You Should Have Been There: The Problem of Multi-Campus Churches
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 when...well...you just had to be there to understand.