Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Virtually Inferior Preaching

The de-construction of the evangelical church continues.

Perpetrated, as it has been for decades, by the church itself.

First came the abandonment of corporate worship elements subjectively interpreted as stuffy and culturally irrelevant. Then came the seeker-sensitive movement, in which church became little more than a morality country club.

The idolization of preachers leads the current charge, as congregations across North America jump on the satellite church bandwagon. This phenomenon can also be called multi-site, video venue, and church franchising. Whatever you call it, however, only serves to mask our renewed focus on preachers as celebrities.

Which cannot bode well for the future of America's evangelical church, can it?

High Tech Circuits Rider

Back in the early days of our nation's history, and even today in those few, rural, and sparsely-populated swaths of North America, the old circuit-riders would journey from tiny chapel to tiny chapel, preaching several times a day to several different congregations, none of which could afford a full-time pastor of their own. It wasn't really an ideal situation for anybody, but it worked; the Word was preached, and Christ's Kingdom was built.

Aside from the meager finances of many small churches, another of the reasons for the use of circuit riders in the United States involved the fact that few qualified seminary graduates were available for the multiple pulpits popping up across the newly-developing countryside. But today, our nation is saturated with seminary graduates, many of whom can't find employment as a professional minister because of all the stiff competition.

So for the most affluent, church-crowded, and seminarian-inundated country the world has ever witnessed to start farming out sub-congregations with video preaching seems goofy at best and self-aggrandizing at worst. Might this be just another rung on the trip to cultural irrelevance for the evangelical church?

It's not even just the usual suspects participating in this reckless popularity contest. Yes, Willow Creek does it, as do its Texas clones Fellowship Church and Gateway Church in suburban Fort Worth. Statistics put the number of churches running satellite locations in the hundreds. Even reformed congregations such as Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and Mars Hill Church in Seattle have developed multi-site ministries.

Granted, Gateway Church offers a pastor at each of its satellite campuses, and Redeemer Presbyterian rotates its preaching pastors through each of its Manhattan locations. So they're not exactly using technology to clone the senior pastor like other churches do. And Redeemer and Mars Hill have some extenuating circumstances, such as zoning and building regulations, high construction costs, and other urban-density factors inherent in their metropolitan locations that make constructing new worship facilities prohibitive. But still, Mars Hill and Fellowship Church have satellite campuses in New Mexico and Florida, respectively. Not even in the same states as their original, flagship congregations. How self-aggrandizing is that?

Celebrity Preachers

We knew this was coming. With the explosion of video and Internet technology, the idea of having one pastor preach to groups of people clustered in front of massive screens across the country is actually rather dated. At least in terms of cutting-edge technology. Is the fact that this idea has now taken off, however, cause for celebration?

First, we need to consider the concept of celebrity pastors. We've had them for centuries, from Martin Luther and John Calvin to John Donne, John Wesley, and Charles Spurgeon. But most of these guys would probably have been too humble to assume what today's mega-church preachers believe: that their preaching is better than anybody else's, so that's why they need to replicate themselves in multiple congregations.

And it's not just the preachers who think they're so good. It's their congregations, comprised of people so wrapped-up in our Hollywood culture that they think nothing of ascribing celebrity status to men of the cloth. Even if they won't admit it, parishioners have their favorite pulpit suppliers, and we all have become extremely picky about who we will let preach to us.

I used to volunteer at the information booth of an up-and-coming contemporary church, and every week, congregants would come up to us and ask who was preaching that Sunday. If it wasn't the senior pastor, some of them would actually turn around and leave. Their decisions had little to do with Biblical accuracy, doctrine, or even looks, but the idea that the senior pastor is the best by default.

Now, I'm not saying that some pastors aren't better communicators than others, nor am I saying that congregations shouldn't expect their preachers to teach well. Preaching elders, as most pastors are, must hold certain basic qualifications in terms of knowledge, competence, and gifting. But let's admit it: most preachers are average, some are exceptional, but few of them are actually bad. Hopefully, most bad preachers are diverted from the pastorate while still in seminary, or are gracious enough to realize their gifts lie elsewhere.

Within the Presbyterian Church in America, Tim Keller, senior pastor at New York City's Redeemer Presbyterian, has become a superstar preacher for one obvious reason: he's an excellent communicator. He's also wise, insightful, well-read, engaging, and just blunt enough to keep you following his line of reasoning. Personally, I'm amazed at how in virtually all of his sermons, Keller finds a way to wrap whatever topic about which he's preaching around the cross of Christ. Naturally, Keller's not perfect, but he hits so many nails on their heads, you can't help but admire the structural integrity of his sermons.

Why It's a Bad Idea

Yet even Keller has realized that he can't expect to replicate himself among the different clusters of worshippers that Redeemer has scattered across Manhattan Island. Instead of running live video feeds of himself preaching through all five locations, a team of pastors rotates along with him, sharing the preaching duties.

Why is that?

Probably for the same reasons Ed Young, senior pastor at Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Texas, shouldn't be beaming his tanned Boomer face to a group of people at Fellowship's congregation in Miami, Florida. Aside from the year-round tan, does Young have any business being a remote pastor?  Do other pastors who feel compelled to share their charisma with multiple congregations simultaneously?  Is there really a shortage of preachers in the United States?  Consider:
  • Economies of scale only go so far in justifying satellite churches. How much money do congregations really save by sharing logos, Power Point graphic artists, and back office administrative staff?
  • How convenient should attending church really be? If you don't want to travel an hour or half an hour to hear your favorite preacher, should you really expect him to come to you? Why don't you move closer to your church?
  • How much discipleship takes place when you're physically removed from your teaching pastor? Granted, in most mega-churches, precious few people get to know their senior pastor, but still, if God wanted remote preaching, couldn't He just beam something down from Heaven every week? No, He created the gift of teaching and gave that gift to human beings. Presumably, so that human interaction could be a component of that teaching. Just because your mega-church is too large for you to get to know your senior pastor doesn't mean a video link is going to correct anything; maybe it means mega-churches aren't the best interpretation of Biblical community.
  • What makes your favorite preacher better than somebody else you've never met? How do you know your preacher deserves to be broadcast from virtual pulpits, when his message could be taking the place of someone else God has gifted in a particular way that simply may not be your favorite?
  • In this age of increasing reliance on technology, how wise is it to further remove congregations from the men who preach the Word of God? Social networking cannot generate personal relationships the way face-to-face interaction can. Even if the only digitized person in your congregation is the pastor, what does that say about a church's ability to fellowship well?
Indeed, technology can be a wonderful thing, but just because it gives us the ability to do something, that doesn't mean we should.

From Fad to Flame Out?

I'd have much less of an argument to stand on if the satellite church proponents were actually beaming their sermons to remote tribal villages in the African bush or Pacific islands, where seminary-trained preachers remain scarce. Of course, having an Internet connection to a sermon with Fellowship Church's Young preaching in front of a Rolls Royce wearing skin-tight clothing and highlighted hair would probably not be very effective even in Watts, let alone Sierra Leone.

Which is what I hope all of this really is: just another sappy trend. Like many other fads born of the Boomer popularity angst, such as intentionally-ripped jeans and two-tone hair, satellite churches may simply flame out when congregants begin to realize they can watch the video feed from their computers at home.

In the meantime, how effective will it have been for communities of faith to continue replicating the very societal patterns threatening to destabilize our society? Who says following the culture is mandatory? To what extent might off-site preaching mirror - if not facilitate - the interpersonal disconnect prevalent in our society, plus the virtual de-construction of western civilization as we know it? (And yes, the pun is intentional.)

After all, when you take the human element out of preaching, how much else is left for the church to do church?
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