HB Classic: Holograms, Gnosticism, Celebrity, and Mission

[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.

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Sidious_hologramTwo 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?

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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23 comments

  1. Maybe NAPARC could serve its multi-denominational association by forming a interdenominational referral service providing listings of ministers seeking calls and congregations seeking pastors.

  2. Dr. Clark,

    You hit the nail on the head, this Muti-site/Missional movement has nothing to do with Missions or Church Planting it’s all about creating these Cult of Personality Preachers. It’s not enough for them now to create a Mega Church, now it’s about how many of them you have now.

    It’s the Purpose Driven/Leadership Network/Peter Drucker Methodology taken to the next level. Chris Rosebrough of Fighting for the Faith/Pirate Christian Radio did a series on his radio show about Church Transitions part of Willowcreek, Purpose Driven & Leadership Network. Church Transitions teach these “Pastors” how to hijack their churches to install these methodologies. The biggest transition is they teach these guys how to jettison the Biblical Model of the Pastor/Shepherd to the Drucker Model of Pastor/CEO.

    Chris put out a compilation mp3 of the 3 programs he did on “Takeover Tactics of Dan Southerland’s Purpose-Driven Church Transtioning Seminar” http://tiny.cc/cz6cW
    Unfortunately this virus goes across Denominational lines now.

  3. Dr. Clark, what a timely post. I was just discussing the difficulties that seminary students in the PCA and other Reformed denominations face when they graduate, as well as the difficulties, of starting new Reformed churches in the Minnesota/Dakotas region (the famous Souixlands Presbytery). Challenging things to face indeed, but you are right about one thing. Most seminary students need to think about church planting. I think back to the Reformation days, most of the students who came out of Wittemburg, Geneva, Strassbourg, and elsewhere went out to preach the gospel in hostile non-Reformed areas to start Reformed Churches. Our seminary students need their same mindset, as well as their bravery. Thanks for the post.

    BTW–hologram pastors are a stupid idea, but you didn’t need me to say that.

  4. Dr. Clark,

    As the saying goes, from your mouth to God’s ear.

    “… 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…”

    This is why the Apostle Paul writes in Romans chapter 1 that he is “eager to preach the gospel” to those in Rome, a church that nonetheless had been around for quite a while. Paul then proceeds to spend two chapters clearly presenting the law before he comes in with the great “but now” of 3:21. It is what needs to be heard in today’s post-post-Christian society as well as in today’s moral-therapuetic church. And it has always been and is today the fault line between a true and lively Christianity and that of a moral-works or an experiential-works heavenward climbing religion. It should never be taken for granted.

    And regarding hologram preachers at various “off-campus” congregations, I only have this to say… less technology and more men of the gospel. All the glitz and rationalization concerning missional holograms, video screens, and all the other latest tricks of the “trade” is but a diversion from building the church through the teaching and preaching of the gospel by men called and sent.

    OK, done…

  5. Great post, Dr. Clark. To say a word for the PCA, though, it does have a large emphasis on church planting. However, any ideas why there isn’t more of a focus on church planting?

    • I’m not sure. I’m not entirely happy with the way a lot of church planting gets done in N. America. Churches usually become what they were intended to be. I worry that the churches we’re planting too often aren’t the churches we hope they will be, confessional, biblical, mature. I worry that we’re planting churches that are incapable of planting churches themselves, and further that have only a passing familiarity with the Reformed theology, piety, and practice.

      I suspect that folks don’t see the need because they don’t analyze the current situation in the country properly.

  6. As you made mention of Scotland and the acute shortage of ministers in the liberal Church of Scotland in the referenced blog, could I also add that we are being told in the Free Church of Scotland that we are facing a similar shortage of ministers. The FCofS is a confessional Reformed and evangelical church and there already are some links with the North American churches and a number of PCA members labouring with us. However, as far as I am aware we have no PCA or OPC ministers working with us. (I am ex-OPC, but not serving currently as a minister but as an elder in the FCofS).

    I have no idea if the government would permit ministers from the USA to serve here – it worked the other way round for me – but if it were possible then this also could be a cross cultural mission field for your excess pastors. Gaelic not required…

  7. Dr. Clark,

    I ran across part os a sermon by Spurgeon several years ago in which he addressed some of same issues. It was challenging to me and I passed it on to Dr. Renihan who then posted it. Thought you might like it even though he was primarily concerned with planting baptist churches.

    http://www.reformedbaptistinstitute.org/?p=355

    Rob

  8. Looking into church-planting as we speak. Looks like it is going to be my only option as far as finding a call because of the lack of open pulpits in my denomination (ARP) and the glut of candidates in the other NAPARC denominations, D.V.

    However as Steve noted above where I want/think/know to plant a church the planting agencies will balk at the location because it doesn’t in anyway fit their “business-model” ideas of church planting.

    Backwoods West Virginia is not exactly on the “high-yield” side of planting.

  9. Dear Robert,

    there certainly are Americans working with the Free Church of Scotland. David Robertson in Dundee is the MTW coordinator for Scotland. I’m sure it is possible to get past government bureacracy!

    Church planting candidates would also be welcome in England. The EPCEW only exists because it plants churches (as Scott knows well). To put numbers in perspective England probably only has about 1000 souls in confessional paedobaptist churches.

    In Christ,

    James

    • Here in the greater South-West London area (UK), we seem to have an infinitesimally small number of evangelical non-moralistic ministers of any denomination. Indeed we recently lost our exceptional minister to a large PCA church in the US – in large part because the congregation wanted more moralism!! (Moralism is of course clear-cut and gives us a sense of self-important participation)

      We plead with Americans we know to reach out to this dry land. (The weather is better than it used to be, but of course the salaries are smaller).
      My wife and I, of necessity therefore, listen mid-week to downloaded sermons from the US to build us up (I for one seem to leak a lot!). We prefer videos when we can get them, but a hologram would be too weird!

      The ‘cult of personality’ is probably less of a problem here though I have noticed many ministers here recommend each other without having actually heard each other preach (lecture at conferences maybe, but not preach). I guess they talk about ‘reaching out with the gospel’ and ‘grace’ when together, without knowing – if they can indeed recognise it – that they preach moralism in their own pulpits

      Come, (non-moralising) missionaries, come!

  10. Here in Bangkok, Thailand we have 10 million people. I know of 1 confessional reformed church. Any PCA pastors want to come out this way?

  11. Good post! Get’s me pumped! I was conversing with a PCA pastor near my place the other day and he said we could have 3 PCA churches without overlapping in just one eastern suburb of Denver (we’re in the south of Denver), and that’s quite true! So I was thinking maybe after seminary I could plant a church there. It would be awesome!

    • Thanks Trent. We also need to plant churches places where there aren’t any churches and certainly no gospel-preaching Reformed churches. It’s encouraging to know that there are fellows out there excited about church planting.

  12. What do you think of “holographic” adult discipleship courses? I.e. DVD curricula? I’ve struggled with the excellent production qualities and expertise of the celebrity teacher vs. using and developing local gifts and elders/teachers. It seems that any time multimedia, e.g. the Heidelcast is used in such contexts that there is the potential of displacing local gifts. Perhaps the Heidelcast and other resources have only individuals as intended audiences and so the end-users are to blame. Any thoughts?

  13. A great article, thanks. Coming from South Africa where we have Reformed churches in every little town (even a town named after Calvin) and now living in Russia where we have less than 1000 people members of Reformed churches (includes Presbyterian, Reformed and Reformed baptist) I can tell you there is a huge lot of work to be done. If any of those people looking for jobs in the States want to start church planting, then Russia is a huge opportunity. Very hard work; lots of red tape and deadly cold weather, but the opportunities are humongous.

  14. “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 . . .”

    So according to this formula, the unregenerate need extensive Law “preparation” and experience of Law-induced misery before hearing the Gospel and receiving Christ?

    So then what Jesus should have really done is join the Pharisees in condemning the woman taken in adultery. He should have paraded her through town with a big scarlet “A” around her neck to thoroughly shame her and then proceded to allow the Law-slingers to stone her to death . . . in order that she would really feel her misery. And then, and only then, he should have graciously raised her from the dead and sent her skulking away with her very own copy of the 10 commandments to obey them out of “gratitude” for such a deliverance.

    What the unregenerate need is the powerful preaching of Christ and him crucified, alone. They need to see that all of their lawlessness is symptom of a far greater malady than mere code-breaking. It is a manifestation of rebellious unbelief in the Son, worthy of God’s eternal wrath. This is how the law increases the trespass. It points directly to man’s high treason against the Son, the Incarnate Covenant! (Isa 42:6, 49:8, Lk 22:20)

    They need to see that all of their lawless rebellion against the Son has led to death, but not merely their own insigificant death. Rather, the death of the very Son against whom they have sinned! Here justice and mercy meets in a bewildering union. Sinners need to be smitten, not merely with their own sinfulness, but with Him who became sin in the place of sinners! They need to behold the cross with awestruck wonder and bewilderment at the display of God’s wrath upon the Son AND His simultaneous love and unsearchable grace lavished upon a broken and dying world. They need to see that all the Law’s condemnation is now nailed to that cursed tree forever (Eph 2:15, Col 2:14), never to come down again.

    The cross is where sin abounds, and where grace super abounds! Preach the Gospel in its fullness. And lead sinners to experience, not themselves, but the sin-laden Christ. Not their own law-misery, but Christ and him crucified! Thereby causing them to embrace Christ by joyous, world-tilting faith, with heart-ravishing love and delight.

    And stop trying to get them to “flee to Him” out of a self-focused, law-induced flight of terror and fear. The cross is heaven’s love on display.

    “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” (1 John 4:18)

  15. “So according to this formula, the unregenerate need extensive Law “preparation” and experience of Law-induced misery before hearing the Gospel and receiving Christ?”

    Yes, John. Sinners need to have the WRATH of God *revealed* to them (Romans 1).

    “So then what Jesus should have really done is join the Pharisees in condemning the woman taken in adultery.”

    Our Lord did not object to the Pharisees condemnation of the woman (*theological* use of the Law). What He urged was only whether those who wanted to stone the woman in accordance with Mosaic civil law (*political* use of the Law) to examine their hearts first.

    The 2nd use of the Law wasn’t a problem for Jesus. The 1st was – since it is always time-and-space bound – context-specific appropriate only to the historical circumstances or situation of the estates of life (church, family & state).

    Indeed, when Jesus said, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her,” that is the Law (theological use – accusing the Pharisees) — “And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience.”

    Likewise, the woman caught in adultery wasn’t free from the Law (in its 2nd use) though she escaped the Law (in its 1st use). When the ACCUSATION by the Pharisees – who wanted *confused* the theological and political uses of the Law – had stopped, there was no reason for Jesus to say or add anything more. The only thing left was the unconditional forgiveness of sins – and then to send the woman home (vocation).

    The poser by Jesus to the woman: “Where” (are those thine *accusers*? hath no man condemned thee?) is not a MORAL question. That would contradict what had actually happened earlier. Rather it is a GEOGRAPHICAL question – IOW, one of location. That is simply to say, the accusation had *ended.*

    Where the Law “ends,” the Gospel “begins.”

  16. I would counter that the WRATH of God is revealed most potently and powerfully at the cross, not in the Law.

    The Law’s condemnation leads us there – to that Condemnation of all condemnations. It leads us to one singular end – Christ, his cross, His righteousness, His grace, His love, His forgiveness. But the Law need not be preached as a separate entity. As a “primer” that must preceed the Gospel.

    Sinners need to be confronted with the offence of the cross, not the Law. It is the cross that destroys any notion of man’s smug morality or Law dependence. The cross should destroy the idol of Moral Law that has exalted itself in men’s hearts.

    This is the problem in the Reformed and evangelical church at large. We are filled to the brim with strict law preaching or, on the other hand, practical how-to moralism. Yet we are lukewarm and powerless as a church.

    This is the problem with America at large. We have the most codified legislation on the books than all the preceeding societies that have ever existed. And yet our prisons are full and our culture is bankrupt.

    Law is not the answer. Morality is not the answer.

    This is the problem with the strict preaching of the so-called Moral Law. No amount of Law code or threats of condemnation can ever restrain, correct, or renew the heart. In fact, the more Law you give a man, the more he thinks he can do it or bend it to his will. This is the sinister nature of the Law’s blinding function (2 Cor 3:14-15, Rom 10:2-3). As a ministry of death and condemnation it always seduces and kills a willing victim.

    Preach the glorious offence of the Cross. Preach grace. Preach God’s love to a dying law-drenched world.

  17. Dr. Clark, great post! I truly appreciate your call for confessional Reformed communions to place a much greater emphasis on planting faithful, confessional Reformed churches. However, I question the wisdom of the common practice among confessional Reformed and Presbyterian communions in pushing young, inexperienced ministerial candidates straight out of seminary into the mission field as church planters. (I would say the same thing about young, inexperienced candidates for the foreign mission field.) And I say this as one who himself had served as an OPC church planter in my first church fairly soon after seminary. (It was only by God’s amazing grace that I remained in the ministry long-term and that my many mistakes and mis-steps as a young minister in a church planting setting didn’t destroy the mission congregation I served. Truly our sovereign God can draw a straight line with a crooked stick!)

    In my opinion, the evangelistic work of church planting thrusts the faithful church planter into the trenches on the front lines of spiritual warfare against the kingdom of Satan. The faithful church planter places himself directly in the firing line of spiritual warfare, and therefore makes himself the target of Satan’s heaviest artillery. Therefore should not our communions be sending out the most mature, seasoned, “battle hardened” ministers with years of pastoral and ministry experience to plant new churches, rather than young guys in their mid-to-late-20’s with little in the way of practical ministry and real-life experience outside of the seminary context? (At least under ordinary circumstances?) Would it not be better for young candidates for the minisry right out of seminary to first get positive pastoral experience serving as associate pastors or even as pastors in the context of settled, mature congregations with a wise and experienced session/consistory?

    You point out the sad state of affairs in some confessional denominations like the PCA, where the number of ministerial candidates and ministers seeking a call far outnumbers the number of vacant pulpits (many of those ministerial candidates likely being those straight out of seminary). It is suggested that maybe these young guys looking for a call should consider church planting. But instead I would like to suggest that perhaps a greater number of settled, experienced ministers in our communions who currently serve settled, well-established churches should consider whether God might be calling them to get out of their comfort zones and using their years of ministry experience to engage in the grueling yet rewarding task of planting confessional Reformed churches; and thus making more room for the younger guys to get some positive ministry experience in the setting of a supportive and mature congregation.

    Of course, the problem with this proposal is that our church planting policies tend to be more guided by the pragmatics that we profess to despise. Younger guys straight out of seminary tend to have smaller families and are often willing and eager to serve on a bare-bones salary package; while older ministers tend to have larger families and are usually a bit more picky about their salary package. Younger guys eager to begin ministering the Word can be more energetic and (so the argument goes) can better “attract young people”; whereas older guys may not look as handsome or have as much boundless energy. But are we not forgetting that God uses the weak things of the world to shame the wise; and that the wisdom that comes from years in the trenches of ministry is far more important in planting faithful churches than the charm, good looks and enthusiasm of young guys? (After all, I thought we were not interested in promoting “celebrity preachers.”)

    If we are really serious about vigorous efforts to plant confessionally reformed churches, should not our local congregations, presbyteries/synods and denominations be committing far greater resources than we are to the planting and development of robust confessional churches? Should we not be sending out into our home (and foreign!) mission fields those who have demonstrated themselves over time to be the “creme of the crop” in our communions, and making sure that they and their families will be well supplied for their arduous labors in the Lord’s vineyard?

    Regards,
    Rev. Geoffrey Willour
    Pastor, Lake OPC
    Cleveland, OH

    • Hi Geoff,

      I appreciate this and wrestle with this problem frequently. I’ve been hearing the call to experienced pastors to go plant for about 30 years. It hasn’t happened yet. I’ve seen it here and there but when I talk to seasoned pastors they say, “I just can’t do it.” I understand. I’ve been involved, in different ways and to varying degrees, in 3 church planting opportunities. 2 of the three failed. One is still going. I think I know now what not to do!

      I think about church planting at 50+ In some ways it’s like starting a business with not enough capital and no staff and resources. Church planters are typically underaged and underfunded. Church planting takes a tremendous amount of energy. How many experienced ministers have that sort of energy and can, as it were, shift gears from pastoring an established congregation to starting one and doing all that comes with it (cleaning, mowing, personal evangelism, preaching, catechism, session, counseling, bible studies etc)? In a church plant everything, at least at the outset, falls on the pastor.

      The ideal planter would have the energy and enthusiasm of a young man and the experience of an old man and the funding and support of generous venture capitalists but that doesn’t happen very often.

      One other problem arises. As you well know, the whole business of calling a pastor is fraught with difficulty. Congregations may form search committees every seven years and those committees are typically comprised of people who’ve never hired anyone before. They want an experienced man who can be supported on a below-the-congregational-average salary. Their first thought is not always to call a recent seminary graduate and most NAPARC congregations cannot afford an associate pastor.

      So, if we must cut the baby in half, I suppose I’m willing to see well-trained, young men who evidence a certain maturity, plant churches. I would rather have them doing it than waiting for middle-aged guys not to do it.

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