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."

June 28, 2006

Displaying 1–10 of 10 comments

dan mcgowan

July 01, 2006  6:30pm

Ian, yeah - I know what you are saying... and my coin phrase would be to say, "hey, we need balance." though, I've never felt that was actually an answer to a question - more of a way to avoid answering! (LOL) so, I won't say that... The only time technology (or any other "extra-biblical" means being used to spread the gospel) becomes an idol is when the ones using it make it MORE IMPORTANT than God. And this certainly does happen - unfortunately, a LOT! We could all sit here and point fingers at the many ways we see this happening... but that does not mean that technology is wrong - it means the WAY it is used is wrong... or possibly becoming a bit of an idol... For example, I don't think it is WRONG to have singing groups or praise team vocalists use harmony in their singing... if they want to do that, fine. However - there is no Biblical MANDATE that we MUST sing with harmony - yet, there are many church music directors who INSIST on using harmony and label harmony as a BETTER musical offering to God. It's not. Not according to the Bible anyway. And when we INSIST on harmony being used under the guise of "ordained by God" we have now created an IDOL. The very same thing is true of visuals on the screen, or "creative worship elements" etc. When we allow these to become THE THING driving the worship of our God then, yes, we have problems. Because we have, without knowing it, created a NEW "god" - the technology. How do we get around that? Well, one way I get around ALL of those "hidden idols" is to simply not use them sometimes... I just DON'T USE the screen, or visuals, or certain typs of "so-called God ordained" songs or music styles... I do that on purpose - to continually remind those in my church that "the hymnal" is not the same thing as "The Bible" and we can still worship God even if we are not being led by "the hot worship band" this week... I hope all of this makes sense because I do agree with you - anything can grab our attention and, if we're not careful, our worship.

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July 01, 2006  10:35am

One question I have about the use of technology (although I am not fully opposed to its use, since as you see I am utilizing it right now) is, what is left over when it fails? What if it is no longer available at some point? Will we still have anything to say? Several years ago I was on a business trip to Toronto (Canada's largest city). While I sat on the plane waiting for departure a major catastrophe happened and all the power for the whole city (as well as Northern NY state) was shut off. It was almost 24 hours before it began to be restored. A business colleague and I were now stranded in a big city, far from home, with nowhere to go. Our debit cards were useless. People wouldn't accept credit cards either. People (taxi drivers and buses) were running out of gas because many pumps are electrical. Restaurants were closed down as well as most stores – so acquiring food became a concern. Many people were panicking, and I must admit I struggled as every new obstacle that highlighted our alienation stood in our way. We really had to think hard about what to do. The over-familiarity of technology and our uncritical and complete dependance upon it almost incapacitated us. We were at a real loss of what to do or where to go. I wonder if we, in the church, realize the extent to which we rely upon technology to 'get the message out'. Have we replaced the working of the Holy Spirit with the ubiquitous emotionally charged bells-and-whistles we can't seem to function without in our services etc? What will be left when the lights do go out? Have we in some way failed to heed the warning of John where he says "Little children, guard yourselves from idols"?

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Brett McCracken

June 29, 2006  7:32pm

Shane is right on about this. The way that a message is adorned or styled changes it ESSENTIALLY. Icing on a cake is not separate from the cake itself. A cake with icing is AN ENTIRELY DIFFERENT THING than a cake without icing. And likewise, the taste and color and style of icing vastly changes the cake and how one receives it. Wedding cakes are white or pastel (and not black) for a reason, and it's not because one color-dye tastes better than the other, but because they communicate different things. You can't separate the parts from the whole. The content of anything cannot be separated from its form. Messages do not and cannot exist in a vaccuum, but must be attached to a conduit. And that reality should tell us that the conduit is as or more important of a choice than the message itself. If "message" could exist on its own God would have created it as such... Anyway, this conversation is interesting and greatly valuable for the Church–whose identity and purposes are so defined by "message." I've written a lot on this topic over at Relevant Magazine. Check out my article "Re-Fusing Form and Content" at this link, or my most recent article about online media and communication here:

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Scott Palmer

June 29, 2006  1:44pm

Mike Rucker wrote, "i've begun to wonder lately if preaching itself isn't what's outdated." I wholeheartedly agree. I have been struggling with this issue for some time and have reached a similar conclusion. One-way communication is becoming less common in other areas of life (entertainment, industry, academe). Perhaps a similar change is occurring in the church. Some people may be growing tired of listening to an "expert" give a speech every week. Maybe this is why the house church movement is gaining traction according to some observers.

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Fred Grewe

June 29, 2006  1:13pm

i fear we are all growing more voyeuristic in every aspect of our privileged north american lives. We eat dinner with ross, monica, joey chandler and phoebe and check in with greorge, jerry, elaine and kramer before bedtime. virtual relationships retarding the ability to make real relationships with real people. hi-tech driven churches can compound the actual isolation many of us feel. on the one hand, i want to see the gospel shared in every way possible. to quote the apostle, "but what does it matter? the important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. and because of this i rejoice. yes, and i will continue to rejoice …(philippians 1:18) on the other … i think eugene peterson had it right in his "subversive spirituality" that what folks want from church is a feeling of transcendence (God's presence) and friendship (with other live human beings). that's what i want. so i think that to the extent that technology aids in the achieving of these two goals bring it on … to the extent that it aborts them –- can it.

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Todd Wold

June 29, 2006  11:37am

What McLuhan's quote gets at is that the medium unavoidably contextualizes the message. In this case, the message is presented in an entertainment context–a pervasive and familiar one for Americans. I think what Hipps is calling for is sober realization of that context. The TV context runs much deeper than you think in our culture. Celebrity has become a new religion. And TV is not only an entertainment medium, it is also our primary advertising medium. So you have another context ever present–the consumer context. Of course the Word rises above all, but don't let that be a cop out for not more thoughtfully considering the ways in which we communicate the Word. Maybe we would be better served in finding ways to take people away from the distortion and noise of entertainment and consumerism to a more pure experience of Christ and His body. Impossible? I'd like to think it's not. I have experienced a suburban mega-aspiring church's plan to roll this out to "venues" where there are already several established churches–even of its own denomination. I question their intentions. I question the use of Kingdom resources to spread "brand X" of the Gospel in a suburban culture already rife with other brand choices (all basic evangelical Christianity). That's the situation I think needs some serious analysis. Using video for mission churches in other cultures is a completely different animal, and is an approach much akin to the circuit riders of history. The suburban American video venue church is more akin to localized televangelism or reality TV than circuit preachers.

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June 29, 2006  11:35am

For various reasons, I have attended at least 100 churches over the past 10 years of every size and denomination. The thing that matters most is the content of the message and the obedience of the congregation to God's truth. While I recognize the importance of style and of the "how we do things", it is still more important to impart the truth from the pulpit and follow-up with accountability on the part of the congregation than it is to have a BIG church. Let's face it, repentance and obedience (even for believers) is never popular stuff. That's why Paul kept reminding the early churches not to get sidetracked.

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mike rucker

June 29, 2006  11:03am

i've begun to wonder lately if preaching itself isn't what's outdated. i'd ask any of you to tell me what you believe among the barrage of comments we face from people today through EVERY medium. i am 45, and i am always cynical of "truths" and "facts" that are presented to me; i believe my kids' generation will be even more doubting. simply put, we want to be more in a discussion and a reasonable examination of what is on the table, not spoonfed or browbeaten with one person's view of a message. how do we change church to accomodate that? authority figures are held in less and less esteem than they were in my parents' generations - and, personally, i'm somewhat glad. and while it doesn't have to stoop to the level of whether or not the pastor (or Jesus) wears boxers or briefs, i believe the issues of today deserve to have more than one side presented and examined. i believe the days of everyone sitting and listening to one person's view and then walking out quietly are numbered.

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dan mcgowan

June 28, 2006  5:02pm

Wow, where do I begin? Okay, first - - unless we are willing to put every single element of "doing church" under the same microscope, it's best to quit pointing fingers... should we NOT teach children the Bible using CREATIVE VBS and Sunday school materials in FEAR that they will idolize the creative elements? And, what about contemproary praise music, for goodness sakes? It is RAMPANT in churches and, in many cases, if a church is NOT utilizing a cutting-edge praise band, with words and images flashing on a screen, accomapnied by special effects (yes, this occurs) then you are viewed as OUTDATED or NOT WITH THE TIMES. Speaking of worship - my area of expertise and knowledge - I'm getting a little tired of phrases such as "Top" or "Best" Worship Leaders... huh? The issue of pastors on screens is SOOOOOO tiny compared to some much more dangerous issues facing the church today which are actually churning out idol after idol - - Last time I checked, God is not "hip" on idols.

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June 28, 2006  4:58pm

I think it is more a matter of how strong the church community is, and the depth of it's fellowship that has had a direct impact on the church altogether. If the congregation isn't in a strong fellowship, and love is a ideal concept much chatted about but never practiced...yeah, there are larger problems in that church besides who the messenger is, and how his message delivered. I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure Paul discussed this in his letters to Rome and Corinth.

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