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 Sermon Series to Production Churches
One of the conclusions of the Call To Action was that topical preaching is preferred at ‘vital’ churches:
According to the study, effective pastors are those that develop, coach and mentor laity in leadership roles; influence the actions and behaviors of others to accomplish change; work with congregations to achieve significant goals and provide inspirational, topical preaching…Churches with contemporary and traditional worship services also tend to be more vital. The research found that traditional worship services should include topical preaching and contemporary worship services should be multi-media.
While people who like “facts” like the UMCWorship blog dispute that topical preaching leads to a depth of spirituality (and this blog has examined it as well), the reality is that highly vital megachurches like we have been studying in this series almost exclusively use sermon series. But why?
Adam Hamilton, pastor of Church of the Resurrection, uses sermon series exclusively. Here’s a video of his biblical rationale (via John Meunier). Very helpful video but he had one line that really struck at me as he describes his sermon series rhythm:
Every other sermon series that I preach begins with the human condition and works its way to the what does the bible say. Every [other] sermon series starts with the biblical text and then works its way to the human condition.
My critique is that it seems that every sermon series begins with a particular human condition in mind: consumerism. “How can we package this sermon series into a sellable curriculum for other churches to use?” Take a look at The Well at Church of the Resurrection. Even though only a few sermon series a year get made into an Adam Hamilton book and study like “Seeing Gray in a Black and White World,” every single sermon series is videotaped and could be yours for $45 or so (although in fairness, the sermons can be streamed for free online on the website).
Other churches are catching onto this production model of turning their sermon series into sellable commodities. The Ginghamsburg E-Store is opening soon promising “offers all of the bookstore favorites as well as a wide-range of digital graphics, animations and videos created and mission-tested by the Ginghamsburg creative team.” Others haven’t gotten that far yet (ie. Church of the Woodlands in Houston doesn’t even feature their own Jessica LaGrone on their local authors bookstore…whoops!), but I am confident that as sermon series become more package-able into sellable units of books, videos, and curriculum, it will boom quickly.
The dystopian future is that the production model of worship planning is spreading and it will ride the coattails of this push to do exclusively sermon series (“topical preaching” will save the church, remember?), causing commercialism “what can we sell?” to be a factor–or just a happy consequent–of worship planning.
A Dystopian Future of Lectionary-deprived Churches
Now, I don’t fault Hamilton for making this move. It works for his church and it works well to resource other churches–I’ve used his studies myself, to my betterment. I think that is fine–my fears are as the idea spreads how many other churches will make a production model their focus. Not everything a megachurch does is automatically appropriate for other churches to do to become vital.
However, more churches becoming production centers isn’t really my bigger fear in this scenario.
As much as I deplore commercialism becoming a driving force of worship planning, my bigger fear is loss of the Lectionary. The Lectionary is a set of biblical readings that all mainline Protestants have used for decades (and they are similar to the Roman Catholics readings, as well).
As a pastor, I tend to preach both lectionary and sermon series. I’ll do a sermon series for a month and then a lectionary for a month or a liturgical season. Sometimes I can make a sermon series out of the lectionary (especially at Lent and Advent). But for the most part, I find the Lectionary to be a happy discipline that I use enliven and expand my preaching.
One of my young clergy friends is The Rev. Joseph P. Peters-Mathews, communications working group head of the Episcopal Diocese of California. He’s very passionate about the Lectionary so I asked him to write me some commentary about it (and if you notice, he’s obviously a reader of Hacking Christianity as he uses common terms that readers will recognize). Here’s some of what he wrote to me:
The lectionary is something that shouldn’t be disregarded if for no other reason that it bears testimony to a way that the Christian Church can live Jesus’ pray that we all may be one, despite our varied differences. Although there are slight variants for different traditions, the Revised Common Lectionary is available to mainline protestants and its readings are often almost the same as those used in the Roman lectionary. Hearing the same readings is something that, with the sacraments, can bind us together.
This oneness has great potential for preventing echo chambers and building ecumenical relationships. From a weekly ecumenical Bible study to friends of different traditions having lunch after church, people sharing the same readings enhances the Church. While some may prefer Beth Moore and yet others Marcus Borg for focusing Bible study, Christianity is united around the sacred texts of the Bible. Sharing the Bible — and different traditions ways of wrestling with passages over times — rather than particular authors increases participants’ knowledge of their own and other traditions.
Beyond the unity-in-diversity that following the lectionary offers, the lectionary is intentionally designed with a breadth that topical preaching may miss, particularly if the topical preaching is locally created. If space is made in a service for using the three passages appointed for the day, most of the bible is read publicly over the course of three years. Topical preaching may be limited, or discerning a passage each week may not cover as much. The Revised Common Lectionary paid particular attention to including more passage on women and other groups present in scripture but absent from previous lectionaries.
When explained to local congregations and there’s education around the lectionary, local congregations may celebrate it. It makes the local church (and the preacher) a part of something bigger rather than extremely locally focused. If nothing else, the lectionary is a safe guard against someone’s egotism.
As you can see, my fear is that in our dystopian future, we lose out on exactly what Rev. Peters-Mathews is saying: the substantial breadth of the Scripture being reflected on a unity-in-diversity approach being traded in for short bible snippets being lumped together and fitted into a DVD-length sermon series with flashy graphics. We lose out on the one-ness of our worship towards God because every church is doing a different sermon series and then trying to sell that sermon series the most in their town or online. Gone would be the days of ecumenical lectionary groups or clergy get-togethers to reflect on the lectionary.
While some may say that the Lectionary is a relic of a bygone era of when “the Institutional Church” meant something, I firmly believe that the Lectionary is a collective spiritual discipline that we are lesser for if we lose it. Here’s two blog posts to help with this discernment between topical and lectionary preaching: Part 1, Part 2. While I myself do not practice it as often (I’m also not a Senior Pastor, just a lowly Associate), I recognize its power and needed corrective presence in a church whose worship planning might be bent by “what can sell?” And my fear is that this dystopian future without common liturgy may not find much else in common, leading to a further splintering of the Body of Christ.
- What are your thoughts on the Production Model of worship planning? Is it okay because it shares resources? Or is it too much consumerism leaking into the holy process of worship?
- Is the Lectionary important to you? What else might we miss if liturgical churches fall by the wayside?
This is a four-part series, next is on the effect of relying on a single charismatic personality rather than a diversity of clergy representation. 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)