A prominent Baptist theologian has warned that congregations that do not have a physical pastor present during worship services and only watch video streams of pastors preaching, could be a sign of Gnosticism.
Roger E. Olson, professor of Christian Theology of Ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary of Baylor University, wrote in a blog post Thursday that a coordinator of a large group of churches, who he didn't name, recently told him about a growing trend in American church life.
"Many churches now have no pastor and feel no need to have a pastor — other than one they watch and listen to on a screen in a 'worship space' they either own or rent. This 'pastor' may or may not ever visit this congregation," Olson explained.
"This congregation may or may not feel any real connection to this far-away 'pastor.' This 'pastor' may or may not pastor a real congregation. (He or she may be an evangelist or author-speaker of renown within the congregation's wider tradition.)"
While such congregations do have a local leader of some sort, that person's only real function is to facilitate the Sunday morning worship experience, which leads up to the "main event" of watching a video of a given pastor's sermon, Olson explained.
He lamented that the pastor, whom churchgoers are watching on a video screen, "may be someone who rarely, if ever, actually interacts with the congregation. In fact, in many cases, this person hardly knows of the congregation's existence."
He explained that while this pattern of worship comes in different degrees and varieties, in many cases the congregations "feel no need for any theology or doctrine or teaching locally, among themselves; their sole focus is on the far-away speaker."
When looking at the issues with this trend, Olson laid out:
"One that comes to my mind, as a Christian theologian, is the question of possible partial Gnosticism — at least the lack of concern about bodies and physical presences."
He continued: "Virtual reality replaces bodily and physical reality. Or the two are confused — as if the difference does not really matter. Can a pastor really 'pastor' (shepherd) a congregation if he or she never is among them? Is there really total commensurability — spiritually — between seeing and hearing a local pastor preach, pray and teach bodily, physically, and seeing and hearing a speaker via satellite feed or internet connection?"
The theologian further suspected that today's churchgoers may be dissatisfied with regular pastor-preachers "who are not especially articulate, titillating, handsome ... entertaining."
"In other words, an accommodation to American culture's obsession with beauty, 'stardom,' and even perfection (in appearance, demeanor, etc.)."
Video streaming of pastors' preaching is often featured at multisite church campuses. The multisite model, which constitutes one church in more than one location, became a popular growth strategy within the last decade. According to a 2010 survey by Leadership Network, while nearly half of multisite churches had "almost all in-person" teaching/preaching, 34 percent used a combination of in-person and video methods and 20 percent used almost all video methods.
What is Gnosticism?
Gnosticism is a heresy that makes false divisions between the physical and spiritual, as explained by John Stonestreet, fellow of the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview.
"The spiritual is good, but physical matter is bad, or at least irrelevant. Gnostics within the Church taught that Jesus could not have really taken on physical flesh, because the physical is bad. He only appeared to be a man," Stonestreet explained in op-ed published in The Christian Post in May 2016.
"Contrary to Gnosticism, Christianity does not teach that reality is divided between physical and spiritual. Christianity teaches reality is divided between creator and creation.
"Think of the creation of Adam. God forms man out of the dust of the ground — that's physical — breathes into him the breath of life — that's spiritual. And man becomes a living soul. We don't have souls; we are souls. And to be a human soul is to be embodied. Our bodies are essential, not incidental, to our humanness."