Outsourcing the Message: Fragmenting or Unifying?

Church of the Resurrection and Mark Driscoll

Recently, Hacking Christianity’s favorite Mark Driscoll instructed the media to no longer refer to his church’s multiple campuses as…oops…campuses. Instead, they are to be called churches. Here’s one of their pastors Jamie Munson explaining:

During our June meeting, the Mars Hill Board of Directors agreed to replace “Mars Hill campuses” with “Mars Hill churches.” This is more than a shift in semantics…Referring to our locations as churches rather than campuses helps articulate our theology (what we believe about God and his Word), our ecclesiology (what we believe about church), our ministry, and our mission.

In other words, instead of describing Mars Hill as “one church, many locations, one message” they now refer to them as “many churches, many locations, one message.” One message is broadcast to many sites, but each site should be seen as its own church even though the most distinctive part of it being a church is the same across the board.

But here’s the question: is a local congregation its own church if its sermon is outsourced to an outside entity?

Like most Wal-Mart or Franchise Churches (discussed on this blog previously), video broadcast allows the local parishes to have local pastors or “lead pastors” with local laity…but the Sunday message is most-often given over to the mothership church.  This phenomenon is not limited to churches that expand their roots, it also encompasses churches that absorb other churches or take over the message at other churches.

Andrew Conard recently posted on his blog that Church of the Resurrection, the largest UMC church in America, was looking for a few good men, er, a few student or lay pastors who would be willing to hand over their sermon time to Resurrection. He writes:

I am on a strategic project team at Resurrection that is looking for three small churches, currently led by lay speakers, local pastors, or student local pastors, who would be interested in testing a new model for ministry – these churches would, for one year, become a part of a multi-point circuit with Resurrection. The aim is to see what we might do together to strengthen small churches. Resurrection would provide 36 weeks of sermons via video, coaching, and other resources.

Senior Pastor Adam Hamilton’s brief writeup is similar:

There are over 15,000 United Methodist Churches with less than 50 people in worship each week. Many are vital and vibrant faith churches; others are struggling. We’ve wondered what might happen if large churches partner with smaller churches in a model that looks something like what happens with our campuses, though, under this new model, each smaller church remains its own congregation. We would provide coaching, marketing resources; training and Resurrection’s sermons would be used in these churches via video 75% of the time. We’re testing this with three churches in the next year. If it is successful, we’ll offer this model to other large and small churches to look at creating similar partnerships called “circuits.”

My comment (unresponded to as of this writing) is thus:

  • Firstly, I’m personally opposed to franchising a particular church and for local churches to cede their message to people outside their community. I will watch with interest the ways how COR’s partner churches reflect on this experience.
  • Secondly, with franchised churches (at least the half-dozen case studies I’ve seen) the predominant number of people you get are not converts but disenfranchised Christians from other churches. So I wonder what CoR’s goal is in offering a franchise to a local church?
  • Finally, I’m particularly shocked at an outright desire to “take over” the message of student, local, and lay pastors…the ones most likely to need coaching, yes, but also the most vulnerable to the temptation to cede the message. I’m honestly concerned at why CoR is targeting not troubled churches but vulnerable pastors?

Having said all that, I don’t expect Rev. Conard to respond, given that he’s leaving his oversight of this project to go to Resurrection West this week (congrats by the way!), but these are still relevant questions, particularly why they are focusing on churches without full clergy at them. Odd.

Regardless, the rising phenomenon now is to outsource the message of a local church to outsiders so that clergy can focus on other aspects of ministry. We’ve talked about this before in a previous blog conversation, which included an intern and a staff person at CoR, so read more there.

But the question still remains: if the Gospel of Jesus Christ is preached from afar, not informed by the receiver, is that congregation an individual church or is it an extension of a mother church? If the sermons come from the top-down and community comes from the bottom-up, are they their own churches or the same church in different contexts?


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  1. Ed Trimmer says

    I work in a UM district that has appro. 88 churches; 64 charges and only 6 elders in the district. So one of the questions that we have, like Adam Hamilton, is how do we provide appropriate pastoral oversight and leadership in msot of these very small churches? A model we are talking about (not put in use yet) is to have the “county seat” churches served by elders, usually with other full-time staff as well, help resource and provide oversight to the several small (under 30 in worship) churches that are willing to partner together. Trying to find a model of co-operative ministry and not competitive ministry.

    This may be why some of us will watch what happens with CoR with interest.

  2. Myra Vaughn says

    I don’t want to go to a church with a video pastor. I want a pastor who lives in, and understands the climate of my community. I want a pastor I can talk to after the service is over if I want to discuss his message. I want to be in community with the shepherd who is feeding us – the one who is preaching. I don’t want “take out.” So, as one who has served in the Methodist Church for several years and others for nearly 25, I will not be drawn to anything like the CoR model. The term marketing doesn’t belong in the church. I’m old fashioned maybe, but I still think the best marketing a church has is the people – walking billboards. I understand helping out the little churches, but perhaps the bishop in each district should oversee the little churches in a way where they send out people to fill the local pulpits. If Adam Hamilton wants to do this all for free I don’t have as much of a problem with it. However, if it’s another money make I say, “Run!” I’ve heard Adam teach and preach and he’s good at what he does. However, there are many, many men and women with the gifts and graces to preach and teach in the local church – some aren’t even ordained! Gasp! Thank you for the opportunity to say just a little bit.

  3. Tom says

    This seems to be the trending model. I think it’s a positive move, it seems that the local pastor still has significant oversight, leadership, and interpretive responsibilities, while at the same time providing a quality message. Is it that much different than leading Disciple Bible Study? or listening to a podcast later? The local pastor can then focus truly training disciples.

    The big question is can one consecrate the elements remotely or from a previously made video tape? Hmmmmm???



  4. says

    John Meunier said, in part, “my appointment is to provide for order, word, and sacrament at the church I serve. Plugging in an Adam Hamilton video 3 out of 4 weeks says I’m not really fit for one of my primary tasks. It also hands over theological discernment to Hamilton and his staff.”

    As a full time local pastor serving a 2 point charge, I agree with John’s statement. If the dCOM and/or my DS feel that I am incapable of performing the duties to which I have been called and licensed, then let them deny my annual license. The congregations that I serve deserve more than a canned sermon… even from an exceptional preacher like Adam Hamilton.

  5. says

    When I was in seminary and taking preaching classes (which was one of my biggest anxieties) we talked about the ways that knowing the community to whom you are preaching is important to know. Granted, there may be many similiarities between CoR’s main campus congregation and many other congregations of smaller size, but it seems to me that a localized pastor with more intimate knowledge of the people in the pews would be able to use specific illustrations that would make the overall message that much more applicable and relatable. Whether the “mothership” preacher is good or not isn’t the point – preaching is part of the pastor’s role and a tool for them to us in the care of the congregation. Often (for better or worse, right or wrong) it’s the largest part of a relationship with a congregant. Will these pastors have knowledge of what’s in the sermon ahead of time where they can taylor it to the local church with other parts of the service? Do they get to opt-in or out as they see fit? If there’s an incident in the local community that needs to be addressed, I would hope they would have some ability to write a poignant sermon that helps the community process and deal with it in a spiritually healthy way.

    The other part of this that bugs me is that there’s an assumption from the larger churches that they are large because they are doing something right and the small churches aren’t. Isn’t it gracious of them to want to bestow their greatness upon others? UGH! There are reasons for small churches being small, but I find it hard to believe that preaching is the root of the problem. I do like the idea of mentoring and sharing resources (although I’m curiuos about what kind of marketing resources will perform well in wealthy, suburban Johnson County, KS and small towns in rural areas) and think there could be some great ideas that come out of this for those churches willing to work together and share some of those costs or responsibilities. I’ll be watching to see how this develops too…

    On another note, I get to visit lots of different churches through my work with Habitat for Humanity Kansas City and I recently went to a large nondenom church start meeting in a local high school. They have a second campus at another high school in the area and were hosting a team of people from a similiar kind of church in Wichita that is getting ready to set up a second campus. They were studying different churches here in the KC area to see how they’ve done it and learn what they liked and didn’t want to repeat. Some of them had gone to COR campuses (several different ones) and I overheard some of their conversation while I was sitting at my Habitat table in the lobby. Most of it related to logistics and A/V equipment, but not all of it. I found it fascinating.

    • UMTommy says

      I’m In one of those churches that Adam Hamilton preaches to through DVD’s. I don’t like it at all. I long for the days of a pastor alone. We have gone from being a conservative church to a progressive one. Pray for each and every one of us, that we may not have to endure this much longer. Thank you, Tommy

  6. says

    Wow, my first thought is that if I were a student pastor I would leap at this option! I remember how hard it was to craft my monthly sermon during my field education time – on top of my studies – and I wasn’t even the one primarily responsible for pastoral care! I can’t imagine what it would have been like to preach weekly during that time.

    Why is it so bad to allow a pastor to take their time and grow into the preaching role without expecting them to instantly be able to manage it all while they’re in seminary? Is that student pastor really so in touch with the congregation in a way that a video sermon would miss? The student pastor would still lead prayer and worship, which provides the personal pastoral care people are seeking.

    I imagine that if there was some tragic event in the life of that local congregation then the student pastor would use their discretion and not show the pre-planned sermon if a situation needed to be immediately dealt with from the pulpit.

    Having the preacher be part of the context is important, but is not the be-all end-all of quality sermons – otherwise how could we ever have a guest preacher at all?

    Two years ago our church was part of the “One Prayer” sermon series (http://2009.oneprayer.com/). Each week pastors around the country preached a sermon related to what their “one prayer” for the church would be. The Senior Pastor and I each preached a sermon and we showed three weeks of videos. While he and I were able to speak more specifically about our local church, the pastors on the screen still connected to what holds us together as a greater church and spoke to our local context through that lens.

    Maybe I’m not as offended by video sermons because we have a service that runs in our fellowship hall that is on a 5 minute delay from the sanctuary and while they have a band and worship leaders in the fellowship hall the sermon is always on the screen in the “Coffeehouse” service. People have a choice to attend worship with the preacher in person or on video and I like offering them options because we attract different crowds to those services.

    • Carolyn says

      I think that the perception of burden on student local pastors is all about how they themselves perceive it. I have a friend who was a student local pastor in his senior year of college and he loved every minute of it. He wrote a thesis that year too! It might be a bit different in seminary because of the heavier workload, more pressure to perform well, ect. I’m just saying that not all pastors felt it was jarring to suddenly start preaching each week. To the contrary, my friend found it joyful and invigorating.

  7. Anonymous says

    Over 1 year into the Blue Springs experiment. There have been a few really good video sermons. There have been some true snoozers too. The local pastor and her husband are great, but the entire service is tightly scripted and there is way too much music, even during “silent” prayer time. Some of the local sermons are organic (and they are great!), but sometimes they are just as scripted as the video version. There is rarely, if ever, variance from the script, even when circumstances seem to warrant it. The overriding focus seems to be more growth.

    I think Pastor Hamilton is a genuine person, but there seems to be a multitude whose mortgages depend upon perpetuating growth of the church – it seems very corporate. I take Pastor Hamilton at his word when he pleads with people not to worship him, but they still do. It seems as if the church is too big to fail without him.

    I don’t want to be a part of a church like this. I feel like I am part of a disconnected mass – and yes, I have and am doing small group. More than a few people say “just ignore the size of the church or its associated issues” (like the ones mentioned above). I would leave it in a second, but a portion of my family members are “hooked.” For now, the artificial religious experience with COR will continue. I feel like I am caught in a trap.

    I am just one person and don’t matter much in the big picture, but I do feel for those tempted to sign on to the COR agenda. Stay strong and be yourselves.

  8. UMTommy says

    Please pray for our church. We have Adam Hamilton as our “DVD” pastor. I don’t like it and I pray
    it ends soon. If it doesn’t, I fear I may have to leave my church. That would break my heart. Adam doesn’t believe the Holy Bible is inerrant. We were a conservative/moderate church before.

  9. says

    This is a really great pingback from Rev. Thomas. Why not outsource the administrative and infrastructure side of ministry to the professionals and not the message. It’s less glamorous but what servant ministry isn’t?

  10. nittanyrev says

    I think that’s a great idea, and one that I’ve seen work even with a very much smaller mothership church. Outsource administration, office equipment, and the like. Perhaps other staff could be shared. However, people choose to go to small congregations precisely because they don’t want the media possibilities afforded by a mega church. A visiting preacher by video occasionally, maybe, but not every week!


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