I’ve noticed a new trend emerging among Christians: substituting regular church attendance for listening to podcasts online. To be clear, I’m not talking about podcasts about music or gardening, holidays or politics, or the utterly meaningless meanderings of self-appointed life gurus. I’m talking about replacing Sunday Church with a sermon podcast or the Christian version of an Ellen Degeneres show, which is sometimes but more often than not, originating in a church located thousands of kms away.
Before anyone hears me suggesting that we flush our podcast subscriptions down the virtual toilet, I enjoy listening to a range of talks and discussions of ideas. I’m currently subscribing to 8 or 9 podcasts on my phone, mostly about history or politics. As someone who is preaching most Sundays, I also appreciate listening to other preachers, partly to help keep myself sharp and growing as a preacher. I might listen to 2 sermons a month.
I’m not knocking Christian podcasts; they can be of some value. Needless to say, it depends on which podcasts you’re listening to. If it’s Joyce Meyer or Rob Bell, you’re better off joining Vincent Van Gogh and enter God’s Kingdom without any ears, than listening to those offerings from hell. There are also many great preaching podcasts available and there are thoughtful conversations with Christian theologians and pastors that we can download and appreciate while travelling into work each day. Like a good book, podcasts can teach us and broaden our horizons to useful ideas. My issue is not podcast per se, but a misplaced emphasis Christians are now placing on these ministries.
Here are 3 concerns I have about Christians relying on podcasts instead of regular attendance at their home church.
First, except in the case when you were sick or on vacation and have caught up on your Church’s sermons online, the obvious needs saying: other sermons were not preached for you or for me, but for another congregation who live a different context. The preacher has not spent the week praying for you and preparing a sermon for your instruction and encouragement. He does not share pastoral oversight for you and your family. It’s a bit like eating someone else’s dinner – tastes good but it wasn’t prepared for you.
Second, listening to someone on your iPhone is not equivalent to meeting up with brothers and sisters face to face, praying together, singing together, sharing and serving one another.
Relying on our phones for spiritual nourishment suggests an individualistic pietism. Individualism may be a prominent value in our culture, but it’s not how the Bible describes God’s purpose for us. The very nature of salvation is that God is redeeming a people for himself.
“19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” (Ephesians 2:19-22)
Third, enjoying Christian podcasts should not be confused with spiritual growth. Like I’ve already said, they can be helpful, instructive and encouraging, but it’s important that we follow the Bible’s view of spiritual maturity. Christians grow in Christ, as we grow together in Him. Whether it’s growth in knowledge or love or godliness, the Bible pictures this happening in the context of community, where we have covenanted with other Christians. Paul makes the argument clear and attractive in Ephesians ch.4
“11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”
Convincing ourselves that we are doing well spiritually, despite being irregular at church or not attending at all, is a grave misstep. Christians grow and mature in community with other Christians, not by cutting ourselves from the body of Christ.
If you’re feeling the need to listen to sermons online because the preaching at your church is (in your estimation) so poor, either you need to find another church or humble yourself to the preaching in your church. Might I suggest, the best thing to do is speak to your Pastor about it.
A previous generation watched ‘Songs of Praise’ on the ABC or a Foxtel preacher hiding his Devil’s tail behind the pulpit. Today we have free access too an endless supply of faithful and faithless material online, to good, ordinary, and the demonic. My urge is, use them wisely, use them occasionally, and don’t ever let them take the place of your local church. We must learn to eat from our own table.