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Jesus Creed

What about virtual reality in church services?

I thought this question answer in with Rob Bell was fascinating. Here’s my question: What do you think of video clips in sermons?

Interview with Rob Bell….

Your NOOMA video series has been popular. What do you think about the increasing number of preachers and churches using video technology to expand their reach?

It’s powerful but there’s also a dark side. Video is not church. You put images and music on a screen, and people will listen. But it’s also dangerous. You’re playing with fire. I think video technology deserves to be scrutinized heavily.


Go a little deeper. What makes video dangerous?

I don’t think we know yet what the long-term impact will be on disciple-making. In 10 years we may discover what particular kind of Christ follower is formed by video preaching. I see warning lights on my dashboard. It’s unclear what video may do to the ways we conceive of life together.

In the New Testament, there are 43 “one another” passages, and during a Sunday morning service you might be able to practice three or four of them. And as the service gets large, you can probably do fewer. A massive group setting is also dangerous. You can come, sit, listen, and go home and think,I’ve been to church, even if you haven’t practiced any “one anothers.” And with video that only gets more intense. I’m not sure that’s the direction we want to be heading.


We want to be calling people to deep bonds of solidarity with one another. We may gather in a massive group, but from the stage I often say, “This is just a church service. Church is actually about caring for one another, and serving one another, and speaking truth to one another in love. Don’t get the two confused.”

The evidence suggests that video can have a fast and broad impact. So what’s the alternative?

There is something more powerful than simply beaming yourself into other locations, and that is raising up disciples. Over time that will go farther and faster, but right now it will be more work and slower. With technology today it’s easy to spend all of your energies reproducing your own voice, but there is a longer view that says, what if instead of beaming video to those ten locations, we train ten people who can go there and lead? That’s a very basic question that should be in the mix somewhere.

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chad m

posted February 17, 2010 at 2:37 am

last month’s Christian Century ran an article about and other multi-site churches where the main campus pastor is piped in via video.
a quote that stood out:
“LifeChurch is made up of people who liked youth group in high school, but then grew up and found nothing like it – until this.”
wow. is this true? if so, what are we doing wrong in youth ministry?

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posted February 17, 2010 at 6:01 am

I’m a part of a relatively new church plant, which is experimenting with various ways of ordering services etc. part of this experimentation the other week we had a sermon via dvd. it was bog standard video footage of a past sermon from another church and it was a pretty good sermon to be sure.
it did feel awful strange though. i’m the kind who would perhaps over analyse this kind of thing, especially after reading shane hipps’ book on electronic culture, which i really enjoyed.
i felt a lot more distance between me and the speaker (obviously), but i felt i could critique him more harshly because he was on the screen. i found myself thinking a lot more than usual about his hair, his dress, the way he spoke, i guess because i’m used to thinking these things when i’m watching t.v. or something.
i did concentrate better though.
it just seemed to change the whole thing. whether good or ill, it changes everything.

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Rick Supple

posted February 17, 2010 at 6:16 am

I would say video can be very helpful to bring to notch speakers to our churches. Some people are just gifted at sharing the Lord and we so need these people to be in our churches by video.

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posted February 17, 2010 at 7:52 am

my kids think this kind of church is arrogant. my guess is God is good enough and gracious enough to work to many means… but it comes off to me as a bit grandiose.

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Vaughn Treco

posted February 17, 2010 at 9:24 am

“This is just a church service. Church is actually about caring for one another, and serving one another, and speaking truth to one another in love. Don’t get the two confused.” ~ Rob Bell
While I thoroughly agree with many of the sentiments expressed by Rob Bell, I suspect that I do so for very different reasons. Chief among these would be the fact of Rob’s apparent misunderstanding regarding fundmental purpose of the gathered community. Rob has confused one of the purposes of the Church with the purpose for the “church service”!
The “church service” exist for God! It is for this reason that Eastern Christians have resisted calling the “church service” anything but “The Divine Liturgy”! We gather to worship the Blessed Trinity. This is the “service” (i.e. lituorgia) that we are called to render when the People of God gather for the “church service”! In and through this “church service” time and eternity intersect, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are adored, and we are transformed.
Mr. Bell is confused. True worship of the Triune God can never be “just a church service”!

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Andrew Butler

posted February 17, 2010 at 9:32 am

M. Craig Barnes in “The Pastor as Minor Poet” which Scott mentioned last year has interesting comments on this topic on p.134 onwards. He refers to a “Ferrari sermon”, and says that however many video clips preachers use they can’t compete with the fast paced entertainment industry. He suggests that we do better to help people listen out for God’s still small voice that we tend to hear best when we slow down and avoid other distractions. I agree.

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posted February 17, 2010 at 9:37 am

Vaughn, you are more than likely reading too much into that.
Chad M – What are we doing wrong in youth ministry? Selling kids a program and calling it faith. We are catering to teenager’s self-centeredness rather than inviting them into the deep life of a historical faith in Jesus. As a youth pastor I’m guilty of this myself. It’s way easier to project a teaching series from BlueFishTV rather than spend hours in scripture and creatively learning how to bring teens along side to read and learn with me. It looks better to plan an event for 50 kids than it does to take a handful and experience life with them – helping them find focus on Jesus life, death, and resurrection.

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Scot McKnight

posted February 17, 2010 at 9:47 am

Vaughn, to quote the Bible and to adapt it: “Do you think in such a short time you can convince me to be Roman Catholic?”

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Travis Greene

posted February 17, 2010 at 10:15 am

Rob Bell’s comments are right on, especially this part:
“There is something more powerful than simply beaming yourself into other locations, and that is raising up disciples. Over time that will go farther and faster, but right now it will be more work and slower. With technology today it’s easy to spend all of your energies reproducing your own voice, but there is a longer view that says, what if instead of beaming video to those ten locations, we train ten people who can go there and lead?”
It shows a severe lack of faith in God’s gifts to his people to think that only a very very few (one in 150 or so) can possibly be able to teach. We don’t need technology so we can keep growing. We need discipleship so we can keep replicating.

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Brad Boydston

posted February 17, 2010 at 10:19 am

When we put people in theater style seating, dim the lights, and project an image, why are we so surprised that they begin to act more like an audience consuming entertainment than a congregation in dialog with God?

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Brandon Baker

posted February 17, 2010 at 10:26 am

Video in the place of one person speaking to hundreds or thousands does not decrease intimacy. It is when video replaces interaction. People who walk into an auditorium to hear a live preacher and then leave are no more connected than the person who watches a video feed and then leaves. Video or live speaker, the question is whether there is a place in your structure that fosters intimacy/one-anotherness (don’t bother looking that word up).

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Scot McKnight

posted February 17, 2010 at 10:29 am

Brad, you probably know I get cranky about the word “consumer.” So here’s my response:
Theater seating is a good way to posture people who are listening. It’s not about consuming unless listening is consuming. Consuming is a judgment on motive for both producers and listeners. The posture isn’t a necessary expression of consumption.
Jesus postured himself, and therefore his audience, on a higher place in the Sermon on the Mount so his listeners could posture themselves in an attentive place. Some of his listeners could have showed up for the entertainment of a public speaker.
My contention: stadium seats and theater seating is a legitimate posture.
The earliest basilicas etc were shaped to carry voice and shaped so as many listeners could posture themselves in an attentive manner. That’s wise for the speaker and the listener.
Lighting … not sure that’s the issue you see. Perhaps so. I know I don’t care for the bright lights of larger churches. But it might be the best way to posture a speaker and a listener.
The issue of consumption, though, is real but I’m struggling to find someone who can really define it. It’s a slur these days, and it’s used for all kinds of things that make no sense to me. Is the Lord’s Supper “staged” to “invite” folks to “consume” the bread and wine? Is that consumption?

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posted February 17, 2010 at 10:36 am

But it isn’t “project an image” that does it – the same will happen when a thousand or more people listen to one person on a regular basis. There is no relationship, it is all presentation.
There is a “phase transition” when the regular preacher/speaker cannot look out over the audience and identify individuals throughout the space. Run through the impact what he or she is saying on these individuals and respond to the body language and identity of the audience. Cannot pray for individuals by name.
Video is just the next step in considering the presentation (“lesson”) to be more important than relationship (discipleship).
A video is a tool.
A book is a tool.
A large audience lecture is a tool (and this is what most preaching is).
Visiting speakers on occasion are useful tools.
All of these can help people learn and grow. I don’t mind video clips as part of a prepared sermon, class, or service – they can be powerful parts of the whole. And I use all of these as part of my own process of learning. But we need relationship and a web of relationships.

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posted February 17, 2010 at 10:41 am

Relationship – Jesus developed relationships, he interacted with individuals, he allowed others to listen in on occasion to interactions with individuals and smallish groups. Some of his listeners could have shown up for the entertainment value, but he interacted with real people at all times. He improvised based on response to real people.
This is what is missing in our audience based megachurches video or real life.

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posted February 17, 2010 at 10:46 am

2 factors need to be kept in mind regarding many of these churches:
1) They are attempting to reach the unchurched (or non-committed Christians). As the generation who grew up on such media has become adults, this approach seems to appeal to many. The comments about youth are ironic, since it is the paying attention to what appeals to youth (in the past) that has brought about these very approaches. Likewise, the youth of today are also being observed for potential future trends and methods.
2) There is not necessarily a lack of appreciation for the importance of localized, close community teaching, and discipleship. Those that use campus pastors put a lot of emphasis on those pastors. Likewise, the emphasis on close community, such as small groups, is also emphasized. Andy Stanley at Northpoint, for example, has said he would if one had to choose) rather have people attend their small group gatherings than attend the Sunday morning gathering.
You may think there is some potential long-term issues, but let’s not make this an either/or in regards to a large gathering and discipleship; and let’s not assume it is being done for superficial purposes.

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Scot McKnight

posted February 17, 2010 at 10:59 am

RJS, good point. I agree that relationship is what turns this from consumptive entertainment to fellowship. And my own experience in churches is that most churches turn Sunday morning services into “come, pray, worship, listen, praise, etc” and then go home.
But very, very few churches think this is the whole thing: instead, they have small groups etc to foster fellowship and growth and spiritual care.
Yes, North Point is a collection of small groups who meet together on Sunday mornings, while Willow has always fostered small groups. I’m not saying they’re perfect, but they are hardly designed to be consumptive entertainment.

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Brandon Donaldson

posted February 17, 2010 at 11:16 am

Video, internet, and/or social media are all tools that have to be led through. I definitely agree on that. They are not good or evil in themselves. The cool thing is these technologies if led through right could be used to promote “one-anothers.” I know Rob’s Nooma videos have had some tremendous impact on small group settings all over the place. There is no doubt that there are some annointed and gifted speakers that God is using. With video it allows Rob to be in my small group setting, which is a tremendous opportunity for Rob as well as the group. Then the group has the opportunity and responsibility to create those “one-anothers:” Talking out what God is showing them, taking action around what God is showing them, and Holding each other accountable to what God is showing them.
I think churches and speakers going to video should question deeply their motives and their vision on using these technologies, but I believe these technologies could promote smaller gatherings of people around impactful content, which has the possibilities of pushing healthy “one-anothers.”

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posted February 17, 2010 at 11:24 am

I really like Bell’s thoughts here. There is a danger to both technology and massive group settings – and the danger is both to the audience and to the speaker.
The speaker (on video or real life) can conclude that they have carried out the great commission – when in reality they have acted on one small piece of the whole – and missed the real point of disciple making.
The audience can go away with a virtuous and satisfied feeling having also missed the point.
I am not trying to cast Willow or North Point or Mars Hill or any other large church in a bad light, nor am I trying to overlook the very real flaws in most (all) other instances of church, including smaller churches. But I do think that we need to always have the advantages, disadvantages, and dangers in mind and remember the point of it all.

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Brad Boydston

posted February 17, 2010 at 1:16 pm

At any given moment in a communication event we are functioning on a continum between CONSUMER and CONTRIBUTOR. When we turn down the lights and/or project images we are functioning on the consumer end of the spectrum.
Non-verbal feedback (such as eye contact) between speaker and “audience” does not exist. There are no “amens” — no head movements. We are only allowed to consume the input. And because it is “hot,” to borrow Marshall McLuhan’s category, we receive it more passively and without engaging as many senses or areas of the mind.
However, in a communication event where the chairs, even if in rows, and the lighting allow for people to see each other, there is substantial non-verbal communication occuring in the congregation. We reinforce to each other the significance of the speaker’s message through body posture, facial expressions, eye rolling, etc. We also interact with the speaker, encouraging (or discouraging!) him or her on a number of levels. The speaker adjusts according to the non-verbal (or sometimes even verbal) feedback from the group. It is active human communication occurring in the context of community.
When the speaker is a projected image in a darkened room there is no contribution from the congregation either to the speaker or the rest of the congregation. This is why a well-told story can be more powerful and engaging than the same story shown on a screen.

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posted February 17, 2010 at 2:53 pm

This seems to fit with Bell’s reluctance to attempt to “twitter” the gospel… just saying the words doesn’t make it the gospel, it’s got to be en-fleshed in practice and life.

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Jack Dekkinga

posted February 18, 2010 at 9:23 am

One has to separate and distinguish how the video is being used. If the video is the only or the major part of the message, then the human interaction or feedback is indeed lacking. The message will lose some of the human touch. However, the use of video clips to make a point, one that is expanded upon, is effective and worthwhile in the worship setting. In a time where so much of the information we get is via technology, to neglect its use is short sighted. Rob uses video in his sermons effectively and appropriately.

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