As the American church struggles to maintain its place in contemporary society, some observers point with optimism to the rise of the multi-site church.
“It’s one very encouraging bright spot,” they say. “This is what will save the church in America.”
I’m not so sure.
Borrowing from the American business franchise model, the multi-site concept begins with an ambitious pastor who attracts a weekly crowd in one location. Then he (almost always a guy) starts new locations, copying the essence of the first location. McChurch.
Though each congregation may have its own unique members, demographics, pastoral staff, musicians, and architectural feel, there’s one thing this franchise model insists must be uniform across the system. The guy.
Each location may be free to handle its own greetings, music, sacraments, announcements, and so on. But when it comes to the sermon time, that’s reserved for only one individual–the guy. Since he can’t physically run around to all the locations simultaneously, he uses technology to beam his image and personality to high-definition screens all over the territory.
Currently, the model seems to be working in many places. People are gathering in various locations, worshiping with friends, and watching the televised image of a guy they’ll never meet.
The model is so attractive that I often now hear young church planters include ambitious multi-site plans in their strategy–before they ever enlist their first member in their first church.
So is this the organizational iteration that will save the church? In 20 years will we all be sitting in large halls watching one of a handful of famous guys deliver a televised speech, beamed from the headquarters somewhere behind the curtain?
Scalability and Sustainability
Since we’re looking at the franchise model, experts note that a growing organization needs a couple of key things: scalability and sustainability. The multi-site church strategy arose out of a perceived need and desire to expand–to be scalable. Initially, growing churches attempted to be scalable by adding worship service times, and then by building ever-larger auditoriums. Ultimately, those strategies could not provide endless scalability. Thus, multiple sites. That part of the equation makes sense. It’s the same strategy that denominations used successfully to grow their overall membership.
But it’s the other thing–sustainability–that poses some eventual problems for the church multi-site model. It’s because the model relies on an unsustainable product–the guy.
The televised guy is unsustainable for several reasons. Firstly, the public has already demonstrated its unsustained interest in the medium itself–a perpetual diet of 30 minutes of televised talking head. That static format (long-form televised lecture) has not been sustainable in entertainment, news, or business. It also lost its luster the last time it was tried in the religious realm–with the televangelists.
Multi-site church strategies starring the guy on the screen are simply another variant of televangelism. With all of the attached unsustainable encumberances. What happens when the guy dies? Or decides to move away? Or changes careers? Or relinquishes his faith? He–and thus his personality-driven network of multi-sites–is not sustainable.
And the multi-site pastor shares another, more unseemly, danger with the old televangelists–pride. As adoring flocks grow, those in the spotlight often become more removed, isolated, protected, unaccountable, and susceptible to temptation. The multi-site guy may become convinced that the most compelling factor that has attracted the crowds across the locations is the face of the franchise–his. Pride and fame do not mix well with sustainable ministry.
Preacher fame and ubiquity can also be toxic to those who view the guy on the big screen. They can become star-struck and attach more adulation to the guy on the screen than the Guy in the Book.
Fame corrodes even the most well-intentioned. Some have said, “Well, that’s not going to happen to me. I know how to keep myself in check.” But even that statement is evidence of a certain hubris.
The dangers of ministerial pride are not new. The disciples argued about who was the greatest among them. Jesus cautioned them about their pride: “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” That doesn’t sound much like aspiring to be the screen star of a chain of churches.
So, will the multi-site model overcome these pitfalls and become the new norm for the long haul?
Do What Works
The basic thinking behind the model has promise: Find what works and duplicate it in many locations. And, it’s wise to be good stewards of creative development. It does make sense to develop message content centrally and distribute it widely. But not through a guy’s televised lectures.
Instead, tell stories and move people through wise use of media. For example, a friend recently predicted that in the coming years we’ll see big-budget half-hour movies produced for weekly distribution through churches. These compelling productions could replace the televised or live lecture-style sermon.
This type of multi-church expansion will require different kinds of leaders–those whose genuine humility doesn’t crave the spotlight. Instead, these leaders will be relational architects, artfully bringing people together, encouraging relationships, and planting people for service in the Kingdom.
That kind of multi-site strategy might intrigue me.