Sermons On A Screen?
Some Reservations About TED Talk Christianity
By A Luddite Who Doesn’t Own A Cell Phone
Joe Hellerman, Ph.D.
Just this week I sat over lunch with a missionary friend of mine. We chatted about how often our churches naively accommodate the norms of the dominant culture in our structure and programming. I am an armchair cultural analyst. I have to be content critiquing American evangelical church culture from within. My buddy’s years on the mission field give his perspective a good bit more credibility. Both of us find ourselves troubled by one particular trend that seems to be the rage among larger congregations across America today.
Few aspects of local church ministry are (1) as challenging or (2) as necessary as building a bridge from the timeless truths of the Gospel to the historically contingent, ever-changing values of the surrounding culture. Enthusiasm for contextualization is to be commended, until, that is, we become so conformed to the spirit of the times that culture begins to hijack the Gospel. The video venue model of ministry that has become so attractive among evangelicals strikes me as a textbook example of just such a phenomenon.
First allow me to qualify my critique. I have no problem with filming a live sermon and making it available on a website for those unable to attend church on Sunday. I even send links to videos of my sermons to unsaved friends to give them a taste of what goes on at Oceanside Christian Fellowship. The analysis that follows applies strictly to ministries where a sermon-on-the-screen, delivered to a satellite campus by a remote feed, has become normative for the Sunday morning service.
Concern #1: The Contours Of Biblical Leadership
At least three non-negotiable aspects of Paul’s ministry appear to problematize a video venue approach to the teaching ministry of the church.
Leadership & Community — Consider, first, the relational orientation of Paul’s ministry as a leader. Paul planted the church in Thessalonica during his second journey (Acts 17). A short time after he had departed, he reminded the Thessalonians,
“We were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thessalonians 2:8).
1 Thessalonians 2 should be required reading for anyone crafting a philosophy of Christian ministry. The Thessalonians (1) came to “know” both Paul’s motivation for ministry (vv. 5–7), and (2) they were “witnesses” to the apostle’s “holy and righteous and blameless” conduct (v. 10). What we learn here is that Paul was known by those he taught.
Paul’s ministry in Ephesus was characterized by the same relational intimacy between the teacher and the hearers of the Word. The apostle took his teaching ministry quite seriously. He reminds the Ephesian elders, “I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). But Paul exercised this ministry closely connected with those whom he taught. Like the Thessalonians, Paul confidently reminds the Ephesian elders of the relational integrity of his ministry: “You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia” (20:18).
Luke emphasizes the depth of the Paul’s relationships with the Ephesians later in the narrative, as Paul is about to depart for the last time: “There was much weeping on the part of all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, being sorrowful most of all because of the word he had spoken, that they would not see his face again” (20:37–38).
Paul apparently felt strongly about sharing close personal relationships with those whom he taught. Contrast this with the video venue pastor, who teaches the Bible each week to individuals with whom he has no personal relationship.
By its very nature the sermon-on-a-screen dangerously isolates the cognitive from the relational aspects of our faith. And the presence of a campus pastor serving as a shepherd at the remote site fails to satisfactorily address this troubling issue. Shepherds in the New Testament world did not call in a food truck to feed their sheep. They fed the flock themselves.
For the early Christians, the cognitive and relational aspects of Christian leadership were inseparable. Why? Because this holistic way of shepherding God’s people, in turn, gave Paul and his co-workers the moral authority to challenge their converts to imitate their behavior.
Leadership & Imitation — The imitation theme runs throughout Paul’s letters. It was a central component of his ministry (1 Corinthians 4:16; 11:1; Philippians 3:17; 1 Thessalonians 1:6; 2:14; 2 Thessalonians 3:7, 9). Paul’s converts were able imitate Paul only because they knew him quite well. And apparently this was standard fare for early Christian leaders, for the author of Hebrews similarly exhorts his readers, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (13:7).
The ability to imitate a church leader assumes, of course, that we are familiar with that leader’s daily life. I can only imitate someone I know. I will leave it to my readers to make application to video venue preaching.
Leadership & Reproduction — The importance of reproducing leaders also raises questions for a remote preaching ministry. Remarkably, Paul had a four-generation vision for developing future leaders: “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2). Note, in particular, the phrase “able to teach others.” Paul’s primary goal here is to raise up future teachers—not managers of large programs—for God’s church.
A key qualification for elder in the New Testament church was the ability to “give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9). Moreover, there was a plurality of elders in the early Christian congregations and, from what we can tell, they shared the teaching of the Word (e.g., Acts 13:1). This, in turn, likely provided a key avenue for raising up new pastors.
When a single individual teaches 5,000-10,000 people Sunday after Sunday, where do the other pastor-elders in the church learn to exercise this crucial aspect of ministry? Our megachurches do a good job of raising up efficient ministry managers. But are we successfully developing the next generation of Bible-teaching shepherds? The former are optional in the grand scheme of things. The latter clearly are not.
Taken together, the above considerations generate a series of piercing challenges for the video venue pastor:
- Are (at least a representative portion of) the people I teach on Sunday in touch with my daily lifestyle and my motivation for ministry? Do they really know me?
- Will the people I am teaching on Sundays grieve to the point of weeping, when I am replaced on the screen by the next superstar communicator?
- Can I challenge my people with integrity to imitate me as I imitate Christ? What is actually available to them to imitate?
- Am I reproducing myself as a teaching pastor for generations to come, or am I simply interested in increasing the number of people I reach with my messages on Sundays?
At this point, perhaps you are thinking, “Joe, these questions apply not only to the remote preaching pastor. They would also be hard to answer in the affirmative for someone who teaches a large congregation in person each week.”
Yes, they would. Megachurch pastors already lack meaningful relationships with the vast majority of the people they teach. Indeed, a friend of mine offered this very phenomenon as an argument favoring the video venue model.
This is not the place to debate the value of the megachurch movement and tackle the vexing issues of church-size, institutionalism, and so forth. I will simply leave you with my response to my friend:
“You are right about the megachurch. And, frankly, it strikes me as an unhealthy departure from Paul’s way of doing things. Do we really want to further separate teacher from learners, and thereby reinforce this contrast with the biblical approach, through remote video preaching?”
I am quite aware of the fact that congregants at these remote venues often (a) enjoy genuine community with one another in their small groups and (b) receive great Bible teaching and leadership training from a campus pastor with whom they share a meaningful relationship. Indeed, numbers of these campus shepherds could likely answer the above questions in the affirmative. As a result of their faithful labors, the folks they serve experience New Testament Christianity in spite of—and apart from—what goes on in the large Sunday gathering.
But doesn’t this render the video presentation superfluous? Why pour our resources into these large Sunday media events if genuine church actually unfolds elsewhere on the calendar in other expressions of congregational life and ministry?
Perhaps we should view these gatherings as the evangelistic arm of the church, a non-threatening place to bring our friends to hear the Gospel. This is, in fact, how these large venue meetings often function. Newcomers often find them quite attractive. I believe we should think twice, however, about exposing unbelievers to (a) a deeply relational message by means of (b) a markedly non-relational medium.
Concern #2: The Contours Of New Testament Incarnational Christology
I remarked, above, that the video venue model erects a firewall of sorts between the cognitive and relational aspects of our faith. This tendency to divorce theology from praxis represents a departure from biblical Christianity that has plagued the church for centuries.
For example, at the very time in history when theologians were nobly crafting and defending orthodox Christology at Nicaea and Chalcedon, the church was gradually being taken captive by an institutional hierarchy of power and status modeled after the Roman Empire’s ubiquitous cursus honorum (honors race). The result was a jarring disconnect between theology (good) and praxis (bad), a disconnect, that is, between the cognitive and the relational.
Perhaps this came about because the Christological controversies of late antiquity (300-600 AD) focused more on the deity of Christ than on our Lord’s humanity. This would certainly have made it easier to ignore the full implications of the incarnation where hierarchy, power, and authority were concerned (cf., Mark 10:35–45). And this exposes a second problem inherent in the video venue model. The approach subtly strikes at the very heart of incarnational Christology.
The apostle John tells us that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Jesus of Nazareth came to us as a person—not as a set of pixels on a screen.
An unfair analogy? Perhaps. But those championing the video venue model of ministry would do well to come to grips with (a) the personal, relational nature of the incarnation and (b) the way Jesus himself ministered to others.
God’s people had received plenty of information about God under the Old Covenant—even a theophany or two (e.g., Isaiah 6:1-4). For John, however, all this data counted for nothing compared to the incarnation of the Son of God: “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:18).
Just how did Jesus make God “known” to John? By sharing his life with him for the better part of three years. As John would later write, he and his fellow disciples knew a Jesus whom they “touched” with their “hands” (1 John 1:1).
Read the Gospels and you will discover that for Jesus disciple-making was essentially a relational endeavor. The crowds that Jesus taught from a distance eventually drifted away. Eleven of the twelve men he shared his life with changed the world (John 6:66–69). So it was for Jesus. So it was for Paul. And so it should be for us, as we seek to “make disciples of all nations” today (Matthew 28:19).
I find it highly ironic that our current fixation with the video venue model of ministry comes at the very time when social scientists are encouraging us to decrease—rather than increase—screen time in our lives. The title of Sherry Turkle’s best-selling, trenchant critique of digital “community” says it all: Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology And Less From Each Other (Basic Books, 2011).
Secular theorists now generally caution against the tendency of virtual reality to isolate us, rather than to genuinely connect us with one another. But you would not know this from current trends in big-box, evangelical Christianity. As has been the case with so many of our latest-and-greatest ministry fads, we have once again jumped on a cultural bandwagon long after the last note has been played and the party is over beyond the walls of the church.
On June 7, 2018, an article appeared in the Op-Ed section of the Los Angeles Times describing millennials who pursue spirituality without community. For many of these folks technology is at the heart of that pursuit. The article includes reference to “a wave of spirituality apps” that promise to “supercharge your mindfulness and positive thinking.” The author challenges this claim by asserting that real-life community has been at the very heart of spirituality throughout human history:
“Strong social bonds, forged through group activity, are not just lucky accidents of religious life. They are the very point of religion.”
As you can gather from the above analysis, I see a fundamental disconnect between the video venue model of ministry and the relational heart of the Christian faith. The approach potentially undermines, rather than strengthens, the “strong social bonds” that have marked Christianity at its best throughout church history.
Some Final Reflections
Other concerns could be raised about the video model, for example, the inevitable pandering to our culture’s attraction to celebrity-ism, or, perhaps, the potential lack of relational accountability for the bigger-than-life talking head on the screen (I find it rather difficult to hold pixels accountable to much of anything.).
I will resist the temptation to further elaborate, and instead conclude my observations by sharing the push-back that I expect to receive from the above critique:
“Joe, you are taking this all too literally. We need to draw principles—not practices—from the biblical data in Acts and the Epistles, principles that we can contextualize in our media-driven culture today. The video venue model has proven to be a great way to reach people for Christ.”
Fair enough. Let me respond with a principle. Paul summarized his view of life and ministry with the most important principle of New Testament church life, when he said, “The whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Galatians 5:14). And Paul was simply echoing his Master:
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34–35).
Do we really want to compromise this foundational relational principle of New Testament Christianity by the way we deliver the Gospel in our largest weekly gatherings as a community? And be assured that we are compromising it—inevitably so.
Decades ago, Marshall McLuhan taught us one of the great truths of the twentieth century: “The medium is the message.” What this means is that the way we deliver a message often speaks louder than the message itself—particularly when there is a glaring mismatch between the medium and the message.
At the end of the day, the sermon-on-a-screen approach delivers (a) a quintessentially relational message by means of (b) an impersonal, non-relational medium. The pixelated medium inevitably hijacks the people-oriented message, and we end up discouraging (rather than encouraging) embodied Christian community, by the very way we teach the Bible in our churches on Sunday morning. And embodied Christian community is at the very heart of the Gospel.
“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”