Multisite, the Poker Tell and the Importance of Presence
Presence is important. In a world where it is easy to simulate presence, even visible presence as by television, webcam or skype, it remains the case that actually being in the immediate physical proximity of somebody is important. We all intuitively know this: given the choice of talking to a loved one on the phone or over a camera link up or in the same room, who would not want actually to be with them?
This raises an important question about the notion of multi-site ministry, where the preacher is piped in to various locations by satellite link-up or fibre optic cable. Of course, this practice is susceptible to numerous lines of devastating critique. One might suggest that it moves the church towards a model where the accent in preaching is increasingly on the information communicated, nothing more; one might also raise questions about the way it detaches pastoral care of congregations and individuals from the ministry of public proclamation. For church officers it should surely be a nerve-wracking notion that pastors are to be held accountable for those entrusted to their care; and how can they give a credible account of such care if they do not know the faces, let alone the names, of those thus entrusted to them? Finally, one might point to the extreme example now being set by groups such as Mars Hill: what does 'contextualisation' mean when one man based in Seattle can pipe his message to congregations across the country, perhaps eventually across the world, regardless of any local context into which his messages might be broadcast? Even those of us who think the whole preoccupation with contextualisation of recent decades has tended to be rather overblown find such an action to be contrary to good sense.
All of these are important lines of critique; but there is one further one which is, I believe, lethal to multisite because it involves a poker tell on the part of its practitioners which reveals a fatal inconsistency.
A couple of months ago a pastor sent me an email written by one of his congregants who had been on vacation and had visited a campus of one of the better known multi-site evangelical ministries. His description of what he had witnessed was balanced and matter of fact, even appreciative at points; but one observation he made really piqued my interest: he commented that, although the preacher was piped in by videolink, the music band were actually present.
That observation strikes me as being of crucial importance not only to critics of multi-site like myself; but also something with which multi-site advocates must themselves wrestle. It seems to me (at least on the basis of the anecdotal research which I have been able to do) that nobody in the multi-site world pipes in the music by videolink in the way that is simply assumed as legitimate when it comes to the preacher. Yet in so doing, it seems to me that such ministries are conceding the importance of presence - of real, physical presence - to the gathering of the church. They are also begging the question: why have a real band when the most important thing, the preaching, can be beamed in? Or is it that the preaching is no longer the most important thing?
Some might well respond that it is easier to find good musicians than good preachers and this accounts for the apparent anomaly. That has a specious plausibility but rests on rather dubious premises. First, it reinforces the developing mythology that preaching the gospel is very difficult and that there are only a couple of dozen people in the entire United States who are any good at it. To quote Gershwin, it ain't necessarily so. If it were, Paul would surely have told us. In fact, he pours scorn on the Corinthian church's fascination with orators; what he requires of ministers is that they be competent to teach. That necessarily means they must be able to express themselves clearly and with conviction; but it does not mean they need the rhetorical skills of Winston Churchill or the brilliant classroom presence of Richard Feynman.
Second, it assumes the absolute negotiability of immediate physical presence. Apparently, it is better to have the big man piped in from the outside than have somebody less skilled doing it on site. Yet much is lost when that is done. Anyone who has ever taught or preached in the immediate presence of a live audience or congregation knows that there is a dialogical relationship between speaker and listeners. It may well take place at an almost subconscious level; but one instinctively reads signs from those listening and modifies one's voice and even one's content in the light of such. This becomes clear to any teacher who has also taught by videolink: the connection to those whose presence is mediated via a video screen is not susceptible to the same subtlety or implicit dialogue. In short, the relationship is fundamentally different: blunted, distant and relatively impersonal.
One might also add that mediated presence is inevitably presence that is less confrontational. Again, I remember some years ago seeing Jessica Lange playing the lead in a West End version of A Streetcar Named Desire. I had read the play; I had seen the Elia Kazan movie numerous times; but nothing prepared me for the raw psycholgical impact of seeing the emotional implosion of Blanche Dubois on the stage just in front of me. Lange's physical presence before me made all the difference. The movie and the play were not two forms of the same piece of art; in terms of reception, they were two utterly different works of art. Watching a video of a preacher, even in a crowded auditorium, is similar: immediate presence is confrontational; mediated presence is always easier to domesticate. Not two forms of the same thing but two different things.
The preacher who pipes himself in to numerous sites needs to ask himself if, by doing so, he loses the key elements of subtle dialogue and direct confrontation with a physically present congregation which are so important; the congregation satisfied with a video pastor needs to ask if its satisfaction is in part related to the absence of the man, an absence which inevitably tames that confrontational element which is such an important part of what Luther called 'the word which comes from outside.'
There are those pastors who will say 'Well, if we plant a church but I am not the regular preacher, people have told me that they will not come.' That may well be true but it begs a follow-up question: does that not indicate a serious problem in the heart of the people? That pastor needs to call those people to repentance: it is not the man, it is the message which is meant to feed their souls. Sure, the message can be preached boringly, badly and even heretically by some; but there are more than a half dozen men in the USA who are competent to teach. Good preaching may be at a premium; but that still does not make it either rocket science or infused Gnostic knowledge given only to a few of the chosen.
And they should also ask themselves why they always have live music. 'It's easier to hire good musicians' is a dodge, not a sufficient answer. In having live music, you concede the vital importance of presence. You should now apply that to the preaching as you do to the congregation's response to the same.
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