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, meaning 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 my 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 run 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 Piped Messages to Franchise Churches
The number one purveyer of piped messages (sermons preached in one space and delivered via Satellite or DVD to multiple locations) is LifeChurch.tv, a non-denominational church in many locations across Oklahoma, Texas, Florida, New York, and Tennessee. Pastor Craig Groeschel is a former Methodist, in fact, whose vision of a church in many locations was scoffed at by his professors and mentors (short-sighted, obviously).
The Methodist version of Lifechurch is Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City, headed by Rev. Adam Hamilton. It has multiple locations. Hamilton mostly preaches at one location and then pipes the messages to the others. It is highly successful and his sermons have been made into many curriculum resources that churches everywhere have benefitted from.
Three years ago, I wrote about Church of the Resurrection starting another campus by entering into partnership with a struggling UMC in Blue Springs. My fear at the time was that that the congregation would allow the entirety of their sermon message to be created by outsiders and not allow the local pastor to do theologizing in the sermon form. Many people brought up similar concerns in the comments.
Three years later, some of our fears have come true. The campus pastor of Resurrection Blue Springs has not preached at all in 2013 (while campus pastors from the other two church sites have preached at their campuses and even at Blue Springs via videocast). While that may not be in her job description, my personal fear was that the person with the most day-to-day conversations with the people of Blue Springs is not doing the theologizing with them in the context of the sermon.
Like a waterdrop seeking the path of least resistance, piped messages offer the most simple way for churches to go multi-site and outsource their messaging to a proven entity. This model is catching on: piped messages are proving to be an easy way to create new locations in an urban context. Why drive across town when you can go to the closer location to you and sit with people who you see at your favorite espresso stand?
In short, multi-site and piped messages make it easy to create a franchise within a denomination: a whole slew of Hamilton, Slaughter, or Acevedo-focused churches (though Acevedo doesn’t use piped messages in his multiple sites…yet). A franchise that no Annual Conference votes on, and that no Bishop can have full control over.
The Dystopian Future of Franchise Churches
I admit I can see the temptation to do piped messages. I’m a clergyperson who crafts worship, curriculum, and ministry every week and I wonder how I would respond if we did this. If we gave over our worship time to a corporate church (in whole or part), then look at the benefits:
- I could spend more time doing discipleship ministries (my primary interest) and less time preaching/leading worship. More time = more effective.
- The preaching would be less personal in message but more tightly crafted by fantastic worship leaders.
- People already watch TV all the time, they can clearly
be mezmorized byhandle a streamed message.
- The parish can accept ministers with more gifts in discipleship/congregational growth (likely strengths of Blue Springs campus pastor) rather than simply great preachers/worship leaders.
So yes, I can see the temptation to do this. The benefits are clear. But the utopia is not my concern today. The dystopian future for me has the following difficulties:
- Outsourcing the message is the one thing that separates the church from the world: worship of Jesus Christ. Outsourcing the theological task just doesn’t seem right to me, no matter how great the product is you are buying. I think the people who are living out their life together should do the theologizing, not outsiders.
- I can see more denominational splintering as multiple churches align themselves with various charismatic preachers, so in one town you have the Adam Hamilton UM church and the Slaughter UM church and so on. These sort of alliances can only spell more schizmatic force and the temptation to influence the political process. John Meunier wrote yesterday about another local church that is leaving United Methodism over refusing the itinerant system–how much more will such franchises exacerbate it?
- Further marginalization of ethnic preachers and women. Why have the guy who talks funny or the woman who wears those earrings when you could have a white male preacher in a bottle? Let’s face it: the super-majority of megachurches have white male pastors! While Resurrection has female campus ministers to offer worship leadership, I could see this happen as congregations vote to marginalize their pastors’ leadership and ability to craft worship.
Are multi-site churches the future and effective? I’m sure they will be. But like McDonalds and Wal-Mart ran out their smaller competition, I see no reason why franchised corporate churches could not do the same and drive out dissonant Methodist voices in any given city through the use of one well-preached voice…even within my own denomination. That dystopian future looks less and less like the connectional and highly varied United Methodist Church that I know and love.
- Are churches that pipe their message contributing to a franchise within the UMC? One that looks less like United Methodism and more like reflections of their leader?
- Is there another way to do multi-site that doesn’t involve outsourcing the theological task to an outside preaching head?
This is a four-part series, next is on the effect of relying on sermon series rather than lectionary 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)