The Sunday morning service at Fellowship Church in Dallas, Texas, was humming along with hymns and prayers when something unusual happened.
The lights in the sanctuary suddenly dimmed, and members of the church hushed as they peered at a pulpit shrouded in darkness. The parishioners then erupted in cheers and whistles as Ed Young Sr., the church’s senior pastor, emerged from the darkness with a microphone in hand.
“Please be seated, be seated,” Young said as he grabbed the Bible. “How are you guys doing today? Doing well?”
Young delivered his sermon, but he couldn’t hear or see his congregation respond: He wasn’t physically there.
Young’s parishioners were instead looking at a high-def video image of their pastor beamed into their sanctuary from a “mother” church in Grapevine, Texas.
Young is part of a new generation of pastors who can be in two places at one time. They are using technology — high-def videos, and even holograms — to beam their Sunday morning sermons to remote “satellite” churches that belong to their congregation.
Young, whose congregation has about 20,000 members spread across five churches, said his image is so lifelike that some visitors forget he’s not there.
Geoff Surratt, author of “The Multi-site Church Revolution,” said at least 3,000 churches nationwide use some variation of high-def video to spread their pastor’s Sunday morning sermons.
“It’s a revolution,” said Surratt, pastor at Seacoast Church in South Carolina, which broadcasts its pastor’s Sunday sermons to 13 locations. “It’s a very different way to spread the gospel.”
It may not be a better way, though, said the Rev. Thomas Long, a nationally recognized authority on preaching and author of “Preaching from Memory to Hope.”
Preachers who don’t think they need to be physically present in their church should ask how they would feel if they were forced to preach to high-def images of their congregation every Sunday morning, Long said.
“There’s something about embodiment — that the person who delivers the sermon is actually there — that’s important,” Long said. “It’s important in the same way that someone physically visits someone in a hospital or buries a loved one — they don’t fax it in.”
Long said the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ interaction with people show him constantly touching and being physically present with people.
“We don’t think God sent a message to us; God sent a person and the word became flesh,” he said.
Young, the Texas pastor, also invoked the New Testament to support his method of preaching.
Young said Biblical church leaders like the Apostle Paul wrote letters that were then distributed to churches across the Roman Empire. The church leaders weren’t physically present when those letters — some of which were later included in the New Testament — were read aloud, but that didn’t make the message any less profound, he said.
“All we’re doing is putting high definition, cool technology behind something that’s as old as the New Testament,” said Young, who also blogs, has a Facebook page and uses Twitter.
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