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The “Sins” of Mars Hill—What Have We Learned?

It’s been a while since Mark Driscoll’s stepping down from Mars Hill Seattle church was announced and the dissolving of its central organization. So perhaps now, after all the Twitter fire has died down, we might ponder the meaning of these events for what it means for church life in N. America, specifically, the model of organization known as Multisite Video Venue.

Over the past 15 years, the Multisite Video Venue church ‘model’ (MSVV) has become in vogue among larger churches in America. There are different versions of it. Some churches share the same mission statement, doctrinal statement, approach to worship and preaching, and yet give independent status to each of its venues. Each site has its own pastor. Other multisite churches set up their sites based on a video screen in which the teaching of the preaching pastor is piped into an auditorium. The influence of this single pastor’s teaching ministry is what gathers people. These multisite venues then are set up to localize the gathering of people who drive for miles to “hear” this pastor. Instead of driving 20-30 miles, the church figures it’s better to set up a site where the same preacher can be heard via video screen more locally. People can gather to hear the same teaching and be provided the rest of the religious goods and services via the closer more local venue. This is what I refer to as MSVV—the Multisite Video Venue church ‘model.’

MSVV has become a popular model of organizing for megachurches that want to continue to expand. And yet I contend ( and have contended for years) this form of organizing is prone to two “sins” that work against presence and mission in a local community. I want to be careful NOT to over-generalize because I know of multisite churches who vigorously work to overcome these two sins. But to me, if you examine the culture of many multisite-video-venue churches, these are the two stunningly repeatable sins that occur regularly within them. If one elects to become part of, or a leader in, a MSVV church, I would urge that person to vigilant in discerning these two sins creeping into the organization of the church. Here are the two sins as I see them …

SIN #1—Multisite Video Venue (MSVV) is prone to decontextualization. When one franchises either a teacher or a church model based on one location and transfers it en toto to another location, one has in essence disregarded the local context, its culture, and instead assumes that who we are and what we say as a church applies to you with no dialogue or presence needed. It asks people to come to me on our terms. We have what you need. It is a profound act of colonialism. The result is that this church most often will “attract” people of like ilk who already believe the same things and use the same language to gather in an homogenous group. This group cannot help getting enclosed and even defensive because it did not start with people in local context, it started with what it already knew and was comfortable with. When this happens, this church has become incapable of mission. It becomes a defensive enclave. This is why decontextualization is sin# 1 of video venue.

SIN#2—Multisite Video Venue (MSVV) is prone to hierarchical organization. It is, after all, built on the premise of centralized organization. It in essence makes decisions and funnels funds and other means of power from the center out. Even worse, many video venue churches, that pipe in the teaching of one powerful pastor personality, tend to hierarchilize this authority around one man (rarely a woman). The organization becomes centered and ordered toward the authority in this one man. Not only is such a system prone to enormous abuse, but this stunningly always works against mission. Because decisions are made by this one person, authority is extracted out of the local contexts and driven by the one vision and message of this one man. And yet this one person cannot possibly understand the local contextual issues in every one of the video venues. This is why preaching tends to devolve from proclamation over the issues and problems of people’s lives and systems (in their local context), to generic teaching about how to live a better Christian life. This kind of teaching always lends itself to building up existing Christians (not entirely a bad thing) as opposed to challenging people and bringing hope in the midst of mission. But, even worse, extracting authority from the local centers into the hands of a central committee/pastor always stunts the development of authority and ministry from growing organically in the locales of its own people.

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David Fitch is a bi-vocational pastor at Life on the Vine and the B.R. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary.