Over the past twenty years we’ve seen a phenomenon in retail where big box retailers, sometimes called “category killers” have set up shop in cities and towns and in the process destroyed the livelihood of locally-owned, community-focused, mom-and-pop businesses. In my town we had four stores that sold office supplies which, over a period of about four years, disappeared off the map after Staples arrived. Perhaps where you live you’ve seen independent bookstores close when Barnes & Noble arrived; this in the era before A-zon finished the job for most of them.
There’s a difference between a “chain” of stores, and big box retail. Chains are stores like what you had, only affiliated with an organization for national marketing. A privately owned store can join a chain.
In the analogy we’re heading to here, chains are like church denominations. And sometimes a denomination will work hard to have representation in a local area. Historically however, they start small and build organically.
A big box retailer has more than name recognition. Their motto is, ‘If you build it big they will come in big numbers.’ Having so much more money to throw around than a basic chain, they create large environments and offer discounts.
In the world of what we call “multi-site” churches, growth often happened out of necessity. The original church was simply unable to handle the crowds, and because people were driving great distances, rather than expand the existing physical location, they basically replicated what they were doing in a different location, including having the sermon projected on a big screen.
North Point Community Church fits that definition. Starting from their original location, they’ve slowly spread out to encompass an area that is mostly north, northeast and northwest of downtown Atlanta. While they have a number of affiliate churches, North Point itself has never parachuted into completely foreign territory. They’ve never announced that the next church will be in Tulsa, or Boulder, or Scranton. Their geographic reach is well-defined.
On the other hand, there are also megachurches that have other sites which are not as huge as the parent location. In Ontario, Canada, The Meeting House has about 20 satellites, but some of them started out and small, and I believe a couple are still in that <100 average attendance category.
And then there is East Side, in Anaheim, California which, for whatever reasons, has a single satellite location in Park Rapids, Minnesota. I don’t know the history, but one has to assume this began with a nucleus of people in that area who were drawn to a particular style of teaching; or that the church identified this community as having a need, and proceeded to do something missional and meet that need.
Which brings us to Hillsong. In an article entitled Hillsong Church: Do Not Colonize San Francisco, Nate Lee responds to a video posted by Ben Houston:
Hillsong SF is not something I am looking forward to. In fact, their video offends me. And it makes me extremely sad for this city and what it is becoming. And I am convinced, beyond any doubt, that Hillsong SF has absolutely nothing to do with God’s Kingdom here in San Francisco.
San Francisco is a city under siege. There is a war going on here that can’t be seen or understood through the eyes of a naïve, idealistic pastor. So when Ben Houston shows up in his overly-produced video saying, “San Francisco is a city where we see great potential,” it’s painfully clear that he has no idea of the context onto which his words fall. Guess who else saw “great potential” in this city? The real estate agents, developers, and city officials who have destroyed neighborhoods, broken up families, and displaced poor people of color for their own idealized, dystopian visions for San Francisco. What kind of “great potential” does Hillsong fulfill with its presence? And why would this random Australian dude ever think he’s qualified to evaluate this city’s potential? San Francisco is not a hopeful candidate auditioning for his religious services. We have bigger things to worry about.
I’m so tired of this. I’m tired of pastors coming to San Francisco, posting pictures of bridges and crooked streets and declaring how much they love this city without actually understanding any of it, without being hurt by it, without any scars to show or dirt on their shoes or callouses on their hands…
…Any kind of language that implies that God’s work or God’s plan starts when we arrive (e.g., “God has a great plan for this city!” “San Francisco is a city where we see great potential!” “In San Francisco, the best is yet to come!” – Ben Houston) is indicative not only of terrible theology, but of white Christian exceptionalism, the oppressive belief that the correct kind salvation and healing can only be facilitated through us, on our terms with our methods—and us always happens to be white missionaries, white pastors, and white churches.
And that’s just for starters.
There’s a lot more to this however than just the retail analogy I’ve presented above. It’s not just about fears of Hillsong experiencing transfer growth while existing ministries experience transfer loss. And let’s be honest, some people do change churches every few years.
No, there’s more to this. It’s a matter of knowing your context. Knowing the rhythm, the cadence, the tenor of the ministries working in that community. Studying the spiritual history. Having someone with their feet on the ground for months, even years; having others who are invested in the community. Missionaries often spend a year acclimating to the culture before they ever begin a word of proclamation. You don’t just show up and expect to rock their world overnight. That is what I believe is at the heart of Nate’s concerns; it’s not just about someone building a big worship center or having brand recognition. It’s about the ‘people context’ of the city.
To return to a retail analogy — a different one — we once owned three Christian bookstores. While each carried our name, kept the same hours, stocked the same core titles, and was run by the same policies, the spiritual needs of those communities were vastly different, and the authors and ministries known to their customers were often quite unique. When asked if we were going to expand further, I said at the time, “You can’t just take a store like this one, seal it in a giant container, and drop it in to another community. The needs and interests are not the same.” It might work with a dairy store, or if you sell jeans and t-shirts, but it doesn’t work in Christian endeavor. You can’t just colonize another territory; you have to have done, and be prepared to do as much listening as you talking.
I would be ill-equipped to want to start a Christian store or a church in an area where I didn’t have some previous familiarity, or wasn’t living, or wasn’t working in partnership with some people already in ministry there; and this doubly so if that is an area where there is a history of intense spiritual warfare; and while each of those three criteria is important, I would say working in partnership would be the way to begin.
On the other hand, I would not want to be obstructionist, I would not want to stand in Hillsong’s way; but I think Nate’s concerns are very real, and because he’s there, he has the right to express those concerns or misgivings.
I just don’t think the elephant knows when it is the largest animal in the room and what responsibilities go with that privilege, any more than Staples realized they were going to put those four office supply stores in my town out of business. Or did they?
My Christian ethic compels me to wish Hillsong well, but it also compels me to equally wish all the existing churches and mission organizations in the San Francisco Bay area well also.
One more time, here’s a link to the article: Hillsong Church: Do Not Colonize San Francisco.
Thanks to David Fitch for pointing out this article to me.