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The Problem with Livestreams

June 5th, 2024 | 3 min. read

By Patrick Miller


This post is part of a series exploring Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death chapter by chapter. You need not read the book or previous points to appreciate this one. You can find part 1 here, part 2 here, part 3 here, part 4 here, part 5 here, part 6 here, part 7 here, and part 8 here. In this essay, I will respond to Chapter 8: “Shuffle Off to Bethlehem.”

In the wake of COVID shutdowns, even the smallest Bible churches scrambled to learn how to do something they’d never done before: livestreaming. How-to blog posts and videos dotted the Christian content landscape as pastors began to don yet another hat that seminary never prepared them for: chief technical officer. 

But as weeks wore on into months, everyone was fatigued. Not just of livestreams, but of the entire highly online life most of us—especially those lucky enough to have white-collar jobs—found ourselves stuck in. Within weeks, a new sort of blog post began to materialize: calls to shut down the livestream and challenges to livestream ecclesiology in the New York Times.

Thus, COVID accelerated an enormous internecine debate: Should churches have digital ministries? I even participated in one myself. During that conversation (we ended up agreeing on too much to call it a debate), I highlighted that a livestream isn’t a digital ministry. That’s because livestreams are skeuomorphic—they take an event in the real world and try to replicate it digitally. 

There’s nothing new about skeuomorphic design. Early iPhones made their contacts look like a Rolodex. The idea is that your knowledge of an analog tool (the Rolodex) will help you use the digital tool. But skeuomorphic designs are always temporary. Eventually, the digital design becomes more native to the device and less tethered to its analog analogue. 

Why? First, because they’re a learning tool. Once the learning is finished, the tool is no longer needed. Second, because skeuomorphic designs are clunky. They never feel natural, and if the design doesn’t change, users will transition to more updated options that aren’t hampered by real-world analogues.

The problem with livestreams in 2020 was that no one needed a lesson on how to consume Christian video content online. They served no educational purpose. Worse yet, even the best-produced streams never felt native. They looked and felt different than YouTube videos. The experience of worshiping with them in your living room was always clunky at best. 

In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman rails against the TV preachers of his day, pointing out that by putting church on TV, they’d fundamentally changed the nature and content of church—emptying it of all its sacrality, seriousness, and substantiveness. He was right: moving something from one medium to another does that.

But here’s what the TV preachers got that livestreams don’t get: they produced church for TV. At the end of the day, livestreams only capture an event produced for in-person consumption. The person watching the stream on YouTube is always secondary to the person witnessing it in the sanctuary. For that, I think, we should all be thankful. 

Because the minute we try to recreate church online, in a medium that’s native to the internet, church does cease to be church. Worse yet, there will be inevitable slippage, as the norms of internet church (whatever that is) begin to influence analog church. Postman writes,

There is no doubt, in other words, that religion can be made entertaining. The question is, By doing so, do we destroy it as an “authentic object of culture”? And does the popularity of a religion that employs the full resources of vaudeville drive more traditional religious conceptions into manic and trivial displays?

It’s a good question, and the answer is probably yes. Or it would be if it were possible to somehow internetize a church service. But I don’t think it is. There is something about the collective, embodied gathering of people for worship in song and preaching that fundamentally does not lend itself to the internet as a medium. Even the TV preachers emulated talk-show formats more than church, and perhaps for that reason never succeeded in doing much more than making pastors roll their eyes. In fact, the early days of Christian livestreaming (think Mars Hill et al) were probably the best days because, back then, people weren’t comparing it to Mr. Beast or DudePerfect.

So I think the entire livestream debate is a lame duck debate. It doesn’t hurt much to have one—I don’t really see the problem of providing people access to songs and preaching while on vacation or while stuck inside sick or while in nursing homes—but I’m also not sure that not having one will do much harm. It will probably make it hard to attract new attendees who want to dip their toes in the water before a first visit, but I doubt existing attendees will care too much.

A digital ministry, if you’re going to have one, can’t be skeuomorphic. It must be native to the digital platform. And the minute you go native, you must reflect on the nature of how that medium changes the message and the content itself—lest the medium become your message.

Patrick Miller

Patrick Miller (MDiv, Covenant Theological Seminary) is a pastor at The Crossing. He offers cultural commentary and interviews with leading Christian thinkers on the podcast Truth Over Tribe, and is the coauthor of the forthcoming book Truth Over Tribe: Pledging Allegiance to the Lamb, Not the Donkey or the Elephant. He is married to Emily and they have two kids.

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