To many Christians, though, the sermon is the main event. It's when all eyes are on the pulpit. It's when the leader of the church teaches. It's when the messages in the Bible are distilled for the faithful. Filling that job with piped-in pixels only feeds the celebrity pastor's star power while creating competition for less-gifted communicators.
And as an engine of church growth, video preaching poses problems for even the most ardent evangelicals. Some fear it will allow well-known pastors to swoop into new territories and roll up struggling locally led churches while rolling over smaller ones, especially those tied to mainline Protestant denominations, such as the Presbyterians and Baptists, that are already losing adherents to nondenominational megachurches—and talented pastors to other careers. "Where does a man or woman who feels called to preach get practical experience if their local church is a video venue?" says Bob Hyatt, founder of the Evergreen Community, a small evangelical church that holds services in two pubs in Portland, Ore.
Saddleback Church's Rick Warren, perhaps the best-known megachurch leader in the country, has said for years that he never broadcast his services on television for just that reason. But he has evidently softened his stance: This spring, Saddleback opened the first three of 10 planned video venues in and around its Orange County, Calif., home. "We're not reaching out because we need to be bigger, we're reaching out because more people need Jesus," the church's Web site says. Try telling that to the small-time minister when Mr. Purpose-Driven Life comes to town.
And it's not just a problem for other pastors. In fact, says Shane Hipps, author of The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture: How Media Shapes Faith, the Gospel, and Church, using video goes against a critical tenet of Protestant faith: the priesthood of all believers. Instead of a real experience, it offers a mediated one that inherently puts the pastor in a position of greater power over the masses. "It's actually undermining their theology," he told me recently. Hipps, who worked in advertising for Porsche before entering the seminary, says the small Mennonite community he leads in Glendale, Ariz., asked him to consider adding a "video venue" service. He expressed serious reservations. Even podcasting his sermons makes him uncomfortable. He started doing it for the benefit of elderly members who couldn't make it to church, but a year later, his own minor celebrity has helped him acquire 12,000 subscribers.
Are Hipps and other critics just Luddites, unable to see the power of technology to spread the Gospel? Perhaps. As megachurch pastors like to note, the apostle Paul delivered his epistles guiding early church development from long distance. And in 18th-century America, traveling Methodist preachers known as circuit riders started strings of churches, some of which they returned to just a few times a year. Without horses, they would have reached far fewer people. Without video, the argument goes, today's gifted preachers could reach only a fraction of the converts to their brand of Christianity.
And for Christians looking to create community on a more intimate level, video venues do present an alternative to the suburban megaflock. While some people find it strange at first to worship in front of a big screen, they frequently come to view it as no different than attending a service that is totally live, supporters say. And one day, they might be able to relocate to a new town without changing pastors.
But as Starbucks itself recently learned, even the most successful brands can get too ubiquitous. That probably applies to those that are divinely inspired, too.
Correction, Aug. 20, 2008: This article incorrectly stated that Shane Hipps' community asked him to "go multisite" and that he refused. The members asked him to add a "video venue" service, and he expressed reservations. Additionally, Hipps' podcast subscribers number 12,000, not 6,000. (Return to the corrected sentence.)