I attend a large church that has a main campus with two satellite campuses. The music is live at the satellites, but the sermon is seen through a 5-minute delayed video feed from the main campus. The large video screens and full-size view of the pastor makes the experience feel “almost” real. The illusion holds, that is, until something happens like yesterday. The pastor said something and the audience clapped to show approval for what he said. It was clear, the audience at my remote site didn’t know what to do. Should we clap for someone who wasn’t actually there and couldn’t hear us? Was the clapping really for the other people sitting in the small sanctuary? What was the role of the clapping? Or, in a broader respect, what was the role of the audience? Did the pastor really need us? Did we really need each other? After all, we watch a sermon video–what is the diference between that and watching a sermon video at home? Would I clap at home?
These are just some of the questions I struggle with as I attend a church I have grown to appreciate immensely. The church is relevant and effective. It is making a difference in our community. But how does a mediating technology like the video feed impact the experience? After all, it is a big church, 13,000 people, and if I saw the pastor in person, he certainly wouldn’t see me or change anything based on my presence. So whether I experience him in person or through a video feed probably doesn’t impact him.
One thing author and pastor Shane Hipps suggests is that this kind of set up communicates something very specific about the gospel. It says that only a few individuals are skilled enough to preach. Only a few professional musicians are skilled enough to sing. The rest of us must acknowledge our limitations and simply take in what we are presented. I’m not so sure.
When I am part of the audience in a remote location, I am still there, worshipping with other people. I am still experiencing some sort of community. After all, watching a movie alone in my living room is different than watching in a theater with a crowd full of people. The theater experience “connects” me to a larger community. It helps me “feel’ things in a richer way. An audience also helps focus in on things that are particularly important, whether it means laughing at things that are funny or being completely silent when things are significant. Maybe the role of the audience is more important for the audience members. The sermon may be mediated, but the group experience is not. Maybe that is just as important. So, the next time the audience struggles with whether they should clap for a video person, I think I will join in, to remind people that I am there and we are all in this together.