In Christianity Today’s recent magazine (September 2005), there is an interesting article called “High-Tech Circuit Riders” by Bob Smietana which reveals what could become the mother of all inventions of modern-day pragmatism of the megachurch movement. It is called the “franchise church” or satellite church. Whereas some megachurches are buying superdomes and civic centers (such as Lakewood Church’s 95 million dollar project in Houston), others are developing mini-versions of the megachurch in strategic areas across the megatropolis. Some specific examples were given in the article, and I would like to share some observations I have concerning this euphoric attitude and unholy alliance of American consumerism and church growth.
The multisite approach (franchising), according to the Leadership Network, is already being embraced by over 1,000 churches. According to one advocate, this approach is “one of the leading innovations of the 21st century.” At least he had the honesty to call it an innovation. Now that the church has officially become a project or science experiment, we can better understand the presuppositions of their approach.
Here’s the basic idea according to Smietana. “The idea behind multisite or franchise churches is the same one that’s made chain stores successful – take a system that works, and duplicate it over and over.” Here we see two things: the manual for this approach being the utilitarian model of the franchised America (the system), and the dominating ideology of pragmatism (a system that works). Now I am not advocating doing something that doesn’t work, but I am advocating doing something that actually finds its basis and support in the Bible, not in our culture and supported by worldly schemes.
When interviewing the pastor of Life Church, a model church for the franchising approach which as over 14,000 members, five campuses, and 23 “experiences” on a given weekend, I am intrigued by the “theological correctness” (spiritualized political correctness) employed in their lingo. For instance, worship services are now called “experiences” (hello mr. existentialism) and the sanctuary is now called “the worship space”. The pastor of each site is known as “the face with the place” and has a job description defined as “to build a social network needed to bind the church together”. Hmmm, can anyone find in the Bible the job description for a pastor/elder being to “build a social network”? And don’t get me started on the “experience” jargon. Yes, this is the land of post-modernismNew Age/Subjectivism/Sensationalism ad nauseum. Hold on, I need to gag . . . o.k. I am back.
While “seeker-sensitive” is not mentioned here, it is implicitly. For instance, when interviewing the “director of operations” for Life Church who was correcting the doormat which was backwards, he said, “You’ve got to look at these things from the point of an outsider”. Outsider is synonymous with seeker. How about looking at things from an insider? How about looking at things from an “upsider”? I’m sure God’s looking down with a smile, thinking, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have faithfully straightened the doormat and thereby welcomed me into your ‘worship space’. Now we are ready to have our ‘experience.'”
The promotion of the franchised church utilizes the same terminology as a salesman or businessman with his portfolio or business plan. When advertising their approach, they speak of options that they offer to many potential buyers. If you buy in to the church, there are many benefits and features that you will find appealing and aide in your comfort in your experience. For example, Craig Groeschel, pastor of Life Church, said, “People like the options and quality of megachurches, yet crave the intimacy of smaller churches . . . You get the benefits of a smaller community with the benefits of a megachurch.” By the way, the assumption here is that churches which do not qualify for megachurch status does not provide the quality they do. Another insight into their idea of superior performance in getting goods and services to their customers who obviously are buying into their church business plan.
RESUMING . . .
Again, looking at their model church, Life Church, it is clear that the multisite approach demands synchronization. To accomplish this, each satellite church has a synchronized clock that counts down ten minutes before the “experience” starts. Five minutes before the service starts, you will be entertained by a popular secular song or a hip pop-Christian favorite like “Jesus Freak”. The worship lasts exactly 18 minutes long, and the “face for the place” welcomes everyone for exactly one minute and thirty seconds. Then, at 19 minutes and 30 seconds, the virtual preacher/celebrity comes on the big screen t.v.’s at the movie theatre, I mean “worship space”. At the end of the sermon, the “face with the place” gets up and leads the entire congregation in saying the “salvation prayer”. This is followed up by a snazzy video trailer about next weeks sermon. This, to me, is some serious prepackaging of the worship of God. The Holy Spirit is programmed and limited to the strains of synchronization and modern-day efficiency. Since when has the Holy Spirit been subjected to human devices? Ironically, it was the contemporary church style that criticized the liturgical church of being too rigid, formal, and constrained by time. Now, it appears that they are the subjects of their own criticism. (For a good read on the matter of time and culture, I urge you to read Prophetic Untimeliness by Os Guiness.) Also, praying “the salvation prayer” is bad enough, but having the entire congregation doing it – are you kidding me? So this is what God’s salvation has been reduced to. Methinks this results in mega-tares in the megachurch.
One of the supposed justifications of the multisite approach is its similarity to the movie theaters. As one pastor comments on the interactiveness of “virtual preachers” with their congregation, “It is the same thing as going to a movie theater. You go to a movie theater and everyone laughs at the jokes and people cry at the right time.” At least they are not being prompted to do it at the right time. Is this how people coming to church is to prepare themselves? Going to a movie theater is the same thing as entering the presence of the Most High God? “Umm, after we sing this song, can I have some popcorn with that? I don’t want to miss the video trailer, so I better go now.” Is this what our approach to the King of the Ages should be? If we think church is just like the movie theater, then people will come for the sole purpose of being entertained, taking the back seat to the sermon and act as a passive spectator, only to judge the performance of the presentation. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think that this is going to produce doers of the Word, much less Christ-like saints. And I don’t think that it is an “experience” that surfaces on the significance of eternity as much as the modification of our behavior.
As Eddie Gibbs, professor of church growth at Fuller Theological Seminary points out, the virtual preachers in these megachurches “run the risk of turning their teaching pastor into a celebrity. And that can be form of idolatry.” I totally agree with his conclusion. But there are other problems with the virtual preacher. How many of sheep does he know? How many know him? When they see him on the big screen, do they perceive him as a movie star celebrity or a foot-washing servant who is well-acquainted with their feet? Maybe they are like some Christians I know, doing the strange phenomena of asking preachers to sign their Bible. Maybe, they think their pastor wrote it. But the point is simply that these preachers are often distant, plastic, unapproachable because of their entourage, and intimidating. I would presume to say that he would be a pastor many of them would never get to know.
At the heart of this article, you will find the confession of the heart of this approach. Jim Tomberlin, who overseas Willow Creek’s franchises, says, “We do the same things [the] same way you would do at Starbucks or a McDonald’s or a brand name that works.” I guess, when all else fails, let’s do what the world does. Sola cultura – right? Now, I am not against churches growing and planting other churches like them in their area, but contrary to what some said, methodology does matter. Just because we worship Yahweh does not mean that we can adopt Canaanite practices towards Yahweh. When the church’s cultural captivity becomes too pervasive and irreversible, we will look back and think, “Maybe doing it McDonald’s way was not the way God intended.” Hopefully, that realization will come before it’s too late.
The underlying, subtly hidden agenda of the Canaanization of the Church is propped up by the idea of “modern-day, high-tech circuit preachers”, pulling from the historical analogy to the Methodist preachers in late 18th century. This attempt to employ history as mere justification simply does not measure up. While the Methodist circuit-riders may have been successful, that success appears to have been short-lived. Could it have been that it was the latest greatest trend of the 18th century? Where are the Methodists today? Just in the last two decades, the UMC has lost over 2.2 million members, a decline averaging around 8% in a population that has grown by over 60 million in that time. As one writer states about the decline of Methodists, “Methodists may not have controlled the nation’s elite discourse but they could be found at the heart of the nation’s evangelical popular culture. Yet in their success could be found seeds of their pending destruction.” I don’t know if Methodists were the best example to use here, or is it? Is the franchising of the church and its success planting seeds of their pending destruction? I am not that doom-and-gloom prophet, but history does speak on behalf of itself, and the reality of today is settling in.
I have attempted to share my interaction with this article with my ten observations. Unfortunately, the article is not online to link to, so if you want to read it, you will just have to buy the issue. I would love to hear what you think. I know many churches, even good churches establishing satellite churches, and I do think that there is a right way to do it. Unfortunately, that way could not be found in the CT article.
Oh, and if you are wondering if I am interesting in franchising – I am. That is, I am interested in franchising Chick-fil-a . . . at least they are a business that is closed on Sunday’s.