This American Sermon: The Podcast Explosion and the Future of Preaching

My good friend Stephen Mead, a preacher at the College Hill Church of Christ, has written the post this week addressing such topics as preaching, podcasts, and story.

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When I discovered what plot could do, it changed my whole sense of what a radio show could be,” said Ira Glass, in an interview on the Longform podcast, a podcast that interviews nonfiction authors about creative process.  Glass is the executive producer of the esteemed radio program and podcast, This American Life, a show which tells stories, mostly nonfiction ones, that center on a common theme.   More importantly, Glass is arguably the godfather of the burgeoning podcast industry.  

I’m listening in my truck, steering the wheel with one hand and clutching a bag of tacos in the other.  I suspect it’s a Monday, though I don’t remember.  The only evidence to support that theory is the bag of tacos, half price on Monday.  

Mondays are recovery days for me.  They’re days for feeling dull after preaching and teaching all Sunday at the local church where I work.  They’re days for Monday-morning-quarterbacking my own performance, picking apart the way I came across the morning before.

And, of course, eating tacos.

I listen as Glass picks apart his own craft, the craft of telling radio stories, and what I hear surprises me.  Oddly enough, it even gives me hope.  

In describing his craft, Glass does admit that “there are certain things that I invented myself about how you do a story for the radio.”  Yet, Glass also recognizes that what he and his protégés are doing in the radio/podcast world is not altogether new.  In fact, the particular brand of storytelling Glass employs takes root, at least in part, in antiquity:  

I’d been doing this for a while and somebody pointed out, like, “Oh, that’s the structure of a sermon.”  In a sermon you tell a little story and say, “Here’s what it means,” then you tell another story and say, “This is what it means.”  That’s a hugely ancient form.  You think about it, Jesus’ sermons in the Bible have this structure.

In other words, we could say that there’s a connection between the force that drives the podcasts we love and the force that drives a sermon.  What I’m wondering, then, is how preachers like myself might learn from podcasts, in order that we might revive, as some would see it, the dwindling art of preaching.

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So, here are a two embryonic thoughts on the matter: 

[Note: As someone who is new to preaching and new to podcasts, my perspective is woefully limited by my lack of experience.  Don’t mistake me for an expert in either field.  Consider the following my attempt to think out loud about a craft I’m in the early stages of learning.]  

1. The best podcasts harness the power of plot.

Likewise, it is plot that drives the best sermons.  Now, I know that that fact alone is hardly groundbreaking, but what I think podcasts are doing so well right now is establishing the momentum of plot early, and never letting up.  On the airwaves, the storyteller cannot afford to digress into lengthy explanations, but rather must find a way to incorporate the important explanatory details into the plot of the story.

Nonfiction writer Doug McGray recently wrote a piece for podcasts, and his thoughts on the move from written to spoken storytelling is instructive.  In a Longform interview, McGray describes how working with radio teaches you to write “with every section being scene- or plot-based.”  He says, after working with radio, “my print writing completely changed.  I…stopped doing long expository sections.”  Much in the same way, Glass comments that the ideal radio story “has forward momentum from the beginning.  It is surprising from the beginning.”  

And it never lets up.

I think my own sermons would improve with a similar streamlining of plot, where momentum is established and not stifled by long sections of explanation or digression.  For sure, sermons would lose value if they did not attempt to explain significance, but perhaps this could be better accomplished without stifling the forward motion of the story’s plot.

Some podcasts, such as the smash-hit Serial, are even finding ways to propel the momentum of a single story over several installments.  In Serial, actually, I see perhaps the best “podcast model” for sermon writing.  

Hosted and produced by Sarah Koenig, season one of Serial tells a single story over twelve episodes, released weekly.  Each episode provides enough closure to be satisfying, but also creates suspense from week to week by leaving questions unanswered.  

Though sermons are often written in series, my own sermons tend to lack true suspense from one week to the next.  I wonder: Could a single story, preached skillfully, strike that balance between closure and suspense that makes Serial so tantalizing?

Not to mention, this serializing approach could relieve a lot of the stress of Mondays, when preachers often have to start the creative process again from scratch.

2. The best podcasts tell true stories in truly entertaining ways.

As Koenig notes in an interview with New Yorker Radio Hour, listeners feel drawn to Serial in the same way that they might be drawn to “escapist entertainment.”  But then, she says, comes the realization: “But it’s real.  This is journalism.  And I’m interacting with journalism in the same way that I interact with escapist entertainment.”

Perhaps preachers can do the same through the stories that we tell.  After all, we have at our disposal all of the beauty and wildness and depth of feeling that Scripture offers—a storehouse of treasures, new and old.  

I get the sense that preachers may sometimes fear, as I do myself, that if I try to be entertaining, I risk losing sight of the purpose I seek to achieve.  Koenig wrestles with the same question as a journalist.  Here’s how she concludes:

“I think it is okay as long as I am sticking to journalistic principles.  And, as long as we’re sticking to the truth, you know… I think we’re okay.”

The same holds, I believe, for preachers.  

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Clearly there are certain aspects of what make podcasts popular that may not, or should not, translate to a ministry context.  Podcasts often make use of novelty, telling stories that no one has heard, whereas, preachers must find a way to tell age-old stories in new, interesting ways.  Podcasts also owe some of their popularity to their accessibility.  The fact that you can listen to them on your commute or treadmill—as opposed to in an assembly at a particular time—is distinct from the sermon, which needs (for good reason) a gathered community.

But the potential here, I think, is worth considering.  The creative expression found in sermons could perhaps be shaped to look more like what’s being used in the best podcasts.  After all, the two share a common heritage and goal: to tell true stories in ways that engage the mind and the heart.



Add yours →

  1. My thoughts are quick to go bring up the issue of churches preaching a message appealing to the crowd rather than the truth. But you do specifically note that the message needs to be the truth. So, you can see the danger as you are looking for ways to change the delivery.
    Then, why must a preacher find a new way to tell the age old story? If you are preaching to the same people repeatedly you are missing out on new opportunities. How can we can we come up with new ways of expressing the incentive the church has to spread the word? I feel the problem stems from most Christians not really caring if they share the good news if they feel they are living it out themselves. And that is simply not good enough.
    IS IT FAIR TO SAY OUR PLOT CONSISTS TOO MUCH OF WHAT THE AUDIENCE WANTS TO HEAR RATHER THAN WHAT THEY NEED TO HEAR? (This really must be applied on a case by case basis since generalities will not favor those who are succeeding with their efforts)


  2. Well said – this reminded me that in the Serial podcast, Koenig received feedback on episodes 1,2,3,… that was incorporated into episodes 7,8,9,10. I think Biblical preaching walks a fine-line between monologue and dialogue. If you are preaching a series, your later lessons are informed by comments about the early lessons. Likewise, prophets know their audience and know where episodes 1,2,3 need to get the audience to in order to fully appreciate 7,8,9.


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