Teaching the Word



Preaching to Postmoderns: Is 'Multimedia Experience' the Answer?

By Dr. Paul M. Elliott
In many churches, reliance on the power of technology is supplanting reliance on the power of the Holy Spirit.

Final installment of a five-part series. Read part four.

People who come out of today's atmosphere of total-immersion multimedia bombardment into the calm and order of a Biblical worship service are, we are told, bored and unimpressed. How are the preacher and the church to deal with this? Is today's "multimedia church experience" the answer?

The Biblical Preacher's 21st-Century Challenge

Any preacher who would be true to his Biblical mandate (2 Timothy 3:16-4:5) faces severe challenges in our time, unlike those of any past generation. Constant multimedia bombardment - at home, in the car, in stores, in banks, in restaurants, in the workplace, almost everywhere - is producing a generation that is increasingly physically and intellectually lazy, emotionally desensitized, psychologically confused, and morally disordered in ways that perhaps no other generation has been. This is true even of many people who claim to know Christ.

People who come out of this atmosphere of total-immersion multimedia bombardment into the calm and order of a Biblical worship service are, so we are told, bored and unimpressed.

Sadly, much of the Evangelical church has decided that the answer is to emulate the world. This, say the postmodern experts, is the thing that will reach the multimedia generation for Christ. The result is a "church" that is a multimedia experience designed to manipulate the emotions by overwhelming the senses.

The Multi-Billion-Dollar "Worship Industry"

This headlong rush to emulate the world has spawned an entirely new "worship industry." Magazines such as Outreach, Worship Facilities, and Church Production, and the annual Worship Facilities Expo (a "worship industry" trade show), are telling increasing thousands of church leaders how to spend anywhere from a few thousand to millions of dollars to reconfigure churches both large and small into "experience centers" in which the Biblical worship service is discarded, preaching is non-existent, and the congregation is instead swept along each week by a flood of feel-good multimedia experiences.

The "best" of these so-called churches - the ones that the gurus of this revolution hold up as the prime examples to emulate - put on productions each week that rival those at many theme parks. Companies that used to provide such equipment, technology, and production techniques mainly to theme parks, arenas, theatres, and traveling rock groups are now rushing to cultivate and exploit an entirely new multi-billion-dollar market: the Evangelical church.

The result is that the evils that are being cultivated out in the media-driven world - the intellectual laziness, the emotional desensitization, the psychological confusion, and the moral disorder - are being reinforced and even further cultivated in the church.

Although he wrote and preached in a different time and place, Martyn Lloyd-Jones was quite prescient in recognizing the early developments of this trend, and where it was headed. He saw that it is very easy for the camel to get his nose under the tent, so to speak: Just a little bit of these kinds of things won't hurt, the early progenitors of this movement said, and we can keep all of it under control and use it to the best effect.

"Why Didn't You Let That Man Preach?"

Martyn Lloyd-Jones recounted his own experience when he was invited to the United States for a series of preaching engagements in the 1960s. One stop during this trip was a large church in Southern California - the birthplace of Hollywood and the theme park, and, not coincidentally, the multimedia church. On his first Sunday evening at this church, the service began with forty-five minutes of entertainment - instrumental solos, a singing group that, as he put it, "acted out" what they sang, and endless repetition of choruses under the direction of a "worship leader" who interspersed witty comments. The entire purpose, he soon realized, was to put the congregation "in the mood" for what was to follow. He began to realize, as he stood on the platform enduring all of this, that his preaching was expected to be an extension of the entertainment.

This particular church's service was broadcast live on the radio. And so, with only about twelve minutes left in the one-hour broadcast after all the preliminaries, Martyn Lloyd-Jones was finally introduced to preach - and preach he did. He resolved to ignore the clock, and preach the message he had prepared. And of course, when the time for the one-hour broadcast ended, he went off the air, just a few minutes into his message. He continued to preach to the congregation before him until he had completed the sermon he came to preach.

The result was remarkable. The church and the radio station received a flood of irate phone calls from listeners, the gist of which was, "Why didn't you let that man preach? Why did you waste all that time on the preliminaries, and only give him the last few minutes?"

The church leadership, at least for the moment, took note. At the next service they cut back all the entertainment to a minimum, and gave Martyn Lloyd-Jones a full forty-five minutes of air time. So much for the conventional notion that entertainment is the thing that will hold people's interest, and that preaching won't. The sound, fervent preaching of the Word was the thing that really did.

Visionary Statements

Here are some additional visionary statements on these matters by Martyn Lloyd-Jones in Preaching and Preachers, first written in 1969:

In order that we may be thoroughly practical and contemporary I must raise at this point the question of whether we should do anything to condition the meeting and the people for the reception of our message. The question of music arises here. After all, the preacher is the one who is in charge of the service and it is within his province therefore to control this. This can be a very thorny question at the present time, and I have known many ministers who have been in great trouble over the question... Sometimes churches have paid [musicians and worship leaders] who may not even be members of the church, or make any claim to being Christians... And, coming down to a more popular type, there is the endless chorus singing, and "song-leaders" [in 21st-century terms, "worship leaders"]...whose special function it is to...get the people into the right mood...

How do we evaluate all this? What is our attitude towards it?

...[This] raises the whole problem of the element of entertainment insinuating itself and leading people to come to the services to listen to the music rather than to worship. I contend that we can lay it down as a fairly general rule that the greater the amount of attention that has been paid to this aspect of worship - namely the type of building...and the singing, and the music - the greater the emphasis on that, the less spirituality you are likely to have; and a lower spiritual temperature and spiritual understanding and desire can be expected.

But I would go further and ask a question, for I feel it is time we began to ask this question. As I have said previously in another connection, we must break into certain bad habits that have settled into the life of our churches and which have become a tyranny...I suggest that it is time we asked the question: Why is any of this accent on music necessary? Why does it have any place at all? Let us face this question; and surely as we do so we must come to the conclusion that what we should seek and aim at is a congregation of people singing the praises of God together; and that the real function of [instruments] is to accompany that. It is to be accompaniment; it is not to dictate; and it must never be allowed to do so. It must always be subservient.

...deliberate attempts at "conditioning" the people are surely thoroughly bad....this attempt to "condition" the people, to soften them up, as it were, actually militates against the true preaching of the Gospel. This is not mere imagination or theory. [He then recounted the experience I mentioned above.]

...Keep the music in its place. It is a handmaiden, a servant, and it must not be allowed to dominate or to control in any sense.

I mention another matter that sounds trivial - and yet some people have paid great attention to this. It is as to whether you should manipulate the lights in the building in which you are preaching so as to make the preaching more effective. Some have different colored lights installed and as the sermon goes on the lights are gradually put out until at the end, in one particular case of which I am thinking, there was no light on except an illuminated red cross suspended above the preacher's head. All this is just psychological conditioning, and it is being justified in terms of making it easier for people to believe and to accept the Truth. We can leave it at that, and simply say that the question that really arises here is one's view of the work and the power of the Holy Spirit. How impossible it is to fit all that into the New Testament Church and its spiritual worship.

Against the Emergent "Conversation"

Martyn Lloyd-Jones was also exceedingly far-sighted in condemning what has come to be the 21st-century phenomenon of replacing Biblical preaching with a "conversation" - the preferred method of today's Emergent Church movement. Lloyd-Jones is once again adamant:

God is not to be discussed or debated. God is not a subject for debate, because He is Who He is and What He is. We are told that the unbeliever, of course, does not agree with that; and that is perfectly true; but that makes no difference. We believe it, and it is a part of our very case to assert it. Holding the view that we do, believing what we do about God, we cannot in any circumstances allow Him to become a subject for discussion or debate or investigation... We believe in the almighty, the glorious, the living God; and whatever may be true of others we must never put ourselves, or allow ourselves to be put, into a position in which we are debating about God as if He [or His Word] were but a philosophical proposition. To me this is an overriding consideration which is enough in and of itself.

Lloyd-Jones then went on to call attention to the contrary manner in which the Apostle Paul addressed the men of Mars' Hill, who were accustomed to engaging in such "conversations." The apostle did not fall to their level. He proclaimed the one true and living God, man's sin, and salvation in Christ, on the sole authority of His Word.

Why Preaching and Not Something Else?

Lloyd-Jones answers the objection that present-day people will not come to listen to a sermon. The answer, he says, is that if it is truly Biblical preaching, the people God is calling to Himself will come, and hear, and believe by the working of the Holy Spirit:

I have already adduced evidence from history that people have always done so in the past; and I claim that it is still the same today. The reason for that we have seen already - that God is still the same, and man is still the same. Still more important, not to believe this is indicative, ultimately, of the fact that we have very little place for the Holy Spirit and His work in our outlook upon this whole matter. This may be slow work; it often is; it is a long-term policy. But my whole contention is that it works, that it pays, and that it is honored, and must be, because it is God's own method.


1. The material in this article is from Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1971), pages 265-269.


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