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At the Acts 29 Conference in Dallas, Texas last week, the recent events surrounding Mark Driscoll and the network he founded were in the air. But as one attendee commented to me, the pastors there weren’t focused on Driscoll himself so much as what they could learn from Mars Hill Church’s recent decision to dissolve its video-powered network of 13 churches.
As of January 2015, each Mars Hill Church location will either become an independent church or will cease to exist. And as the satellite model of churches continues to develop nationwide wide, the larger question, not just for Mars Hill but for churches and denominations of all kinds, is whether the video satellite model is a viable way to do church.
Can video-based churches work?
I get to do a bit of writing and speaking on technology and faith, and in my travels I’ve found that the most-asked question among Christians is, “Why is everyone so addicted to their iPhones?” But the second is, “What do you think of video churches?”
For some denominations, the answer is already fixed and unhackable. Video satellites are simply too foreign to some traditions’ ecclesiology and liturgy. Even the Mars Hill Church organization once took the stance that an online-only campus was outside the boundaries of its understanding of “church.”
However, for many non-denominational evangelical churches with an entrepreneurial spirit, video churches have become a popular way to expand.
My own inclination has been to avoid video satellite churches on the grounds that physical presence is important in some difficult-to-articulate way. But, as I’ve talked to friends who utilize video streaming as part of their ministry, I’ve seen that pastors who are doing this have carefully considered the downsides and, to varying degrees of success, implemented strategies to overcome them. Here are a few of the key objections, along with the methods churches are using to address them.
1. Video satellites make it impossible to know the pastor.
This is certainly true, but it’s hardly a problem unique to video satellite campuses. Perhaps it would be better to recognize that pre-Internet technologies like cars and microphones made it relatively easy to have a church whose size exceeds the capacity for one pastor to know everyone. In fact, this is a good example of how new technologies (like cars and microphones) make certain new things possible — large churches have the resources to support ministries small churches cannot — and other things impossible — in this case, knowing the pastor.
Advocates for video satellites will tell you that the satellite model actually works against the depersonalization tendency of megachurches by keeping campuses small and hiring a “campus pastor” for each location. Because the campus pastor doesn’t need to spend time preparing a sermon each week, he or she is free to spend more time with the local attendees, forming a tighter, more intimate community than would be possible with a single, larger auditorium.
In an alternative model, some churches in sparsely populated rural areas band together to hire a single pastor who rotates among the locations, beaming the video to the others in the network. The preachers for these churches function much like the Circuit Riders who ministered among early European settlers in America.
2a. Video satellites are personality/celebrity driven.
2b. Video satellites don’t create new leaders.
I’ve put these two common critiques together, because, while they are independently important, they are also inextricably tied together.
As with the televangelists of the 1970s and 80s, one of the main questions for video satellites has been, “What happens when the charismatic personality dies, retires, or does something to disqualify himself?” Well, in the case of Mars Hill, we now know one possible outcome.
At the church where my family and I worship in the Dallas area, the staff has decided to create a preaching team of men and women who rotate each Sunday. A few years ago, the senior pastor was diagnosed with colon cancer, which limited how often he could preach. Though we missed him and prayed for him, the worship didn’t feel significantly different, since we were already used to the rotation.
My friends at the Acts 29 conference began their church with a similar model of a preaching team, and when they decided to open a few video-satellite locations, they continued to rotate who preached and also began rotating the location from which they preached. In theory, this overcomes both parts of this objection. They are avoiding a sense of celebrity popularity while continuing to cultivate new leaders and preachers for each location.
3. Video satellites promote a church brand over local needs.
Related to the idea of celebrity pastors with massive influence, large churches now spend enormous amounts of time and money promulgating and promoting their brands. (Sadly, it has been reported that Driscoll once said, “I am the brand!”) Today, the size and scope of some large churches can exceed that of an entire denomination.
Here again, some video-based churches are taking a more careful approach by allowing each satellite to work toward authentically meeting the specific needs of its immediate geographic region. This means that each branch location may not have the same ministries or even the exact same feel, even if they do share some preaching duties and leadership oversight.
Of course, you’d have to be a part of these communities to gauge the success of their attempts, but I’m heartened to hear that local concerns are one of the first considerations such churches make when opening a new satellite.
4. Video satellites emphasize the word over the table.
The Reformers said the local church had two primary duties — the preaching of the word and the right administration of the sacraments. However, the kinds of churches willing to experiment with video satellites have tended toward a more “remembrance” view of the sacraments instead of a “means of grace” understanding. This usually means they don’t consider communion an essential component of weekly worship — such as singing or preaching — and so only offer it monthly or quarterly.
In this context, preaching from the pulpit is clearly emphasized over the table, and it would seem that a video satellite would further exacerbate this issue. The giant person on screen every week looms large over the crackers and juice.
When I asked my friend about this, he said that his church leans more toward a “this is my body” view of the sacraments and believes it is important to distribute the bread and wine as a part of every worship service. In an unexpected way, this actually heightens the importance of the table, since the elements are physically present while the preaching is often not. If you didn’t grow up in a non-denominational church, it’s hard to imagine what a big shift this is — and even more surprising that it’s happening in a high-tech video campus model.
So, are video churches good or bad?
I don’t intend for this to be an apology for the video church model, but these examples show that some of our reflexive critiques may not be very strong, and that what actually happens at video churches can be counterintuitive.
In any event, the Mars Hill decision doesn’t pose a long term threat the viability of the satellite model. If anything, it seems to have caused deeper reflection and spawned some creative, and hopefully humanizing, new practices.
Image courtesy of Fbcjax.