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Reform Magazine | June 14, 2024

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Do stay for tea and coffee: ‘A door closed and the writer I’d formerly admired continued speaking’ - Reform Magazine

Do stay for tea and coffee: ‘A door closed and the writer I’d formerly admired continued speaking’

Paul Kerensa offers a warning before pressing record

I suppose all preachers hope their sermons might linger longer. But I wonder how many know if they’re being recorded? Job 19:23 cries out, ‘Oh, that my words were recorded, that they were written on a scroll.’ Be careful what you wish for.

Many sermons of course remain live one-offs – delivered, received and retained only as long as human memory allows. It means that word-of-mouth can spread (‘Did you hear last week’s sermon? I hear it was very good…’) without any evidence to the contrary.

But plenty of sermons are now recorded for absent congregants. Long before the pandemic, computer keys were clicked, minidisc buttons pushed or cassette decks’ ‘Record’ and ‘Play’ pressed in unison. It all depends on your church’s technology. There’s probably a reel-to-reel device still in use somewhere.

Secured for posterity, the words of wisdom are then hosted on a church website, a Youtube channel or some internet ‘cloud’ (appropriate for heavenly reflections). I’m old enough to remember churches loaning cassettes – just woe betide you if you didn’t return it. I once had the churchwarden knocking on my door wanting the tape back. You don’t get that sort of menacing service from libraries.

There can be pitfalls. On a recent preaching course, we were advised against referring to people by name without their permission. ‘My child did this funny thing’ can be an easy icebreaker, but with sermons staying online for years, that child may grow up to find their awkward misspeaking or bathroom incident hasn’t been forgotten like they’d hoped.

Another thing that should perhaps stay in the past is certain inappropriate humour, and I say that as a comedian.

I have no problem with jokes in sermons, but Irish jokes? I’ve heard them more recently than I’d like. Sexist jokes, blue jokes, innuendo – if there’s a time and a place for these, it’s not Sunday 10am at the lectern. ‘May I speak as if this may be played back at a disciplinary hearing’ could be a useful private thought.

Over-sharing can be a problem in preaching. So too can topical references. I’ve heard old sermons on podcasts where I’ve had to Google. The Millennium bug, Gangnam Style and the Ice Bucket Challenge were briefly everywhere, till they weren’t.

I’ve also found my naïve view of some speakers has been punctured. I’ve heard powerhouse preaches at conferences or even weddings, and gone online to hear more from the same person, only to hear the same talk, repackaged for a dozen different occasions. That’s not their fault of course – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it – but it’s a curse of the technology that listeners can get déjà vu in some sermons.

Yet nothing compares to my shattered view of one famous preacher/writer, who shall remain nameless. I admired his books so I searched online for various talks he’d given. I found a few podcasts of churches he’d visited – where he was unwittingly recorded.

Midway through an impressive sermon on ‘welcome’, a baby cried on the recording. The preacher stopped mid-sentence to shout: ‘There is a crèche! I will wait.’ And he did. For ten seconds, there was nothing on the recording but footsteps and the infant’s retreating wail. A door closed and the writer I’d formerly admired continued speaking.

Recorded or not, perhaps we should choose our words as if they may be repeated back to us. One day, at heaven’s gate, they might be.

Paul Kerensa is a comedian, writer and broadcaster. @paulkerensa

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