SANDY SPRINGS, GA — . - In a folksy but gripping sermon, the Rev. Andy Stanley tells the "incredible story of the Bible" live to the packed pews of the 1,000-seat Buckhead Church Sunday night.
Or does he?
The Rev. Mr. Stanley's image is actually a week old, having been filmed with a high-definition camera once owned by NASA. It's being shown at this "video church," which is part of the North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Ga. So detailed and perfectly scaled is the image that several congregants do a double take.
"I came three weeks before I figured out he wasn't real," says Frank Jock of Atlanta.
Welcome to "godcasting," in which churches use video and iPod technology to create virtual sermons that range from amateur to Emmy-award quality. Then, the "godcasts" are delivered to adherents gathered anywhere - from a grocery store converted to an auditorium to a local movie theater.
"This is part of the new ecclesiastical world order where niche marketing ... is the name of the game, and the standard model where everybody gets dressed up and goes down to the ... church for 11 o'clock service is not the model anymore," says Mark Silk, director of the Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life in Hartford, Conn.
For some churches in the US, godcasting is a powerful, fairly inexpensive tool to draw in the under-30 crowd, who are comfortable with technology. But showing an image instead of presenting a real person can alienate some older churchgoers, experts say. The trend also raises questions about pastoral accountability, and whether this new model fits the biblical concept of a local church.
Today, about 1,000 churches - mostly evangelical - use remote feeds, either live or via DVD, according to the Barna Group in California, which tracks religious trends. Among megachurches, use of video projection technology during live sermons has continued to rise. In 2005, 91 percent reported using the technology, up from 65 percent in 2000, states a survey by Hartford Seminary's Hartford Institute for Religion Research. Few, if any, Jewish or Muslim services include remote video feeds, because they require participation in rituals.
Many Christians, however, have taken to godcasts through video churches. One that's popular is the Rock Hill chapter of Charlotte's Forest Hill Church. Each Sunday, the church's congregants gather in a local movie theater to listen as the Rev. David Chadwick gives his weekly sermon while appearing on a screen. After the service concludes, a pastor and a "care ministry" consisting of several volunteers are available for people at the theater.
This video technology allows leaders of growing churches in particular to gauge interest in other communities without investing in new structures and hiring more pastors.
"Through video we can expand our entry-point capacity, and we don't have to build brick and mortar," says Bryan Snow, communications director for Forest Hill Church. "There are lots of movie theaters not being used on Sunday mornings."
At the same time, people are debating what kind of geographical limits there should be when churches use the technology, says Jim White, incoming president of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Mass. "There's a robust conversation going on whether this ought to be done outside the confines of a particular community." he says. "If we say, 'Let's franchise it and put it in 50 cities,' then we're going to start to have difficulty with pastoral leadership and accountability."
Dr. White questions, too, if video churches meet the definition of "a local church in the sense of the New Testament."
The production quality of the video can be an issue, too. Young people, for example, may be turned off by imperfect productions, says Quentin Schultze, author of "Habits of the High-Tech Heart" about Christians and technology.
But not so at Buckhead Church, which broadcasts high-quality productions to a rapt congregation. On Sunday nights, 70 percent of parishioners are under 30. One is Jonathan Lamar, a 20-something architect. At first he was uncomfortable watching a video but has since adjusted to it. Mr. Lamar likes that the services last exactly an hour, allowing him to make plans with his friends. "They don't waste your time," he says.
Some older parishioners, though, say they are being left behind because of the new technology, says Mr. Snow.
Mr. Jock, for one, likes having church both ways. He goes to a traditional service at his local church on Sunday mornings, then drives 50 miles with a friend to attend Buckhead Church on Sunday nights. He enjoys Stanley's easygoing and uplifting "message," and also seeing people of his sons' generation coming out for fellowship.
"People like me in their 40s worry about the next generation not going to church, but then you come here and see so many young people," he says. "It's reaffirming."