June 28, 2006
Video Venues and the Papacy of Celebrity: Why changing the methods always changes the message
Most people spend a significant part of the week looking at screens; television screens, movie screens, computer screens - in fact, you're looking at one right now. But traditionally Sunday morning was not a screen-time. Then came PowerPoint. First the hymnal was replaced and now many churches are substituting 3-D preachers with 2-D digital projections. Shane Hipps, Lead Pastor of Trinity Mennonite Church in Phoenix, Arizona, has written a new book that asks us to explore the implications of new technology on our ministries. Below is an excerpt from The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture: How Media Shapes Faith, the Gospel, and Church (Zondervan, 2006). To get more background on Hipps' understanding of how mediums impact our message be sure to read his previous post.
One of the increasingly popular initiatives in the North American evangelical church is the use of multi-site, video-venue worship services. This is a model where multiple congregations are sprinkled throughout a city or campus, but one preacher is piped in to each gathering via video. Its proponents argue such a method offers the best of both worlds - you don't have to commute, you get to worship your way, and you don't have to sacrifice great preaching.
I was visiting a church recently on the day they were launching their multi-site service. I watched the sermon live, while two other gatherings in other parts of the city watched via a large projection screen. It was a stellar sermon by an extraordinarily gifted preacher well-known in the Christian subculture. But the most striking feature of the sermon was that his message was being directly contradicted by his medium - the video venue.
Here's how. The pastor was speaking on the difference between talent and character and how too often we emphasize talent in ministry more than character. He began with an object lesson. There on stage next to him was a huge dictionary set on a high stool. As he spoke he began to dispense several cans of whipped cream on top of the dictionary, creating a white fluffy mound. When he finished he told us that the dictionary was our character, the firm foundation. The whipped cream was our talent, something very attractive but lacking substance. After this set up he concluded by saying, "If your ministry is based on character it will last, but if your ministry is based on talent?" he paused, and then swatted the mound of whipped cream. In one swoop it was all over the floor "?your ministry will suffer when times get tough."
His message was excellent and told an important truth - ministry is supported by character, not talent. However, the medium of the video venue had a subliminal message of its own. The message of a video venue sermon is that the authority to preach is derived from talent and celebrity not character or communal affirmation. A televised event doesn't communicate anything about a person's character. It can only affirm or deny talent and attractiveness. We don't generally watch movies or TV shows because we respect or want to know the personal character of the actors. We watch because we are attracted by their beauty, talent, or celebrity.
Character requires some personal knowledge of one another. This personal knowledge is impossible for the satellite congregations who only see the pastor's performance. The congregation witnessing the sermon via video can only assess whether the preacher has talent, not whether he or she has character.
Not only did the medium undermine this particular preacher's message, the extensive financial outlay required to pull off a video-venue service communicates to the congregation that only a preacher with a golden tongue has authority to preach the gospel. It conveys the unspoken belief that no one in the satellite congregation has the authority to speak to their context because preaching requires unique talents that only a few actually possess. Like the wizard in The Wizard of Oz, only the larger-than-life giants, painted by pixelated light, and hovering above the congregation, possess these elusive talents. The medium itself nurtures an elite priestly class in which the preacher is set apart from the people. With video venues, we can say goodbye to the priesthood of all believers and hello to the papacy of celebrity.
Even if this attitude is explicitly denied by the preacher, the very medium reinforces the belief that only talented people with some degree of celebrity can or should preach. Even if lay people were encouraged to share a word from God before the church, the pressure is too much for most of us. Few people possess the confidence and charisma to preach before thousands, let alone the unflinching gaze of the camera vicariously channeling the eyes of others who witness and study every amplified movement or mistake.
My critique of this situation has nothing to do with the preacher's message, character, or intention. In fact I have great respect and admiration for this person. The problem comes from a lack of awareness for how media shapes our message in worship. When we ignore the power of the chosen media, its effects often go undetected. As a result, we fail to perceive the unintended consequences of our decisions and the ways our media undermines our message.