Why I'm Not a Fan of the Virtual Pastor

As I was serving on a panel last week at the Connect Conference in Nashville, the question from the crowd came up about satellite campuses. Lots of churches are doing it – creating satellite campuses and then projecting in a taped sermon from the pastor at the main campus. There are some huge advantages to doing church this way. Proponents would argue:
– You can reach a ton more people than you could otherwise.
– You have the ability to coordinate larger groups as they all learn the same thing.
– You can broadcast someone who is an exceedingly great communicator so that more people can benefit from the teaching.

But despite this reasoning, I’m not a fan. I’m not questioning the effectiveness of this approach; far from it. In fact, I would venture that this style of church may be the next evolution of denominations. It’s possible in 20 years, as the mainline denominations decline, a new group of denominations will emerge. They won’t be called Baptist or Methodist or Presbyterian, but instead be the Acts 29 denomination, the Willow Creek Network, the Purpose Driven Model Churches, or the North Point Campuses.

Some of these networks have a great approach in my opinion, for what it’s worth. But the whole idea of having a virtual pastor still does not rest easy with me. I’ve got 2 main objections to it:

1. The virtual pastor prohibits people who have the gift of teaching from exercising what God has given them. With the rise of the virtual pastor, those who are gifted teachers have fewer and fewer avenues to use their gifts. Now those who like the virtual model would argue that even in that model, the pulpit is sometimes filled with a live person, someone actually from the congregation. Still, nothing replaces the week to week study and preparation from a person who knows the people they are speaking to.

2. I believe the most effective teaching ministry comes when the pastor/teacher is in daily relationship with the people under their care. In this way, the teacher truly knows the people, and, perhaps more importantly, the people know him. They know his family. They know his struggles and his weaknesses. He is more than a talking head or an incredible communicator – he’s a real person who needs them as much as they need him. The virtual pastor has none of these qualities, and ultimately, I believe it creates an even larger separation between the clergy and the laity.

So there you go. Again, it’s not a question of effectiveness, because the virtual model is effective. It’s a question of whether it’s right or not. Just because we can, does it mean we should? And wouldn’t a better model be one of actual church planting, where a mother church plants a daughter one and then releases it into the world instead of struggling to maintain a hold on it?

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  • Zach says:

    The challenge is the cult of personality. If you can hear John Piper preach every Sunday, why would you not want to make every effort? I feel your reasons though and I think I lean toward what you are saying.


  • bfancher says:

    This looks like a twist on the old nature vs. nurture debate. In this case it would be preacher vs. pastor. I agree with Michael. A true pastor would know is flock and they would know him. They would share successes, failures, glads and sads. I appreciate good teaching/preaching as well as the next guy (that’s why I read Michael’s blog every day), but to trade away the love and concern of a pastor to get it is out of the question.

  • Michael K. says:

    Thanks for the comments guys – Overall, I think we should all acknowledge how much better off we would be if we thought like bfancher.

    Z – good point about Piper. I think the quality of the communicators is what makes the issue so difficult. I am leaning towards thinking that the best avenue for that is podcasting or something like that so that you still have a connection with a real live guy at church.

  • thad says:

    I agree with you completely, Michael, and I think Zach’s comment about the struggle actually adds a third very important point to your case. As good a preacher as Piper (or whoever) is, I can’t find any sort of biblical case for us being so enthralled by the teaching of one man that we’d replace the all-parts-necessary ministry of the local church with his unrivaled authority. Though I certainly don’t accuse John Piper of desiring celebrity, I do think the cult of celebrity Zach mentions really is a cult. Dramatic? Maybe. I just think we’ve become numb at an alarming pace to the grip of celebrity in the wider Church. People being well known is not a sin. Us orienting ourselves around people who are well known, however, is exceptionally dangerous, especially when we do so without the context of real biblical community and local authority. When we exalt not only the gifts, but the style and persona of one individual, we put ourselves at odds with a pile of biblical teaching and in jeopardy of all kinds of disappointment and misdirection.

    That will all sounds really negative to some, I’m sure, but the flipside is actually very positive. God does not intend for his church to lack or go unfed, and he does not depend on a single man to meet her needs. In fact, I fear the movement to virtual pastoring (and other Christian celebrity) reveals a lack of faith not in local teachers or leaders, but in God to create, equip, and sustain local teachers and leaders. Is God’s ability to create reliable teachers for his church so limited that he only turned out a small handful that we need to broadcast around the world? Really? Let’s be more hopeful than that. Let’s pray for the faith to believe the local church is not dependent on size or resources or famous preachers, but can be sustained by the Lord working out life among a group of Spirit-filled Jesus followers whose gifts are every bit as valid as Andy Stanley’s, John Piper’s, Rob Bell’s, or Mark Driscoll’s. Let’s believe he’s that big and that good and not receive the lie that we are somehow less connected to the Lord or capable of hearing from him than the big dogs. There are no big dogs in the Kingdom. And if there are, Jesus says they’re actually the little dogs. That’s good news for everyone, including the big dogs.

  • thad says:

    Er, by the way, I’m a friend of Eric’s and one of the pastors at ComChurch. We met briefly when you were in College Station for Breakaway a few years ago.

  • Michael K. says:

    This is well considered and thought out, Thad. I especially like your focus on the bigness of God. I hadn’t thought about it from that perspective. Now I have 3 reasons.

    I’m excited to be doing an event with Ross in about a month in Austin; it will be nice to connect with your church again in a small way.

  • Nate P says:

    Hi Michael. I agree with you. There’s no substitute for the relationships we have with the people we serve. As a new pastor, I’m learning the value of this lesson each day.

    On the flip side, I wonder about Paul. He was often a virtual pastor himself – utilizing the technology of his day to write letters and minister to people when he couldn’t be physically present. But his intention was always to visit and spend time with the people he loved, even traveling many miles at great personal expense to be there. Even further, it makes me wonder about the excuses we make about the “cost” we’re unwilling to pay in own ministries.

    While we’re all name dropping, I thought I’d mention that I’m a good friend of Megan S. I’m looking forward to meeting you in Orlando at the Connect Conference in a couple of weeks.

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