Franchise Churches; Disenfranchised Christians

A few months back, to much fanfare, Lifechurch.tv launched a free video teaching website which could beam preachers and teachers’ videos directly into your living room to be digested alone or with a small group.  The expressed purposes of the VideoTeaching.com website were fourfold but one in particular stood out to me:

Develop your ministry.
You might be bi-vocational or maybe you’re planting a church. Either way, video teaching allows you put more energy into reaching your community by freeing you from weekly message preparation.

In other words, by replacing the custom message crafted by a church leader with a cookie-cutter one (although doubtless a great cookie), then church is good.  It’s ok if the church leadership is busy…just offer them a great message from a far-away pastor who knows exactly what you need.

I know I’m being snarky, but in all seriousness, I worry about reliance on broadcast to replace the personal nature of pastoral ministry.  It’s like people are coming for a meal and get the same thing wherever they go.  That’s the beauty of fast food franchises like McDonalds: you get the exact same food wherever you go.  It is comforting, but its not that great for you.

I fear this is the beginning of franchise churches: ones that offer the same stump message regardless of who is receiving it.  I get annoyed by this from preachers on a preaching circuit too.  As much as I like Shane Clayborne and Tony Campolo, in most of their preaching engagements they rely on the same schtick.  It’s a good sermon, it inspires the soul, but it gets repetitive if you’ve seen them twice.

Going along with this is a recent blog series by Rev. Andrew Conard on Micro-Churches and what he sees as the future of the UMC (read them here).  His posts are insightful and I fully agree with his points, but his fourth post relies on the same approach that LifeChurch.tv is using: broadcast worship and teaching to small groups which then reflect on the homogeneous material.  A snippet from his fourth post supports this concept:
…Utilizing a live stream of worship could enable existing congregations to begin another worship service with a small amount of resource commitment.

I love the rest of Andrew’s posts, but this next-to-last one rubbed me the wrong way.  It’s one thing to encourage bottom-up groups (as I mused about in What the Church Can Learn from Wikipedia); it’s another to have bottom-up meetings with a top-down message crafted by a person thrice or more removed from their situation.  While Andrew undoubtedly was focusing on a single church adding another service, which is a more personal connection that I applaud, the application of that approach leads to a slippery slope towards franchise churches that get the same message beamed to them every week from on high.

I guess I’m struggling with how grassroots churches can work with a top-down broadcast medium.  I worry that if more and more churches turn to the ease of boxed videos like VideoTeaching.com, if more and more mega-churches create tentacles like WalMart churches, then Christianity becomes a franchise and christians seeking room to grow become disenfranchised.

While one can argue that preaching and even the bible are top-down broadcast mediums, they are understood as more personal than a third party’s opinion.  Even guest preachers, if they are good, are prepped beforehand by the church’s pastor or laity on their congregation’s struggles.  And if you think convincing a board on a local church to try a new ministry is hard, try doing it to a corporate church board.

This is one of those posts where I don’t have a solution at the end.  I’m just worried for the future when ease of use of homogenous materials becomes seductive, when small groups wrestle with sermons thrice-removed from their context, and when eight churches in an area are plants from one mega-church.  If it has happened to food chains, banks, and other industries, we must be mindful of it happening to churches too.  We don’t need more homogenous outreach…it works and is effective (like franchises), but I fear on a large scale that franchised outreach leads to more disenfranchised Christians than it inspires.

Thoughts?

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Comments

  1. gavin richardson says

    i basically changed sites immediately when i realized that this was a stock site of lifechurch sermon stuff. they do some cool things, but i wasn't overly impressed with the free stuff.

    the idea that there is not the availability of good theological preaching and that we need to pipe in craig or other lifechurch preachers on a regular basis to me is not pastoral in any fashion.

    the idea of streaming ones services are to me, not unique in any fashion. its basically taking the tv format to make it available for tv on web.. but it can be so much more. reminds me of an interview with mashall mcluhan talking about the first televised presidential debate, he dogged them for basically using the old medium on a new platform…

    i've given out solution ideas before, but too tired to rehash them today.

  2. Ben Simpson says

    Great post. And I happen to think that you are right. In the past two weeks my thoughts have returned to the question, "How will church history regard our time?", particularly in regard to the "big business" style that has dominated our ecclesiology in recent years. Andrew is a friend of mine, and I happen to know that he is wrestling with some of the questions you have posed. He and I have talked at length as to how these web-based technologies and the church-leadership strategies they inspire pose challenges to our conception of the incarnation, and do have limitations in how the saints are equipped for ministry.

    Keep pressing. I'm on record as being highly critical of these strategies, and I plan to keep it up.

  3. Creed Pogue says

    Can we agree that there are not currently 25,000 outstanding proclaimers and interpreters of God's Word in the pulpits of our UM churches?

    If there are churches that would benefit from Adam Hamilton's or Tyrone Gordon's preaching, why wouldn't we facilitate that? Or being able to pick and choose messages from week to week?

    That's not McDonald's, that's doing the best we can for each church.

  4. Carolyn says

    As usual, I disagree with Creed. But the devil's advocate in me has to add that circuit preaching is what JW himself set up… in fact, when the churches didn't have preacher in the pulpit, a church elder was supposed to read a JW sermon.

    I think that current seminary training that encourages pastors to theologically interact with their churches' situations comes out of our position as affluent Americans. We can afford to have a resident pastor/ theologian in every church, so we expect the benefits of having one. We don't remember that it's a luxury.

    Still, I think Adam Hamilton is barf-worthy. Even if it is a luxury, I'm not ashamed to say that I would be disappointed if my local church pastor were replaced by him. I love my pastors and even though I know they both have faults, I overlook them because they genuinely care about me and about supporting the young people in my church.

  5. Creed Pogue says

    Carolyn, I don't know anything about you so it is difficult to discern which are differences of perspective and which are differences of philosophy.

    I don't believe that Andrew Conard is advocating that all new churches or existing churches use livestreaming at whatever level of interactivity is doable.

    However, this is a viable option for small churches that want to remain open but cannot afford a full-time elder in full connection.

    You may not like Adam Hamilton and that is fine. But, if it works for others then why deny that option to them?

  6. Mark says

    Greetings!
    I'd like to bring one proposal to the table on a potential point of view. In a place that may have very limited resources, the video teaching could enable the churchplanterbivocationalcouldbehisorherfirsttimetobeapastor to use video teaching to spend more time building relationships rather than fretting over if hisorher sermon will impress or inspire someone.

    Then as they have built some foundational relationships and maybe birthed sermons, they start to use the video teaching intermittently, slowly building on their skill to write more and more. The daunting task of sermon writing every week as a beginner while trying to provide for their family, build relationships, manage anything church related, learn new speaking skills, reach out to the community.. I could go on..could and would lead to burn out.

    Video teaching could allow those individuals the freedom to put their primary focus on the people rather than the speaking. I'm going to venture to say the people interactions and focus is far more reaching and inspiring than any sermon given.

    I hope we can as the church continue to have honest and open conversations about any changes, ideas, etc. Definitely not negating anything already said, just would like to add something that I know is working in many small churches around the globe by using video teaching.

    God Bless you all!

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