Few aspects of local church ministry are as challenging or necessary as bridging the timeless truths of the gospel to the historically contingent, ever-changing context of the surrounding culture. Enthusiasm for proper contextualization is to be commended. The Word of God must be made intelligible in order for it to edify (1 Cor. 9:19–23; 14:22–25).
The video-venue model of ministry—showing a live feed or recorded sermon on screens rather than having an in-person pastor preaching on stage—is an example of a popular method of ministry contextualization that, despite its efficiencies, is problematic.
I’m not talking about videotaping a live sermon and making it available on a website for those unable to attend church on Sunday. I’m talking about ministries where a sermon-on-the-screen, delivered to a satellite campus by a remote feed, has become normative for the Sunday morning service.
Lessons From Paul’s Ministry
At least three non-negotiable aspects of Paul’s ministry render a video-venue approach problematic in the teaching ministry of a church.
1. Relational Orientation
Consider, first, the relational orientation of Paul’s ministry. He planted the church in Thessalonica during his second journey (Acts 17). A short time after he had departed, he reminded the Thessalonians, “We were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thess. 2:8). The Thessalonians came to “know” Paul’s motivation for ministry (vv. 5–7) and were “witnesses” to the apostle’s “holy and righteous and blameless” conduct (v. 10).
Paul was known by those he taught. His ministry in Ephesus was characterized by the same relational intimacy between the teacher and the hearers of the Word. As with the Thessalonians, Paul confidently reminds the Ephesian elders of the relational integrity of his ministry: “You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia” (Acts 20:18). Luke emphasizes the depth of Paul’s relationships with the Ephesians later in the narrative, as he is about to depart for the last time: “There was much weeping on the part of all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, being sorrowful most of all because of the word he had spoken, that they would not see his face again” (20:37–38).
Paul apparently felt strongly about sharing close personal relationships with those he taught. Contrast this with the video-venue pastor, or any pastor of an overly large church, who teaches the Bible each week to individuals with whom he has no personal relationship.
By its nature, the sermon-on-a-screen approach dangerously isolates the cognitive from the relational aspects of our faith. Shepherds in the New Testament world did not bring in a food truck to feed their sheep. They fed the flock themselves.
Shepherds in the New Testament world did not bring in a food truck to feed their sheep. They fed the flock themselves.
For Paul and the early Christians, the cognitive and relational aspects of Christian leadership were inseparable. This, in turn, gave him and his co-workers the moral authority to challenge their converts to imitate their behavior.
The imitation theme was a central component of Paul’s ministry (1 Cor. 4:16; 11:1; Phil. 3:17; 1 Thess. 1:6; 2:14; 2 Thess. 3:7, 9). Paul’s converts were able to imitate him only because they knew him well. And apparently this was standard fare for early Christian leaders; the author of Hebrews similarly exhorts: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (13:7).
The ability to imitate a church leader assumes you are familiar with that leader’s life. I can only imitate someone I know. But this kind of relational intimacy is hard to cultivate in video-venue settings or overly large churches where leaders are inaccessible.
3. Reproduction of Leaders
The importance of reproducing leaders also raises questions for a remote preaching ministry. A key qualification for elders in the New Testament church was the ability to “give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9). There were a plurality of elders in the early Christian congregations and, from what we can tell, they shared the teaching of the Word (e.g., Acts 13:1). This dynamic likely provided a key avenue for raising up new pastors.
When a single individual teaches 5,000 to 10,000 people Sunday after Sunday, where do the other pastor-elders in the church learn to exercise this crucial aspect of ministry? Megachurches do a good job of raising up efficient ministry managers. But are we successfully developing the next generation of Bible-teaching shepherds?
Christ’s Relational Ministry
Paul wasn’t the only example of New Testament ministry that prioritized a relational orientation. Jesus himself modeled it. The apostle John tells us that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Jesus of Nazareth came to us as a person—not as a set of pixels on a screen.
Jesus of Nazareth came to us as a person—not as a set of pixels on a screen.
Jesus modeled an intensely relational ministry. He didn’t just send books or training materials to his disciples; he shared his life with them for the better part of three years. As John would later write, he and his fellow disciples knew a Jesus they “touched” with their “hands” (1 John 1:1).
For Jesus, disciple-making was a relational endeavor. The crowds Jesus taught from a distance eventually drifted away. Eleven of the 12 men he shared life with changed the world (John 6:66–69). So it was for Jesus. So it was for Paul. And so it should be for us, as we seek to make disciples today (Matt. 28:19).
It’s ironic that the video-venue model of ministry comes at the time when social scientists are encouraging us to decrease screen time in our lives. The title of Sherry Turkle’s bestselling, trenchant critique of digital “community” says it all: Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology And Less From Each Other.
Secular theorists now generally caution against the tendency of virtual reality to isolate us, rather than to genuinely connect us with one another. Recently a Los Angeles Times op-ed described millennials who pursue spirituality without community, through a “wave of spirituality apps” that promise to “supercharge your mindfulness and positive thinking.” But the author counters this trend by asserting that real-life community has been at the heart of spirituality throughout human history: “Strong social bonds, forged through group activity, are not just lucky accidents of religious life. They are the very point of religion.”
The video-venue model of ministry can undermine, rather than strengthen, the “strong social bonds” that have marked Christianity at its best throughout church history.
The video-venue model of ministry can undermine, rather than strengthen, the strong social bonds that have marked Christianity at its best throughout church history.
Medium and Message
Decades ago, Marshall McLuhan taught us one of the great truths of the 20th century: “The medium is the message.” This means the way we deliver a message often speaks louder than the message itself—particularly when there is a disconnect between the medium and the message.
The sermon-on-a-screen approach delivers a quintessentially relational message by means of an impersonal, non-relational medium. The disembodied, pixelated medium hijacks the people-oriented message, and we end up discouraging (rather than encouraging) embodied Christian community by the way we teach the Bible in our churches on Sunday morning.