This series looks at four techniques of the most successful United Methodist churches in America. While the techniques could benefit any church, they have serious dark sides. A dystopian future could await United Methodism if these techniques become widespread.
01: Vulture Churches | 02: Franchise Churches | 03: Production Churches | 04: Caste Churches
In the United Methodist Church, there are churches and then there are vital churches–churches who have been defined as having the necessary qualities to be strong and vibrant (there’s 16 drivers in all). Over and over again in seminars and books, we are encouraged to emulate these successful churches and use their techniques in our ministry contexts. However, when one looks at these vital churches and the megachurches in the United Methodist Church, they also have in common four other techniques which are, in our opinion, “playing with fire.”
- Multi-site: they worship in multiple locations throughout a community or region.
- Piped message: they export their sermons and sometimes entire worship services to multiple locations.
- Sermon series: they have 4-8 week sermon series, which in some cases become book deals or curriculum.
- One Magnetic Personality: these churches are ran by one well-educated and charismatic clergy, who is often a man.
In this series, we will look at these four techniques and examine the dark sides of these techniques and the dystopian future that might emerge if these become more commonplace without serious reflection and persistent accountability.
From Multi-site to Vulture Churches
It is no secret that this blog is cautious about multi-site churches. For years we’ve called them Wal-mart churches, fearful of the dark sides of what might happen if the big church in town buys out the small churches in town. You can click those links to read more.
But it wasn’t until last week that I was given one of the most egregious examples yet of why multi-site is a temptation that is best tread lightly.
Big Shiny Church is a large church in a metropolitan area of the South Central jurisdiction and it had an interest in a second location in a different part of the city. Big Shiny Church started not looking for spaces to rent, but instead focused on which shrinking United Methodist church they could take over. On at least two occasions, their Associate pastor snuck into a church without the pastor’s knowledge and took pictures, measurements, and discussion with a willing laity about taking over the parish.
At one of the churches, the Associate was caught in the act by a UMW group (love those feisty ladies!) and his response was
“Why wouldn’t you want to be part of Big Shiny Church? You would just get an old gray-hair pastor otherwise.”
– Associate Pastor of Big Shiny Church
The chain of command was activated: the current pastor of that church called the District Superintendent, who called the Bishop. The pastor of the Big Shiny Church called the smaller church pastor and, incensed that the Bishop had been called, said that as punishment they were “taking that smaller church off the table of considerations of partnership.” They ultimately went with another local church who recently announced their partnership as a multi-site location for Big Shiny Church.
So in summary, a large congregation with means was seeking out which United Methodist churches were vulnerable to takeover or “partnership” with or without the small church pastor’s consent…all in the name of going multi-site.
It reminds me of Pretty Woman, a 1990 film starring Richard Gere as a vulture capitalist. He had a big company with lots of money and would buy out vulnerable companies using money and political leverage. And my fear is that if megachurches and large churches with personality and means start using those to take over failing churches and replace their worship experience with Big Shiny Church brand. The only reason we even knew this was taking place was because of the sharp eyes of a United Methodist Women’s group–always the group to be in good graces with–and who knows how many other sites Big Shiny Church visited.
The Dystopian Future of Vulture Churches
I don’t blame Big Shiny Church, really. This model of growth of “partnering” with shrinking churches has Church of the Resurrection, Ginghamsburg, Grace Florida, and other large UM congregations as the model. Back in 2010, I wrote about “What if Small Churches Sell Out to Large Churches” and the fears remain the same today. If the megachurches and large United Methodist congregations start looking to take over other sites and offer their worship experience in new areas, then I fear the following might happen:
- Large churches will cease support for small churches in the hopes that they would fold and their properties go up for sale. Or they will give tacit “support” and then emerge as a benefactor when things get bad. If the consumerism mentality takes over a church growth model, I am wary of human sin taking over as well.
- Small churches will be willing to sell out to have a better chance of success. With our growing focus on metrics, the temptation to give in and sell out to get better numbers may be more than local churches can resist.
- Connectionalism takes a hit as those local churches would fall under the authority of the megachurch, not the district. Leadership at those sites could be appointed positions or they could be hired hands without accountability or itinerancy to the larger UMC.
Ultimately, this is a question of “What effect does Consumerism have on church growth models?” The most mind-numbing of all this is what the Associate of Big Shiny Church said “who wouldn’t want to be part of Big Shiny Church?” Such a statement reeks of “we’ve got a great product that everyone wants, no matter their situation.” Church differences, regional variances, cultural expectations are all thrown out the window because since it works in one area, it will work there. Consumerism plain and simple.
I am fearful of the dystopian future where large churches get bigger and multi-site and small churches become like the mom-and-pop stores in the face of Wal-mart and are unable to compete with the Big Shiny Churches. The onus for avoiding this dystopia is on the large churches doing the hard work of avoiding a consumeristic mentality in their strategy and not using tactics like spying and sneaking around to achieve their goals. The ends do not justify the means.
- Can large churches legitimately partner with smaller congregations if their intent is takeover? Or should they be up-front of their desires? Would it affect a smaller church if they knew they were in takeover talks with the larger church?
- If in our dystopian future, what is the value of smaller churches in the face of multi-site streamed high-quality worship services?
This is a four-part series, next is on the effect of Piped-in worship and preaching. See you then.
Thoughts? Thanks for your comments, both here and on Facebook.(Photo credit: “Abandoned Church” by Ben Salter, Creative Commons share on Flickr)