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 "going multisite," as it's called. He refused. 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 6,000 subscribers.
The bottom line is that people keep coming to these video franchises, and as long as that's our criterion we'll keep offering them. That is a good thing, because different people come to these different services. Our church misses the "video cafe" we used to have because it allowed us to set the service up like a coffeehouse and dispense with things like pews. Many people were more comfortable with that. But why as the years go by does it seem like my church is focused more and more on that one central speaker? Is the problem societal and there's nothing to be done about it? Or can something change it?
I don't know, so I'm asking.