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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.


Jonathan Scott said...

I greatly respect churches who use a video venue. There are many that do it well and are reaching people who are not being reached. However, I believe your one con is the difference maker for me - the development of young preachers. As a young preacher, I know the importance of opportunities as well as mentors to help form the preacher. If a church does a video venue without a specific development program of other preachers, I'm out. If, however, a church has a specific plan in place to develop young preachers, I believe it can be effective. At the same time, what does video venue teach a young preacher? Not the same as a live preaching event will. While I usually am not persuaded by one point in any argument, I believe we must do better at disciplining young preachers. The cost of doing so is always great. Thanks for your thoughts!

Jonathan Scott said...

I wanted to correct a typo..."discipling" not disciplining.

Lenny Luchetti said...

Thanks for your sharp thoughts Jonathan and your ability to see from both sides of the issue. I'm grateful for emerging young preachers like you and pray that the Church pours into and empowers you.

Unknown said...

I appreciate an honest and balanced look at video venues. I am the Campus Pastor at a video venue in the DC Metro area after being a Church Planter/Senior Pastor, preaching weekly, for over 7 years prior. I don't know if it is as simple as saying that a young preacher is developed better or worse in either model. When I was a Senior Pastor, I was predominantly alone. Though I worked on my craft, it took a lot of self initiative and resources were limited. Sure I got to practice every Sunday, but was I practicing the right things? Here, I am able to do creative brainstorming, annual sermon planning, research and sermon development with a network of other church planters and experienced pastors along with one of the best communicators in the country. I didn't know how much I didn't know until I began preparing sermons with, and listening to him weekly. I now have a continual model and mentor for how it's done right. When I do preach you better believe I'm going to do my best to reach that same standard.

We currently preach 10 times a year, including an entire series of our own in the summer. In addition, we are constantly communicating inside and outside the service through vision casting, challenging the congregation to apply the message, leadership training, etc. I tell people, "trust me, my campus is not left wanting for more of my voice." Sure, I have people ask me whether I would want to preach every week and I tell them "no, not now." I'm just not ready to tie myself down to 20-30 hours of sermon prep each week. It would keep me from doing what I am loving so much in this role, the time I get to spend assessing the needs of our community, casting a local vision, creating a strategy, and developing leaders and servants to bring New Life to New People in New and Innovative Ways. I'll let our Senior Pastor spend his time studying, we'll all benefit from it, and I'll do my best to keep the gospel movement going in our area.

What I love about the multi-site movement is how it's opened the doors for all new types of full time ministry options. When I was graduating there was no such thing as a church "Communications Director," "Social Media Director," "Worship Producer," or "Campus Pastor" to name a few. There are now many options in ministry which allows each of us to offer ourselves to God fully and trust that He will lead us to the place of our unique and individual calling. We might not all be preachers, maybe some current preachers shouldn't even be preachers, but new roles in ministry assure that God can find a place for us all. I look around at the young interns, residents, and young Campus Pastors in our network and I see unlimited potential.

Lenny Luchetti said...

Thanks for your thoughts, James. They are helpful. You are in it and doing it, so your voice matters immensely. I struggle though with some of the roles/titles you offer as a positive. I'm not sure that the move from shepherd, theologian, and pastor to producer and director are wise moves for the church. When we are most like the world, we are actually least relevant to the world. We can reach people and grow the church without selling out to the contemporary hi-jacking of the pastoral role. I should also say I deeply respect and value your pastor's insights. He's the man! Peace, Lenny

Unknown said...

I understand what you're saying, some new roles are pastoral and some are not. I would serve as the shepherd, theologian, and pastor to my campus, well equipped by a soon to be completed MDIV from Wesley Seminary. :) The cautions are real and should be identified. It encourages my ongoing commitment to be the best pastor, preacher, and leader I can be while pouring into the younger guys/gals with whatever knowledge and experience I've gained at this point. Thanks for engaging, the article was balanced and well written.

John Bray said...

Lenny engages us in some interesting thinking.

Disclosure: I led one church for 41 years. The last 8 years of my ministry we had at least one video venue. And it worked. People got saved. They were baptized. The campus pastor helped lead the discipleship efforts. About 250 launched the campus and today attendance is 700+ at that campus.

Is live, in person preaching better than a sermon presented on video? That depends. Years ago Keith Drury taught me that if you want to clear a 6 foot high jump bar you don't look for 6 people who can jump 1 foot; you look for one person who can jump 6 feet. If you can present high quality preaching live I think that is better than high quality preaching on video. But I think high quality video preaching is better than low quality live preaching. The souls of people are important enough that we must give them their best opportunity to learn and grow.

Can video preaching be culturally contextual? Lenny makes a good argument. However, in a larger church there are a number of cultural realities existing in one space. At my church the guy who came to our chemical dependency group from a half way house sometimes sat next to the guy who drove up in his BMW and make 6 figures. Our campus pastors said that people laughed at the appropriate places. They raised their hands at the venue when I asked a question in the live teaching. People got it at both places. We did not use our Anglo video teaching in our Hispanic service...that was too big a gap...but it worked in our English language settings.

Part of the problem is that video venue teaching is new.
-The Wesley boys preached in fields because they could reach people that way (plus they had been kicked out of some indoor pulpits). They were criticized.
-My dad, who began preaching in 1939, thought that churches should be about 100 people because you couldn't shepherd more than that. He was critical of large churches.
-When we began our venue experiment we didn't know if it would work. It did for us.

Are video venues a passing fad (like busing kids to Sunday School or doing live drama in services) or will they stand the test of time? I don't know. I do know that I'm committed to using as many ways as possible to reach people.

In ten years will the local congregation still be doing venues or will Andy Stanley and Ed Young and other mega-mega-churches have franchised like McDonalds (I think this is where the cultural contextualization argument might really apply)? I don't know. Maybe. But in the meantime I'm committed to reaching as many people as possible.

Thanks for raising important questions.

Lenny Luchetti said...

John, thanks for jumping into the conversation. You have loads of experience in doing pastoral ministry in faithful and fruitful ways. You're, without doubt, one of my pastoral heroes. You make some helpful arguments. I agree that we should do everything to reach people. I pastored a church that tripled in size and was part of the 1% of churches at the time whose primary growth came by way of conversion not transfer. So, I'm with you on the reaching people long as the pragmatic thing to reach people doesn't trump our theological convictions. In other words, shortcuts for effectiveness can sometimes produce longterm problems. Bill Hybels has admitted that his strategy for effectively reaching people got in the way of discipling people. I worry about the same with video venue preaching. I'm not totally against it, but I worry about the theological implications of marketing a super name preacher via projection to profess a God who loved us enough to be present in the flesh with us. I worry ultimately that video venue preaching will cast a shadow on the incarnational, in the fleshness, of the God we preach. I'd rather see fruitful preachers and churches training and sending young preachers to preach in other contexts than to have a video venue.
So glad to have your wisdom in the conversation, John.

Unknown said...

This is a great conversation and I'm a new voice here, but this is an issue I've wrestled with as well. We started a second campus and considered video. We decided to go with "live" teaching as it fits our context better. But it was a discussion. Honestly, I was really anti-video venue. And then I went and visited several across the country. I started to talk to people who were a part of those congregations and for the most part, they experienced real transformation through the teaching (yet saw their campus pastor as their pastor). I have some of the same hesitations. One not mentioned is that some pastors who are great live, actually don't work that well on video (now there's an interesting dissertation topic). My greatest hesitancy is the mentioned neglect to train up new teachers and preachers. (But honestly, how many pastors let new teachers and preachers preach in those larger churches?) One things about the "word made flesh" agreement that I found interesting as I read about this... that argument is the same thing some said when the first printed bibles. "We can't just let everyone have their own text as it takes about the "word made flesh" factor. I'm not sure I buy it, but I found it interesting.

John Bray said...

Lenny, I too believe in the value of live teaching and intentional person to person discipling. If we were simply looking for good preaching we could all simply show sermons by Andy Stanley or Kevin Myers. That's why, even when there is a video preacher, there needs to be a live presence who gives spiritual oversight to the local congregation. When the Apostle Paul couldn't be physically present he sent his letters. He didn't have an HDTV camera available and this was his way of sending a message that someone read to the audience.
Let me make one more point about the potential value of video. I often took a vacation Sunday and didn't I went to church one of the local churches near me. I was amazed at how much bad preaching I heard even at decent sized churches (300+). Saying we need to train and send young preachers is easier than doing it.
Now I'm done debating. Thank you for your deep investment in training up those preachers you talk about.

Lenny Luchetti said...

Thanks for jumping into the discussion, Paul. Your insights are helpful to the discussion. And, yes, maybe you've landed on a dissertation topic:-)