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You Should Have Been There: The Problem of Multi-Campus Churches

     Not long ago, one of the largest and best known Christian churches in Lexington expanded their ministry by planting a new site a number of miles south of their main campus.  Land was acquired and a building was education and worship was completed.
     The preacher of the church, one of the best known pastors across the nation, was a major reason the church was so large.  So, naturally, it was decided that the new location would use a projected presence of their lead pastor.  
No one honestly thought a new preacher would come close to the lead pastor's abilities.  And, since dynamic preaching was the lifeblood of every church, using the same dynamic young pastor's sermons in the new locations insures that excellence in preaching continue to be the norm in the new location.
     Some raised their eyebrows at the suggestion of projecting their pastor to various campus sites throughout the city.  But, doesn't God deserve excellence in all things?  Wouldn't this guarantee the new church would be an extension of, and never a competitor to, the main church?
     And so, in 1957, the nationally known Broadway Christian Church planted their first campus church near the Southland shopping center on the outskirts of Lexington, Kentucky.  The famous voice and face of Ard Hoven was projected, week after week, into the gathering that met on the new Southland campus site constructed on Hill'n Dale drive.

     That, of course, is not what happened.  But, if it had - If Broadway had insisted on maintaining direct control of the new offsite gathering - and if they had provided projected versions of one of the greatest preachers of the 1950s, Dr. Ard Hoven, as the projected presence for the new offsite campus - what difference would that have made over the rest of the twentieth century?
     Would Broadway Christian Church have had less competition throughout Lexington in the decades after 1957?  The answer would have to be yes.  But, since we know the alternate history, it would have meant other things would have been lost, also.
     First, a young preacher named Wayne B. Smith, in 1956 serving at the small Unity Christian Church in Harrison County, would never become the preacher on the fledgling Southland Christian Church.  He was certainly not widely known and no one, Wayne most of all, would say he was a carbon copy of Ard Hoven.  It is not likely the Southland Christian Church would have grown and expanded to eventually far outstrip the size and facilities of the Broadway Christian Church.  It is not likely the Southland Christian Church would have, duplicating the pattern of its own birth, intentionally started another potential competitor, the Southern Acres Christian Church; or, left another congregation at its original location on Hill'n Dale Drive, when the Southland church moved several miles away to its current location.
     In the retrospect of more than five decades, of course, it is easy to see the decision of the leaders of the Broadway Christian Church in 1957, to plant a fully independent congregation in south Lexington would result in many more tens of thousands of people being brought to Christ.  It would result in young preachers like Wayne Smith and Wally Rendel, being given opportunities that would not have otherwise occurred.  All of this comes out of seeing other churches within driving distance of your church not as competition for the same market, but as opportunities to advance the same Kingdom.

     The current practice of an already-huge church expanding by establishing new sites still controlled by that church in which a projected image of the church's pastor is transmitted to the new gatherings, poses significant questions that need to be asked.  The obvious fact that it can be done does not a priori demonstrate that is should be done.
     Is it effective? A valid question.  It is too often the sole question raised.  If it is raised, it needs to be examined on a longer time scale than a few years.  A person ins 1962, five years after planting Southland Christian, may well have decided an expanded Broadway Christian Church with all the seasoned members invested in the church plant back in the fold, might have looked like the better alternative.  Fifty years later, it is obvious to all the independent church plant has been, on an order of magnitude, more effecting in reaching people for Christ.  But, other important questions are less driven by pragmatism.
     Does this approach amplify the already present problem of churches becoming so centered on single pastor's presence that the expression celebrity-pastor seems appropriate?  Is such stardom healthy, even if it were desired?
     Does this expand the power of isolated mega-churches to the point where the pastor and leadership functions as a repackaged ruling city-bishop?  Would such leadership act against the interests of the main church if it would strengthen the effectiveness of one or more campus churches?
     Does this undermine the broader preaching ministry by limiting opportunities (a city with ten churches using ten preachers versus another city with one church in ten campuses using one preacher)?
     The most troubling question, at least to me, rests in my own beliefs regarding the nature of the weekly assembly itself: Where two or three are gathered, actually and physically gathered, in His name.  The intangible and complex realities of actually being a part of and being present at the gathering in which the sermon is heard is no small matter.  I'm not sure its simply an option we are free to disregard when technology opens the way to alternatives.
     Every preacher knows that no two Sunday mornings feel exactly the same. We have seen, over and over, that some of the most powerful moments in a Sunday sermon, happen because it was on that particular Sunday, and in that particular group; and that what happened transcended anything planned in advance.  That same sermon, displaced to another Sunday, or to another church, returns to the realm of the normal.  
     It is my experience that those moments do not happen with guest preachers, regardless of how gifted or inspiring the sermon might be.  It is happens when God move through a man the church knows, and in a church the man knows.  It happens in that living moment when both listening church and preaching man are joined in a time and place and circumstances that, through the Spirit, bridge the gap between merely inspiring and inspired. The untimely death of a child, the sudden catastrophic illness of a beloved elder, shared frustration about an over-crowded nursery, or an under-crowded Bible school - all of these twist and tweak the sermon.  As critical as it that sermons be biblical and practical and well delivered, it is equally true that they are experienced in the context of living church.
     "You should have been there." That's what we say to a friend as we hand them a CD or tell them to download the MP3 or video file.  We know they can watch the music and the sermon at home.  We hope they do.  But we still whisper, "Oh my.  You really should have been there." The reason is simple: we know watching a video, no matter how well produced, of worship will never have the same experience as those who were there.  No one not there at that place and with those people will ever experience that time of worship as it was experienced by those physically present.  Everyone else will watch a video of a worship service that they were not a part of.
     Lurking behind the whispered wish, "You should have been there," is the great problem of projecting a pastor into an offsite campus church.  Videos or live projections of worship merely captures only what technology can record.  Sight and sound without flesh and blood.  Watching a digital reproduction of reality from where spectators always watch such things: on the outside.  
    Over the years, communication has improved from letter to telegraph to telephone and now to technologies like Skype that link people with full video.  One thing remains the same, however.  None of that replaces being physically together with people you love.  It is not the same and no one imagines it ever could be or ever should be.
    Nothing replaces that full body immersion of a living human being into actual experience of the living worship of a living church.  Nothing.  Not for the average Christian.  And, not for the preaching minister.  I can close my eyes are remember this one Sunday just had to be there to understand.


Josh Test said...

Very good post. Another good point related to this issue is one that Carl Trueman raised, which is why do multi-site churches with video sermons not pipe in the music too? Why is the music live but the preaching comes in via video stream?

Doug Overmyer said...

I can't speak to other multi-site churches, but our multi-site church has "local" worship teams for several reasons. Our church has 5 campuses: 5 worship teams. We are able to raise up and train 5 times as many new worship leaders than if we just piped in a video stream from the central campus's worship team. Worship team members are raised up, and sent out to lead new teams. Secondly, the worship teams are able to select music styles and songs that best fit their local fellowships. For instance, my campus has a younger, less educated demographic than the central campus, and the worship team enjoys introducing newer worship songs that perhaps the more established congregation wouldn't be so responsive to. Also, local worship teams can be more responsive to the Holy Spirit. In addition, there are other local services not in sync with the other sites where a local worship team is needed, so it's good to have several people on a worship team in all the sites.

As for having the main message piped in, our church rotates speakers. We don't just have the senior pastor speak every week. Several people speak, depending on the sermon series, and often the local campus pastor will be in the rotation, so not every message is video, nor is every message live.

Again, this is our experience. I can't speak to other churches who use this kind of model.

Tom Lawson said...

Doug -

No doubt there are some churches doing a great deal more than others to make ministry work in a variety of approaches. I certainly don't want to suggest anything other than that. I'm glad to hear of the intentionality in your church's efforts.

I still think, to be honest, it is both not a good approach and not one that will stand any serious test of time. When someone involved in one the campus sites has an unexpected death of a child in a car wreck or from a sudden illness, who does the grief-related visitation? Who does the funeral? Is it someone who that family has actually met or spoken to prior to the crisis? Would the sermon on the next Sunday be adjusted or altered to address the tragedy?

If your worship ministry leaders are the primary on-site leaders of the assembly, what kind of biblical/theological/pastoral education or preparation do they have outside music?

If a group of people involve in a campus site starting talking about forming a new independent church out of that site, how would your pastors feel about that development?

How do other churches in your area see the multi-site approach? I realize churches can be petty, stagnant, and envious, but the RM has historically been committed to building unity among churches.

And, finally, think ahead five or ten or fifteen years. Where does the leadership (of the whole multi-campus church) see this process going? If you had twice or four times or times times as many campuses, does it ever reach of point when it quits being a good idea?

I'm not trying to be unduly critical of mega-churches or creative new approaches. There certainly are considerations that favor multi-site campuses. But, these are still reasonable questions to ask.

Tom Lawson

Unknown said...

First off, it appears I drove some traffic to your blog're welcome. :-) Doug is part of our church so I can speak to the questions you raised. We are not part of the restoration movement, but this is certainly an interesting discussion.

1) unexpected death - the local site has pastors. Who ministers to families in churches over 100 people? The pastors or leaders close to them. This might be the site pastor who oversees the campus, or another lay pastor or staff pastor at larger campuses. Similarly, one of them would officiate the funeral. So yes, it would be someone they have actually met unless they don't attend the church.

2) Would the sermon be altered to address the tragedy? As in any church this might depend on the specific case. There is certainly room for that.

3) The worship ministry leaders are not the primary onsite leaders all the time, though that could be the case. Our church has a variety of training programs (in-house and outside of our local church, through our association with Vineyard USA).

4) What if the church wants to be independent? We have guidelines for that set out from the beginning - what the process would look like including many details down to how much of the initial expenses would/could be paid back to the mother church and over what time frame.

5) How do other churches in your area see the approach? As with any new and successful church venture (be it multi-site or church plant) conflict will arise. But we've seen a host of things that make me think it's good. First off, we are very upfront that we want to bless the whole church. We aren't setting up shop to reshuffle Christians. When we start a new location, our numbers show our greatest impact is with the unchurched. In fact, church people often can't deal with frequent video teaching, so they just go back to their old church after trying it out. Dechurched people have much less issue with it. During the opening of a new facility for one of our campuses, the church across the road (a methodist church) changed their sign to say "Congratulations Vineyard."

6) Thinking ahead, multi-site models will likely give rise to some independent churches. Some will ultimately close. And some will thrive. The results aren't that different than church planting, though the mortality rate is a bit better.

For us anyway, it's not an either/or, it's a both/and. We don't do Multi-site to the exclusion of church planting. Finally, for the benefit of your blog readers who missed this in my facebook comments, a great counterpoint article is available here:

Ultimately, I think this post is written from the perspective of someone who hasn't seen a variety of multi-site approaches. I do respect your opinion though and your blog is a very thought provoking read. Thanks for sharing so candidly (and frequently)!

Tim Wheeler