We make tools.

It’s part of what humans do. We have problems, and we make tools to help us solve our problems. Hammers, hatchets, languages, pencils, spaceships, spoons…We make tools.

We make tools, but it’s also true that our tools make us. I don’t mean that in the sense that Thoreau lamented about “men becoming tools of their tools”, although there is certainly truth in that warning—we can do a lot of work in sustaining the tools that supposedly make our work easier. What I’m more concerned with here is that when we get to work, there are all kinds of questions and implicit decisions being made about what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it. Our tools serve as a sort of shortcut for some of the “how we’re going to do it” answers, giving us a sort of template for our methodology. But in doing so, they also shape the way that we think about the work. The tool becomes not just a mechanism, but a symbol of the work itself. There’s an old saying: “When all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” That’s true because our tools lead us toward the kinds of work that they do best—not necessarily what we want or need to do, but what they can do.

I would suggest they do this for a couple of reasons. First, we know the tools can multiply our efforts, and thus make us more powerful (able). Secondly, we invest in learning the ways of the tool, and gain skill in using it—and we’d often rather use skills we know than learn skills we don’t. And perhaps So we get locked into our tools, and find ways to make them work for our needs.

This is important for preachers because we live in a time of extremely sophisticated tools for different parts of our work. For instance, just think of the range of rhetorical tools available, the range of types and kinds of rhetoric that preachers are trained to employ: narrative and proverbial structures, poetic and deductive forms, along with more sophisticated understandings of how much information audiences can absorb are all tools. Furthermore, consider the changes in what we might call presentation technologies—tools that assist in the moment of delivering the sermon. Those would include amplification technologies and things like visual projection tech, and perhaps even those technologies that are allowing simulcast sermons or even the wide dissemination of sermon recordings. Our exposure to different technologies of either sort opens up possibilities, and sometimes those possibilities begin to shape the conception of the task. The preacher armed with a conception of narrative structure, a nearly invisible wireless microphone, and savvy in producing a podcast may very well think of the preaching task quite differently than a preacher whose exposure to sacred rhetoric involves a classical deductive format, offered to a small gathered congregation from behind a pulpit.

And with each of the technologies, there is a lot of room for discernment, both in how they change the experience of receiving preaching for the congregation, as well as their potential to shape the preacher over time. Because the fact is, technologies shape us, whether they be rhetorical, presentation, or production technologies.

That last one is the one I’ve been thinking about the most lately—production technologies. The process of developing the Sermon Design app has provoked me to thinking a lot about the kind of technologies that we use to produce sermons, and about how that has shaped the way that we think about the preaching act. Think about the exegetical/study component of sermon prep for a moment—if you read the scriptures mostly from a leather-bound translated copy, you may conceive of the task of studying them differently than someone who after works in a software environment like Accordance or Logos. If you’ve opted to start doing all that on either a smartphone or iPad, rather than at a desk, then that’ll change your conception of the work as well. (It’s amazing how many preachers now do their sermon prep at cafes!) I think the odds are great that if you primarily think of sermon prep as something you do at a laptop while looking at the blank page of a Word document, you’ll conceive of that work differently than someone who does most of their work in a small moleskin journal, or someone who spends a lot of time in presentation software like powerpoint or keynote. The task of “making the sermon” becomes “making the document”, or “creating the slides”—a reality that will become crystal clear the moment you try to do the work with another tool.

I’m saying all this because I’ve found myself neck-deep in trying to create a homiletical tool. One of the major things that has driven my work has been dissatisfaction with the availability of production tools specific to the preacher’s work—my assumption has been that I’d be better off if, instead of a blank page or empty slide deck, I could sit down with a sort of homiletical palette. That may be the case, but I’m not ready to argue the case in this post—and the reality is that I don’t yet fully understand how this particular tool is shaping me as a preacher. But what I do understand now is that it will. Just as surely as any other tool, it will gradually shape the way I think about my work. That could be good or bad, but I don’t think it’s completely avoidable. I can push against that by finding some ways to place a little distance between myself and my tools, choosing to use different ones in different situations, by being intentional about the tools I use, and cultivating cognizance of their effect on me. But most importantly, I need to reckon with the reality that all of these technologies are having their hand in shaping me.

Tools and Preaching

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