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Thursday, July 9, 2015

Video Venue Preaching: Projection or Presence

Video venues are flying off the ecclesial griddle like hot cakes. Everyone seems to be doing it- High Church, Low Church, and Middle Church, only Tolkien knows where that is. Some are seeing splendid success, if success is primarily determined by attendance at the venue church. Growing churches are getting behind this trend so they can grow more. Churches that have plateaued or declined in growth are trying it out too. Who knows if the trend is here to stay or merely a flash in the pan?

Regardless of the staying power of the trend, no one should jump on too quickly. Pastors and churches must pause to explore not only the possible short-term but potential long-term consequences of the video venue.

Let’s admit, before reflecting on specific pros and cons, that video venue preaching is not fundamentally good simply because of the apparent fruit it produces. Nor is this preaching practice inherently evil. Churches that start video venue campuses do it to reach the unchurched. They are motivated by outreach to people far from God who have yet to identify with a church family.

I was privileged to pastor a congregation that tripled in size in seven years, primarily due to conversion growth. I’m painfully aware that creative risk-taking and “outside the box” thinking is necessary to reach the unchurched. This current reality has been the perpetual reality for the Church since the days of St. Paul. Pastors are constantly scratching their heads, trying to figure out better ways to bring Christ’s love to people disconnected from that love. And we should. Needless to say, churches that launch video venues should not be demonized. They are simply trying to reach people through their “cream of the crop” communicators.

Caution, however, is vital. Before jumping onto the video venue bandwagon, it’s crucial to think prayerfully and critically about the theological and practical implications of a launching a venue where the preacher is projected but not present. What might be fruitful in the short term can shoot the church in the foot long term.

Here are some of the major pros and cons of video venue preaching. The question that must be asked, and answered, is do the pros of projecting a preacher on a screen outweigh the cons?

Pros of Projection

-The most effective preacher gets projected. Let’s face it, there are relatively few preachers who hit the sermonic ball out of the park on a regular basis. And, there are many who are mediocre at best. They hit mostly singles and, on occasion, even strike out. Why shouldn’t the church put her best foot forward in order to impact more lives through preaching? So much is at stake. Seekers who visit churches do not typically return a second time to hear irrelevant sermons from sub-par communicators who seem disconnected from real life. A projected, but absent, preacher who is effective seems better than an ineffective, though fully present, preacher.  

-Video venue preaching is efficient. It doesn’t take too much time or money to launch a video venue. The main expense is renting a facility with seating capacity and projection capability. While most video venues have a campus pastor or host who is present, you don’t need to find and employ another high quality and expensive communicator. You already have that person. He or she can simply be projected. No extra blood, sweat, and tears, no wasted time, money and energy.  If you can rent a facility with projection and recruit a campus host, you can launch a video venue almost overnight. Vuala! If you’re looking for efficiency, to “get the most bang for your buck,” the video venue is for you.

-Current culture is enamored with the screen. Many North Americans spend countless hours each week looking at a computer screen, TV screen, phone screen, and the big screen. People are used to viewing images on a screen. A case could be made that people are sick and tired of looking at screens, but we are still culturally conditioned to do so. Apparently, many nominally churched and unchurched people feel as though a projected preacher is safer than a present preacher. They’re probably right.     

Cons of Projection

-A projected preacher proclaiming a God who became present in the flesh feels like a contradiction. The incarnation of God through Christ is the central event of Christianity. God came onto our turf as one of us to save us because he loves us. He came to 1st century Jews as a 1st century Jew. He was physically neck deep in the culture he was trying to reach. Jesus’ preaching was profound precisely because he put himself in the sandals of the people to whom he preached. He walked where they walked. He breathed the same air they breathed. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14a). God didn’t show up as a virtual projection but as real presence. I suppose God could have sent a holographic image of himself, if he wanted. He did send the law and the prophets. But, in the fullness of time, God came on our turf. God evidenced the depth of his love by dwelling among us. How can a Christian preacher do anything less?  Incarnational ministry, at its core, necessitates the real presence of the preacher among the people to whom she/he will preach.

-A projected preacher cannot preach an authentically contextual sermon. Every congregational context is different. A one size sermon does not fit all. It is impossible to develop a single sermon that will profoundly penetrate the hearts of people in both the mother church and the multi-site venue, especially if those contexts are radically different. If those contexts are not distinguishable, why start a video-venue in the first place? Let’s assume the multiple campuses are distinct. The live “in the flesh” sermon I design and preach for a Caucasian congregation in an affluent suburb of Dallas will not likely connect via video with an African American church in an impoverished urban area. Even if the video quality is stellar and the campus pastor superb. Plus, the projected preacher on video cannot adjust “on the fly” to congregational cues that surface during the preaching event. The best communicators, the ones who tend to get projected, are the best because they develop content that contextually connects and their delivery allows them to adjust based on congregational cues. These very skills that make the best communicators so effective are relegated to the side-lines in video-venue preaching. Is insightful and contextual pastoral preaching really possible from a distance? I, for one, have my doubts.

-Projecting one preacher prevents others preachers from being developed. If we want to utilize our best preacher, then I suppose the video venue is the way to go. But if we are focused on developing the next generation of preachers, the video venue should be avoided like the plague. The way to develop more and better preachers is to give them loads of opportunities to preach. If the resident preaching pro is the one preaching almost all of the time across the multiple church sites, the growth of potential preachers on the team will be stifled. Instead of having one person on a screen in three different locations, the multi-site church can have three emerging preachers use and develop their gifts. In the short run, projecting the best communicator seems wise, but it may be disastrous in the long run. When the elite preachers we project are gone, who will replace them? Unfortunately, under-developed preachers will.

You Make the Call

This article does not and, likely cannot, come close to providing an exhaustive list of pros and cons regarding video-venue preaching. My intent is simply to touch on what seem to me the most salient issues at stake for the Church.

Back to my original question, do you think the pros outweigh the cons of video-venue preaching? Or do the cons outweigh the pros? Is this cultural trend driven by pragmatic conventions or by theological convictions? Is video-venue preaching a short-term success with a long-term failure attached to it? 

You can easily sense where I currently stand on the matter. I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve, and evidently on my writing. But I am still very much open to loving debate. What is undebatable is the foolishness of simply jumping on the “everybody’s doing it” bandwagon without prayerfully considering the theological and practical dynamics involved. Thankfully, there are more than a few pastors and theologians on both sides of the issue who refuse to abandon critical reflection for quick results.   

I am genuinely interested in the various perspectives on this issue represented in the communion of saints. In fact, as I wrestle with the implications of projection and presence, I need you.  And, without a doubt, the Church needs you too.