As we walked into the main chapel at Christ Fellowship Church, we decided we were going to do things a little differently. Instead of taking seats that were relatively far removed from everyone else and observing from a distance, we were going to get right in there and become a part of the action, up close. We took our seats in the middle section, directly in front of the camera podium and facing the stage head on. This was closer than we'd ever sat before, and we were intent on getting a much more personal view of things. Based on our experience, we had to come to expect these spaces to be treated like concert halls, what with the stadium seating and groovy lighting. If this was the norm, then we were going to get the best view we could, with the same motivation as if we were at a Springsteen concert.
The lights suddenly cut out and a quiet piano melody took over the space. A chorus filed on to a set of risers, and a band got set up in front of them. Words like "HONOR," "GLORY," and "REACH" flashed across two enormous screens to the sides of the stage. The service had begun.
As the musicians finished up their act, though, I noticed that I had to make a concerted effort to keep my focus on the live action taking place right in front of me. Yes, I had a phenomenal view, and yes, there was really no other logical place for me to rest my eyes without turning my neck, but I could not keep my focus on what was happening directly in front of me. The two huge screens (and the camera/production crew of at least 20) were doing a fantastic job of keeping my attention focused directly on their handy editing and intercutting; in all honesty, watching the TV version of church is a hundred times more exciting than watching church in person, kind of inverting the way that a live concert is much more fun than watching the over-produced DVD.
When the head pastor took the stage and started a short sermon about the church's recent trip to Israel, he also made sure to mention the value and importance of baptism to the mission of Christ Fellowship. After a brief introduction and background story, the screen cut away to Jose (a church member who was about to move from Palm Beach Gardens to Virginia) hanging out with another church official in a nondescript black room. They each said a few words, and then WHOOSH - Jose was dunked, and the crowd roared with applause.
Only as the cameras cut away and shifted their focus to the onstage action did I realize that the whole production had taken place directly above the stage in the previously hidden baptistry. The camera cutting away did not immediately line up with the change of lighting (the baptistry was directly above the stage and had been lit up for the occasion), so for a second, the illuminated baptistry was startlingly clear between the two screens.
What struck me about this was the fact that I had no idea that the baptism was going on right in front of me; it could have been happening in some different part of the church, or in another building altogether for all I knew. Instead, it was right above the stage I had jockeyed so hard to get a good view of. In a service where the pastor made sure to mention the presence of simultaneous webstream broadcasts on the church's website and on the other campuses, it seemed as though the major emphasis was on the power of technology to spread the sermon as far as possible. There are even whole areas devoted to showing just a broadcasted image of the sermon; it's like going to the movies, but instead, it's church. It sort of changed the experience of physically being inside the church, and to some degree, we were just members of the live studio audience.
This feeling of detachment was only made more potent by the fact that the rest of the service had the tone of a morning show. It was hard to tell whether I was watching two pastors discuss their experiences of evangelism or the hammy interactions of Regis and Kelly; the stage even emulated a set. To top it off, I COULD NOT TAKE MY EYES OFF THE SCREEN. Maybe it was just the simple fact that good editing and camerawork were keeping my focus, but I couldn't help but be the least bit frustrated by the fact that I had a hard time keeping my eyes on the stage in front of me. While a lot of my trouble with the service could easily be attributed to an undiagnosed case of ADD, the fancy production values were strangely placed, and nothing if not distracting. The whole thing felt altogether weakened by the feeling that I could have gotten the same thing out of watching the services on TV. Evangelism is clearly adapting to the advent of the internet; when you can't spread the good word in person, take to the web!
In other news, South Beach is bizarre, and a blast. I bought a towel with a horse on it.