Monday, September 05, 2005

More Cultural Oblivion

[A letter I sent to Christianity Today concerning an article from their September 2005 issue.]

September 5, 2005

Dear Editor:

The article “High-Tech Circuit Riders” reveals a distressing cultural captivity among evangelicals. Leaders appeal to McDonald’s and other marketing models in defense of “satellite churches” that depend on absent preachers whose images are beamed onto huge video screens to large audiences. We should unmask the controlling presupposition at work here—functional rationalism. The idea is to create products that can be efficiently reproduced according to a standard model in multiple locations. This works well for mass-market behemoths such as McDonald's, but should we then embrace McChurch, McPastor, or (heaven help us) McGod? McDonald's is efficient, but what of the quality of its product? (Ministry is not a product, anyway.) Moreover, these electronically mediated services must be calibrated to the minute if not the second. Hence, the obeisance to the idol of Chronos. What of the serendipitous work of the Holy Spirit wrought through the personal encounter of a pastor with his or her flock? Yes, the giant screens are drawing crowds. This is no surprise since our culture is already addicted to video screens. But how many believers are going to be edified according to the face-to-face pattern of Jesus and his disciples? The claim that these electronically mediated McChurches are analogous to congregations set up by Methodist circuit riders is specious in the extreme. Those industrious men started churches in the flesh and returned to them in the flesh. The mesmerizing absent-presence of the video screen preacher—and its sundry unintended consequences—lay far in the future.

Sincerely,
Douglas Groothuis

17 comments:

Ray said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Tom G said...

The Gospel is about authentic relationship. Video is not.

KP said...

I thought of you when I read this CT article and would have been greatly surprised if you hadn't responded to it in some fashion. I'm glad you wrote the magazine and hope it will generate further thought and discussion about the prudent use of technology. Thanks for posting this.

Cheerful Curmudgeon said...

Well said Dr. G. I believe Christians are called to bare spiritual fruit, not digital fruit. Our faith is built upon objective reality not projected reality. We worship a personal God, not a technological God.

Dr Mike said...

Two questions:

1. Does the use of video threaten or usurp the function of the church or merely the form?

2. Is a better to watch a good, edifying video of a sermon or a poor, unedifying sermon done "live"? I am not saying these are the only choices, but frequently it does come down to this.

nancy said...

Mike - As you note, you have stated a false dichotomy on point #2. If a pastor posseses limited ability to exegete Scripture and subsequently teach it in a way that challenges and encourages, then it is the responsibility of the leaders of the church to help equip the pastor or redirect his energies to areas in which he is gifted. Perhaps is it our responsibility to communicate to church leaders.

However, given the two options, I would never chose the video. I am very appreciative of the humble pastor who recognizes his weaknesses and diligently labors to improve his exegetical skills!

Wayne Shih said...

I noted the reference to function/form by mike. It reminded me of questions that's been on my mind for a while. I hope you don't mind if I go down this little bunny trail.

It's been said that function needs to stay the same while forms may change. It seems to me that the underlying supposition is that forms are morally/spiritually neutral and therefore can be altered. But are forms necessarily neutral? Isn't it true that sometimes the medium (form) is the message? Do you think we need to re-examine the function/form mantra?

Douglas Groothuis said...

Those are good chops from the Cheerful Curmudgeon and Nancy, but not sound bites, of course.

Form matters! Most evangelicals think that the medium is neutral and that only the content matters. This is false. I harp on this in "The Soul in Cyberspace." A medium of communication is neither intrinsically good, intrinsically bad or neutral. So, what is left? Each medium has inherent strengths and weaknesses. It may do some things well and do other things very poorly. Teaching and preaching should be incarnational, especially in one's own church! Video will not do for a church service, although it may be used profitably in other contexts.

www.markdroberts.com said...

Whether you are right or not, and I tend to agree with you, you are nevertheless calling upon evangelicals to think more deeply about what we're doing, rather than simply accepting the cultural norms and forms. Thanks!

Dr Mike said...

Some additional things:

1. I don't disagree that video is the lesser of the two options, but I do think it foolish to reject it completely just because "we've never done it this way before."

E.g., I have a friend who pastors a church 1500 miles away. I watch his sermons every week via the internet. I am edified by it, it deepens my relationship with him and Him, and my clients profit from it. I was his best man; he was in my wedding, too. We have a deep, kindred spirit relationship. So it's a "bad thing" to watch the videos because I cannot drive 3000 miles each Sunday morning?

My situation is not that unusual. Because he is in a university town, many grad students go back to their home countries after having become Christians here. No one is trained to preach or teach, although some are growing. They use the videos for worship services; they have a relationship with the home church, but it is separated by half the world.

2. In Paul's day, oratory was a big deal. Should the churches have rejected his letters because they weren't "live"?

3. Nancy: I did not present a false dichotomy; I presented a genuine situation that is more prevalent than we might imagine.

4. Cheerful Cur: Actually, we are called to bear spiritual fruit; your typo, however, is not far off for many of us: our spiritual vine is pretty barren. Video should not replace discipleship - any more than live preaching should replaced discipleship - but it can be a valuable adjunct and contribute to spiritual - not digital, whatever that is - fruit.

5. My understanding of the churches that use video for off- or in-campus services is that pastors are present and the only thing "canned" is the sermon. Am I to understand that God cannot work in and through this arrangement?

(Sorry for the length.)

6. I agree that the form-function distinction needs to be examined. I think Getz started that a long time ago and we've followed and swallowed it too blindly. Form does matter, although it certainly is not as significant as function. In the OT, form was very important; in the NT, however, its import is reduced as God treats us more as adults and less like children.

7. Finally, my initial comment was meant to stir the pot and hopefully generate some light without too much heat. So far so good, but I'm still not convinced that video is a "bad thing."

Josh S. said...

Mike: Have you read anything by Neil Postman? If not, reading Amusing Ourselves to Death or Technopoly might be helpful for you in understanding the bias of mediums.

Adam Omelianchuk said...

I live by John Piper's church and was shocked to see him on this huge screen on Sunday morning. I guess sometimes he preaches on Sat. night and they record it for Sunday morning.

It made me believe the thesis (I forget who the philosopher who made it) that when the medium of the message is changed the message itself changes.

Steve said...

O the miserable plight of the virtual-clast. Do you really beleive that real humans should lead the called-out-ones? Think of the possibilities. Paul could have avoided jail. Christ could have forgone the cross. The empty tomb would have been a piece of cake. Where is your sense of pragmatic narcissism?
Next thing you'll be saying the church is to be about glorifying Christ.

Cromwell would be proud.
And I as well.

BAG said...

The apostle Paul believed that the "form" of various philosophical constructs, and theological (Judeo) paradigms, distorted the "function" (or content) of the message of the cross. So much so that the Corinthians had displaced the power of the cross, in the name of the cross, with foolish weak man-centered wisdom systems--being exemplified in the schisms in chpt 1. At least I argued this way in my master's thesis :).

Form is not neutral, I agree with Dr. Groothius and Postman and the apostle Paul ;).

Susan said...

to Mike:

1. because "we've never done it this way before." is not the reason so-called satellite churches are a bad idea. Watching your 1500-miles-distant friend on video isn't church. You're just watching TV. There is a difference. Your edification via this method is disconnected. You are sitting in your living room (or wherever) being electronically "edified." Again, this is not church. It is nice that you have a personal relationship with someone who records their sermons on video. Most people do not have personal realtionships to support the video-sermons they watch. Your case is far from typical and makes a poor test-case therefore.

It is a telling commentary on the value of this video-preaching that after 4 years (I assume, this being a universtity situtation you speak of) of viewing your friend, none these international students you mention are themselves equipped to teach when they return to their home towns. Is not the explicit job of the pastor to equip the saints? (Eph. 4:11-12) Or is it to entertain them?

2. In Paul's day, his letters were not a substitue for personally present, direct, leadership and pastoring and discipleship.

5. "Pastors are present" - - ya, right, to the thousands that watch via TV monitor. Is that to be settled for as "pastoral presence?"

Rich said...

I think that "presence" is culturally relative. I consider e-mail, video, etc. to be forms of presence. I haven't met any of you, but you are all present to me in this blog.

Okay, video isn't interactive ... but do you think my congregation talks to me during my sermon? Am I truly any more "present" to them in the pulpit on Sunday than if I were on video? In reality, no.

And by the way, I've had many authentic relationships in e-mail forums and blogs. I'm not young, either (I'm 44, tho I was a techie b4 going in2 ministry)

IMing someone is as real to me as meeting them face-to-face.

Josh S. said...

IMing someone is as real to me as meeting them face-to-face.

As real? Either your face-to-face encounters are text only, or you IM conversations are miraculous.