I was at a minor league hockey game in Chicago once when a friend noted that the only guys to play hockey at that level or in college were Canadian boys who weren’t good enough to go pro right out of high school. I think about that every now and then when my wife drags me to the new religious craze: video church.

Video church starts with head-banging rock & roll and screeching lyrics. It’s deafening. It’s earsplitting. It’s what stodgy, WASPish people used to call devil music, but these, ahem, musicians throw in words like “king” and “savior,” and capitalize the “H” in “He” and “Him” and suddenly you have a praise song. I’ve heard if you play their music backwards, though, you hear, “I’m not good enough to be in a real band…”

Perhaps I sound stodgy, too. I prefer “traditionalist,” but who wants to split the numbered hairs on my head?  I’m not new to video religion, though. My father religiously (pun intended) watched every Billy Graham Crusade that came on television, even if we had to watch it through a snowy TV screen and cipher his message through static. (This was pre-digital cable, for my young readers.) I was such a Graham devotee that I was 23 years old before I realized you didn’t have to hum the third verse of “Just As I Am.” But in video church, you’re more likely to hear a grunge version of “Up on the Rooftop” than “Silent Night.” I mean, would it kill them to sing “How Great Thou Art” every now and then?

This latest phenomenon is based on the Rick Warren mega-church concept, with a main “mother” church and several satellite congregations hyperlinked by computer video. It’s like a conference call with God. The first video preacher I saw came across as an arrogant ass–kids who masturbate are going to hell; stay-at-home fathers (like me) don’t seem to fall on the Godly side of his get-into-Heaven checklist; and if you disagreed with him, then you, in his words, “Had the right to be wrong.”

The last video preacher I saw gave copious lip service to saving souls for Jesus, but his emphasis seemed to be on growing his church’s membership to greater than the 15,000 it has now. In my opinion, that’s not saving souls; it’s putting butts in seats. It’s what carnies and pro wrestling promoters do. He made four points during his sermon, one of which was that Jesus is not our “Snuggie.” Jesus’ purpose is not to comfort and provide succor, it is to agitate and irritate us into making changes in our lives. Hmm…”I am your rock and your salvation, a fortress that cannot be shaken” (Psalm 62:2). “My power will rest on you when you are weak” (2 Corinthians 12:9). I rather like Jesus being my Snuggie, my shield, my protection, my comfort but what do I know?

Video preacher 2 said he wanted sinners in his church–broken people with hurting souls, people who spit and cuss and drink and need a good dose of the Lord. And bless him for that, I wholeheartedly agree. But in the same sermon, he invited “religious, churchy people”–those of us who prefer “Amazing Grace” to “Bongo Jed and the Jesus Freaks,” those of us who find more inspiration in the Apostles Creed than cutesy little sayings on the church’s roadside digital billboard–to leave. Yes, to walk out. These people weren’t welcome in flashing strobe light, heavy metal, simulcast church.

He noted that people in “regular” churches walked around with a glassy-eyed, Stepford Wives demeanor. Maybe so, but it struck me as we walked in to the theater, er…church, I witnessed a young woman offer to take a young child to the youth center. She said it with all the sincerity of a “let’s do lunch” invitation you say to a college friend you just bumped into after 15 years. In the South when you utter the phrase “How are you?” and make the last word in that phrase eight syllables long, you can tell it’s not from the heart…really.

When the couple replied their daughter wanted to go to the service with them, the young woman told her the church had a policy of not allowing kids younger than 6th grade age inside. “Suffer the little children to come unto me.” Who was it who said that? I can’t quite place it…oh, yeah…HIM. Besides, it’s tradition in Southern churches for people to bring fussy babies into the sanctuary so the rest of us can talk bad about them later. It’s true.

I’ve noticed a pattern in these video church preachers, Rick Warren included. Narcissism. Video preacher 2 summed it up nicely the other day when he told the congregation that he promised his church would be a one man show. He said, by that, he meant Jesus. Sometimes people reveal more about themselves than they realize. It appears to be a one man show all right.

It’s important that we go to a church as a family; that we receive salvation and accept the grace we’re offered, but I’ll ask the question out loud I’ve asked myself a dozen times this year: If I’ve got to listen to a TV preacher, why can’t I stay home on the couch in my boxer shorts and watch Jimmy Swaggart?

Feel free to put someone else’s butt in my seat.


Sam Morton

Sam Morton

A Rock Hill, SC native and 1985 graduate of The Citadel, Sam Morton is co-author of five fiction anthologies. He holds bachelors and masters degrees in English. He is a member of The Inkplots, a group of published writers and authors active in South Carolina’s vibrant literary experience. His past occupations include a 12 year-stint as a robbery/ homicide detective for the Richland County Sheriff’s Department in Columbia, SC, a ten-year career as a professional wrestler, and one long week as the blade changer on the potato cutting machine at the Frito Lay plant in Charlotte, NC He is a freelance writer for a host of national and regional periodicals. He resides in Columbia with his wife and two children. By Sam Morton · Betrayed · Osporeni · Death Match · Disavowed · Ramblings Co-Authored · Heat of the Moment · Inkplots: Random Acts of Writing · Naughty and Nice · Buck Naked Unitarians · Black & Blue & Read All Over

  1. Sam, tell it like it is my man! Keep it coming. And, by the way, don’t you love the PowerPoint lyrics projected on mammoth screens in new-fangled churches so the young juiced-up-on Jesus freaks can sing along. Back in my 223-year-old Baptist church in Georgia, How Great Thou Art, In Times Like These, and other classics? Well, from 10 on we knew the words. Enough said.

  2. Keith Graham

    My favorite rock & roll video church is run by a local Friends meeting. The screen is blank, there’s no music, everyone is quiet (except when they really feel they have something to say about how they can love their neighbors and the world we all live in), and the fire in the fire place is going strong.

  3. Frank Povah

    Sam: Wonderful stuff! I’d like to know what do they do with all this money, these owners of the Digital Word. They have caught on in Australia in a big way and now interfere in politics as much as they do here. My favorite Novachurch – from the outside anyway – is on I-75 in Ohio. It has the “world’s largest styrofoam and wood sculpture” of Jesus, a torso only. Arms upraised, it seems to be asking us to rescue it from slipping into the man-made lake, or it did until they started the roadworks; now its trying to peer over the concrete dividing barriers. The sanctifier of this impressive structure has for sale on-line his CDs, in country style, of his songs of devotion and pictures of him spreading The Word from the back of one of his purebred quarter-horses – a new sermon on the mount (sorry, that was terrible). The Holy Website also gently reminds viewers that he has a quarter-horse stud farm.

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