A recent article in the New York Times Magazine (July 25, 2010) points out the new dilemma posed by the Internet: Some things are impossible to forget.
The article recounts the story of Stacy Snyder, a 25-year-old teacher-in-training, who four years ago posted a photo of herself on her MySpace page. (For those who are relatively new to social networking, MySpace is to Facebook as a little country church is to the Crystal Cathedral. Come to think of it, Facebook and the Crystal Cathedral have way too many windows.) As the story explains, this picture shows Stacy “at a party wearing a pirate hat and drinking from a plastic cup, with the caption ‘Drunken Pirate.'”
It seems that her supervisor at the high school where she was student teaching saw the photo, thought it “unprofessional” to be “drinking in virtual view of her under-age students” and reported it to the School of Education, at the university where she was enrolled. In response, days before her scheduled graduation, the school refused to grant her a teaching degree. She sued—and lost.
Author Jeffrey Rosen writes, “When historians of the future look back on the perils of the early digital age, Stacy Snyder may well be an icon. The problem she faced is only one example of a challenge that, in big and small ways, is confronting millions of people around the globe: how best to live our lives in a world where the Internet records everything and forgets nothing—where every online photo, status update, Twitter post and blog entry by and about us can be stored forever.”
And sermons—don’t forget sermons.
When I was a very young preacher—that is, back when I thought all those folks who said “great sermon” after I preached really meant it—I preached some sermons that in retrospect were not keepers. OK, they were actually pretty awful. A few years ago, I found some of those old sermon notes and immediately tossed them in the fireplace, lest a future generation come across them and mistakenly think this is how we really preached in the 1970s. (We really did preach that way, but there’s no reason for 22nd century church historians to know about it.)
Now the Internet is taking away our ability to cover those less-than-stellar sermons of yesteryear—or last week, depending on which sermons you’d like to forget. It used to be no harder than tossing the notes and “accidentally” demagnetizing the master cassette tape the “tape team” used to make for shut-ins. (This was before we had media teams and before the shut-ins expressed their preference for Joel Osteen and Charles Stanley, when they weren’t making miraculous trips to Wal-Mart on Saturday just prior to being incapacitated again, thereby precluding attendance at Sunday worship.)
Now those sermons are captured eternally on MP3 files and stored on church Websites, sermon sites and your church’s Facebook page. Remember the sermon you preached the week there were four funerals, two weddings, a deacon revolt and youth lock-in (where you were the guest of honor)? You know it left something to be desired—like structure, some connection to the text, any remotely relevant illustrations and so on—and you definitely would like to consign that sermon to the dumpster.
Sorry. That sermon is now permanently enshrined on multiple Web devices, accessible via Windows, iPhone, iPad and every other iThing known to Best Buy, that high temple of consumer technology.
So what can we do about it? Not much. The times, they are a changin’, and that includes our ability to hide those embarrassing moments, homiletical and otherwise. All we can do is work a lot harder to avoid those sermons that will show up on You Tube—and not for a good reason.