The Word Without Flesh: An Ethical Evaluation of Digital Media in Multi-Site Worship

word without flesh final

It is not news to anyone that digital media use is a prominent characteristic of 21st century living. It is also not news to anyone that the American church is regrettably quick to fall in line with cultural whims (being all things to all people while remaining in the world but not of it is a delicate balance, after all). It should then be no surprise that digital media have become a prominent characteristic of the 21st century church. Sermon podcasts, online communities and multi-site churches are growing. Churches advertise their network television broadcasts on highway billboards and preachers build followings with smart jokes in 140 characters or less. These are new phenomena, and as such they deserve careful consideration by the church, for the church. Anthony Hoekema, writing rather prophetically in 1986, cited “the growing supremacy of technology,” “the growing impact of mass media,” and the “depersonalization” which follows as one of the most important issues facing our culture (Hoekema, 2). Indeed, “one can see why the question, ‘What is man?’ has acquired new urgency today.” (Ibid)

Careful consideration, however, often falls victim to our American combination of pragmatism, progressivism, and technophilia. “We are,” Postman quipped, “currently surrounded by throngs of zealous…one-eyed prophets who see only what new technologies can do and are incapable of imagining what they will undo…They gaze on technology as a lover does on his beloved, seeing it was without blemish and entertaining no apprehension for the future.” (Postman, Technopoly, 5) The ethical question of “Should we?” is overtaken by the technical question, “Can we?” And if we can, then of course we should. Interestingly, resistance to this technical logic is often met with ethics—a Luddite accusation or a lack of concern for the Great Commission. Efficiency is the organizing principle for operation, and the underlying assumption is that means matter little in accomplishing ends. In this frame, with regard to communication in the church, what matters is what we communicate rather than how we communicate. The medium is of little importance to the message outside of its broadcast potential.

It is the ethical issue which we will here examine—specifically, whether or not we should utilize video streaming of sermons or whole worship services from one location to another. In other words, is multisite video feed ethical? In this paper I will argue that it is not. The case will be made first by establishing the importance of the imago dei to Christian ethics—of which physical presence is central—and using that theological foundation as the standard by which we evaluate multisite video feed as a medium for Christian worship.

Imago Dei and Christian Ethics

Hoekema notes that “What one thinks about human beings is of determinative significance for his or her program of action.” (Hoekema, 2) This is to say that one’s conception of what or who man is—his or her anthropology—is central to Christian ethics. For instance, perhaps man is most essentially a producer. It would follow then that when one comes to an ethical situation, the primary factor for which to account would be the efficiency or productivity of the choice. Or perhaps man is essentially an animal, a step in the evolutionary process. In that case, the deciding factor in an ethical situation may be that which is most conducive to survival or the proliferation of the homo sapien. There is a strong tradition in Western philosophy which considers man a combination of soul and body, or a “substance dualism.” (Shults, 165) In particular, Platonic philosophy and its subsidiaries feature a strong distinction between body and soul. In these systems of thought, man is considered primarily soul or spirit, with “his physical body foreign to his real nature.” (Hoekema, 2) It is easy to see how this anthropology could, and did, lead to a disregard for the material world (e.g., Gnosticism, Stoicism, various forms of Hedonism).

Biblical anthropology differs starkly from these conceptions. Its most important treatment is in the beginning (Gen. 1:26-28), and though well-known is worth quoting in its entirety: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the seas and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” This is the classic text from which Biblical anthropology flows—we are created in the image of the God who made us. Michael Williams explains:

However modest the explicit Biblical testimony given to human beings as God’s image bearer, the programmatic description of them as being created after image of God…bears profound implications for how we are to understand what it is to be human, why we are here in this world, and how God would have us live as his people….it provides, if you will, both the definition of what it is to be human and a rationale for the presence of human beings within God’s world (Williams, “Part II,” 75-76). 

In stark contrast to the Platonic conception, there is no separation between the physical and the spiritual. “One of the central aspects of creatureliness as a constituent part of our humanity is bodiliness, being citizens of the earthly creation through our physical, embodied natures” Williams adds (Williams, “Part I,” 34). Held together, they constitute man. We are creatures, placed in and among the rest of creation. To disassociate ourselves from our physical existence is to suggest an absurdity. Williams pushes further, “Whatever we might wish to say about humankind, we must begin with the reality of our creatureliness. We have been bodily placed within a material creation, a creation without which we are inconceivable.” (Ibid. It is worth noting that this anthropology highlights the irrationality of sin by way of its consequence—death—and emphasizes the importance of resurrection as a necessary part of the redemption and restoration from it.) Embodiment is central to what it means to be man—he cannot be man without his body, situated in time and space. Therefore, there is a real sense in which the rejection of our bodies and all their associated limitations in time, space, and capacity is sin, as it is a rejection of what God has made and declared very good. Indeed, George Eldon Ladd went so far as to say that the “very root of sin is unwillingness to acknowledge the reality and implications of our creaturehood.” (Ladd, 33, quoted in Williams, “Part I,” 34) I am not suggesting, however, that all of the characteristics of bearing the image of God is covered under the category of embodiment. If that were the case, there would be nothing to denote a qualitative difference between man and animals. My point is simply that this is a fundamental part of our status as creatures, and as such cannot be ignored.

Not only was man created in the image of God, Jesus is described as the image himself. He is the image-bearer as he was intended to be, bearing none of the marks of the Fall—the True Man, as it were. Space does not permit a full examination of the life of Jesus as the true imago dei. For our purposes here we will focus on the way in which Jesus came—namely, that the eternal son of God became incarnate and, in a remarkable demonstration of humility, dwelt among his people (Phil. 2:6-8). The weight of this as a key aspect in the work of Christ as the True Image is illustrated by the number of Trinitarian heresies the early church was forced to deal with. Philosophical children of Plato had serious difficulty imagining that a holy, “spiritual,” and wholly “other” God would defile himself by taking on flesh and all its associated limitations. The good and pure “spiritual” was not far off, calling man to join him. Rather, he had come down and was here, in the muck and mire of human existence. He is Emmanuel, God with us.

Additionally, scripture asserts that Christ as the True Man functions normatively for Christian life (cf. 1 Cor. 11:1, 2 Peter 2:21). “If, therefore, we wish to know what the image of God in man is really like, we must first look to Christ…In Christ, in other words, we see clearly what is hidden in Genesis 1: namely what man as the perfect image of God should be like,” Hoekema contends (Hoekema, 74). This is not to suggest, of course, that to move towards true humanity we ought to be able to turn water to wine or give the blind sight. Jesus as the God-man is more than we will ever be. But we cannot fail to realize that we are called to look to him as the most human man who ever lived.

Understanding man as an image bearer, accepting that a central part of that image is to be embodied persons, and acknowledging Christ and his incarnation as our normative example is not all we have to consider, however. When confronted with an ethical decision, the telos, or end goal of mankind needs to be taken into account as well. “We must,” Hoekema says, “always see man in the light of his destiny.” (Ibid, 96) In other words, there is an eschatological aspect to the imago dei that influences our ethics. The goal of redemptive history is the restoration of the entire cosmos. This includes the restoration of the imago dei in man. Paul asserts in Romans 8:29 that “those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his son,” who, incidentally, was raised bodily. We are and will continue to be conformed to the likeness of Christ until he returns again in glory. There will be no more death because there will be no more sin (cf. Isa. 25:8, Rev. 21:4). And if, as we have said, denying our creatureliness (of which embodiment is necessary) is sin, we may say that such a denial will also be no more. We may say then that there is in the telos of redemptive history an affirmation of embodied living.

Furthermore, we are called to participate now in this work. Richard Hays notes that “The church embodies the power of the resurrection in the midst of a not-yet-redeemed world. The New Testament’s eschatology creates a critical framework that pronounces judgment upon our complacency as well as upon our presumptuous despair.” (Hays, 128) It is critical therefore that the church not ignore the importance of embodied living as an eschatological goal of scripture.

With this ethical foundation grounded in the imago dei and its implications for Christian living established, we are still in need of a lens through which we discern the effects of multi-site video feeds in Christian worship. We will examine this medium from the perspective of media ecology, a brief definition of which will be helpful.

Media Ecology: Definition and assumptions

Media Ecology, a term coined by Eric McLuhan and popularized by Neil Postman, is the study of the effects of media and technology on the environment in which they function. Postman, The Reformed English Curriculum). It operates on several assumptions. First, the introduction of a new medium into an environment affects the entire system in the same way that the introduction of a new species of plant affects the entire system of relationships in nature. This is why the term ecology is used. Postman adds, “A new technology does not add or subtract something. It changes everything. In the year 1500, fifty years after the printing press was invented, we did not have old Europe plus the printing press. We had a different Europe.” (Postman, Technopoly, 18) The entire fabric of European society was changed with the introduction of this medium. All media function this way, though not all have as easily demonstrable an impact as the printing press.

Second, media ecology operates on the premise that with regard to communication, the medium itself is communicative, regardless of its content. In other words, different media have inherent communicative biases. Some media are more suited for one sort of communication than another. Consider Postman’s illustration of the limits of smoke signals as a medium for communication:

While I do not know exactly what content was once carried in the smoke signals of American Indians, I can safely guess that it did not include philosophical argument. Puffs of smoke are insufficiently complex to express ideas on the nature of existence, and even if they were not, a Cherokee philosopher would run short of either wood or blankets long before he reached his second axiom. You cannot use smoke to do philosophy. Its form excludes the content (Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, 7).

This is what Marshall McLuhan meant with his famous phrase, “The medium is the message.” The event of communication involves both form and content. More precisely, “the ‘message’ of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs.” (McLuhan, Understanding Media, 8) The medium and the message must be of equal importance to the one communicating. This is precisely opposite the common assumption that what matters with regard to media and technology is “how we use it.” This, McLuhan contends, “is the numb stance of the technological idiot.” (Ibid, 18) To put it another way, the truth “does not, and never has, come unadorned. It must appear in its proper clothing or it is not acknowledged.” (Postman, Amusing, 22)

Additionally, media ecology understands all media as “extensions of man.” (McLuhan, Understanding Media, 90) A shovel, for instance, is an extension of your hand. A wheel, an extension of your foot, and so on. Media and technology serve to extend the ability of man past what he would be able to do without them. Most media extend our physical bodies. Electric media differ in that they extend the consciousness, the inner self (Ibid, 247). In other words, they dissociate the soul from the body.

Perhaps most importantly, however, media ecology operates on the assumption that all media and technology are Faustian bargains. “It is a mistake,” Postman notes, “to suppose that any technological innovation has a one-sided effect.” (Postman, Technopoly, 4) For example, the interstate highway revolutionized the efficiency of transportation in American cities in the mid-20th century. However, it also made commuting a possibility, gave rise to White Flight, and instigated the era of urban decay. The introduction of new media or technology into an environment always involves gains and losses—the purpose of media ecology is to point out those gains and losses and make them available for ethical evaluation.

Having established our ethical frame in the imago dei and briefly described the lens through which we may discern the effects of media, we will now turn to the evaluation of multi-site video streaming as an ethical activity.

Evaluation: Incarnate church vs. discarnate man

The basic effect of electronic media has mainly to do with the elimination of space and time—two of the core characteristics of embodiment—as a necessary ingredient for human relationship. It is a necessary message of medium of the video stream. According to Peter Fallon, “With electricity, physical presence is no longer necessary…to effect interpersonal communication.” (Fallon, 178) Indeed, under these conditions we no longer need to “’be with’ someone to speak to them.” (Ibid) McLuhan points out that “on the air, man is in every sense discarnate, existing as an abstract image, a figure without a body. The Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland is a kind of parallel to our state…Discarnate man is not compatible with an incarnate church.” (McLuhan, Letters, 543) The multi-site video feed follows this pattern. It is an extension of the preacher to the point of disembodiment. The preacher is visible and audible, but he is not there. Consider, again, a helpful illustration from Postman: “We may find it convenient to send a condolence card to a bereaved friend, but we delude ourselves if we believe that our card conveys the same meaning as our broken and whispered words when we are present. The card not only changes the words but eliminates the context from which the words take their meaning.” (Postman, Amusing, 117) It is simply false that what is communicated on screen is the same message communicated in person. The service or sermon streamed into another location is a decontextualized event; it has nothing to do in particular with the people receiving it, as it is a completely different group of people. The pastor is not physically present in the lives of the congregation—he is present somewhere else—to have anything specific to say to them. In this way, multi-site video stream is actually self-defeating—it is attempting to use a disembodied medium to communicate an embodied message (Downey, 10). The preacher and his sermon, disassociated from his context, becomes a sort of information dump, at which point it has moved outside of the realm of preaching. In fact, if information transfer is the sole purpose of the Sunday sermon, it would serve our people better to replace the vast majority of their preachers with books. But this is not the purpose of preaching. The purpose of preaching is to bring the word of God to bear on the lives of the people we serve in the context of gathered assembly. This requires real human involvement in the lives of our people in time and space, following the example of Christ, which the video stream discourages.

Furthermore, multi-site video stream reinforces what John Stott calls the “unreality” of life experienced through the screen. He notes,

Television belongs to the realm of the artificial and the contrived…True, we can actually watch a football game (though on the screen) and hear the crowds yelling (though through a speaker), yet there is no way in which we can feel the wind of that tornado or smell the odours of that slum…The questions which this contrast raises in my mind are these: How easily can people switch from the one world to the other? Do they recognize when they hear God’s Word and worship him, that now at last they are in touch with ultimate reality? Or do they, as I fear, move from one unreal situation to another, somnambulating as in a dream, because television has introduced them to a world of fantasy from which they never entirely escape? (Stott, 72-73)

To summarize, the use of multi-site video feed in worship seems to violate our imago dei ethic in several ways. First, the medium itself is inherently disembodying. This runs against a core characteristic of our intended purpose and our call to participate in embodied living which must be emphasized, if ever at all, during Sunday worship. Second, it is biased toward a discarnate sort of service and leadership, which is out of line with the normative example of the incarnation, namely that Jesus “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Third, it works against the fact that the goal of redemptive history is the resurrection of the body, as a part of the restored cosmos.

If the message of a medium is the change in scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs, then we may say that the message of the multi-site video preacher is the gospel of a decontextualized, depersonalized, discarnate salvation (which, incidentally, has more to do with Gnosticism or Platonism than Christianity). What may be gained in an increase in speed, efficiency and volume is offset by what is lost in embodied relationships and contextualization. What we have is the gospel cut in half—words without deeds, as it were. The message of this medium is not that which we claim: the story of the transcendent God breaking into and submitting himself to the demands of time and space. This medium communicates a narrative in which the word remains without flesh, and calls us to do the same. By streaming out our preaching from one location to another, we actively participate in the proliferation of a disembodied existence, which, from a biblical perspective, is death. What we have in Jesus Christ, on the other hand, “is the one case in which we can say that the medium and the message are one and the same,” an incarnate message from an incarnate God (McLuhan, Medium and the Light, 103). We cannot therefore conclude in good conscience that it is ethical for our people to worship via multi-site video stream. In an age of disembodied living, we must give our churches a taste of reality.



Works Cited

Downey, Stephen. “Swimming Against the Video Stream: A Critique of Using Disembodied Means to Communicate an Embodied End.” Cleveland, OH: Parkside Church, 2011. Typewritten.

Fallon, Peter K. The Metaphysics of Media: Toward an End to Postmodern Cynicism and the Construction of a Virtuous Reality. Scranton Pa.: University of Scranton Press, 2009.

Hays, Richard B. The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1996.

Hoekema, Anthony A., Created in God’s Image. Carlisle, U.K.: Paternoster Press, 1994.

McLuhan, Marshall. Letters of Marshall Mcluhan. Edited by Matie Molinaro, Corrine McLuhan, and William Toye. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1987.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1994.

McLuhan, Marshall, and Eric McLuhan. The Medium and the Light: Reflections On Religion. Edited by Eric McLuhan. Toronto: Stoddart, 1999.

Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. 20th ed. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2006.

Postman, Neil. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.

Postman, Neil. “The Reformed English Cirriculum.” In High School 1980: The Shape of the Future of American Education, edited by A.C. Eurich. N.p.: Pitman Publishing Corp., 1970.

Shults, F LeRon. Reforming Theological Anthropology: After the Philosophical Turn to Relationality. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 2003.

Stott, John. Between Two Worlds: The Challenge of Preaching Today. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 1982.

Williams, Michael D. “First Calling: The Imago Dei and the Order of Creation—Part I.” Presbyterion, 39, no. 2 (2013): 30-44.

Williams, Michael D. “First Calling: The Imago Dei and the Order of Creation—Part II.” Presbyterion, 39, no. 2 (2013): 75-97.

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About the Contributor

Danny Hindman

Danny Hindman
Danny Hindman graduated from Wheaton College in 2010, and studied Communications and Media Ecology under Dr. Read Schuchardt. He is currently pursuing a Master of Divinity from Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO, and is interested in the intersection between biblical anthropology, Christian Ethics, and Media Ecology. 


  1. Michael Toy says:

    Great thoughts, Danny! I’m impressed by the depth and range of analysis you were able to perform in under 3500 words. I agree with your conclusion in large part, but I just wanted to offer up a couple of things for consideration. They by no means invalidate your argument but are considerations I myself have been trying to work out, and I’d love to hear your thoughts! 1) I’m not sure of your theological leanings, but if one affirms a Real Presence in the Eucharist, then one affirms Christ’s body — the very image of God — transcending the limitations of space and time. 2) Mgr. Claudio Maria Celli, head of the pontifical council for social communications wrote in 2013, “What really matters is that the Pope’s tweets from Brazil, or the photos of World Youth Day that will be posted on Pinterest, should bear authentic spiritual fruit in the hearts of each one of us. Then even a youngster who is a very long way from Brazil and feels involved by a video, a simple text message or an email will be truly taking part in the World Youth Day and will receive the gift of the indulgence.” Perhaps part of the in-breaking of the kingdom of God is a transformation of media by the message — as God works in and through them to bear spiritual fruit.

    Not sure if a comment box can hold the content of this conversation, so feel free to shoot me an email, I’d love to hear from you! – Toy

    • Danny Hindman says:

      Hey man, thanks so much! Interesting question. My impulsive response: 1) Re: sacramental presence of Christ, I’m thinking the sacramental elements and Christ’s presence in them are unique, New Covenant items, not necessarily intrinsic to “being human” or to the telos of God’s restoration of what he’s made. In other words, Christ’s mysterious presence in the Eucharist isn’t necessarily a normative thing for the rest of us. 2) Re: transformation of media by the message, perhaps indeed. But, as a good friend of mine said once, just because God spoke to Balaam through donkey doesn’t mean we should put a donkey in the pulpit. There’s no doubt the Holy Spirit draws people to himself through Google searches, televangelists, pinned photos from World Youth Day, etc., but does that mean we should recommend them as best practices? Perhaps he is working in spite of those things rather than because of them…Thoughts? Feel free to email me as well.

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