[Originally published March 6, 2010] In view of a recent post by Carl Trueman concerning virtual preachers now seems a good time to republish this HB classic.
Two jarring facts came to my attention in recent days. The first of these is that there is a huge surplus of preachers relative to pulpits in some NAPARC denominations (especially the PCA). The second is the growing interest in some quarters of the “evangelical” (sociologically defined) world in the potential of holographic “ministers.”
Given that there are about 308 million people in the USA and that there are about +/-500,000 members of confessional Reformed denominations, only about .0016% (i.e., 1/10 of 1%) of the population is Reformed. The first thing this tells me is that the confessional Reformed churches have a huge missions opportunity in this country. Why are there 50–80 applicants for every open pulpit in the PCA? Do none of those 50-80 applicants have a vocation to plant a new congregation? In New York City alone there are 8 million people and only a handful of Reformed congregations. In Los Angeles proper (which is nearly meaningless) there are 3 million people (and many more in the greater LA/Orange County/Riverside County metro area). We could plant a new congregation every week in those cities and still not make much of a dent. Then, of course, there is the great middle of the country which is perhaps more needy for Reformed congregations. Consider that, in NYC at least, one could take public transit (as John Murray argued decades ago) to attend public worship but it’s not possible for many in the middle of the country to get to a Reformed congregation either because there isn’t one or because the distance is too great to overcome. There are other needy areas, e.g., the Pacific N.W. is in great need of confessional Reformed congregations. The point, of course, is not simply to plant congregations but to fulfill the great commission by planting, by preaching the law and the gospel, by making disciples, in short to reach and teach.
Many Americans like to think of the USA as “Christian nation.” This is not a Christian nation. Whether it ever was is a historical question to which this answer is, “it depends on what one means by Christian.” According to historians of 19th-century America it was arguably a “Christian nation” for about 40 years from 1840-1880. Whatever it was, today it is mostly a formerly methodist (and Anabaptist) now turned deistic, pagan, therapeutic country clothed in the rhetoric of the older faith.
What most people consider “Christianity” in North America bears little resemblance to that which is taught in Scripture and confessed by the Reformed churches. What this (and every) post-Mosaic nation needs is not theocracy or renewed Christendom but the the preaching of the law in all its ferocity and the sovereign work of the Spirit through such preaching to convict outwardly decent folk their true depravity and the sovereign, gracious work of the Spirit through the preaching of the unequivocal gospel to make convicted sinners alive, to give them faith and thereby to unite them to the Savior. We need congregations devoted to the holy Scriptures as the unique norm for the Christian faith and the Christian life (including worship) and ministers and elders committed to offering the Christ and his benefits freely to all. We would expect happy social by-products of such blessings but the goal is the glory of God, the salvation of sinners, and renewal of the visible, institutional church. In such a context, Christians would embrace the old Protestant doctrine of vocation again—which takes seriously the work of Christians in this world.
Which brings me to my second point: holographic preachers. According to a story in the Christian Post (HT: Brad Kelley) multi-site (see this, and this, and this) congregations and others are considering seriously adopting this technology on the grounds that it’s missional. Well, pragmatism isn’t necessarily the same as “missional.” Just because we can do it doesn’t mean that we should do it. I addressed this problem, in principle, in a June, 2009 post regarding the possibility of “virtual pastors” in Scotland. Holographic and virtual pastors are an oxymoron. Ministry is not entertainment. It is ministry. We are called to administer God’s Word, to bring it to his people and to everyone. A hologram is not a person. A hologram cannot hear God’s people. It cannot see God’s people. It cannot feel the needs that God’s people have. It cannot baptize or administer holy communion. It cannot visit the sick. It cannot bury the dead.
The fact that some are even thinking about using holographic preachers indicates the poverty of the broader “evangelical” theology of Word and Spirit. It reveals not only the pragmatism of the age but the gnosticism implicit in much of American “evangelicalism.”
I guess the real impetus behind the holographic preacher is the cult of celebrity. If, however, congregations really can’t find a minister and are thinking of holograms as a replacement then what we have a communications breakdown. If there are 50–80 candidates for every vacant PCA pulpit then there shouldn’t be any need for holograms, should there?