Since the Gospel Coalition Canada is just that, a coalition, we are a kind of family with much diversity within our unity around the gospel truths. That means that we don’t always see eye to eye, particularly on matters of applying the gospel to our local contexts. We love each other and have the same goals but occasionally agree to disagree. That is the nature of a family and of this coalition.
I think this is normal and biblical. Paul called out the Galatian church for a possible defection from gospel doctrine, calling a different gospel worthy of the phrase, “let him be accursed” (Gal 1:9). But Paul also condoned methodological flexibility—particularly for the sake of gospel proclamation, as he describes his own ministry philosophy as an apostle, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I may save some” (1 Cor 9:22).
Recently, my brother Steve Kroeker wrote an article which raises relevant and probing questions about the use of video preaching in services. I was intrigued to read it, as I have wrestled with these very questions. My concern is that his article could leave the impression that the coalition, as a unified whole, frowns upon such practices. I am here to refute that impression.
To wit: I, a Presbyterian—a pastor who subscribes to a Confession written in the 1600’s, whose favourite store is a fountain pen shop, whose church still uses bulletins to convey worship lyrics, and whose congregation only raises their hands once a year to approve a budget—would use video services. Here are two reasons why.
To spread the gospel quickly in an unchurched culture
In my context, if the gospel was spreading quickly because a preacher had a particularly Spirit-empowered and Spirit-led gift of evangelism, such that their preaching contextualized the gospel powerfully to their generation, I would want to be responsive to that. Not to spreading a brand but to spreading the Good News. This happened to Spurgeon, we recall—he ended up renting the Surrey Gardens Music Hall, which seated 10,000 because “we had nowhere else to go.”
Should Spurgeon have said no to the immense space pressures he faced as he outgrew space after space? Or preached six to ten sermons a day? I have preached three sermons in one day before; it was exhausting. I know Tim Keller preached four times a day; I don’t know how he did it. But after 9/11, when more than a thousand people joined Redeemer NYC and never left, they had to do something.
These men were responding to gospel explosions. In the long term, as Kroeker points out, it is better to train and raise up gifted men to share the work. But right now, in Canada finding gifted preachers, let alone training them and raising them up, is hard. It takes years. If I were faced with that kind of gospel explosion and had multiple services to run, I would certainly consider a video service.
Actually, this is why one pastor has told me that he has video services. Faced with a young family and an explosion of interest in his preaching and the fruit of hundreds of people being baptized every year, his need to be a good father and husband and respond to what the Spirit is doing made it a wise decision for them. I would probably have made the same decision in their shoes.
Because videos don’t necessarily hinder preaching—or shepherding.
One of the things I dislike about videos is the disconnect between the preacher and the congregation. Steve spelled this out quite cogently in his article. Something vital can be lost without care.
But I must admit I also find this dynamic in large church sanctuaries or at big conferences when I don’t really know the preacher. I sit in the back and watch speakers on a screen—live video, but video nonetheless. These speakers are not my pastors; they don’t know me. They often don’t even come from my nation, let alone my city.
And yet, I was brought to tears hearing Sinclair Ferguson, a Scotsman, describe the beauty of Christ to an Orlando crowd—on an old Ligonier Ministries cassette tape. I was ready to chew nails for Jesus when I heard, and then saw, the videotaped seven-minute message by John Piper called “Don’t Waste Your Life.” I was just last week reduced to almost praying in tongues (remember, I am Presby) while reading John Owen’s The Glory of Christ.
God’s Spirit can use his word very powerfully in live stream events, MP3s, books, and even videos. Here is the thing most people who reject videos should seriously consider: What is the alternative? Too often the alternative in a deeply unchurched context like Toronto would be bad live preaching: preaching that doesn’t presuppose the authority of God’s Word, which doesn’t take seriously the sovereignty of God and the need for Christ.
Shepherding, though, is another matter. Whatever our model is, we need good shepherding. Discipleship in our time and context needs to be deeper and stronger as the culture gets more secular.
The video preachers I know—and I only know a few—raise up site pastors to serve as shepherds. It is usually true that video preachers are highly gifted by the Spirit in communicating—they should use and celebrate those gifts. When they delegate the personal shepherding of people to others who have those gifts, they accord with the Spirit, who gives different gifts that all may work together. Done well, the combination can be beautiful. Done poorly, as Steve so insightfully points out, empire-building at the expense of the health of the sheep can happen. But this applies to all large church ministries and is not unique to video contexts.
As an evangelistic, almost apostolic kind of ministry, I see the value of video preaching when the Spirit is moving powerfully. In the longer term, the disconnect between preacher and congregation, shepherd and sheep, may make it less than optimal. Empire-builders may like it; true shepherds should see it as an accommodation to a surprising work of the Spirit of God.
That is why Keller, in my opinion, was wise to break his New York City church down into sites that became congregations. That is why at our second site we now have a regular preaching shepherd. The video-using pastors I know are in agreement with this: They do it, but reluctantly, and for a time.
Video services are not optimal, but we live in a suboptimal, broken, unchurched world. They have their place, and I welcome them when used rightly.