Thinking Out Loud

July 9, 2015

What the Modern Megachurch has in Common with A Prairie Home Companion

MegachurchThough 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.

GarrisonKeillorWhich 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.

November 1, 2014

End of the Line for Mars Hill

The headline at Christianity Today said it all:

Mars Hill LocationsHere’s reaction from people you know, along with random comments from people you don’t on blogs, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram that were posted in the hours immediately following the announcement:

Zach Hoag: In my opinion, this was the only right decision for a church organization with such a troubled history. It will allow for a truly new start, free from the arrogant defense of the old institution, and for the deep healing process to commence. 

Stephan Deliramich: This is crazy and sad. I appreciate Driscoll and have mixed feelings about his resignation, however this is such a lesson to all of us. A church cannot be built around one person unless that person is Jesus.

Warren Throckmorton: If anything has become clear over the last year, it is that the church was all about buildings and organization.

Rachel Held Evans: My heart breaks for those brothers and sisters from Seattle feeling wounded, exhausted, and disillusioned by the unraveling of their church. Even unhealthy churches have faithful, godly people working in them. I hope everyone will take the time they need to heal after this, and that the relationships that were truly life-giving will be preserved. Unfortunately, churches built around a pastor tend to rise and fall with that pastor. I hope the entire evangelical community will learn from this and re-prioritize accountability, character, respect for women and the marginalized, and I sincerely hope Mark Driscoll finds the help he needs…

Christopher Preston: Sad… But not so surprising… The pitfalls of building a church on personality rather than Christ?

Jim West: This is the major theological problem with megachurches: they have no idea what missionary minded churches are.  They do not distribute, they collect.  Rather than planting churches in various locations, they collect people like property and then boast of their multiple campuses and tens of thousands of members.  If megachurches understood Christianity they would plant churches and not establish satellites.  But whenever wealth comes the way of the greedy and controlling, it is only natural that they try to get as much of it as they can.  That is why Mars Hill has died: greed killed it. 

John Paul Ortiz: I’m actually sad to hear of Mars Hill’s demise. For all the people who now have to go church hopping, people now unemployed, hurt. etc.

Jacey Davidson: The mega-church/multi-site model is unsustainable as is it built upon certain gifted individuals that can’t help but assume inappropriate amounts of power and influence. God’s church is all about decentralization. The priesthood of all believers is a critical reformation doctrine. Multi-site is a relatively new invention of man and doesn’t seem to fit the biblical model of church government. It is pseudo-Presbyterian but lacks the proper accountability channels. 

Multisite Church SaleMatthew Wagner: Pray for Mars Hill and the 14000 Christians that called it home. Sad to see the church closing its doors. 

Spiritual Sounding Board: I’ve seen discussion [about] new “Mars Hill” churches. If these pastors failed to stand up to Driscoll and say he was unfit, they are unfit to lead. 

Drew Fanning: [referencing CT headline above] Describing a church as a human’s possession and using words like “empire” will have a terrible impact on Mars Hill’s congregation. We as christian contributors to social media, news, and even culture have to be so careful how we use any terminology. And more so than worry about the buildings Mars Hill owned, we should be worrying about the people that filled them.

Wenatchee The Hatchet:  In ten years Mark Driscoll managed to become pretty much everything he preached against from the pulpit circa 2000-2004.  How and why this happened may be explored and unpacked later on.  Whether the individual churches that have been constituents of Mars Hill can survive remains to be seen.  A number of them may and we’ll just have to see.  

Brian Shepard: Sucks hearing that Mars Hill Church is officially done.. but will be praying that from this ending, this moment also marks a new beginning. 

Bill Kinnon: If you need to shut it down mere weeks after the “founder” quits, was it ever really a church at all?

John Piper: Mars Hill Church will cease to be a single multisite church. May each congregation flourish in Christ!  

Click the image at the top of the article to read the details at Christianity Today.

 

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