Most Sunday mornings at Buckhead Church in downtown Atlanta, one person is conspicuously absent: the senior pastor, Andy Stanley. A nationally known evangelist, Stanley is usually 20 minutes away at North Point Community Church, the suburban megachurch he has led for 13 years. To the 6,000 or so faithful at Buckhead, he appears only on video, his digital image projected in front of the congregation in life-sized 3-D. The preacher is a hologram.
As the Wall Street Journal noted earlier this summer, American megachurch pastors are starting up video-based branches overseas to spread their faith, and their faces, to places where evangelical Christianity is just taking hold, using Starbucks as their model for rapid expansion. But here at home, where houses of worship are already as plentiful as suburban strip centers, the same strategy of high-tech franchising is emerging, despite objections from many Christians that it's the wrong way to reach new converts.
An estimated 2,000 to 2,500 U.S. congregations now operate multiple campuses, and many of them, like Buckhead Church, are so-called video venues. The Leadership Network, a Christian nonprofit that follows these multisite churches, says there will be 30,000 of them within a few years. Already, the most ambitious pastors are predicting that, thanks to video, they'll have branded outlets nationwide and more than 100,000 followers—twice as large as the country's biggest megachurch today. Gigachurches are the way that next-generation celebrity evangelists are building their empires.
While anyone can watch Joel Osteen or T.D. Jakes on TV, few would call that "going to church." Can a digitally projected pastor lead a congregation, shepherd believers, create and expand a community? Or is this just business-minded religion run amok? In a blog post, one of Stanley's lieutenants compared the job of running a video venue to operating a franchise of another Christian-led business: Chick-fil-A. "Just like that Chick-fil-A owner/operator, I'm here in Nashville to open up our franchise and run it right," wrote Eddie Johnson. "I believe in my company and what they are trying to 'sell.' "
Johnson told me that he never anticipated the vitriolic response his blog post would produce. ("This is where 'Church, Inc.' takes us," wrote one commenter; another called Johnson the anti-Christ.) But he stands by his analogy. Most residents of Nashville, Tenn.—he estimates around 71 percent—don't attend church regularly. If it takes a name-brand preacher to put butts in seats, so be it.
But first, there has to be a place for people to put their butts. The most successful megachurches, like Willow Creek Community Church outside Chicago and Mars Hill Church in Seattle, are standing-room-only. They've expanded as much as zoning laws and the cost of bricks and mortar will allow. In the past, they would send up-and-coming leaders out to set up autonomous congregations in other locations (and many still do). But church-planting, as it's known, can be arduous and time-consuming, and there's no guarantee it will reproduce the home church's success, especially without the same charismatic leader at the top. With video, you just need seats and a screen to replicate the original. While only a handful of churches can afford Buckhead's $250,000 high-def system, it costs relatively little to project a DVD of the home church's sermon from last week. Or churchgoers can head to the movie theater: National CineMedia rents multiplex screens that otherwise would be dark on Sunday mornings to churches.
With video venues, ambitious pastors can think beyond their current geographic boundaries, whether it's across town, across the country, or even across international borders. Oklahoma City's LifeChurch.tv, which also holds services online, has churches in six states. Fellowship Church in Dallas bought out a struggling Baptist church in Miami for its first off-site location. Andy Stanley's North Point has 16 video venues, including a church whose members voted to defect from the Presbyterian Church of Canada last fall. He's gunning for a total of 60 by 2010.
Typically, a video venue will have a local staff to produce live elements to its service—greetings, music, offerings—and a "campus pastor" who will occasionally preach. Defenders of video venues note that the unorthodox arrangement relieves young pastors of the burden of writing and delivering a weekly sermon, leaving them more time to spend with their members, staffs, and families.
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.)