Though the conversation was nearly fifteen years ago, I remember it like it was yesterday. We were talking about a new megachurch that was experiencing meteoric growth, and the pastor said, “That church is a house of cards. As soon as ________ leaves, the whole thing collapses.”
This is something I’ve heard expressed before in other contexts. And it came to light again this week as Christianity Today considered the multi-site church model. Mega and Multi are often seen together holding hands.*
But first, a diversion, as one pastor defines the phenomenon:
Thabiti Anyabwile, pastor of Anacostia River Church in Washington, D.C., summed up this concern in a 2011 blog post for the Gospel Coalition titled, “Multisite Churches Are from the Devil.”
“Try as one might,” he wrote, “I can’t escape the conclusion that those who take the multisite option are effectively saying, ‘My preacher is better than your preacher, so we’re gonna brand him and export him to a theater near you.’ That’s crass, I know. But that’s really the bottom line.”
Okay. Back to our discussion. This is the quote from the piece I really wanted to highlight:
…Given Mars Hill’s highly visible collapse, questions remain about the long-term viability of multisite churches.
Chuck North, an economics professor at Baylor University, said the fall of Mars Hill mimicked what happens with successful startup businesses and their founders…
One of the big challenges for such businesses is succession planning. Who will take over when the founding or longtime CEO leaves? Likewise, “the pastor is the face of that church,” he said. “How do you get a successor who is going to fill that role?”
That would resonate with the aforementioned pastor with whom I had my discussion. We tend to use terminology like, “Bill Hybel’s church;” and “Rick Warren’s church;” and “Kyle Idleman’s church;” and “Pete Wilson’s church;” losing the bearings of the people listening to us if we reference Willow, Saddleback, Southeast or Cross Point. Right now, if someone says to me, “Ed Young’s church,” I can’t name it.
Which got me thinking of A Prairie Home Companion, the long-running Saturday night radio show that started back in the days when they had to hand-deliver radio shows to each house by truck.
Last week it was announced that iconic show runner and host Garrison Keillor would step down to be replaced by Chris Thile (pronounced THEE-lee) who guest hosted earlier this year. Not everyone is thrilled.
For many, the show is G.K., and they can’t imagine it without him. Others are excited.
In church life, we do tend to associate the pastor as being the brand. It’s hard to imagine certain churches without the key man — in business, you can take out insurance against such losses, called key man insurance — but life goes on at Mars Hill Bible Church without Rob Bell, at Cornerstone without Francis Chan, and was, until recently going fine at Coral Ridge Presbyterian without James Kennedy.
The CT article hinges largely on the situation at Mars Hill Seattle, post-Mark Driscoll. That one fulfilled my pastor friend’s prophecy, and whether or not you want to call it a house of cards, it definitely collapsed.
How can churches mitigate against that happening? How do they prevent the church from being personality-driven?
The A Prairie Home Companion situation is made easier by Keillor’s retirement. He will transition out slowly he says, returning to do key characters and narratives. In church life we don’t always have that luxury, if the pastor feels called to another location. Flying and back and forth to your old church is generally frowned upon. The ties usually become severed, and the congregation looks forward, not back. It’s often ten years later that the former pastor is freer to return for a special anniversary or similar event.
Small groups also make a huge different. If you are closely knit to the people in your home church group, what’s happening at the weekend services is of diminished importance. At Canada’s The Meeting House, teaching pastor Bruxy Cavey tells his people, “If you have to make a choice this week between Sunday and home church, attend your home church.”
Serving also helps. People who work on music, tech, greeting, parking, children’s, youth or counseling teams are invested long-term; they have a commitment that goes beyond who is preaching the sermon.
Finally, I suppose much has to do with viable alternatives. Sometimes it’s hard for people who have been friends of Mega and Multi to feel comfortable again in the closer surroundings of a 250-seat or 500-member fellowship. Without strong ties, it may be easier to drift through a time of pastor transition, but even the largest cities can only support so many mega-churches.
Personally, I think the Saturday night NPR radio show will survive the transition, and as for Thile as host, I’m going to trust Keillor’s judgement. In church life, outgoing pastors generally don’t name their successors, but it would be ideal if they could put their rubber stamp on whoever is ultimately selected.
*As a writer, I really liked that sentence; but in the interest of full disclosure, not all satellite (or shall we say secondary) campuses attract huge crowds. While North Point (Andy Stanley’s church) tends not to start a new campus without critical mass, the branch of Harvest Bible Chapel (James MacDonald’s church) we attended in Elgin, IL in 2009 was in development at the time; we worshiped with a crowd I would estimate at around 200 max; though that location has grown considerably since we were there. Some of The Meeting House’s locations are still running under 100 according to some reports, and I am told that LifeChurch.tv (Craig Groeshel’s church) a leader in multi-site, has often had softer launches in order to serve a particular geographic area sooner than later.