There are churches in America who regularly move into a new locale, set up a “site” complete with video screen, eight or nine pastors, an array of religious goods and services, a massive children’s ministry, a spectacular worship band, and then either beam in or present live their celebrity pastor for the opening Sunday. Because there are a couple hundred fans of the celebrity pastor already in the area, the church starts out with several hundred appearing the first Sunday.
Often, on that first Sunday, the celebrity pastor will laud the efforts of this new site to bring the gospel to this neighborhood. He will perhaps even say something like, “No church preaches the Bible more faithfully in this community like this church will do.” (I know of situations in greater Chicagoland where this actually has taken place.) But what we discover over the ensuing weeks is that this church now attracts hundreds more attenders from the surrounding smaller, less spectacular churches. The new “site” mushrooms to a thousand attenders in a matter of months, filled with people from other churches. These large churches call this “church planting,” as if they are engaging non-Christians and their neighborhoods for the gospel.
The next step is even more insidious, in my opinion. Some of the smaller locally engaged community churches of say 300 people have now lost half their congregation to the new “site.” They now struggle to pay their bills. The large church behind the “site” now contacts that church and says, “We’ve heard of your struggles. Perhaps we can help?” They then offer to come in, assume the mortgage and other bills, share the church facilities and help with various needs. Within months, however, they have “pac-manned” the church. The properties have all been assumed by the video church (with accrued equity). The leadership has all been replaced. The new sign out front now boasts “the brand” of the megachurch that these sites all are part of.
My question is, is this Kingdom building or empire building? I see these tactics doing three things specifically that work against the Kingdom.
1. This Destroys Community. By taking people out of local community churches that are smaller to more convenient larger churches, we individualize the church and consumerize the church. It is a function of the bigger video church that the focus is upon the teaching delivered and the various religious services offered. Community engagement moves down the pecking order and now becomes a program of the church. Getting to know and be present with each other as a congregation is diminished. This in turn diminishes the wherewithal for a church to present to its neighbors and neighborhood. It segregates Christians into more narrow-minded defensive enclaves trained to adhere to one very charismatic, often authoritarian, pastor’s teaching. This works against engaging the world for Christ and His Kingdom.
2. This Encourages Christianity as a Spectator Sport. This is the flipside of #1. Big churches take less participation and offer more paid-for services. Small community churches require participation to survive. It is a part of what church is. Given the option, I believe less mature, more busy Christians will be lured to the former. Before they even have a chance to be in a community of mutual life and discipleship, they are warehoused into a more spectator-ized Christianity. This works against engaging the world for Christ and His Kingdom..
3. This Decontextualizes Christianity and Insulates It All the More From Mission. Anytime you import a celebrity pastor from even 30 miles away (never mind two hundred miles away) you are in essence decontextualizing church. This takes place, for example, in preaching. Yes, teaching the basics of the Bible can span across cultural contexts. But when it comes to actually proclaiming gospel over the specific circumstances in a local community—the needs and dynamics of a community’s life in context—this kind of proclamation must be done locally with a preacher who lives in and among. When this is lost, we lose the ability to fund imagination for mission through proclaiming gospel. Instead, the church attracts people who already agree with the celebrity preacher and his or her view on hot topics. This dynamic separates a church from its context as opposed to engaging it. These same dynamics happen when leadership is centralized in a place detached from the context of its various multisites.
For all these reasons, then, I believe church cannibalism is a bad thing for the Kingdom. Why then is there so little discussion of these pac-man tactics? Why no accountability within these megastructures for this kind of activity? Where are the elders and directing boards, and what are they thinking when such tactics are carried out again and again? (I’ve even heard one of these pastors acclaimed for the gift of real-estate acquisition). I agree there will be times when old churches need to die and congregational life renovated. I believe there are times when fresh works of the Kingdom need to be birthed amidst other churches. But this should be done with care and dialogue and cooperation, not hostile merger-and-acquisition tactics. And so I believe the tactics described above work against the Kingdom of God and should be called out. But I hear nothing? Should they be called out? At least questioned? Do you know any churches that have done this? What do you think? Help me out here, please?