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On Faith

Channeling God at the Video Cafe

Some Churches Offer Services With TV Sermons

By David Cho
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 5, 2004; Page C01

On Faith appears the first Sunday of each month.

Like many fast-growing nondenominational churches, New Life Christian Church in Centreville advertises a Sunday service that's a cool, hip place to find God.

Members of the nondenominational New Life Christian Church in Centreville sit at tables with food or coffee while watching the Rev. Dan Smith on the video screen. (Rich Lipski - The Washington Post)

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The room feels like a coffeehouse. Worshipers sit around tables sipping tea and coffee and eating muffins between hymns. A decorative parachute rustles softly in a fan-blown breeze.

A chief selling point of the service is that after the singing and praying, the sermon is delivered via video. While the head pastor preaches live in a more traditional service in another room, people in the "video cafe" see only his talking head on a screen.

This melding of technology and religion in "video venues" is taking off at similar emerging congregations across the country. Leaders of those churches say a video sermon used to be only for the homebound or for those who arrived late and had to sit in an overflow room. Now it has become an attractive option in its own right, especially among the young.

New Life member Walter Jones of Centreville said his 15-year-old son actually prefers getting his sermon on the screen. The teenager would not attend church at all if it weren't for the video cafe, he said.

"Most people would say, 'Well, that's crazy. Why would you want something on a screen when you can see someone live?'" Jones said. "But my son plays a lot of video games, he goes online, he does his schoolwork on the computer, so he's used to it. It's very relaxing for him."

The success of the technology has allowed churches to start low-cost branches miles from their main sanctuaries without having to find and hire another pastor to do the preaching. New Life, which draws about 1,400 people and meets at a high school, is planning to start a second video service in the Haymarket area by the end of the year.

But not everyone is thrilled with the trend. Some warn that bringing video sermons into a worship service could erode the sense of community in churches.

"The New Testament image of the body of Christ is a fellowship of believers where I am known at church and if I'm not there I'm missed," said Eddie Gibbs, professor of church growth at Fuller Theological Seminary, an evangelical seminary in Pasadena, Calif. A video venue puts the focus on just one person, he said.

"It's a cold medium. . . . It can feed a celebrity image," he added. "You can build a sort of celebrity focus, and the pastor becomes a celebrity because [he or she] is distanced from the congregation. . . . But pastors should know the people they are preaching to."

Still, video venues are experiencing explosive growth across the country.

Seacoast Church in Charleston, S.C., records the head pastor's sermons Saturday night and delivers the videotapes by bus to eight locations for Sunday services across the city. The video services, launched two years ago, draw a total of 2,000, about a third of the congregation.

Heartland Community Church in Rockford, Ill., has no preaching pastor on its staff and instead relies on a videotape library of sermons from other top preachers in the state. The recorded talks are so good that the congregation has grown from 100 members to 3,000 in six years, said Mark Bankord, who eschews the head pastor title and calls himself the church's "directional leader."

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