In the past decade the multi-site method has transformed church growth practices. Multi-site is evangelistically driven, expanding the “seeker-centric” purpose adopted by most church leaders. Multi-site is also an attempt to resolve problems created by technology, specifically capacity issues in both the auditorium and the parking lot—both challenges created by commuter culture (i.e., the car).
Multi-site has a number of variations. A popular one is referred to as the “video venue.” The central feature of video venues is, of course, video. This is generally a live feed from another church campus. Sometimes it’s prerecorded, but usually within the same day.
Using video has certain advantages, but it’s also going to change church practice. Video has its benefits and its costs. The benefits are usually emphasized when discussing new technology. But counting the costs before setting out (Luke 14:28) can help guide our decisions. I’m not talking about money. These costs do not necessarily mean we shouldn’t use video, but we should know what we’re agreeing to. Here are some of them.
The central feature of the video venue is, of course, the visual. This feature is what’s driving multi-site. Audio recording has been possible for much longer, so why didn’t multisite start there? It lacked the visual. Even if the message is more important than the medium, the fact is that the visual is the appeal.
In light of this visual emphasis, a preacher who stands at his podium reading prepared notes will not thrive inside the video environment. Of course, he wouldn’t have thrived on a stage either. In some sense the video is an extension of the stage, just as television and movies extend dramatic theater. Thus, much of what we say about video, we might also say about a stage-centered church.
Before amplification, the stage expected broad gestures and big voices. Not so with video venues. Video probably tends toward more subtlety: facial expressions and vocal inflections. These dissonant requirements may frustrate preachers who record their stage messages, but they may never understand why. As for those watching video screens, subtlety requires having the intuition to grasp these expressions and inflections. In other words, video expects its viewers to have intuitive understanding. Does the church expect this too?
Another result of the visual emphasis is that keeping the sermon visually interesting is vital. This can mean using props or splicing videos or a thousand other creative options. It may mean going on location to record sermons portions. The video venue relieves the preacher of stage context, restrictions, and confinement. It frees the preacher to move about the world. Forget the stage. The audience can be transported anywhere now, so why work to keep their attention using artificial limitations?
The real question is, “How long will the audience bear the same visual backdrop?” Even stage-centered churches now create stage sets for each series, but stages do not prioritize the visual to this degree. Because the stage is a fixed space, it can change only so much. It is restricted by its physical dimensions and its singular location. With the heightened visual expectation and the freedom from spatial limits, the video “relieves” the preacher to do more than he can on stage. Of course, this will require more time. And it will require more decisions since the options cannot be exhausted.
From facial expressions to far-flung landscapes, the video venue will begin to change the proportions of the sermon. A preacher seeking to meet to his audience’s needs will experience intense pressure to create visual appeal. Without a clear set of values in this regard or intentional subversion of these expectations, the extremes will become the norms to keep the audience’s attention and attendance.
The value of visual appeal, if left unchecked, will become the top priority. Without anticipating it, this will blindside church leaders after it’s too late. It will do so subtly, but not suddenly. The change will be gradual. As a result, the veracity of the message will be of secondary importance. Instead, its authority will rise and fall with the quality of the visual. It will be difficult to curtail the increasing importance of visual appeal.
With visual appeal taking a primary place in validating the message, Jesus’ words to Thomas come to mind. “You believe because you have seen me. Blessed are those who believe without seeing me.” Are Jesus’ words valid to the video venue?
Paul says that “faith comes by hearing,” (Rom 10:17), so what happens when sight displaces sound as the primary context for evaluating those matters?
When Jesus said, “He who has ears to hear should listen and understand,” (Luke 13:43) was he contextualizing to an aural/oral culture? To us in the visual age, would he instead have said “he who has eyes”? But then why did he say what he said to Thomas?
What are we to make of the common belief that Jesus was not a sight to behold (Isa 53:2) when we churches create environments where authority may rise and fall based on visual appeal?
If we are to be imitators of God (Eph 5:1), and he does not judge based on appearance (1 Sam 16:7; cf. Isa 11:3), then is the video venue creating an environment that makes it more difficult to obey that directive? Of course, visual appeal is not introducing a foreign impulse into the hearts of people. It’s exacerbating what’s already there, pressing hard into a weakness we already know. Technology has a way of magnifying our weaknesses.
All of this will not happen today nor tomorrow. It will be a challenge the church faces in a decade or two, but they may not even understand its causes then. The effects of new technology tend to blend into the background over time. Jim Tomberlin, a multisite expert, predicts that "By the end of this decade every midsize town and major city in America will have a multi-site church." It's past the tipping point. What unintended consequences will video venues have?
Church leaders will likely shrug at this post. They’ll face these consequences when they arrive, or they will be someone else’s problems by then. I don’t doubt that leaders have plenty of other more pressing concerns. But if they’re considering multisite, these are some questions worth asking and some dynamics worth pondering.