Dr. Charles Stanley is a former head of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. Dr. Stanley has a large congregation in north Atlanta and a popular television ministry of longstanding. While I have never attended Dr. Stanley’s church or watched his television show, my impression is that he is a fairly typical, if unusually successful, Southern Baptist, well within the mainstream of southern U.S. evangelical Protestantism.
Stanley’s son also is a preacher and has churches. Stanley fils is euphoniously named Andy Stanley. Young(er) Stanley’s reputation is that of a Protestant preacher who works hard to engage the secularized and unchurched and to avoid answering hard questions or to take positions on moral issues that might alienate someone. Andy stays away from discussing, for example, abortion or homosexuality. Where the Southern Baptist Convention has historically been willing to state forthright positions on such matters, Andy prefers to downplay them.
For present purposes, however, I am not mainly concerned with Andy’s moral or doctrinal positions, but with his pastoral and liturgical practice.
Andy, like his father, is located in the north Atlanta-area. In recent years he has begun to plant satellite churches around north Georgia, some with very close and some with looser ties to his Northpoint Church. His theory seems to be that what works well in one place should be replicated elsewhere. One such location is my own town of Athens, Georgia.
A couple who are my friends and parishioners, a few years ago attended the Athens location of Andy’s denomination with their daughter, who was interested in seeing what it was like. The Sunday event began with a rock band, which my friends – both of whom grew up with rock-and-roll – described as ‘incredibly loud’. The music lasted 30 or 40 minutes. Then the music stopped, the lights went out, everything went pitch black, and suddenly there was Andy Stanley on stage. Stanley proceeded to do his thing with a sermon and, I assume, at least a little Scripture reading and praying. That and the music were the bulk of the service.
It was only subsequently that my friends learned that in fact Andy Stanley was NOT present. Andy was in Atlanta, or at any rate somewhere that was not Athens. What appeared at the auditorium in Athens was not a person but a hologram.
This is not quite the logical conclusion of modern trends in American Protestantism. It is not quite the logical conclusion, because there still are a couple of steps to that conclusion. The conclusion will be everybody staying at home, putting on his or her preferred music, and listening on radio, television, the computer screen, podcast, or some other ‘device’ to a sermon or ‘service’.
It is not really clear to me why anyone would go to an auditorium on Sunday morning to watch and listen to a hologram, even if it is yoked with some Christian (which is to say, probably, inferior) rock. Why leave the comfort of one’s home for a speech or performance that can be viewed otherwise – unless, perhaps, the Andy Stanley church has better coffee than you have at your own house? Perhaps the attraction is the combination of Starbucks, some pop music, and a little moral uplift and advice on marriage and life? The attraction, whatever it may be, seems unlikely to me to prove very compelling over the long run.
A friend associated with a church in another town in Georgia was dreading the impending arrival of an Andy Stanley plant in his area. His comment: Stanley’s group will draw in people from the existing churches in town and suck them dry. Even if the existing churches are themselves Protestant evangelical groups, they almost certainly are centers of real community, where people know and care for each other, have personal ties, and a common history. All of that is endangered by the pop and fizz, the razzle and dazzle of the newest fad.
Again, it is difficult for me to believe that in the long run Andy’s model will work, even if it is yoked (as at Northpoint and in most mega-churches) with an effort to establish ‘small groups’ that provide some real ministry involving Bible study, intercessory prayer, and personal and pastoral support. The ‘small group’ is the real church, the real community, while the rest could be had from television or a computer screen.
What this model of Church sounds like to me is a kind of vampirism. People who are used to going to church are drawn away from existing ‘deeper’ communities for a very, very shallow form of Christianity that provides little or no pastoral care, no regular sacramental life, and little teaching beyond vague uplift and encouragement. While some people without any or with only little Christian background may be attracted, the attraction is to something without strong doctrinal content. It sounds, in short, like an exit ramp from church life for those heading out of real congregations and deeper commitments. It is hard to imagine that it works the other way, as an initial entrance to faith that will lead to a deeper engagement with a more serious reality – such as with, say, the Body of Christ. Why bother with such a Body when you can have a hologram?
Or to put it another way, the assumption may be that a hologram is really superior to a body. Bodies are fragile, require nourishment and shelter, and can be wounded. Holograms are not so limited. But then a hologram cannot baptize or anoint. Holograms can neither consecrate nor receive Holy Communion. Bodies are Biblical. Holograms are modern American Protestant.