Presence & Projection: Staying on Target

Six months ago, Dr. Lenny Luchetti posed this question to a group of pastors: “Should a disembodied, absent preacher on a video screen dare to proclaim a God who became flesh and dwelt among us?”  It’s a good question.  Strike that.  It’s a great question that stirred up all kinds of responses from the members of the group myself included.  I am a campus pastor for one of our multi-site campuses in Topeka, KS, and I have an interest in these kinds of conversations.  And I agree that we need to evaluate our ecclesial methodology as we launch “new” or “alternative” worship environments be it multi-site or internet-based worship services or whatever.  Let it be known, however, that less than 1% of people surveyed by LifeWay Research actually prefer to watch a video sermon.[1] 

<1%.

And while I cannot verify that video venues are “flying off the ecclesial griddle,” LifeWay Research et al [2] say that multi-site video venues are not going away any time soon.  But here’s one statistic worth noting that helps me keep this conversation in perspective, in the United States 5 million people worshipped at one of 8,000 multi-site churches last weekend, according to the National Congregations Study sponsored by Duke University. [3] This represents 9% of Protestant churchgoers.

9%.

That’s it.

Further, 90% of multi-site campuses are within 30 miles of the sending church.[4] When we consider the bigger picture as to how many churches and people we’re talking about in America coupled with current research stating that 65% of churchgoers prefer an in-person sermon over a video sermon it appears to me that we’re talking about a minority issue here.[5]  Live preaching is the overwhelming preferred and practiced method of communication. 

Of churchgoers.

Geoff Surratt notes that many people who skeptically watch a video sermon are surprised by their experience: “It’s not surprising that people who’ve never been to a video venue told LifeWay Research they wouldn’t go.  People don’t know what they don’t know.”[6] This has been our experience as a video venue church.  I’ve observed that the biggest skeptics of video preaching include people with a church background, preaching professors (wink wink), and mature Christians. 

Why? 

Simply put, they’re used to live preaching.

Non-Christians and un-churched folks however simply do not know the difference.  They don’t know what they don’t know and don’t have a problem with the projected message.  Just this past week, we had out-of-town guests (grandparents of our campus worship leader) visiting our video venue campus.  In conversation at the end of service, the grandmother approached me expressed her skepticism concerning the video message prior to their arrival but noted how wonderful the service was and that she was surprised that the video preaching didn’t bother her like she thought it would.

One of my concerns with Dr. Luchetti’s follow-up blog post is the lack nuance.  I think Dr. Luchetti is painting with too broad of a brush lumping all video venues together.  There is a difference between a multi-site church spanning states and countries versus a church with multiple campuses in the same city.  In our case we are one church in two locations in the same city.  We have much in common between our locations – our contexts are not all that different.

A second concern I have revolves around the idea that the preacher can’t adjust to congregational cues.  An anonymous comment shares my thought that this is an “overvalued” point. I’m struggling to understand what these adjustments are?  Are these content adjustments?  Tone?  Pace? I agree with the point if we’re talking about content adjustments versus tone, pace, or inflection, etc.  The preacher, in the moment of recording, is live and can make adjustments as necessary.  Those watching the recording later in my experience respond in the same way as the actual live congregation.  I know this because I witness it at both our locations.  People at the video campus relate and respond similarly.  Further one of the pros of video venue multi-site is that the preacher learns new communication techniques knowing that her message will be broadcast in another location.

James Watkins says while videos are great, “they’re not high touch,” meaning that the person on the screen can’t respond to congregational cues; nor can videos give a hug or serve Communion.  I couldn't agree more.  It’s undeniable that in a high tech environment, video venue campuses must surpass their technology with genuine love for neighbor.  I recently heard one multi-site pastor say that most ministry happens between Sundays emphasizing the balance of proclamation of the gospel with compassionate and caring ministry that happens during the week.

So what keeps people coming back to our church? Two reasons…and neither of them has anything to do with preaching or how rockin’ our music is!

#1 - The children’s ministry is excellent; and,

#2 - The people are friendly and welcoming.

Every time. 

I have yet to hear someone say that the preaching the reason they attend our church.  We are both a high tech AND high touch church.

Will we be a video venue campus always and forever?  According to the Multisite Church Scorecard, while live teaching is the preferred method for multi-site leaders there has been a trend of launching new campuses with video teaching to get a new site off the ground, and then transitioning to live preaching to 2-3 years post-launch.[7]  The question is not whether the pros outweigh the cons; rather the question that keeps us on target is: “What is the most effective preaching strategy for us as a church right now in our context?”

Right now video venue is our strategy.  We’re not committed to this strategy long-term; nor are we committed to starting future campuses with this strategy.  We may very well end up 2-3 years from now transitioning to team preaching or having separate preaching pastors at all our locations.  Who knows at this point?  What we do know is that we are committed to our mission and vision as a church and our preaching will reflect that mission.

Mission trumps preaching preference.  We echo the words of the Apostle Paul who said, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.  I do this all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.”[8]