Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Thoughts on Church "Video Venues"

Thabiti Anyabwile has written a provocative piece on the multi-site church movement. It created a bit of a stir. As a way of shamelessly piggybacking off his post, I thought I'd share a slightly edited reprint of a piece I wrote back in 2009, collecting my own thoughts on the church multiplication strategy known as "video venues."

First, a couple of disclaimers:

1) I would not word my opposition as strongly as Anyabwile's. And my opposition is not really to the multi-site concept but to the use of video preaching (and video music) as the features of a worship service. There are quite a few churches that appear to do multi-site well, by which I mean, they feature live preaching, have dedicated elders shepherding a community rather than organizers attracting a crowd, and they function for the most part like church plants. I think some multi-site approaches are viable means of a church's gospel mission. In any event, my aversion to the video venue multi-site movement is not morally framed. What I mean is, I am not saying video venue multi-site is sinful (or even unbiblical). I am not speaking to its wrongness per se, but rather hope to suggest it is not wise. Sort of a "not everything that is permissible is profitable" kind of thing.

2) Secondly, some of my best friends are multi-site pastors. And they are all fantastic, humble, godly men who love Jesus, love the Church, and love seeing lost people get saved. I am not against them.

So: why I'm averse to video venue multi-site whatchamacalits:

1) I do not think it is wise, in our consumer culture, to go down the path of continued un-incarnation.

This applies to the "virtual church" phenomenon in general, as well. In a day when the idolatry of the self and the mass production of "beauty" and the disconnection of individuals from each other are daily, constant, pernicious struggles, I don't think the church can afford to un-incarnate anything, much less its preaching. Video is by definition un-incarnational.

2) Video venues are not counter-cultural.

You can go a lot of ways with this thinking, sometimes overboard, but the kingdom of God is supposed to run counter to the way of the world. What I see in the worst examples of the video venue movement is just more accommodation of cultural values begun in the modern church's idolization of "relevancy" twenty years or so ago. All churches should be seeker sensitive (in the best sense of the phrase), by which I mean seeker comprehensible and seeker welcoming, and all churches should be good students of the culture and good workers at contextualization, but there is a line between contextualizing and accommodating, and I think video venues often cross the line. At what point do we look at cultural trends not as things to mirror and ape but to challenge and subvert? Technology, as some insist, may be neutral, but that does not automatically mean that all technological tools are suitable for uncritical ecclesiological appropriation. I am afraid many churches have moved from "leveraging technology" to merely mirroring whatever they think the world finds appealing or slick.

3) Video venues can reinforce the kind of pragmatism that has not served the church well at any point.

We are just now seeing the data revealing the fruit of the attractional paradigm, and it is not good. Big churches are increasing, but the numbers of Christians are not. By most accounts, the most churched states in the nation are in danger of soon-coming evangelical disaster. Much of the video venue stuff is clearly from the same school of thought as the ecclesiological trajectory we are only now discovering was wrongheaded and, moreover, impotent to grow disciples.

4) A video preacher can't be shot in the face.

Seriously.

5) Video venues assist the idolization of and over-reliance on preachers.

This is something Matt Chandler, himself the pastor of a church using video venues, brought up: "Twenty years from now are there fifteen preachers in the United States?"

There are a lot of sub-points under this general point:

- Would your church be able to open its satellite campus if the main pastor was not the one doing the preaching? If not, doesn't that say something important about the viability of your church and where it is centered?

- What happens if your pastor gets hit by a bus? Would your church collapse? Do you lose major attendees? Do satellite campuses have to close down? (And this is not just a problem with video venue churches, but with any church unhealthily centered on the personality of the pastor. A one-campus megachurch I attended fired its pastor and hundreds of people left. The vocal evacuees largely stated their inability(!) to attend a church where the fired pastor wasn't preaching.)

- What happens to the men in your church with preaching gifts? Where do they go to exercise their gift and bless their church family? (Somewhere else, that's where.) How do video venues develop future pastors and preachers?)

I understand that God raises up certain men of unusual anointing to lead in unique and higher-profiled ways. But what does it say about the gospel if, where the rubber meets the road, we minister as if it requires a certain level of homiletical talent to do its work?

Just some bullet points. I hope they are received in the spirit with which they are given: not as having it all figured out, but just as having some concerns. I am assuming common ground between all of us is that we want to see the fruitfulness of the Church and Christ glorified by it.

13 comments:

chrisblackstone said...

Jared,

Have you ever heard a multi-site pastor that treats their campuses like plants ever share the timeline for making them self-sufficient? That's one of my biggest questions about that situation. I've heard Driscoll and McDonald both talk about their sites as, basically, plants and something like "when I die, they'll still be able to function as stand-alone churches." Why isn't there a path to do that now?

Jared said...

Chris, I don't know the answer, but I wouldn't assume that just because the path/plan isn't shared, it means it doesn't exist.

I am interested in the transitioning of a satellite campus/extension into an independent church plant myself, as it appears to be a viable route for my church's planting future. But I don't know anybody who actually does that -- or has done it. I can't find much writing on it either.

I know Redeemer Pres (Manhattan) is said to do such things, but I'm unaware of any published material on this specific transitioning that they have produced.

Jacob Riggs said...

A little pushback on #1, while agreeing with your concerns in general:

Where do you draw the line of not being "un-incarnation"al? Should we not put sermons on iTunes? Should we not record anything and offer videos of sermons from conferences?

Separate from this, another thing to consider is the need for a pastor to know the specific needs and weaknesses of his flock. This seems to be lost with video venues.

Thanks man.

Josh Collins said...

"I don't think the church can afford to un-incarnate anything,"

Money quote, right there.

I find it amazing that in parts of the world where Christianity is actually growing, so much energy is spent putting the mission into the hands of the people and training lots of new leaders. It seems like video venues are yet another attempt to keep control in the hands of a few in an area (preaching) where simple geography would have pushed previous generations to multiply leaders and equip the saints for the work of the ministry.

Jared said...

Should we not put sermons on iTunes? Should we not record anything and offer videos of sermons from conferences?

Jacob, good questions. I am thinking specifically in terms of the body physically gathered for corporate worship. I don't think recorded sermons or other materials used for myriad purposes is wrong any more than reading books is. Just trying to key in on the body gathered.

I think the un-incarnation involved with video preaching is what has given way to "online campuses," where people can "go to church" by sitting at home alone with their laptop.

At some point, we will reach the realization of that funny scene in the movie "Real Genius" where the tape recorded lecture by the absent professor is delivered to a room full of tape recorders in place of absent students.

Jason Wert said...

Jared, I can't add anything to this wonderful post. I was nodding my head in agreement from start to finish.

patricklmitchell said...

Jared, these are great thoughts, and I appreciate the preface that yours is not a morally based argument against video venues. I have at times felt like it's morally based, but that's just sin in me.

Your cautions and concerns are much needed--I pray they will be heard.

As for Chris's question, I've heard Keller say that when it is time for him to fade out that the five or so pastors in training will take over the respective venues. I assume that he or Piper will be the first ones we see do this.

Cary Weaver said...

Jared,

This was a really even-handed post on a topic which is generating some buzz right now.

I was tracking with you pretty much throughout... maybe less on point 1, honestly... even though I can totally see where this "un-incarnation" can lead. And the idea of an online campus is just silly. Watching from home when you're sick? Great! But is that really the primary function?

My biggest hangup with video venues (and I have fewer than you), is with the seeming lack of development of new preachers. We need more Gospel-centered preachers, not fewer! I have pastored my church for about a year and a half and there are zero lay-preachers in my congregation. Am I to assume none were gifted and called? Or none identified, trained, and given opportunity?

But I would be making an assumption about video venue churches to say they do not train preachers.

Thanks for the post.

Louis said...

"there is a line between contextualizing and accommodating"

So well said. The whole video business is just a symptom of relying on one man for the spiritual lifeblood of a local church, which you explain so well throughout the points you make. The only man we should be relying on is Christ. That's why I am more and more thankful to churches structured around a plurality of elders and a lead preaching pastor who is discipling members of the church with preaching and teaching gifts, giving them opportunities to develop and grow in their gifts. I am so thankful I have a pastor who trusts me enough to invite me to speak at our church's men's meeting (which he has been holding in one form of another for nearly 15 years). He gives thoughtful and constructive criticism to what I preach/teach, encourages the things I do well so I grow in them, and gives me freedom to figure out things. I feel so blessed. In turn, it's made me such a better church member because I pass along that same kind of care to others - encouraging them to use and grow in their gifts, whatever they may be. Church is by nature a community and cannot rest solely on the shoulders of the preaching pastor, no matter how much people may like him or his gifts. Any good they are attracted to is all because of Christ, and a faithful pastor will always remind the sheep of that.

I'm glad the discussion of these type of issues is starting off in a very constructive and respectful place. I think there's a lesson for multi-site church and more traditional congregationalists here.

Thanks Jared!

Open Reader said...

Jared,

The "Medium is the Message." Well, maybe. I think that asking the question is important towards understanding how multi-sites should be used.


Joe

Nick C said...

Great post Jared. Praise God for the mind he's given you.

A couple of random thoughts - I am mostly undecided on the issue:

- We're assuming here that the only way a guy with a teaching/preaching gift can develop that gift is by teaching/preaching behind the main pulpit. I don't think that is the only opportunity for preachers to be developed. For example, I first started preaching to 12-15 year olds in another room while the adults would be in the main auditorium. No doubt, the pulpit is the most ideal environment to develop this gift, but certainly not the only place.

- When a church reaches a certain size, is there any difference between the 'un-incarnational' nature of video preaching to the 'un-incarnational' nature of a preacher who hangs in the 'green room' until he's up to preach? In reality, if the video preachers didn't use video, it would still be only a small percentage of their congregation who would experience their 'incarnationality' on a Sunday. The only certain method to be truly incarnational is limiting churches to a size where all congregants can know the preacher.

- I think video venues are to some extent counter cultural - although I'm from Australia so this might be different. Watching something on a screen is seen as the next best thing to being somewhere in person. We watch sports on TV because tickets to games are either unaffordable or unaccessible. Travelling somewhere to watch preaching is still more counter-cultural than travelling to actually be where the preaching is.

- I can't verify this but am wondering whether within video churches, is there a sense of 1st class and 2nd class church members? I understand those at the live preaching venue hear the sermon a week in advance of the video venues. Does this make the body a little disjointed?

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

I thought Anyabwile's cheeky piggyback on James MacDonald's "Congregational Led Churches are of the Devil" was light-hearted, funny, and appropriate. Sometimes a pastor like MacDonald deserves a bit of a reply in-kind.

Nick C. you kind of have a point about a church so big no one sees the pastor in person but the "un-incarnation" seems to get at something different. That something different, if I may suggest so, is that there's a difference between a sermon that is of personal/historical benefit (I like reading old sermons by Martyn Lloyd-Jones and John Donne) and a sermon that is part of a liturgical/sacramental event. Rationalization of videology and multi-site seems to have been a case in which two categories of appreciating sermons have been conflated without examination. It's fine to listen to reruns of a J. Vernon McGee "Through the Bible" series but there's a difference between a sermon rebroadcast in any medium and a sermon preached as part of the life of the local church. Where two or three are gathered in the name of Christ "could" happen if one is a long-dead preacher and one is listening via radio because God can do anything, but it seems as though three people gathering in one spot is more what Jesus was discussing.

In America, where TBN has been around for decades, video venue/multisite is not only not countercultural, it doesn't get more mainstream, and it doesn't get more Christian ghetto. Multi-site megachurches may think what they're doing is new and innovative but it's nothing Pat Robertson hadn't started pioneering before some of these multi-site pastors were even born.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

I lean away from video venue/multi-site myself but having a disability myself and knowing people with disabilities there's a great advantage to audio and video downloads in that Christians who are literally trapped by physical disabilities have opportunities to hear preaching and teaching now that in the past were just plain stuck. I think that most able-bodied Christians attempting to formulate a case against virtual preaching need to remember this, and that advocates of multi-site be careful that less presentable members of their churches aren't urged to go into audio rooms so as to make room for more presentable people to show up. This last case I mention not just because of the sad case at Elevation church but because at a church in my town a disabled man was asked to not park his wheelchair in the man sanctuary so more room could be made for other people to be participating in worship in the main sanctuary. This is an unfortunate trend if it persists in multi-site video-venue churches.

I don't think that a first class and second class dynamic tends to happen with video venue, Nick. The sermon being rebroadcast a week later is accounted for in community groups and campuses (and since I have maintained my connections to Mars Hill Seattle you can trust that I have this on very, very good authority). The lag actually doesn't create any problems unless a person attends the Ballard campus but is part of a community group connected to another campus, or vice versa. But Mars Hill members are types to read ahead so it usually hasn't created that many problems. If there IS a first class and second class dynamic at a multi-site church that has ever been a risk in some larger churches it's nothing more than the usual married vs not married status that is common in evangelicalism and conservative Protestantism. That's frankly a bias that exists even in the little churches, too. :)