(Reading Time: About 5 mins)
What do you do when you hear a pastor pray on the radio or see one pray on TV. Do you pray too?
A few weekends ago, on a road trip, I listened to a sermon on CD. From the beginning of the recording, you can tell the crowd is rambunctious, the way the pastor is reacting to them. He's amused by it, but he's determined to harness it, to focus the audience's energy into prayer.
First, he tells them why he wants them to pray–why they need to pray. Then he helps them focus on what to pray for by giving them a specific area to pray for, each followed by maybe 30 seconds of silence.
Prayers of thankfulness. Silence. Confession. Silence. Requests for the gathered believers. Silence. Requests for outsiders. Silence. Requests for self. Pause. Then the pastor closes it up, leading a collective prayer.
Mind you, I’m listening to this at 70 miles-per-hour on the expressway. A Harley passes me. I slow down for a semi. I speed up. Blinker. Check blind spot. Mirrors. Lane change. Cop. Slow down. Check rearview mirror till the cop’s out of sight. Speed up. All the while, the recording continues, the prayer and silence endures, punctuated every minute or so by the pastor’s methodical instruction, guiding the prayers of righteous people.
I didn’t know what to do. Was I supposed to pray too? I had no idea how recent this recording was. It could have been from 10 years ago. I had no context other than what I heard. The pastor made no references to current events.
Could I really latch onto that holy crowd through this recording with my prayers? Even if I could have, I was driving, distracted. I wasn’t immersed in the experience, gathered with other believers praying. My experience wasn’t the slow, focused attention the pastor had cultivated. Mine was something more like this:
Prayer of thankfulness. A Harley passes me. Silence. I slow down for a semi. Confession. I speed up. Silence. Blinker. Requests for the gathered believers. Check blind spot. Silence. Mirrors. Requests for outsiders. Lane change. Silence. Cop. Requests for self. Slow down. Check rearview mirror till the cop’s out of sight. Pause. Speed up. Pastor prays.
What was I supposed to do? What was my role? my identity? Was I an observer? a participant? The same question confronts me every time a pastor prays on TV. Am I supposed to pray too? If I close my eyes, I can’t see the TV. This is weird. I’ll just watch.
Now, I admit that I can disengage just as much even if I'm present in the sanctuary. I recognize that God's Spirit can work despite the medium. I praise God that's true.
But I don’t think I’m the only one who experiences this strange disorientation toward prayer when listening to a sermon on CD or on TV. I don't think I'm the only one wondering: "Am I supposed to watch, listen, or participate?"
Since the pastor’s not even here with me or I with him, there’s no shared presence. We are not present together. I don't belong to those rambunctious believers. I don’t know who I am in this context. We as the audience are no longer "we." We have no identity as a people, like movie goers told to silence their cell phones. We are isolated in the dark. Separated. Watching. Detached. When the pastor calls for a show of hands, why should I raise mine? He can’t see me. It’s a meaningless gesture. When the pastor prays, shouldn’t I go on watching? That’s what the screen expects me to do, even if the pastor doesn’t.
I fear the same will come true (or is already) in churches where pastors are projected onto a video screen. There, the pastor is no longer present.
Why does presence matter? Because Immanuel matters. Because for some reason, God didn't project a hi-def image of himself. He sent himself, embodied. God became present with us. When pastors disembody themselves—when they are discarnate—they disfigure Immanuel, even if unintentionally. Projected pastors deny the importance of God with us. They distort the purpose of the Incarnation.
Video screens and CDs are unrelenting. They can't change. They can't be other than they are. We cannot adjust them to affirm Immanuel. As long as we use them, we will always have to accommodate ourselves to them.
So what can pastors do who have already structured their churches around the video-venue multisite model? First, I suggest that anytime someone prays upfront, the screens go black. This will be a strong statement to everyone watching. It will be a powerful affirmation of who we are praying to: the God of the second commandment. It will compel every person to ask why the screen goes dark when we pray. It will force them to reflect on what prayer means.
Second, stop projecting absent pastors on screens. This is a structural change. It will require creativity and planning. It will require restructuring Sunday morning services and leadership development, resolving parking issues and child care, and discovering what Immanuel means for the church. I don't pretend to believe that I'm asking for something small. But if taking down a video screen requires that much reorganizing, doesn't that tell us something about how central it has become?