Multi-Site Churches: Paving the Road to a “Cult of Personality”

Earlier this week, the Leadership Network of Dallas, Texas issued a new report that highlights the explosive growth of Protestant churches committed to the practice of multi-site gatherings.  As recently as 1990, there were only 10 documented examples of North American churches utilizing video technology to “beam” the teachings of a charismatic pastor to a variety of locations around a particular geographic region.  But by 2005, the influence of these early methodological pioneers had fundamentally changed the spiritual architecture of the Protestant Church.  As more than 1500 churches were now engaged in the practice of multi-site ministry, smaller ecclessial bodies began to take notice of the practice and its impact upon the numerical “success” of the larger churches in their area.  Consequently, many of these smaller bodies began to adopt a similar strategy, which, in turn, has only served to accelerate the widespread adoption of this multi-site ministry model.  Now today, in 2012, there are more than 5000 churches employing a multi-site church growth strategy in North America alone.[1]  And the question that begs to be asked is this: how is this development shaping our understanding of the church and the role of the senior pastor?

On the surface of things, this development in practical methodology should not come as any great surprise to those that have been paying attention to what is happening in the Evangelical subculture.  As ever increasing numbers of local bodies have warmed to the church growth methodologies pioneered by Robert Schuller of Orange Grove, California, more and more have experienced dramatic numerical growth.  At present, there are now over 1600 mega churches in the United States alone, ranging in size from 2000 to 30,000 members.  And the question that faces these churches and other smaller, like-minded churches is: what do we do now to combat the limitations imposed on our restricted facilities?

Clearly, as the evidence above suggests, the dominant solution just 12 years into the new millennia appears to be a move towards multi-site venues and the building of a ministry almost exclusively around the charismatic figurehead of the “mother church.”  For while most multi-site churches have elected to deploy local worship teams on their various campuses, the one unifying factor across all locations appears to be the digitized pulpit pastored by the often self-described, “visionary leader” who sees his own gifting as essential to the growth of the movement.

Interestingly enough, there appears to be little discernible blow-back from the congregations at large.  According to the Rev. Gary Shockley, executive director of New Church Starts at the Board of Discipleship of the United Methodist Church, at least 50% of the 621 new churches started by the UMC since January of 2008 were multi-site venues.  What’s more, Shockley goes on to say that of the 1,000 new churches they intend to start between 2013 and 2016, they are “targeting 60% to be multi-sites, extensions or satellites of vibrant existing United Methodist Churches.”[2]  All that to say, if the people in the pews were openly rebelling against these pixelized pastors, we wouldn’t be seeing the explosive growth in this trend, nor would we see church planting ministries building their future strategies almost exclusively around this concept.

So what is the problem?  Well, as I have already hinted at above, the one unifying element that is present at every multi-site church every Sunday morning is the presence of the Senior (or Teaching) Pastor.  This, of course, raises the question as to why his (or her) presence is considered to be the essential ingredient.  If a congregation truly desired to worship as “one church on many campuses,” would it not stand to reason that there should be one worship band, “beamed” to all the sites, so that the church could worship together as a corporate whole?  And what about one reading of Scripture common to all?  Or one breaking of the bread lead by the pastor standing before the entire body?

When it comes right down to it, if we are going to make an argument for “one church on many campuses,” why is there only one element – the charismatic preacher – that is common to all the sites, while everything else involved in the practice of communal worship is passed off to be handled at the local level?  What is so vital about his (or her) contribution?

While the answer may not be pleasing to the ears of those that lead these churches, an argument could be made that as opposed to centering the practice of the church on the life, death and resurrection of the Christ and the proclamation of His Word, many of these churches have made a subtle shift towards centering the church on “the proclamation.”  That is to say, an argument could be made that many of these churches are leaning more upon the rhetorical giftings of their Senior Pastors than they are upon the content of their message.  And when they begin to slide in this direction, they begin the slow, inevitable descent into what is commonly referred to as the “cult of personality.”

Now, almost certainly, there will be those that will argue that a “cult of personality” can develop in small churches just as easily as it can develop in large, multi-site churches.   Fair enough.  I think many of us know what it is to be around a small church, where many feel the need to be personally ministered to by the pastor, as if his greetings and ministry were more important than those of others around us.  But here is why I think that the potential for this problem to emerge is far greater in multi-site churches than it is to emerge in small, single-site communities.

When a small, single-site congregation gathers each Sunday to study together, to worship together, to serve together, and to partake in the sacraments as a community of believers together, no one element of the service has been artificially inflated above the importance of the other elements.  Moreover, when the pastor is onsite, serving amongst the community of believers, his life is on full-display for all to see.  This breeds a certain form of accountability via visibility, as the pastor is never seen only when he is “on” and “fired up.”  Instead, the pastor/shepherd is seen as he walks amongst his people, and as he interacts with his wife, his children, his staff and even the surrounding community outside the walls of the church.  In other words, in single-site settings, a pastor is rarely afforded the status of spiritual super-hero because he is genuinely known by his people, warts and all.

Conversely, when a pastor preaches live at a remote site, or even in an empty television studio, the congregation that watches him onscreen never sees him outside of a carefully scripted and controlled environment.  So all they see is the meticulously stage-managed image of a spiritual giant coming at them on hi-def, state-of-the-art, jumbo screens.

Now consider, if you will, the words of the Apostle Paul as he writes to his disciple, Timothy, and instructs him regarding the qualifications of an elder/pastor:

“The overseer then must be above reproach, the husband of one wife,  temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, an able teacher, not a drunkard, not violent, but gentle, not contentious, free from the love of money. He must manage his own household well and keep his children in control without losing his dignity. But if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for the church of God?  He must not be a recent convert or he may become arrogant and fall into the punishment that the devil will exact. And he must be well thought of by those outside the faith,so that he may not fall into disgrace and be caught by the devil’s trap.”[3]

Notice how little time Paul spends exalting the rhetorical gifts of the potential elder in question.  While it is true that the elder must be able to rightly interpret Scripture and protect the congregation from false teaching, Paul does not seem terribly concerned with charisma and verbal prowess.  Instead, he seems much more interested in discussing the character of the man in question because both the private and the public character of the man is going to shape the character of the congregation, both lost and saved alike.   Thus, Paul argues that the elder must be temperate and self-controlled, not prone to violence, but gentle, free of a contentious spirit and free from the love of money.  In fact, if you look carefully, you’ll even note that he must be thought of well by those outside the faith, suggesting that the surrounding community must know him to be a man of integrity and character as well.

In a multi-site church, these qualifications simply cannot be put on display in any meaningful way.  When satellite “campuses” are often separated by upwards of 20 miles, there is no way that the surrounding community in one region could possibly speak to the character of the pastor on the screen.  Moreover, how many people within the satellite congregation, itself, could speak to his character?  How can you speak to the integrity of a man when you’ve never met him, never seen him interact with his family or his staff?  You can’t.  And so you don’t know whether he lives in a massive home and loves money.  You don’t know if he’s a gambler, a prescription drug addict, or an abuser of children.  You know nothing about the man save for the image that is meticulously crafted, cultivated and finally “beamed” to your campus for your spiritual consumption.  Consequently, you don’t truly have a pastor.  Instead, you have a pleasing “image,” an “image” that knows how to turn a witty phrase as he delivers a sermon he often didn’t even write by his own hand.

Isn’t it interesting that during the time of the Byzantine Empire (730-842 AD), the Christian church became embroiled in an internal conflict over the use of icons and images.  While some found the use of icons helpful in worship, many believed that images often stood between mankind and the thrice-holy YHWH, a constant looming temptation to worship the created as opposed to the Creator.   But now, more than a millennia removed from the struggles of our forefathers, we don’t even hesitate to look upon “images” in an attempt to see through to the holy.  Now, we invite these “images” into our lives, and often ascribe to them the same kind of veneration that was once condemned as idolatry.

What do you think?  Do you think the use of a disembodied, digitized pastor runs the risk of creating an “image” that isn’t representative of a genuine human being?  Do you think that multi-site churches are prone to developing a “cult of personality?”

This entry was posted in Church and Culture and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

76 Responses to Multi-Site Churches: Paving the Road to a “Cult of Personality”

  1. bill says:

    “….vibrant existing United Methodist Churches.”
    I hate the word “vibrant”, unless it’s related to colors.

  2. Josh says:

    Is there a temptation towards this in these types of churches? – sure.

    However, there are couple things in what you wrote that I tend to disagree with.

    1. Truthfully, in a church larger than say 400 (this number is slightly arbitrary), the same lack of ability to interact with the pastor to establish his qualities in a meaningful way surfaces. Above a certain threshhold, the ‘average’ lay person will always be relying on a few people in leadership to give them confidence that the senior leader lives a life of integrity. Certainly this same argument could have made almost line for line about the Wesley’s and other circuit riding preachers who ministered to many congregations and are now held in high esteem right?

    2. While your cautions are worth noting for anyone who leads in this type of church, you seem to be fairly easily dismissing the potential for fruit. While it should be that there are more than enough faithful churches and competent pastors for every community, this phenomenon shows that there isn’t. So then, what should a John Piper or Matt Chandler or James MacDonald do? Not feed people who need it simply because there is potential ego problems?

    There is a Scriptural precedent for different sizes of gifts. Is it not possible for people for whom God has entrusted 10 talents to proceed in using them?

    • chris says:

      Josh – John Piper, Matt Chandler, and James MacDonald (and others) having multi-site churches is not evidence that there is a lack of faithful churches and competent pastors in a given area. It may only be evidence that they have better marketing plans and that the congregants have itching ears. The three examples given all preach in good sized metro areas. Their “success” cannot be credited to a lack of competition.

      You also ask what these men should do when they see a need; but instead of multi-site being the default position, where the congregation cannot know their pastor, why not follow the pattern of Scripture and make disciples, send qualified people to other cities, and help identify leaders in those cities? Granted, Paul did not have the advantage of using the technology we have, but neither did he require that the leaders he helped establish in other cities be subject to his every desire. He preached the truth, set up leaders, and then moved on – providing guidance, encouragement, and correction when needed.

      • Josh says:

        MacDonald has planted almost 100 churches. Chandler has been part of 100’s. It isn’t either/or.

        Those men are faithful preachers in my view.

        why must big=itching ears.

        Moody and Spurgeon would certainly disagree.

        • chris says:

          Just a quick response to your points. (ok, turned out to be longer than I thought, but still…)

          1. I am aware of and glad that the churches these two men are part of have also been part of the planting of other churches. This is something we should all be proud of taking part in and it follows the Biblical pattern. There was no statement made that the individuals referenced never took part in planting a new church.

          2. I do not know enough about Chandler, but I’ve personally been close enough to MacDonald to disagree with your perception of him, but that is a completely different topic best left unaddressed in this forum in this context at this time. Unless you mean the preaching specifically, and then I would concede MacDonald’s ability to speak well.

          3. Big does not need to = itchy ears any more than big = lack of other qualified individuals and faithful churches. However, you present the following statement as if it was fact, “While it should be that there are more than enough faithful churches and competent pastors for every community, this phenomenon shows that there isn’t.” I was simply showing that there are many other factors to consider before making a “factual” statment.

          4. The discussion was about multi-site as opposed to big and I do not have any idea what Moody or Spurgeon did/would have thought about multi-site churches. Besides, while we may be able to look up to Moody & Spurgeon, they are not the be all end all, and Scripture is a better point of reference. After all, “If we aren’t going to use the Scripture, then what is the point in talking”? (I sincerely do not mean this as sarcastically as it may look on the screen) 🙂

    • James Conway says:

      Greetings Josh. Regarding your question “So then, what should a John Piper or Matt Chandler or James MacDonald do? Not feed people who need it simply because there is potential ego problems?”

      The answer is for these shepherds to disciple the men in their flock, discover which of them have been gifted and called to pastor a flock and release them to do the work of the ministry. Birth new works, multiply. I believe that decision to go multi-site is an indictment against God’s provision and care for His people. It says that God is not calling enough men to the pastorate. And reflects the pride of the megapastor… “I must teach more people because there is no one else equipped who can teach them. Well, if they CAN teach them, they can’t do it as well as I do.”

      As Scott correctly described, a large part of God’s design for His church is the fellowship of believers, having kingdom relationships. It is impossible to do that with a pastor who appears on a video screen or is whisked away after delivering a message only to be seen the following Sunday.

      Having a larger number of smaller congregations helps to grow the stability of the Church and lessen the impact should a shepherd go astray. With a few megapastors, if the enemy takes one down, it affects a much larger segment of the Church visible.

      Megapastors impede the development and release of pastors into the field. Rather than disciple men, elder-qualified men, and release those who have been called to the pastorate, they redirect them to serve as a cog in the larger machine.

      Lastly, the megapastor movement is weakening the Church. With fewer men being released, God’s people are looking to fewer and fewer men who are gifted to teach. Ultimately, the logical conclusion is that a “clergy” class is established of those who teach and a “laity” class who sit and receive.

      As we look at these megapastors, we must not forget the faithful shepherds of those “small” flocks, who week after week, month after month, year after year, obediently and faithfully teach and care for the saints under his care. The Lord will richly reward them (as His word promises), but we need to pray for them.

      • Refuse to expand and steal sheep!? That’s crazy talk. Large, monopolistic conglomerates are bad for the Market and the Kingdom.

      • Josh says:

        ‘I believe that decision to go multi-site is an indictment against God’s provisions and care for His people’

        I believe differently. So there. (smiley face)

        If we aren’t going to use the Scripture, then what is the point in talking.

        • XPat58 says:

          Yes, but James, you won’t listen to the scripture. You put your opinion up against the Scriptures and in the end do what you want. So why toss out the statement about using the Scriptures? So you look like you care?

    • Josh …

      I think you raise a good point here. To some degree, I would agree that pastoral accountability is tough to maintain the larger a church gets. I don’t know if I agree with the 400 threshold, but I can certainly see what you are saying. And in that sense, perhaps this also works as an argument against megachurches. To that very point, I have heard stories about an intentionally small church called Life on the Vine. I don’t know much about their theology, but from what I have heard, whenever they get to 100 members (or so), they plant a new church. It’s an interesting methodology to be sure.

      As to your second point, I would disagree that multi-site and/or mega-churches are an indication that there aren’t “enough faith churches and competent pastors for every community.” But even if you were right, hypothetically speaking, this would not legitimize the practice. If anything, it places an even greater burden on the church universal to train up pastors for the mission.

    • Chris Trees says:

      Pastoral accountability for the multi-campus, mega-church pastor is undeniably more than just having the right policies and procedures in place to restrain sinful behavior. Certainly, a congregation who can closely observe the pastor is more likely to notice and react to errant behavior, but more important are the internal controls that discourage the pastor from straying.

      When a pastor is too far removed from his congregation, due to the size of his church or geographically because of ministering on multi-campuses; he is in large measure, insulated from the natural fear of the embarrassment and shame that comes with a public fall and disgrace.

      While it’s true that we all have a universal abhorrence of public failure and embarrassment; shame is most keenly felt when our sinful behavior is exposed before those people with whom we have our closest relationships, and whom we love and respect most. A moral failure before an audience of strangers just can’t produce the same level of shame and pain.

      A lack of personal familiarity and the resulting emotional distance of the multi-campus, mega-church pastor from his flock has the unfortunate side effect of diminishing the potential pain of a sinful failure and consequently the fear of disgrace that might otherwise offset temptation to sin.

      There was a time when Pastor James MacDonald accepted this natural accountability with enthusiasm. In 1999, Pastor MacDonald published an article in Christianity Today’s Leadership Journal, entitled “Five Moral Fences”. In the article he described his own fear of having a public “moral failure” and listed five concrete policy decisions that were made and put into practice at HBC to help prevent him from falling. Additionally, in the article he also acknowledged that these “fences” are useless if they can be taken down any time his “sinful heart desires”.

      Near the end of the article appeared the following text:

      “Of course, Christian morality involves far more than righteous sexuality. Money and power have often been observed to destroy ministers and ministries. However,decisions about money and power are more public. People see the kind of car I drive,the clothes I wear, the vacations I take, and the home I live in.

      People also observe the ways I use my influence over others. If I become
      Power-driven rather than servant-oriented, if I lord my authority over others and abuse my position, people will “vote with their feet.”

      With both money and power, there is a broad public accountability that is a “fence”of sorts.”

      It is interesting to note that this part of the “Five Moral Fences” is now omitted when the article is reprinted as when it was posted on James’ blog on November 12, 2009. This part was instead replaced with a description of how the moral fences are applied to HBC staffers.

      It would appear that when people are no longer are in a position to see the pastor’s real and unvarnished choices and behavior, they no longer in a position to apply wisdom and discernment and are unlikely to “vote with their feet”. At that point the fence is gone, and it’s only a matter of time before accountability and trust are too.

    • Gary says:

      Josh, are you equating fruit with the number of people who attend a church? I sure hope not because that’s a HUGE leap in logic. Also, are you suggesting that James Mac is actually feeding his sheep?

  3. Tom says:

    Consider this: is it possible that a person who is not a follower of Christ but is a gifted communicator still contain the power of God? Can the words spoken by an evil or wicked person still contain the power of God? Let’s assume an actor of ill repute in Hollywood, let’s even just say Robert De Nero or Al Pacino?

    If we took a sermon text from likes of Piper, MacArthur, Chandler, whoever, and if they practiced it and put on a cool emergent looking outfit (that is probably too small :)) and then stood up and gave a 45 minute prepared and memorized speech using their immense talents as an actor and communicator- what is that?

    It would “work”. Thousands would come every week. Hundreds at the inner circle would know that these actors are just that, but would convince themselves to enable it because in their own minds they can’t separate the power of the spoken word from the person? Except, the problem is, that is not a biblical model? Or is it now?

    • Treading out the gain says:

      Tom, you should talk to a friend of mine..Born-Again Goodfella. He’d love to fill the pulpit at one of these rackets.

      People would no doubt be pumped and fired up. Add in some great “worship music” like Highway to Hell and Firework and BAM! you’ve got the recipe for a g-bringing-down-his-glory experience. Stop asking g to do small things people! Your small prayers and expectations are why god isn’t hearing them at all yo!

      • Cindy Curtis says:

        LOL Did you ever see that old film, “Elmer Gantry”? I have also read of ministers who claimed they were converted while preaching. And not too long ago, I heard a radio spot (it might have been on Moody, I can’t recall) interviewing pastors (anonymous of course) who admitted that they were not believers but didn’t know what else to do with their lives.

      • James Conway says:

        Hey Treading, I keep it real! I don’t need to be no part of some flim-flam shakedown joint. 😉 If you’re referring to another Born-Again Goodfella, then in the words of Emily Litella, “nevermind!”

        • Treading out the gain says:

          No disrespect intended paisan, but you sound more like a Mick? Were you adopted into the family? Leaving the syndicate and going legit ain’t easy, and I admire you for that.

    • Stauron3n1 says:

      I wonder if your “Al Pacino” example would fit in the category of “ear tickling”. If the message is biblical, but the messenger’s style, oratorical skill and “charisma” are what “sells” the message instead of the Holy Spirit; could it be that the messenger is actually guilty of tickling the ears of his hearers?

      In the days of Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield, preachers were discouraged from doing much more than reading the sermon text so that it could not be construed that anything had been added to the Word of God.
      In fact, George Whitfield, was criticized on more than one occasion for his passionate exposition of the Word, and was derisively called an “Enthusiast” by his detractors.

      I’m absolutely no fan of preachers who deliver their sermons in a droning monotone, but when the Church expects “entertainment value” from the sermon, and an “amped-up” or “shocking” delivery by the preacher, then perhaps we do have “itching ears” and are already “accumulating teachers to suit our own passions”.

      It this is so, then according to Paul, the next step will be to “turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths”. Of course, the celebrity pastor may be part of the myth we’re wandering into, and if that’s the case, a lot of us are already there.

      Mixing anything with Scripture, no matter how pure and noble may be one’s motives is at the least a potential adulteration of the Word and needs to be approached with the utmost caution.

      As a pastor friend of mine often says, “Rat poison is 85% cornmeal. It’s the other 15% that kills you”.

  4. X-Harvester says:

    I recalled an article from Carl Trueman (Reformation21) that shares some similar thoughts and critiques regarding multi-sites. See link (

    Gospel Coalition had posted a video between “former tag-team members”, JMac/Driscoll vs. Mark Dever regarding multisites / satellite preaching vs church plants / live preaching.

    • Treading out the gain says:

      JM: so hey Mark (Driscoll)…how many sites at your church?
      MD: Uhhhh tennnnnn…hoping to open 11 this summer
      JM: And how many services?
      MD: 24-issssshhhh (mega-pastor term)
      JM: Yeah we got 5 sites…going to 6. 13 going to 15 weekend services. More than10,000 people in both of our churches (I thought there were 5?). 100’s and 100’s of decisions for Christ each year….

      I usually use a concave mirror to reflect the utter ludacrist of these egos, but in this case, none is needed.

      Pastor Dever is either closer to God in the spirit of Acts 5:41 or a foolish self-flagellator for submitting himself with grace to this pollution of his ears.

      • Cindy Curtis says:

        I can barely watch this video although I did when it first came out. MacDonald and Driscoll are an embarrassment in the way they won’t even let Mark Dever finish a thought. They are like two teenage boys. Mark Dever is remarkably composed and dignified. I have tremendous respect for him for refusing to be a part of the Elephant Room. There is another video online, although I don’t know where it is, of MacDonald being interviewed on multi-sites along with some other pastors of multi-site churches. Pastor Thabiti Anyabwile is also in that video and does a terrific job of asking some point blank questions while maintaining a dignified posture.

  5. William C says:

    You gave me fortune
    You gave me fame
    You gave me power in your god’s name
    I’m every person you need to be
    I’m the cult of personality

  6. Pingback: Daily Roundup | Rated R For Reformed

  7. John Downey says:

    Reblogged this on Dead Pastors Society and commented:
    Heard this blog read on PCR and I had to come read it formyself, so I thought I’d pass it along to the DPS audience. The author is spot on in his concern about multi-site churches. What do you say?

  8. GAC says:

    Here is the video of Dever, JMac, and Driscoll discussing multisite.
    Multiple Sites: Yea or Nay? Dever, Driscoll, and MacDonald Vote

  9. William Quinn says:

    At my church Gateway, we don’t like to be called a large church, but moreso a small town, because you still know people when you live in a small town. So honestly I do not have a problem with multisite churches.

    • William …

      You make an interesting point. My wife comes from a small town, and as we drive about, we regularly bump into people that she knows. This one was her teacher. That one worked in the check out line at the grocery store. Etc, etc … So I think your point that one can be “in community” in a small town, which is likely larger than the average mega-church, is a good one.

      But here’s where I think the analogy breaks down. In a small town, you are generally surrounded by fields on all sides. So there is a geographic restriction placed upon the life of the community. Consequently, one is likely to bump into folks in a wide variety of locations throughout the week. But in a mega-church context, the catchment area is generally under a 30 minute drive. So the likelihood of bumping into people throughout the week is significantly lessened.

      Thus, I think its a bit of a semantical game that is being played Gateway.

  10. Truth In Love says:

    I feel there is an important aspect that is missing from this discussion. The culture is dramatically reshaping our world view at a dizzying pace and we as believers must be cautioned as not to be sucked into it’s distorting vortex. None of this is new to you, but re-consider these things: Our favorite live tours are bigger, better, louder and more visually stunning. Sporting events have grown beyond the sport itself to include non-stop entertainment from beginning to end. Films, with the help of digital compositing, are creating new “epic battle” scenes that attempts to top the previous that leave lasting impressions on the audience and a new sense of euphoria for days to come. Channels that are dedicated to reporting nothing but the weather have gone to the extent of making a natural disaster (ie. Hurricane’s) a major “wall-to-wall” television event with it’s own special graphics and music. Video games are more advanced, smarter and graphically real than ever before, and they continually draw us in for a new experience.

    Over-the-top entertainment stories, news reports, television shows, movies, concerts and live experiences … no wonder the mega-church and now the multi-site has gained so much ground in America with dramatic performances, major concerts, and idolized (and rightfully gifted) teachers. It’s an accurate response to the culture. Our expectations shaped by the media, entertainment and experiences that we invite into our lives and constantly seek to be “something greater than ourselves” extends into our churches.

    So is it a bad thing that our churches with the appropriate resources are feverishly working to match or even out-do, out-perform, out-entertain the world for the further spreading of the gospel? Or is this a by-product of our sinful nature that has exchanged the gospel of Jesus Christ for the gospel of sensationalism?

    Or perhaps we need to turn our attention back to ourselves and ask a very honest question: What is it that I know to be true about God’s plan for His bride, the church, and what experiential pornography have I invested in and brought into the church for my pleasure, instead of His??

    • Million dollar question! And I love the way you ask it. “What experiential pornography have I invested in and brought into the church for my pleasure instead of His?”

    • Kevin W. says:

      Well said. Sin, Hell, repentance, and the crucified and risen Savior are eclipsed by the sensationalism and showmanship thought to be necessary to reach “the lost”. Pastors promoting this circus would do well to look at the growing numbers of believers in dark places despite the lack of technology, dog-and-pony shows, and big bus tours, all the while living under the threat of death (or worse) for becoming Christians. Wonder why the pastors in these parts of the world never see a need to write and publish a book on how to “do church”?

  11. Wendy says:

    The problems with multi-site go both ways: some congregants are comfortably unaccountable to their pastor; though there are elders at each satelite, these don’t have a problem blowing them off if there is a negative issue.

    • You make a great point. When communities reach a certain size, they become “safe places” for people to hide or go unnoticed. The irony, of course, is that while they may feel “safe,” temporal safety seems to be the least of Jesus’s concerns. If anything, he seems rather bent on making people feel unsafe in the moment so as to drive them to a place of repentance and reorientation.

      Great comment, Wendy. Thanks for posting it.

  12. Kevin W. says:

    From watching the video of MacDonald and company promoting the multi-site church, I am persuaded that we should make use of modern technology. So I have decided to stay home on Sunday mornings and watch MacDonald preach on my computer, meet with my small group via Skype, pull up a youtube video of the worship team and sing along. Not sure what to do about the Lord’s Table but no doubt there is technology for that as well. Highly convenient and no tithe/offering bag to deal with.

  13. CAndiron says:

    There are a number of problems with regards to this post.

    “For while most multi-site churches have elected to deploy local worship teams on their various campuses, the one unifying factor across all locations appears to be the digitized pulpit pastored by the often self-described, “visionary leader” who sees his own gifting as essential to the growth of the movement.”

    You continually make this category mistake. Preaching is about the message conveyed, which can be done remotely as well as in person. Worship and communion must of necessity must be done locally. To say otherwise is like saying, “I need to eat my meals locally. Therefore if someone talks to me over the phone (ie. non-locally) he is trying to turn himself into a cult of personality”. This is a complete non-sequitur and I’m not sure what point you are making. Perhaps you can elaborate? I don’t see any “artificial inflation” that you claim as a necessity.

    “Moreover, when the pastor is onsite, serving amongst the community of believers, his life is on full-display for all to see.”

    Nonsense. You deliberately fail to mention that many multisite pastors periodically visit other campuses. You deliberately forget that the main campus (usually the most numerous) will experience the pastor as a local pastor. Do you think that main campuses are all engaged in cover ups about the scandalous life of the pastor? Do you think that seeing the pastor once a week really reveals all of his “secret life”? If revealing the pastor’s entire life is what is most important to you, do you think that all pastors should agree to have “pastor cam” placed on their shoulder 24/7? The pastoral verses you say demand no such thing as you are trying to get them to say. They do not demand the in your face prying you seem to think demands spatial locality. They simply say that if certain issues arise, they would disqualify a man from being a pastor.

    And finally you simply assert that an image of a pastor on a screen who is telling you about God and the Bible is somehow the equivalent of the sort of idolatry and animism that went on in pagan cultures, without any argument to show why it is so.

    The problem with this article is that it is all hypothetical. It is all vague without any concrete examples. You can’t condemn people of hypothetical crimes in the courtroom of your mind and try to pawn that off as Biblical. You need to give examples of how this is going on and how this relates to multisite.

    And I even agree with you to some extent. Just look at the Code Orange Revival: a collection of smooth talking, rhetorically skilled men who preached no Gospel and gave no Biblically sound preaching (with the exception of Chandler). But you must give examples before you spout off like this. Maybe a survey of biblical literacy of those at multisites (such as Hybels conducted at his own church), or reasons why people at multisites attend (“I like the preacher” vs “I get expository preaching”).

    But if you don’t do this, all you are doing is basically engaging in slander.

    • CAndiron says:

      The main problem is: you seem to be giving vague fears based on dubious chains of causality that link multisites to certain abuses or heresies. But you give no concrete examples where this sort of thing can be traced explicitly. When it comes to accusing pastors or denominations of trying to start “cults”, don’t you think you at least owe it to them to be a bit more responsible in your approach? That’s all I’m saying. Thanks.

    • XPat58 says:

      “Preaching is about the message conveyed, which can be done remotely as well as in person.” – That does not mean is should be just because it can be (1Cor 10:23). If it’s not about the man there is no need for “remotely.” Temporary “remotely” is one thing, permanence is quite another (Eph 4:12; Col 4; 1Tim 6:20)

      You deliberately forget that the main campus (usually the most numerous) will experience the pastor as a local pastor. – Experiencing my pastor is not the same as knowing my pastor. And I certainly cannot consider their conduct from a simple “experience.” (Heb 13:7)

      Do you think that main campuses are all engaged in cover ups about the scandalous life of the pastor? – Yes. Ed Young, Mark Driscoll, Ted Haggard, James MacDonald

      Do you think that seeing the pastor once a week really reveals all of his “secret life”? – No. My hope is he has no “secret life.” But since you mentioned it why do you assume we think the pastor has secret life? Does he? How would I know? If I had closer proximity maybe I would know more and ask less questions. (Mt 15:19)

      If revealing the pastor’s entire life is what is most important to you, do you think that all pastors should agree to have “pastor cam” placed on their shoulder 24/7? The pastoral verses you say demand no such thing as you are trying to get them to say. They do not demand the in your face prying you seem to think demands spatial locality. They simply say that if certain issues arise, they would disqualify a man from being a pastor. – I think you’re trying to confuse the readers by sending them on rabbit trails. Besides putting qualified men (not hoarding them in your church) up front instead of broadcasting your face everywhere, accountability comes with the territory. Mega-church models bypass this important function. Teach, train, send (Eph 4:11-12), what’s so hard about that? Unless you have a desire to acquire something for yourself? This is almost sounding like another JMac email post – seriously, prying is not necessary unless you have something to hide. When the people of your church feel like the senior pastor has “high-jacked” the church I personally think some prying is in order.

      And finally you simply assert that an image of a pastor on a screen who is telling you about God and the Bible is somehow the equivalent of the sort of idolatry and animism that went on in pagan cultures, without any argument to show why it is so. – Yes, I agree. Because it’s not really about the message but about the personality. The personality has an enamoring quality to it that draws people in and raises their expectation that all pastors can’t do this so we have to come hear X pastor. Clue-phone: we don’t need you to hoard qualified staff who could be preaching on their own. We (the church universal) need you to teach and train these men to get their butts kicked in ministry and go out and shepherd the flock God provides for them even if they don’t sound like you or agree with you.

  14. Tom says:

    Then, why don’t these Preachers just work a normal week like everyone else and they can just take the weekend off and attend church with their family. They could use their multi-million dollar recording facilities and just have the staff sit in for 45 – 50 minutes over lunch. This way, our pastors wouldn’t get so fatigued by the toll of 3, 4, 5…or how ever many sermons they teach live now. I mean, if it’s good enough to send the video to most of the congregation, why not send it to all?

  15. Chris Trees says:


    Sometimes all we get to work with are loose “chains of causality”. It’s seldom in life that one can make a one to one connection between cause and effect apart from mathematics or physics. This goes especially for social interactions and the subjective experiences of people.

    A lack of things that can be “traced explicitly” doesn’t mean that the someone’s “vague fears” aren’t based upon reality, or that the multi-site model doesn’t by its nature, foster certain abuses of authority or even make the promulgation of heresies more likely to occur.

    We’re only called to be discerning based upon what we can and do observe and from what we can reasonably conclude from our observations. I’m aware of no place in Scripture where we are we told to suspend any and all critical though processes until the absolute, last piece of data is obtained. For that matter, how would somebody even know if they’ve received every piece of relevant data and there still isn’t something missing? Only God’s conclusions are made from an absolutely complete fact set; the rest of us do the best we can with what we are given.

    The reported negative experiences of hundreds and perhaps thousands of people who formerly attended HBC, as well as other multi-site churches are not invalidated simply because they don’t rise to the level of mathematical certainty. Sure, there are doubtless some who have misinterpreted what they’ve seen and experienced, or even deliberately misrepresented their experiences, but the commonalities of these folks’ stories, strongly suggest that there are indeed some serious problems endemic to the model.

    CAdiron, to dismiss or ridicule reported negative experiences with the Multi-Site church model is unkind and no more valid than to summarily dismiss the positive experiences other people, presumably like yourself. From what I’ve read, I don’t believe that you’re either unkind or unfair, so please don’t be offended.

    If you haven’t yet read Carl Trueman’s piece on mult-site churches: “Multisite, the Poker Tell and the Importance of Presence” that XHarvester posted on the 27th. It’s good food for thought.


    For the record, if you’re unfamiliar with him, Carl Trueman isn’t what some might call a whack-job discernment blogger, but a respected professor, preacher-pastor and theologian so he’s someone whose opinions shouldn’t be summarily ignored or dismissed as someone with an axe to grind.

    • Jon says:

      Your mention of “reported hundreds if not thousands” of people with negative experiences at HBC and other mega churches is an odd point.

      1. Where can I see these “reports”?
      2. There are many many people who have left churches that don’t have multi sites …

      • Chris Trees says:


        Let me answer your question with a question. Why do you suppose that HBC plans on a “major exodus” of attendees every 4 1/2 – 5 years? Do you think that it’s because that those who leave are so deliriously happy and satisfied that they can’s stand it anymore? Or do you think that they’re all leaving to plant new churches or take jobs out of State?

        Since HBC rarely ever calls up people who have stopped attending to find out why they left, and is usually content with reciting the “mantra” Harvest isn’t for everybody”, even HBC’s accounting and marketing departments probably couldn’t do more than provide a reasonably accurate description of the numbers of attendees who depart each year.

        It’s a fair assumption however, that those who leave as a rule don’t do so because they’re so happy with the status quo.

        And yes, people do leave small churches too, but not because they’re too big or impersonal.

        • Jon says:

          So the assumption you are making then is that the majority of those who leave large churches (or HBC in particular) do so because of the large size of the church. And because people leave due to the large size then “large size is bad.”

          So lets move this logic over to the smaller church. Numerous people leave smaller churches (or choose not to begin attending) because of the small size (no other kids my kids age, not enough programs, no growth). Now is “small size bad?”

          Or will people leave and attend different churches of different sizes – some for good reasons, some for selfish reasons? Is “bigness” or “smallness” a good enough reason for people that would lead you to conclude that size is the determining factor for a “good” or “bad” church?

          I am not trying to pick a fight but to gain a better understanding. There is a great discussion happening in a lot of places regarding church size, mega church, house church, small church and multi-site church — and you seem to have a strong opinion regarding HBC as a mega, multi-sight church so your thoughts are helpful.

  16. Jon says:

    One of the other causes I see for the rise of multi campus churches is with the pastors who are looking for churches. There is a small town in my area that have about 100 people and are desperately seeking a pastor who can handle the Word of God well … they are now considering being a video campus of another church. Why? There are no pastors who want to take on a small work.

    Ryan, you are in school now … maybe you could ask those studying in seminary how many are praying and hoping to land in a small town with a small church … if a guy shows promise as a preacher he is usually groomed for a bigger “market”.

    Can a “100 talent” guy be satisfied in a “10 talent” area?

    Until quality young men start looking at smaller towns and smaller churches we will continue to see multi-sites sprouting up. And I personally think the alternative to multi-site (weak pastors or closed churches) is much worse.

    • Jon …

      I must admit, your comments struck a chord within me because my wife is from a small town. So when I first read your comment, I was about to congratulate you on making a great point. But then it occurred to me. I know many, many people who desire to live in a small town as opposed to a big city (or even a suburban area). So I’m not sure that your assertion that “there are no pastors who want to take on small work” is actually defensible. Even a guy like myself (who grew up in the suburbs of a major city) can see some of the benefits of doing ministry in a small town.

      And the more I think about it, the less convinced I am that you’re on the right track with this comment. “Can a ‘100 talent’ guy be satisfied in a ’10 talent’ area?” Even the smallest towns often have 1000 or more people living in the area. How blessed would someone be to take on a work in a town like that? Met a guy just recently who did such a thing. You may not agree with everything that he did to address the community, but if you want to read about his heart and his efforts, you should check out How to Knock Over a 7-11 and other ministry training.

      • Kevin W. says:

        I know pastors of small churches who are quite satisfied with shepherding their flocks, being really involved in the lives of the congregants. They eat with them, visit them in the hospital, pray with them in their homes, teach them, preach to them, and discipline them. Surely there are young men in the seminaries with this same vision of a true undershephard? Or do all of them now aim at becoming Rock Stars?

      • Jon says:

        I guess I didn’t word my “talent” question well. It wasn’t so much me questioning it but asking how those in seminary right now would answer the question. Sure many would get a long away look in their eyes and say, “Oooh, I’d love to move to a small town. So Norman Rockwell”. But when push comes to shove how many actually do make the move?

        I agree that there are huge blessings waiting for a guy who decides to take on the rural or small town church but not many are willing to jump in. My assertion is at least somewhat defensible in that so many small town churches are struggling.

        I realize that my one example does not make an air tight argument — nor does one who is living in a city saying “I would love to live in a small town” make a good argument that it is not a problem that small town churches face.

    • Jon, let’s assume all your presuppositions are true. It changes nothing. Shame on American evangelical churches for raising up and shaping those men or women. Shame on them for sending them out with such poor visions of Christ’s Kingdom and the nature of service to them same. David Wells said that evangelicalism encountered American culture and culture won.

      • Jon says:

        Amen Ryan … that’s exactly what I am saying.

        Let’s pray that God raises up young people in seminaries who see the gospel as the goal not their plans or their own personal goals. Our churches and Bible Colleges/Seminaries are producing weak leaders without a “leave your nets” desire and pursuit.

        I guess what I am saying is that we can complain about mega pastors but that seems to be wasted energy — we are attacking the results and not the cause.

        And let’s not just weep for smaller communities — what about low income inner city communities, what about countries without the gospel? American Christianity has become so weak (I include myself in this). I am praying for my own family — what have I done that has shown the radical truth of the gospel? Given 10%? wow, not that radical. Give up some hours during the week for church? not that life altering. Anyway, I think I may have derailed this blog entry – sorry.

        Ryan, I was wondering from your personal perspective in seminary if you see any hope for change?

        • Gotchya. The hazards of reading quickly from an iPhone on the way to class. I misread your comment to imply that given the “reality” of seminarian graduates that we should kneel before the gods of pragmatics. My bad.

          At Wheaton I did not meet a person that was in or aspiring towards the multi-mega, but I did meet a few recovering multi-megas. Of course, my experience is no scientific sampling of the student body.

          I have just started a second MA at TEDS this week, so it is far too early to even have an anecdotal sense of what is happening there. It draws a much more conservative group of students, so I would expect the values of the dominate culture to be more present at TEDS. However, I have no experience or data to back up that claim.

          There is most certainly a mega-multi backlash that has been born, and it is growing. Studies are showing a trend among American evangelicals toward the more historic and liturgical churches (Rome, Eastern Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, Presbyterian, Lutheran, ect.). Alternatively, there is a movement toward incorporating historic confessions and liturgy in non-denominational churches.

      • Gary says:

        Ryan, I would really like to hang on to that quote from Wells in your last sentence. It’s not that I don’t trust you, it’s just that if I’m going to pass along quotes, I want to be 100% certain that they were actually made. Can you tell me if he wrote that in a book, or if you heard him say it, etc.?

        • Hey Gary … The Wells’ quote is not really a quote, so much as it is a summation of his book, No Place for Truth: Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? You can find it on Great read if you’ve got the time.

  17. Mike Sagan says:

    R C Sproul Jr has a good blog piece on this at Highlands Ministry website.

  18. Chris Trees says:

    It wasn’t very long ago that our pastors preached against greed and covetousness, but now it seems that they’re being trained to pursue them under the names of vision, church growth and “kingdom building”.

    In “No Compromise Ever, Episode 1” Carl Trueman commented that the average seminary graduate will most likely spend his entire ministry career in a church of 50 to 200 congregants and will often be responsible for all the adminstrative and clerical work of the church. This certainly isn’t going to be an attractive prospect to a man who has been led to believe by his teachers and role models that a successful ministry is always hallmarked by huge attendence, multiple campuses, big money, fame and unfettered power and authority and fruitfulness is determined by the raw numbers and bottom line.

    It’s been said that “greed is an unhealthy desire more of what you already have, and covetousness is unhealthy desire for what someone else has”. When these two vices are wantonly mixed together in the heart of a young seminarian or pastor under the guises of vision, mission and ambition, it’s a sure-fire recipe for ingratitude and insatiability in the pastorate.

    Far too often, seminarians and the pastors of small churches are being taught the lesson that no matter how many sheep God has entrusted to you, no matter how wide and diverse the scope of your ministry, don’t for a moment be grateful, never be content, but always, always grab for more. And, by the way, if sheep can be lured away from another undershepherd, so much the better; it’s easier, more efficient and cost effective than growing your flock the old fashioned way.

    At best, this attitude may prove to be one of the worst “unintended consequences” of the multi-campus, mega-church phenomenon and perhaps at worst, a damnable perversion of the Gospel.

  19. Dan McGhee says:

    I think its quite interesting that James MacDonald was more than happy to post a copy of RC Sproul Jr.’s blog critiquing “discernment ministries” on the internet –

    But why didn’t he post RC Sproul Jr.’s blog where he straight-up says that multi-campus formats,

    “1. cultivates and encourages the cult of personality. Any preacher who thinks the kingdom is dependent on as many people as possible hearing HIM preach is likely not a good pastor. Any Christian who thinks his spiritual growth is dependent upon hearing HIM preach has not been blessed with good preaching.

    2. It cultivates and encourages a form of preaching that is anything but pastoral. The preacher is, in this context, on stage. The recipients of the preaching can’t even have eye contact with the preacher. Instead they receive the entertainment of the sermon like watching a movie, or receive the content of the sermon like a lecture. What they don’t receive is shepherding.

    3. It cultivates and encourages a broader failure to watch out for the souls entrusted to the shepherds (Hebrews 13:17). The one preaching cannot pastor thousands of souls scattered all over town, or worse, all over the country. Preaching then is further separated from the shepherding of the sheep.

    4. It cultivates and encourages a consumerist mentality among the sheep. A day may be coming where the local multiplex will offer us a choice of listening to this blockbuster big name preach, or down the hall that indie up and comer, or even, further down the hall, that classic dead guy digitally remastered. Already in many towns you can choose to listen to this guy from that multi-site church or some other guy from another one. And just like at the movies, when the preaching ends we file out, having merely shared space, but no love, with others in the room.

    5. It cultivates and encourages a lack of dependence on the gospel itself. The power is in the Word, not the one delivering it. Our strategies are foolishly built around the messenger rather than the message.”

    Things that make you go Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.

  20. Zig says:

    Though I did not read every comment, I did not see two important points. Point one being that a church is the people and their relationships and community. If it is not possible to have any kind of relationship with the one leading the way then I feel the church is at a disadvantage and is not holding to scripture. The leader needs to be an example and a leader, but can’t be either if he is not part of the community. Being an image on a screen with a carefully manipulated image is not leading. The second point I want to make is to point out the enormous amount of money these “satellite” campuses make. They are a money making machine for the home church. It is my opinion, for various reasons from personal experiences, that ego and money are the main force behind many of these multi-site churches. To be clear, I am not saying God doesn’t work within these “satellite” churches, or that there is not fruit. I am saying that many of them were created due to the selfish and ego driven desires of a pastor. If the pastors of these multi-site churches truly wanted to spread Gods word they should disciple men who can pastor these churches, much like Jesus did with His disciples.

  21. stauron3n1 says:


    At the risk of sounding jaded and cynical, I’ve heard it said that multi-site doesn’t mean “one church with multiple campuses”, but “multiple churches with one checkbook”.

    Because of the “nature of this arrangement, in the wrong hands, it can be too easily misued until it operates like a hybridization of branch banking, colonialism and empire.

  22. gabes says:

    Another reason for this whole problem is that the church in America has adopted capitalism as it’s church growth model. Marketing, bigger and better productions which include the music and speaker are the driving force and numbers are the goal. This problem is at the core: people believe church growth is in numbers instead of spiritual maturity and personal growth.

    True church growth is changed lives by the gospel not more seats filled. The sad truth is most church growth seems to happen from church hopping not evangelism. Not only are distance and lack of accountability the problem, but the lack of intimacy furthers lends itself to our individualistic society and wars against vulnerability and thus discipleship doesn’t happen.

    The order to multiply was to Adam and Eve the order to make disciples was to the Church.

      • Stauron3n1 says:

        In September 2010, Christianity Today published an article called “Ayn Rand, Goddess of the Great Recession” which in part discussed, how some segments of the American Evangelical Church have seemed to blindly adoptAyn Rand’s philosophy of “moral objectivism”, highlighted in “Atlas Shrugged” and applied it to the issue of the Church’s social responsibilities.

        According to Ayn Rand’s philosophy “man is a noble being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”

        Translation, do anything that makes you happy, as long as your numbers are stellar, and don’t let trifling details like truth, morals, rules or laws get in your way.

        Sound familiar? The dog eat dog approach to church growth demonstrated by some pastors and churches, that argues for the virtue of the Darwinian belief in “survival of the fittest” and provides the greatest monetary rewards for the shepherds with the biggest flocks, that are grown by the most effective and expeditious methods available, no matter who gets hurt, hardly resembles Christ’s concept of the Church no matter how you dress it up.

  23. Pingback: Multi-Site Churches: Paving the Road to a “Cult of Personality” via Blood Stained Ink Blog | Pilgrimage to Geneva

  24. fiveonly says:

    While I share some of the same concerns, all of your arguments against a multi-campus church could be made against any large congregation. Virtually every large church with which I’m familiar has the same challenges. In reality, your arguments are actually philosophical rather than theological. I’m not aware of any of the church structure that exist in 21st century America that could be specifically defined in scripture. The fact is that all of the church structures with which I’m familiar have weaknesses and thus could be susceptible to one error or another. The liberal denominations are a perfect illustration. The Presbyterian Church USA was a stalwart defender of the faith prior to the 1920’s. The Southern Baptists and their “association” have proven that there are clear weaknesses in their church structure. The independents, house churches and mega-churches in general all have their challenges. The real warning here should be to hold our leaders/pastors/elders to the biblical standard and when we see them straying from that standard, to lovingly and respectfully take a stand and follow biblical guidelines for holding our brothers accountable.

  25. Nick says:

    I couldn’t agree more. It seems like every day I hear of mergers and by-outs–it sounds more like business than church. Multi-site campuses are leading to church monopolies. The arguments run along the lines that smaller churches need help because they are dying, so Big Brother steps in to save the day. What about equipping other pastors to lead their people? No. Instead we castrate their authority by removing them from the pulpit and relegating them to the side lines as a “campus pastor.”

    “Oh, you have a problem? Well, sorry. The celebrity pastor is too busy to see you now. Why don’t you talk to this guy?”

    “I don’t know him? Are you sure he’s smart enough to help me with my problem?”

    No. These rock-star preachers should be investing in the future of preaching and church leadership by cultivating stronger pastors in small churches–not trying to hoard all the glory for themselves.

    Thanks for posting this!

Comments are closed.