Jason Byassee: Is digital the new normal?

Lifechurch.tv says its use of satellite and the internet to simulcast sermons is hardly innovative--it's just what's expected now. What if they're right?

“The simulcast sermons are no big deal,” he said. This would be a surprise to my editors at Christian Century, whom I’d sold on a story about an innovative megachurch called Lifechurch.tv. At this multi-site campus, one preacher preaches in Oklahoma, and 26,000 members in fourteen campuses in five states (plus many more online) watch via satellite. The pastor I was talking to, Ken Behr, pastors a church in Tennessee, with the preaching pumped in from some 700 miles away.

“People often fixate on the virtual thing, but churches are used to watching the screen. Been to an NFL game lately? You watch the jumbotron.” Then here’s the part that got me: “When I finish my master’s degree I’m sure it’ll be online. I’m not moving.”

Most theological institutions I respect have stayed away from online learning. This is for good reason: Christian faith is intrinsically an embodied thing. We can learn things in a limited way online, just as we could previously via radio, television, or even written correspondence. This is why Faith & Leadership features videos, and may offer online educational opportunities down the road. They can be useful in small doses—but to become a master (whence the “M” in M.Div: magister), and therefore a teacher, of theology is too much weight for the web to bear. It’s no accident more sacramental traditions have no Lifechurch.tv—and don’t hold your breath for the Catholics to jump on board. It’s awfully hard to consecrate the host in the webosphere. I heard an Anglican faculty member at another institution having this debate say wisely, “I refuse to teach embodied theology online.”

But what if our defense of this correct position means we sit out while the world goes by? Evangelicals tend to be ahead of the curve technologically. It’s no secret that we mainliners often lag behind. This has occasionally served us well. But what if we’re on the precipice of a world in which virtual “presence” is the order of the day? For example, what if the economy means people won’t up and move, leave jobs, sell houses (that won’t sell) to move for a master’s degree, but will pay as much tuition or more to learn online? Do we want to abdicate that potential student body pool entirely? Or could some combination of virtual and bodily learning substitute for a residential master’s degree? If others are doing virtual teaching poorly that may be all the more reason to do it with as much integrity as possible.

My answers to these questions have been a strong no. But what if the rest of the world changes around us, so we’re left defending our anti-virtual purity in a world with no qualms with doing things that matter online—like telegraph defenders holding out against the telephone?

Jason Byassee is an executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.