pandemic world, and how they can apply scriptural truths in their specific contexts.
3. Work on the Preacher — (yourself!)
i. Come to terms with the work that God is doing in us
But if I say, “I will not mention him or speak any more in his name,” his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot. (Jeremiah 20:9)
One thing that made Jeremiah an anointed prophet was that he was convicted of God’s word for himself. He had wrestled with the cost of preaching, how people perceived him and weighed it against the “fire shut up in his bones”.
Is God’s message ‘burning in our bones’ this season? What’s the hope & the warning from God’s word through the Pandemic? How is our own live changed or affected? Have we reconciled with how the pandemic has affected us personally? Are we at peace with how people may perceive us or complain if we lead one way or another?
These questions have to do with the preparation of the preacher! We need to come to terms with how God is dealing with us, in order to rise up with conviction and anointing.
ii. Learn to preach in an online setting
Another aspect of preparation is that of learning new ways of preaching in hybrid and online scenarios that are now commonplace.
A pastor friend of mine fellowships with a group of pastors of churches of varying sizes through this period. They encourage and pray for one another, and share what phase 2, phase 3 means for them as it comes, and what they are thinking of changing and applying.
Keeping in touch with what other pastors are doing is a good way to know what the “best practices” are for preaching in this season. Having said that, I do not advocate just copying what others are doing. Rather, we should select the ideas that are the best fit with your conviction and direction for discipling your church in this season.
Learning new ways of delivery require us to wrestle with:
- Positioning for good angles and lighting while using a camera for online preaching
- Microphoning for quality recording and ease of movement
- Majoring on hand and upper body posturing and gestures (as lower body is rarely seen)
- Sharing PowerPoints seamlessly over zoom
- Using engagements & illustrations that work in an online/hybrid platform
The learning curve has been steep for many of us who have stepped into preaching online or in hybrid situations. However, if we feel God has called us, then it behoves us to learn sufficiently to make the communication of God’s word effective.
For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12)
Rev. Dr. Philip Huan is the Principal Consultant at ChurchLife Resources, and is passionate about helping churches and leaders become strong and healthy!
ChurchLife Resources have developed a preaching coaching programme to raise your preaching standards and build a strong consistent preaching team for your church, click here to find out more!
Photo by Edwin Hooper on Unsplash
1 Henry Mance, https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/what-will-we-take-from-this-year. (26 Dec. 20)
2 Emotive Testimonies are life stories that evoke personal connection & identification. They are a specific kind of illustration of the various types of illustrating we teach at our Preaching Course in ChurchLife Resources.