03 July 2011

Franchising Church?

Last week, Christianity Today ran a story entitled, "Multi-Site Churches Go Interstate" in which it was reported:
Mars Hill Church is coming to town.
Pastor Mark Driscoll's megachurch recently announced plans to expand into Portland, Oregon, and Orange County, California, using multi-site campuses that feature live bands and a sermon piped in from the main campus in Seattle.
The move is part of a trend among megachurches to extend their brand of church to new communities, in hopes of reaching unchurched people with the gospel. But critics fear the out-of-state campuses turn churches into franchises like McDonald's or Starbucks.
Admittedly, I did appreciate the fairly balanced presentation that the magazine offered of this news. Predominant on the first page of the article are several quotes from a local pastor in Portland, Oregon, who expressed his concern with the news of Mars Hill Church crossing state lines.
But he [Pastor Bob Hyatt] has some doubts about Mars Hill's method, which seems to him more like corporate expansion than church planting. "If you are a church planter in Portland, it's a bit like reading the notice that Wal-Mart is coming and you are the mom-and-pop store," he said.
Hyatt is also concerned about the long-term health of the out-of-state campus model. Rather than building up a local body of believers, he said, these campuses are dependent on having a celebrity pastor for their survival. 
It should come as no surprise to readers of this blog that I share Pastor Hyatt's concerns. It's not that I am opposed to multi-site churches per se, but I think that this crossing of state lines is a premium example of the need to ask, "how much is too much?"

At what point do we stop relying on the celebrity of a pastor and start relying on the sufficiency of God's Word to draw and to save people? In fact, we should never rely on a face or name. Only God's Word saves and transforms, and pastors are called simply to preach the Word (2 Tim. 4:1-2). What makes Mark Driscoll so much more seemingly "anointed" than our local pastor who has been faithfully preaching the Word of God to a congregation only a fraction of the size of one of Driscoll's campuses? Answer: Nothing. Mark Driscoll and other rock-star pastors like him are not any more gifted than other pastors. In fact, since most (not all) mega-church pastors fail to esteem the Word as highly as they should, they are indeed becoming a detriment to the growth of the true Church rather than an aid.

This article brought to mind the countless "tweets" I see sent out by, for example, James MacDonald of Harvest Bible Chapel, announcing the grand opening of his latest and greatest church plant. To be fair, the majority of "Harvests" around the world do operate with their own local pastor, but the announcement of each is not one that reads, "Praise God, more people will hear the faithful preaching of His Word," but rather, "Woo hoo! Another Harvest Bible Chapel on the map!" It seems the bigger these church dynasties grow, the more important the name and numbers become. It is no longer about careful exegesis of Scripture and teaching the sheep, but about herding in the goats on the off-chance and hope that a few of them might get saved or, "ask Jesus into their hearts." And yet, because it is far more "cool" to attend a big-name church than one's local Bible church, more and more people, believers and unbelievers alike, flock to these fellowships, thus sucking the true local churches dry. It reminds me of when I was growing up and it was essential to own the "trendy" brand of jeans, even though Levis made the exact same pair for half the price.

Another question that rose in my mind upon reading this article, then, was what is to become of the local pastor? And, worse yet, what is to become of those men who have faithfully or are currently faithfully studying in seminary with the prayer that they will one day lead even a small church of genuine believers? What hope have they, when they graduate and discover that their role has been usurped by a huge screen and a projector displaying a pastor thousands of miles away? Are they destined to serve as a "campus pastor," preaching maybe once or twice a year, and never truly being able to exercise the gifts God gave them and the skills and truths they learned while in school? How sad! To be sure, the vast majority of seminaries are not sending out pastors whom we would trust to shepherd a flock, having been brainwashed and inundated with postmodern, Emergent thinking. But what of those who have been faithful to the Lord? What is to become of these men as the Driscolls of America come marching into every corner of the country?

Finally, perhaps my greatest concern with this article was this sentence:
The move is part of a trend among megachurches to extend their brand of church to new communities, in hopes of reaching unchurched people with the gospel. (emphasis mine)
This is a misunderstanding of the purpose of the church. Church is not for unbelievers, or "unchurched people." Church is for believers; it is for the sheep. That's not to say that unbelievers aren't welcome, quite the contrary! But it is the fundamental flaw of modern evangelicalism of "doing church for the unchurched" that has caused our very own "Downgrade Controversy" here in America today. Should the Gospel be preached in church? Every week, without fail. But that is because even believers must hear and be reminded of the Gospel that saved them. And so, while an unbeliever may most certainly hear and be transformed by the Gospel while visiting a church service, the church nevertheless primarily exists for believers. It is (or should be) a time of reverence, worship, confession, prayer, learning, proclamation and fellowship for those who have been saved by God.

Every Christian, pastor or not, should be out in the world sharing the Gospel of salvation by Jesus Christ with unbelievers. But with today's philosophy of church for the unchurched, Christians are able to take the easy route, and just invite their friend to church without ever really having to share their faith. The worst part is, in most instances, even if that unbelieving friend does come to church, he won't hear the true Gospel. He may hear how Jesus loves him "thiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiis much" and so won't he please stop Jesus from wringing His hands together and ask Him into his heart today? He may hear how great God will make his life, because after all, Jesus came so that we "may have life abundantly." Yes, that unbelieving friend may indeed hear Scripture twisted and mangled so that "accepting Jesus" sounds like quite the deal, especially since he can still keep all his sins and debauchery and just add Jesus as a side dish. But will that unbelieving friend hear the Law, and be confronted with the brick wall of the reality of his own sinfulness and depravity? Will he come to realize that he is in an unfathomably deep debt to God, a debt that he cannot hope to pay on his own? Very likely, at a "church for the unchurched," this unbelieving friend will not hear these things, and so when he hears of a Savior, he will not know from what he needs to be saved. So while the man on the big screen may cause this friend to make a profession, along with hundreds of others at mega-church campuses across the country, he will find himself not the recipient of true grace, forgiveness and salvation. Rather, he will one day find himself standing before the Lord unknown (Matthew 7:21-23).

Perhaps instead of investing money, time, and electricity into the latest and greatest campus, we ought to focus more on sharing the Gospel with unbelievers on our own time. Then, as God starts to save people, the local churches that are already present will find their pews filling with believers. And those seminary graduates who long to shepherd their own local flock will find that there is a need for a church in a town where people are getting saved, not because they attended a rock concert at a "church," but because their Christian coworker bothered to speak with them about things eternal. And Christians in this country, who yearn for a local body of believers led by a man with an unwavering dedication to teaching only God's Word, will finally begin to be fed the truths that have been withheld from them for so long within the confines of their local "campus." We need to remember the true purpose of church. And then our pastors need to remember the that purpose of their calling is not to add numbers, for that is God's job. A pastor needs only to faithfully, unapologetically, and boldly preach the Word.
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. (2 Timothy 3:16-4:2)


  1. I really appreciated this post. I am a former member of MHC, and all the emphasis on growth and numbers disturbed me, which is why I am "former" member. I think the question has to be asked, "What happens when the celebrity pastor in question dies/retires?" In most cases, the answer will probably be that the church will fold. If that is true, then what does that say about what the foundation is that these satellite churches are built upon? Again, great post.

  2. Don't worry about "The move is part of a trend among megachurches to extend their brand of church to new communities, in hopes of reaching unchurched people with the gospel." They don't really mean it. That takes way too much time and instead they would rather pull existing Christians out of local churches. When Harvest first opened their Elgin campus, the first thing they did was to get a lot of big name musicians to come play in their building and advertise it heavily on Christia radio so that the existing Christians in the area could come see their new facilities. The vast amount of growth they tout is tranfer growth, not because they are teaching people to evangelize.

  3. Thank you so much for your comment and sharing your thoughts, SalesGuy. I think you make an excellent point: these churches likely will "fold up" when something happens to the rockstar pastor, thus revealing the true foundation of them. Truth be told, most churchgoers have a special affinity for their senior pastor, and would probably prefer that he be preaching rather than one of the other pastors on staff. At the same time, however, if the church is grounded in Scripture, and not fleeting celebrity, those churches continue to survive even after the senior pastor retires. A "campus pastor" however, will likely have a very difficult time keeping a church alive after the famous pastor on the screen is gone.

    How thankful you can be for having the discernment to leave MHC when the focus of the church turned to growth. I left my last church for the same reason. I pray that you have since found a new church home where the sole focus and emphasis is Jesus Christ and His Gospel!

  4. Anonymous,

    If what you say is true about the HBC Elgin campus, that is truly sad. To be sure, if an area is lacking in doctrinally solid, strong churches, then the building of one would naturally draw Christians who have been stuck in a bad church. But to draw people away with big names and loud music is most definitely the wrong approach! But, as we know, churches today seem to think that God's Word isn't exciting enough; they seem to think that the Gospel needs help.

  5. Another great strategy is to come in and takeover an existing church. Have the existing church's pastor turn over the reins of leadership to you, along with the church assets (buildings, cash, properties, whatever), then fire or transfer the church staff and bring in your handpicked takeover team, and reward the pastor who turned over his church to you a plum position as an "executive" on your staff, with an attractive compensation package, as his reward. Then, "promote" him off your staff once another pastor comes along who turns over a bigger church to you.


Please keep it pithy (in other words, if your comment is long enough to be its own blog post, don't bother), pertinent (please don't go off-topic), and respectful (to the author, to the other readers, and to the subject of the post). If you can't do that, your comment will not be posted.

If you haven't already, please read the Comment Policy in its entirety.