That’s right. I think we will exchange the embodied life for the virtual life. After all it is more important to say the right things than actually do them. And, if we can get more people to see me, then you can be sure we will have “reached” more people with the Gospel.
Minding my own business yesterday my friend David sends me a chat message, “Did you see this?” I had not. And, had David not pointed it out to me, you can be sure the yard would have been mowed sooner! But, alas, this whole dust-up has left me thinking.
The Incarnation was a waste of time. I know. I know. That is hyperbole. But, think about it. Enamored as we are with technology what the whole holographic-beam-me-around-the-world-Scotty thing does is obscure the message. I remember talking to a friend who no longer attends our church. He opted for the multi-site, beam-me-around-the-US version of church. One of the things he noted was how cool the videos were and how tight the band. I should have taken the cue nearly ten years ago. What will really capture people is spending money, time, and energy on adopting the newest technology all in the name of reaching people.
Some astute reader will contend this to be something of a false dichotomy. Or in the words of D.A. Carson, “[Blank] all false antithesis.” It will no doubt be argued that Paul used all means to reach people with the Good News. That is right, while he did do a good bit of writing, he was always on his way to be “in the flesh” with people. It is funny, by the way, that some of the most conservative among us who apply an always literal hermeneutic to Scripture justify the adoption of these technologies as following the “trajectory” of Paul’s intent. But, these same conservative folk will not follow “all of Paul’s trajectories” in the name of that same literalism. I digress.
McLuhan is often quoted as saying, “The medium is the message.” And, if he is correct, the message the holographic-beam-me-around-the-world-Scotty version of church is doing is declaring, “The Church Discovered Technology!” And, that is the Good News? “We are no longer Luddites!,” we exclaim. Except, maybe we still are. Maybe we still have more in common with those in Jesus’ day who seemed more concerned with Jesus being in the wrong place than Jesus being with those found in the wrong place. Which begs the question as to what is the wrong place? And, how would you get your hologram in there anyway. Oh the rabbits to chase …
Had it been enough to “send word” rather than “be the Word,” you can rest assured God would have published more than the Scriptures. But, the writer of Hebrews connects the signs and signifiers of God – namely the people known as the prophets – with the ultimate Sign and Signifier of the Triune God, named Jesus. When he does, he sidesteps human technology in any age and instead contends the real Good News shows up in the flesh. Not a proof text. Instead, a living breathing human text – Jesus, the Christ. He bears the Inscription. And Inscribed by God and being very God gives us the genealogy of the way to relationships bearing fruit resulting in a “new humanity” more attentive to forgiving than accounting.
However, I am thinking we need to chuck that Good News of a real way, an embodied way, to live in love toward God and neighbor. Instead we ought to fit everyone with their own holographic technology. No longer worry about getting up to share life and faith in a small group around the Scriptures or stand to sing with the gathered people of God. No, just program your hologram. We preacher and pastor types could reap the whirlwind. Those of us who are exceptionally good at it will certainly be beamed far and wide. And are. You know we can command not only the expenditures for the technology but since we are good at being good holograms we might as be paid handsomely for it. And, many are.
The money for this technology multiplied by those who (will) use it will inevitably call into question what we could possibly mean by stewardship and attending to the needs of the poor. But hey, you can bet more poor will be able to see us. That is the problem with the over-emphasis upon preaching at the expense of living out an embodied faith. You end up justifying any means to get the “preached word” out. Is that Amos I hear ringing in my ears?
I wonder though. What will happen when those who really long for an embodied way of being truly human decide to pay their beam-me-around-the-world-Scotty pastors in holographic money? I bet those pastors will re-think their “theology” then?
Yes, what a snarky piece. But, dear reader, I hope you will see it is this kind of ill-conceived adoption of whatever pragmatic means we can find to “reach” more people that, in fact, gives those whom we hope to reach more fodder to question the sincerity of our convictions that the real person, Jesus, gave anything for us, much less his life.
17 comments on “Thinking of Going Virtual at Snow Hill”
Brilliantly put, Todd!
I’m not big on sermons, anyhow. I’d almost always rather hang out with a community (or cell or life or home or whatever) group. And I’m always concerned at the celebrity status that some preachers attain in both small and large churches. :-\
The problem really is not the sermon. It is the theology that diminishes an embodied ethic. Most of us would really prefer to hang out and share life and conversations. The elevation of the sermon does seem to miss all the ‘in the flesh” work of the missionaries. And, in fact, it does seem Paul had his share of conversations that would not come close to the description of the modern sermon.
I really enjoyed reading this post.
Whenever I figure out how to generate some holographic money, I’ll beam you some.
I will be waiting … and waiting … and …
Excellent critique! But I think you take it a step farther and say that the “message” that spending millions of dollars on technology sends it a religious affirmation of American-style consumerism. Ed Young’s church implicitly says that success in ministry looks a lot like success in business. Growth for growth’s sake. Innovation that looks cool. Bigger campuses. Pastor as CEO.
This is a church that a poor, wandering preacher from Nazareth wouldn’t recognize. But then again, could it be said that Young’s church is merely the worst example of what’s wrong with western Christianity? That we confuse bearing fruit with building a large church?
Your “step farther” is a solid addition. And, I am sure a wandering preacher from Nazareth would find a lot to be confused about when considering his message.
Thanks for your post and brilliant critique. I am interested in the conversation since I first learned of it while visiting Lifechurch one time while I was in OKC. The level of technology present gave me such a thrill (like shopping in BestBuy on Black Friday). Needless to say, I was mighty impressed.
After church at Lifechurch, I ran into old high school friends who were worshiping there. For them, this is what they enjoyed and I can tell you, video or not, the gospel was preached there. I guess it just boils down to how a person connects with church. In other mega churches, where thousands of people (think Joel Osteen) watch the pastor at his pulpit from great distances from the stage, is it really any different than watching a video? The pastor of such a church really doesn’t connect personally (how can they connect with thousands on a Sunday morning?). I guess my observation is, would a larger projection really be any different from what already occurs where the pastor is nearly unapproachable anyway?
In my congregation, the congregants enjoys connecting with me because we’re so small. I know each person in the pew personally and tailor my sermons around them. Also, everyone in the church knows everyone else. This is the DNA of a small church and people who like small churches like it for this very reason.
My point is if you don’t like small churches for the deep intimacy present and you prefer a church with lesser to no intimacy, then you’ll go to that larger church, right? The person hearing the pastor preach as a hologram or high def video would seem to totally fit the needs of the person who avoids the kinds of deeper intimacy found in smaller churches.
Perhaps another conversation about intimacy in church would be a good counterpoint to this new trend in the sharing of the Good News.
What do you think?
As always thanks for not just reading but throwing yourself into the conversation. My apologies for what may be a long response.
We are doing Vacation Bible School. Inherently we make the stories in the Scriptures simple to understand. Sometimes I do fear we make them too simple in that when children grow up learning Noah took animals in the ark two by two they are not sure what to do when they find out some of the animals went in by seven. Even more, what do they do when someone questions the literal details of the story and point to comparative cultures who tell something of the same story with different details. Their VBS stories seem a little extant in their minds – at least for some.
We encourage our children to give. Each year we find a very real relationship we share with someone living in another country – someone we know. We find out what would help those representing Jesus in another culture need to communicate God’s love and care. Tonight we showed a video. Images of children from 2 days old and up helped our children put faces to the needs experienced in an orphanage in Guatemala. We have had an ongoing relationship with a young lady who serves there for a number of years. We let our children know the Scripture tells us God made people “fearfully and wonderfully.” We don’t feel the need to explicate that as we might to a group of adults. It is enough to tell them they are special. We want them to know God cares for them. Our way of helping them make the connection was to tell them our way of knowing God cares is in the care he gives through others. Our offering will be a tangible way these children may learn others are special and God cares for them too.
Sometimes video makes sense.
The scope of my post did not tend toward the limitations of mega-, mulit-site, video venue forms of contemporary church. I do have an opinion but this post is less about the intimacy experienced in small churches over against large one. Some large churches believe they have found ways to be “small” and in some form intimate. I am reminded of my friend Joe Myers first book and know well that intimacy was we use it is loaded. We think in terms of the nature of deep relationships and confuse that with proximity. That is why in large churches small groups are called intimate when the level of sharing is more personal than intimate and what passes for intimacy is a small room, living room, or the designation, “small group.”
No, my post referenced the nature of communication in impersonal, disembodied ways that betray the nature of the Incarnation. Jesus preached to thousands without video or hologram technology. He was close enough to see the faces of those there and then apprised of the hunger in the crowd was personally present with his disciples as they were fed – even broke the bread with them. He was not on the “Mount” and seen in Damascus.
Sure there are times where video makes sense. But, when we are hoping to communicate and embodied faith – the realities of the Incarnation – holograms, and in that sense video, just don’t do it. My friend J.D. pastors a large, fast growing church in the Raleigh-Durham area. When I read him post about the very real needs of people in his church I believe he has found a way for the large church to understand embodied presence. Hats off to him. It is rare. Most find video and holograms a way away from people rather than engage people. When I announce to my congregation that my job is to preach – not perform weddings and funerals – I have just told them I care very little for the joyful and sorrowful events in their lives. What I am saying is that my job is to speak. If that is what we have are speakers, then let’s alter our understanding of pastor/preacher. Call it what it is. I just find it a hermeneutical move I have not learned yet.
I am hoping to offer some less snarky reflections on the whole hub-bub down the line. Maybe it was the heat and lawn mowing last Friday that stirred “snark.” When Paul, you know middle bro of mine, tells me he detected an uncharacteristic tone, I think I should have made him my editor at that point. He is good you know.
This is obviously and AmericaWest phenomenon. This too shall pass. Despite my friend Ed’s statistics that call that conclusion into question.
Todd, I saw this when it came out and had been chewing on it for awhile. After I read your article, I had to throw in my 2 cents at my site. http://www.pulpit2pew.com/2156/technology-a-blessing-or-a-curse-for-the-church/.
Of course, I credited you :).
Thanks for the reference. I liked your post. These kinds of things get fleshed out when more people offer thoughtful reflections as you did.
One thing I have enjoyed about serving in childrens ministry at Lifechurch is meeting and getting to know some of the parents of the kids we see each week. You would be surprised how many smelly, rotten teeth, addicts and alcoholics hit rock bottom and come to lifechurch. It is one of the few places they can come and feel comfortable while they learn about who Jesus is and what a difference He can make in their lives. I don’t know how it can get more “real” than that. These folks are not showing up to get a handout, they are there hoping to be transformed. I think part of the draw is that they don’t feel “judged” the second they walk in the door.
Glad you posted a comment here. I am going to resist any inference that what you describe does not go on in other churches, even those you have been a part. Instead, I am going to say this is precisely the point of the post. While I have my own personal theological reservations about video venue churches, I have no reservations about people given to serve others regardless of their condition in life.
The point of this post was aimed at taking video venue’s one step further – the pretense of presence in a holographic image. If I choose to go where the pastor’s message is sent via video I already know he is not there and am able to distinguish between the real and the hyperreal. For some, the exchange of video for hologram, while it may seem like the logical next step, poses problems when I am sitting in a arena and rather than an image bound to a screen I am led to believe the person is “really” present when in reality the person is not “really” present. By extension we have obliterated the idea of embodiment/incarnation.
So, my ongoing personal wrestling with the entire idea theologically rests in the mixed signals sent when we describe “going to church” as what happens on the big screen and what you describe. What you describe is an ongoing embodiment of care for others regardless of their situation. People can feel that. They can sense that. They can embrace that. Not so easily with a video personality. In fact, we often confuse church as what happens on Sunday, or whenever the big meeting is held, for what happens when we engage our neighbors on any level in the Name of Jesus.
The tone of this post was admittedly snarky. It is not an indictment on on Lifechurch or any other church per se. It is a question as to how it is these technologies line up with the very real, embodiment Jesus lived out. It is like one modern translation has it – The Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood. It is not the Word became flesh and sent a message via wave or particle. Today that way is expressed in you and me. You and I agree there.
I am confident some people begin looking for a handout. Then the move of the Spirit draws them to a curiosity as to why someone would do what is done for them. There is an instance then where, over a long time of building relationships with people, as we have here, an impulse surfaces that wonders what it is that drives those who serve in the Name of Jesus. The Good News is that we do what we do out of love for God and others. I am glad to say we have found a great number of people who have also commented they do not feel judged when walking into Snow Hill. What’s more, the process has a way of working in reverse. That is there is something about this kind of obedience that moves us to be less and less characterized by any hint of prejudice. To think the exchange only benefits those we help ignores the reciprocal work of the Spirit to move us to a place, like Willard describes, where we are found doing what Jesus would do were he us.
You continue serving others as you have. And we will too. Together we will continue to exhibit the ongoing presence of Jesus in the world.
Where to begin? I guess I’ll begin with a bit of a tangent somewhat related to Bo’s response. This, of course, applies to video-venue, multi-site church as much or more than to a holographic pastor, but here’s a major weakness I see (and Bo mentions this): the pastor is reduced to preaching general sermons to no one in particular. It’s more like a mass-marketed book than addressing the particular needs of a particular people.
The Apostle Paul’s letter to Ephesus was quite different than the first one to Corinth, and for a reason. The circumstances were very different. For that matter Jesus’ message to each of the seven churches in Revelation was different to address the particular issues in each congregation. The particular struggles at Laodicea were different than the particular struggles and needs of Smyrna and Jesus was able to address each at the point of their need.
Can multi-site, video venue church provide intimacy and fellowship? Sure. But when the preacher stands (or sits) to preach he has no clue about the particular needs of the various communities he’s pastor over. Most he never sees. Jesus’ preaching, even to large crowds, was most often informed by the things he saw in those he was looking at. To a rich young man he had a particular message. To crowds of hungry people he had another. He told parables and stories based on the particulars of his audience. Mega-church, multi-site, video venue church doesn’t have a particular audience. It has everyone and no one. I can preach to the particular issues confronting the lives of the people in our church because I know what those issues are. We talk about them over fellowship meals or in the hallways. We talk about them in their homes and at our kid’s ball games. Theirs are particular lives that I am helping to shape. I’m not trying to fix Christianity or the evangelical church. I’m helping particular individuals with the particular issues they are facing, and I can see the progress that it being made.
I do think these things have something to do with embodiment – being there with people. And I think they are important.
That doesn’t mean mega, multi-site, video venue churches don’t do things well. We’ve had several who have visited our local iteration of LifeChurch and they enjoyed it. They were even impressed that their initial negative impressions about what it would probably be like were unfounded. But I also think there is an ultimate trade-off. That which often makes a big initial splash also often ultimately disappoints – or at least suffers some serious weaknesses. That which often seems unimpressive and understated at first often turns out to be the thing which has some real ultimate and lasting value. Jesus himself seems to be a good example of that, and his embodied presence also seems to be the pattern God consistently uses throughout Scripture.
But in this hyper-modern age we will probably continue to chase after that which is ostentatious. It’s the American way.
One of the long-term negatives of this holographic approach, as I see it, is that over the long term it shapes our thinking about relationships and spiritual relationships in particular, in a profoundly negative way. In reality it tends to leave us to ourselves.
Yes, I can have a meaningful spiritual conversation with my co-worker in the nursery at church, but where do I find my spiritual guidance? What if that guy, or girl, is no better off than I am? What if they’re worse off? I’m left with the impression that the higher up you go in terms of visibility in the church the more unapproachable and “unreal” you get. Is this the model God has given us? That he is the ultimate unapproachable one? That the only relationship I can have with Him is a virtual one?
The only theology where that works is one void of the God who became flesh and dwelt among us. The Apostle Paul wrote that we (the church) are the “body” of Christ – his hands, his feet, his “members.” What his presence was in the world, we now are – though he still gets to be the head, which means he is still with us (in us). If God’s plan was to continue an embodied movement, why would his church – or its leaders – move in the opposite direction?
Again, I think the long-term impact on how we think of God and his work is what will suffer the most.