Google It! Preaching in the 21st century

By Mike Barrett

If Marshall McLuhan was correct when he wrote that “each medium produces a different effect on the human sensorium,” the stretch for meaning in preaching today must reach toward use of contemporary media, social included. (See The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects, Bantam Books, 1967. The title is a play on McLuhan’s famous line “The medium is the message.”)

A younger audience equates effectiveness to the preacher’s use of relevant language and images, including a familiarity with street-credible media, to connect the eternal to the ephemeral. Lofty and philosophical treatises no longer capture the nine-minute imagination. I recall my mom urging her eight kids at home to “Look it up!” when we stumbled over the spelling of a word. Rarely did she spell out the word for us, as she knew that learning and discovery are part of the unfolding process in education. How well I learned that lesson from her, judging by the teasing I get from parishioners whom I often urge to “Google it!” This is how people learn today, and this is how I teach, at times.

I recall the time, while preaching on Matthew’s Gospel reference to salt and light, when I used my smartphone during the homily to Google “Florida sea turtles.” Yes, I practiced at home beforehand, but the website hyperlink directed the assembly’s attention to a brief exposé on the turtles’ penchant for bright, artificial streetlights even though their motherboards beckon them to the moon’s natural light that is reflecting on the ocean waters. Our baptism calls us back to our roots through a world filled with lights that are contrary to the Gospel.

During Lent, the man born blind offered me another opportunity to Google the rising appearance of unsicht bars in Germany, where “unsighted” (unsicht) wait staff introduce the dining experience to sighted customers who dine in the dark, thus opening the sighted up to eating with more than just their sense of taste. Perceived holes in one’s armor can actually be openings for light to enter in.

On the Feast of the Ascension, I used a large classroom globe of the Earth to help explain Bishop John Shelby Spong’s book Why Christianity Must Change or Die. Someone standing in Tahiti pointing upward points in a totally different direction from one who stands in England and points up; the notion here was that our human expression for supernatural reality is quite limiting. It can deter the human spirit and imagination when we apply only a literal understanding to faith and scriptural images. Hence, by his ascension, Christ is now free to be present in new and varied ways. And we, the assembled, become an answer to the question: “Just where is Jesus now?”

Finally, at Pentecost, I wondered aloud what “Jesus breathed on his disciples” would look like and invited people to participate in a real-time Heimlich maneuver workshop. I briefly explained the use of this action, which allows a person choking to breathe again. Life’s events can knock the wind out of us — the loss of a spouse of 65 years, a physician’s diagnosis, a sudden job transfer. God’s Spirit is sent upon us as the church to help us catch our breath and to discern an opening for grace. I demonstrated the Heimlich maneuver on a willing volunteer at each service, and afterward, with the help of an empty wine bottle and cork, showed how the cork popping out resembled dislodging the choking object and the act of forgiveness. In preparation for a luscious dinner, we uncork a bottle of good wine to allow it to breathe. The goal of forgiveness is to dislodge the resentment and bitterness that keep us from breathing God in and out of our lives. “Whose sins you shall forgive …”

Preaching in the 21st century can seem daunting, especially for someone trained in the previous century. Stepping outside of the box can be a challenge as preachers face an eager assembly, alive with connectivity. Yet, presenting a poignant message can be rewarding for the preacher who proceeds to discover anew through the use of media that inform the multifaceted human sensorium.

And not to worry: The preacher’s worthy effort sometimes starts right at his or her fingertips.

Fr. Mike Barrett is pastor of Our Lady of Good Hope Parish in Milwaukee. Contact him at frmikeb@olghparish.org. This article appears in the October 2014 issue of Celebration.

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