Over the Christmas break, I visited a church and observed something that disturbed me. The church was telecasting the image of their preacher live from one auditorium to another. I was worshipping in the auditorium in which he was a high-definition video image rather than a flesh-and-blood creature. It was especially shocking because the video image had been engineered to create the illusion that the preacher was actually present. The three-dimensional, life-size image was so convincing that it took me a minute to even realize what I was witnessing. My husband sat in another part of the auditorium and actually never realized that he was watching a digital image until I told him afterwards. The other thing I noticed was that the worship was very flat--there was not a great deal of participation, and people looked unengaged. The music was so loud and "performed" and the live telecast so impersonal that the presence of the congregation made absolutely no difference in the form of the worship service. The congregation was irrelevant to the public acts that were taking place in that space.
I spoke to some church members about this practice to find out why they had decided to worship in this way. They told me that good preachers were getting harder and harder to find. They wanted to open another church campus, and it would be too expensive and difficult to hire another great preacher, so they decided to have him go back and forth between the campuses and supplement his live visits with telecasts.
I spent my undergrad years studying the difference between live, flesh-and-blood performance and non-live media like film. Worship, like live theater, is a communal act. When a living, breathing preacher takes the stage amidst a group of unique human beings, the chemistry between those people is unique. The "audience" matters. They affect the delivery of the message. They are conscious of one another and their mutual, voluntary membership in this very special listening-and-responding fellowship.
Worship is incarnational. It brings our physical bodies into close proximity with other bodies. It asks us to worship God together, not as passive spectators but as praying and singing people. For me, the sound of my sisters and brothers singing is heavenly, whether they sing well or not. Part of the worship experience is the buzz of their conversation and the sound of their laughter when someone onstage makes a joke. We are a brother-and-sisterhood. We understand that we are there to love one another and to spend time together as a family, whether we happen to be having a spat with someone at the moment or not. Sometimes we all weep together for one of our people. I've seen it happen on several occasions, both joyful and sad. Literally the entire five-hundred person church has been in tears, though some are more surreptitious than others. :-)
I would rather hear a boring sermon from a member of our fellowship than a video transmission of the best preacher in America.
I'm not making a judgment on the church I visited, because I don't know them well enough to ascertain what was truly happening on that day. Instead, I'm meditating on the general topic of virtual, passive worship. Isn't it antithetical to what the ministry of Christ was all about? Wasn't he always proving to people that he was here in the flesh? Wasn't he always eating and drinking in fellowship with all people, in full awareness that what happens to our physical bodies has a sacramental effect on our spirits?
It's tempting to think that it's OK to use all the tools of contemporary technology to do whatever we want with our worship. The people at that church told me that "the younger generation is used to it." But I'm not sure they really know what they're talking about. We're not talking about a choice of worship style, or debating hymns versus praise music. The difference between live presence and virtual image doesn't vanish because our teenagers spend a lot of time on computers. That difference--the incarnational difference--is a fact of our human existence. It's a fact of our faith.