Is it okay for a preacher to speak to a Christian gathering via a screen? Or is it important that he be physically present with them? In an earlier article I suggested in passing that "it matters for the preacher to be physically present to preach in the assembly of the church." That remark prompted both a comment that numerous churches (including several led by TGC Council Members) now function as multi-site gatherings in which the pastor preaches from a screen, and a request that I write another piece exploring this question more deeply. So here goes. Let me say at the start that I want to stand by what I said. But I want to nuance it.
Two Invalid Reasons
Before I get to the heart of my case, we need to clear away some debris from our thinking. There are at least two invalid reasons why we may object to preachers on screens. The first is downright worldly: envy. It's never crossed anyone's mind to suggest I should preach to several congregations via screens because, well, my preaching is not of that quality. Would that it were! As a pastor infected with the disease of ministerial envy and pride, I can feel irritated when others' preaching is so good that people want to see them even through a screen. I'm ashamed of my attitude, and I ought to be ashamed. I write from the UK, where the Christian scene is so small that we have (to my knowledge) no multi-campus churches and no preachers sufficiently well-known for this setup to be requested. So, in my perverse British (nay, English) way, I instinctively don't like the idea. That dislike is worldly and needs to be cleared out of the way.
The second invalid reason is cultural conservatism: I don't like it because I'm not used to it. In the same way, I don't really like using an electronic diary; I use one, but it feels wrong. But this is simply because I'm getting old (in my 50s, no less, and how geriatric in our culture) and am in danger of becoming a cultural dinosaur. No doubt a previous generation didn't feel the telephone was a natural instrument to use. The fact that it doesn't feel right isn't an argument against it; indeed, it may simply be a challenge to me to adapt and get used to it.
It cannot be absolutely wrong to preach by a means more remote than immediate bodily presence. The apostles wrote letters and clearly regarded them as a valid and authoritative way to communicate. Paul even instructed the church in Colossae to read his letter out in the church of the Laodiceans as well (Col. 4:16).
And when we think about it, there isn't a simple choice between immediate bodily presence and remote tele-preaching. The moment we use a microphone we distance the preacher by putting electronic voice amplification between us and him. His bodily presence is less immediate. And when we fix a camera on the preacher at the front and project his face on screens around a large building, we reduce the immediacy of his bodily presence, too. I remember the odd feeling when first addressing a larger gathering of this kind, as I turned to make eye contact with those on the wings only to discover their eyes were fixed on screens. I quickly realized I'd do better to look straight ahead all the time, at the camera. Needless to say, it was unsettling and reduced my sense of being directly present with them. The same would apply to a video relay into an overflow room.
So there are bad reasons for not liking video preaching, and thus it cannot be absolutely wrong. Having said that, however, the apostles repeatedly state that, despite writing letters, they desire to meet people face to face (e.g., 2 John 12; 3 John 13,14; Rom. 1:10-15; 1 Cor. 16:7; 2 Cor. 1:16). I think there are two kinds of reasons why remoteness ought to be regarded as the exception rather than the norm.
Two Kinds of Valid Reasons
The first kind concerns the congregation, the assembly. It's generally better for a church to have a preacher physically present with them. As my friend Bob Fyall commented on my previous article, "The Word uniquely becomes flesh in the Lord Jesus Christ, but must also be embodied in the particularity, even idiosyncrasies, of the preacher. This requires a 'real presence' and the experience of fallible human words faithfully expounding the written Word to lead us to the Living Word." Moreover, Carl Trueman has observed that multi-site ministries tend to use live musicians, and he asks what view of preaching is implied when the music must be live but the preaching can be remote. It's a perceptive question.
What's more, the preacher cannot teach and preach authentically without loving people. And love involves the desire to share not only the gospel but also his life (1 Thess. 1:8). Even a visiting preacher or conference speaker ought to want to do this, insofar as circumstances permit. A regular pastor won't be satisfied with anything less. It's hard to see how regular preaching through a screen lends itself to sharing life in love. (In the same way, a bodily present preacher who comes from the study to the pulpit only to retreat immediately back to the study withholds love from the people to whom he preaches.) I may benefit from a screen preacher's words, but I cannot know he loves and cares for me except in a shallow and general way.
The second kind of reason concerns the authenticity of the preacher. Paul wanted the church in Ephesus to see Timothy's progress in godliness (1 Tim. 3:15-16). Paul himself wanted churches to imitate his life insofar as he was Christlike (e.g. 1 Cor. 4:16; 2 Thess. 3:9), and he could only say this because he had been physically with them and hoped to do so again. It's possible for a bodily present preacher to pull the wool over a church's eyes, to be a fraud, to prove a charlatan in the end; but it's far harder to do this when a church is seeing his life in bodily fellowship with him as a brother. For the sake of a pastor's integrity and accountability, then, bodily presence and sharing life are important safeguards.
Additionally, John said face-to-face fellowship makes joy complete (2 John 12), and Paul hoped he and the church in Rome would be "mutually encouraged" when they met (Rom. 1:12). We too ought to regard all forms of bodily distance as less than the ideal and the norm. Whether sound amplification, sight lines restricted by pillars, screens for visibility in a large building, the "hit and run" nature of visiting preachers and conference speaking, or preaching through a video link, these varying degrees of bodily remoteness may enabling preach when it would otherwise be inaudible, invisible, or impossible. But the norm ought to be a man accountable to a congregation, sharing his life with the sheep he knows and loves and who know and love him—all in the context of joyful mutual accountability and encouragement. Preaching is best in that context of bodily presence and self-giving.
So can preachers preach from screens? Yes, they can. It's possible and it's not wrong. But we will be wise to avoid it.