Technology has an uncanny ability not only to solve sundry problems, but to raise meta-level questions about how we do things. Thirty years ago it would have been prohibitively expensive to channel video of a man preaching from one place to another, and so was on no one’s radar. A church could only accommodate growth by building bigger, and/or multiplying services. Today, however, we can grow in a more modular fashion. With relatively inexpensive video equipment we can squeeze in 200 more in the fellowship hall, and later on, another 500 on the other side of town.
Some churches have nuanced the strategy still further by creating different experiences at different sites, with a shared sermon among them. In one site the music and mood is blue like jazz. Everyone drinks fancy coffee while an earnest fellow in skinny jeans leads the service. At another site they offer Mountain Dew and Krispy Kremes, complete with southern gospel singing. When the pastor arrives, however, everyone receives the same sermon.
This is not only not a good idea, it is a profoundly bad idea. It is a mound of bad ideas built on a foundation of bad presuppositions. You can tell, because it is a profoundly American idea. Here’s a brief and partial list of the ways this is bad:
1. It cultivates and encourages the cult of personality. Any preacher who thinks the kingdom is dependent on as many people as possible hearing HIM preach is likely not a good pastor. Any Christian who thinks his spiritual growth is dependent upon hearing HIM preach has not been blessed with good preaching.
2. It cultivates and encourages a form of preaching that is anything but pastoral. The preacher is, in this context, on stage. The recipients of the preaching can’t even have eye contact with the preacher. Instead they receive the entertainment of the sermon like watching a movie, or receive the content of the sermon like a lecture. What they don’t receive is shepherding.
3. It cultivates and encourages a broader failure to watch out for the souls entrusted to the shepherds (Hebrews 13:17). The one preaching cannot pastor thousands of souls scattered all over town, or worse, all over the country. Preaching then is further separated from the shepherding of the sheep.
4. It cultivates and encourages a consumerist mentality among the sheep. A day may be coming where the local multiplex will offer us a choice of listening to this blockbuster big name preach, or down the hall that indie up and comer, or even, further down the hall, that classic dead guy digitally remastered. Already in many towns you can choose to listen to this guy from that multi-site church or some other guy from another one. And just like at the movies, when the preaching ends we file out, having merely shared space, but no love, with others in the room.
5. It cultivates and encourages a lack of dependence on the gospel itself. The power is in the Word, not the one delivering it. Our strategies are foolishly built around the messenger rather than the message.
What then is a church to do when it grows? While I have never, not surprisingly, had this problem when I served as a senior pastor, we did have this problem in the church I planted, after we called another to serve as senior pastor. Our solution to our growth was simple- we created new parishes, complete with parish pastors. We hived off geographically, so that we would worship with our neighbors.
That church now has three parishes, and three pastors. It has three rented buildings. It has three congregations. But it is also one congregation. It has one liturgy, one confession, one session of elders, and one checkbook. Our conviction has been from the start that when you don’t know the person in the pew next to you, it is difficult to live out the “one anothers,” that a shared taste in preachers, or in musical style is not what binds us together, but rather the body of Christ broken is what holds the body together. Our conviction has been from the start that while technology may have its uses, our service should likely look much like it has always looked through the ages. Our conviction has been from the start that preachers are easy enough to find. Pastors, now that’s a challenge.