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. 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.” 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.”
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?”
 1 Timothy 3:2-7. See also Titus 1:6-9.