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.
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."
Two-thirds of the 6,000 people attending North Coast Christian Church in Vista, Calif., now go to video venues, its pastors say. The music is live, and churchgoers can choose an assortment of styles -- traditional hymns, acoustic guitar music or heavy Christian rock -- before the sermon lights up a screen.
The phenomenon is so new that there is little research on how many people receive their sermons via video. But the format is getting a push from some of the largest and most influential mega-churches in the country, such as Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill., which allows its video sermons to be used for a fee.
Pastors try to make video services more appealing by offering live music before the sermon, said the Rev. Larry Osborne of North Coast Christian Church, which holds conferences to teach pastors how to start using video sermons. Emcees are instructed to introduce the onscreen sermons with a personal touch.
The atmosphere is usually relaxed and youth-oriented, other pastors say. And there are no Sunday school teachers telling young people to sit up straight or spit out their gum.
The Rev. Todd Wilson, a pastor at New Life in Centreville, said older people at his church like the video cafe as well, because they can see the preacher better.
"It can be a weird dynamic at first," Wilson said. "But if you've ever been to a big conference and convention, you end up watching the speaker on a big screen anyway. It's a little awkward for a minute, and then you forget it's on video."
By using videos, churches can offer top-notch preaching. Tim Cole, director of "church planting" for the Virginia Evangelizing Fellowship, is planning to start a church in Richmond next year using videos from preachers across the country every week. He said he will act as the part-time head pastor and have live music on Sunday mornings.
And when it comes time for the sermon, he said, all he will have to do is "roll the tape."
The idea is cost-effective, especially for a new church, Cole said. "What it's saving us is half of a salary," he said. "Theoretically, 20 hours is what a good sermon writer will spend writing a sermon. And if it's a 40-hour work week, then you can see the savings right there."
Because video venues are not expensive to set up, churches can start more branches and draw more people. What's more, pastors have more time to spend with their congregations, Cole said.
But New Life member Beth Cygon, 39, of Chantilly says she just can't get used to her church's video cafe service.
"I love the direct connection with the person up front," she said. "As a minister you might be moved to speak about a certain thing. You can cue off how a crowd is reacting and change the direction of what you are doing. That's . . . impossible with a video service."
Cynthia A. Woolever, a professor of the sociology of religious organizations at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, believes the rise of video venues represents a cultural shift in church life. People are now more demanding of their churches.
"Because of television and everything else in our culture, people expect high-quality sermons. I mean, where else can people go to hear that kind of speech? So they want it to be very good," she said.
Woolever's research also shows that people join churches because they value knowing the pastor. The weakness of video sermons is that "it will be like developing a relationship with someone on television," she said.
She said she thinks the video venues should be embraced because they are proving to be a success in drawing people to faith. But, Woolever added: "I guess it admits the fact that we have a lot of people that see coming to worship as a spectator sport."