Most Sunday mornings at Buckhead Church in downtown Atlanta, one person is conspicuously absent: the senior pastor, Andy Stanley. A nationally known evangelist, Stanley is usually 20 minutes away at North Point Community Church, the suburban megachurch he has led for 13 years. To the 6,000 or so faithful at Buckhead, he appears only on video, his digital image projected in front of the congregation in life-sized 3-D. The preacher is a hologram.
I suspect that the trend started with churches that were standing-room only.Â In many such congregations, the sermon is broadcast into another room in the church building.Â But with video and hologram technology, the minister’s image can appear in the other room, too.Â And if in another room, why not on another campus across town?Â And if there, why not in your town, too?Â In fact, why not inÂ another part of the world entirely?Â As Park says, “With video, you just need seats and a screen to replicate the original.”
And why not, someone might ask.Â The article quotes a man who defends the practice and then sums up his response this way: “If it takes a name-brand preacher to put butts in seats, so be it.”Â After all, who wants to hear Joe Pastor preach when he could hear someone famous instead, someone like Andy Stanley or Rick Warren?
And wouldn’t it make church planting easier in some ways?Â You’d need some local staff, but you wouldn’t need to hire a full-time pastor.Â You’d pay up front for the video machinery, but that would probably be a one-time cost.Â It wouldn’t be equal to a full-time salary, year after year.Â And besides, you’d have instant name recognition.Â “Ever heard of Rick Warren?Â He’s our pastor,” people could say.Â Wouldn’t that draw people?
While some people find it strange at first to worship in front of a big screen, they frequently come to view it as no different than attending a service that is totally live, supporters say. And one day, they might be able to relocate to a new town without changing pastors.
So that’s the new trend, and, as the article says, some of these churches may in fact steamroll over other churches, drawing people to the big name and away from the unknown pastors of these other churches.Â “Forget Rev. Ordinary.Â My pastor is Rev. Superstar.”Â It wouldn’t surprise me at all to find this trend catching on.
But Rev. Superstar doesn’t know your name, and you have never met him face to face.Â Even if he should show up in the flesh some day, you can bet that he won’t come to the hospital when you’re sick.Â He won’t ever look you right in the eyes as he’s preaching.Â He’s just a video and you’ll never really get to know him in person.Â In fact, instead of being a real person to you, a person with a real body, a person who preaching is simply part of his whole-life ministry to you, he’s just flickering lights and recorded words.
Interestingly, Park makes a connection between the attraction to Video Pastor and a certain theology of worship:
To many Christians, though, the sermon is the main event. It’s when all eyes are on the pulpit. It’s when the leader of the church teaches. It’s when the messages in the Bible are distilled for the faithful. Filling that job with piped-in pixels only feeds the celebrity pastor’s star power while creating competition for less-gifted communicators.
“The sermon is the main event.”Â And if that’s true, then there’s pressure on the pastor to be the superstar preacher.Â Every sermon ought to be outstanding.Â And if it’s not, then people will flock to churches pastored by Great Communicators, like Stanley and Warren, people whose preaching they do think is outstanding.
But is the sermon really “the main event”?Â While Reformed people do sometimes speak of “the primacy of preaching,” the better principle is “the primacy of the Word.”Â And the Word comes in many forms throughout the liturgy.Â It comes in the call to worship, in the confession of sin, in the absolution, in the prayers, in the sermon, in the songs, in the benediction.Â In short, the Word is primary because it shows up in everything and it shapes everything in the liturgy.
If we understand that the Word is what is primary, not the sermon alone, and that the Word comes through the whole liturgy, then it may take some of the pressure away from pastors so that they can preach ordinary sermons instead of feeling that every sermon must be fantastic (“or I’ll lose them to some other pastor, maybe some hologram pastor, who preaches better than I do”).
And that Word comes to us, not simply as words in the air, but as words from the lips of a man who is present with us, a man who has come to us and who lives among us, a man we know, a man who is not necessarily anything special in mself but whose “specialness” is simply due to the office that the Lord has given him.
This also, it seems to me, is important.Â It is important that the Word be spoken to you by a man you know, by a man who sometimes has bad breath or whose hair gets mussed up, by a man whose hands reach out and shake yours after the service, by a man who puts his arms around you when you’re grieving, by a man who grips your hand as he prays for you when you’re about to go into the operating room, a man whose kids run around after the service and have to be reined in sometimes, a man who sometimes feels discouraged but who pours himself out during the service anyway, a man who doesn’t simply explain Scripture from a distance but also lives it out up close to you.
Sure, that man is weak.Â He isn’t impressive.Â HeÂ may be a great preacher, but he may also stumble over his words or speak in a bit of aÂ monotone.Â His preaching may be lively and vigorous and exciting, butÂ it may be at times, even most of the time, somewhat dry.Â In fact, his preaching and he himself may seem weak and foolish.Â But that is God’s way of displaying His wisdom and His power:Â not through Rev. Superstar but through Rev. Ordinary.