Tuesday, May 13, 2008

contemplating the semantics and potential application of multi-site vs denomination

Have I been cynical to have suspected that the people running the church I call home are simply sinners who bumble their way through things and are at least as reluctant as I am (and not less) to avoid admitting to a dumb-ass mistake here and there?

When I first came to the church there was some discussion about how it was a people and not a place. Now conversation seems to have implicity shifted toward a place where community happens and not the people from whom that community will (or, just as importantly, potentially won't) ostensibly spring. Getting plugged in means signing up, finding a place to serve, and helping the mission. If the mission is Christ, cool, but I have found out steadily, inexorably over the years that I'm not gifted in the usual "evangelism" methods of Christians in the United States. In fact I'm the kind of Christian you probably won't discover is a Christian until you're already in the church and happen to come across me or happen to come across in some other setting where I don't avoid saying what my confession of faith is but don't seek to beat people over the head with it either. In an older time of my church's history this might have been dubbed lifestyle evangelism. ;) A secularist might say that i'm a Christian who minds his own business and knows a few things about Messiaen and anime along with the Bible.

But is it cynical to suppose that churches will invariably distort or even destroy the Gospel as a message of hope in Christ Jesus? I don't care what the confessional alignment is or what the formally stated doctrines are, it seems as though we are destined to muck it up in presentation. How is it that a holy, loving, all-knowing, all-powerful God would be so eager to reveal Himself through such stupid, venal, selfish and self-deluded pieces of living dust? That is something I don't really understand. But I am starting to understand that the people who think they are doing God a favor are as a rule the people He is most angry with. The people who do not invoke Him to prove they are right seem more likely to understand His mercy. "Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more" is not something I have heard all that clearly from people in His Church, regardless of confessional alignment. So is it cynicism to rest in the rather dreary supposition that "Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more" is simply not something I'm going to hear from Christians as a whole, brothers and sisters in Christ?

Whoever has been forgiven much loves much, and whoever has been forgiven little loves little. It feels as though we can be so eager to tell people how much they have sinned so they can understand how much they have been forgiven. Jesus can say that but can we? Jesus doesn't tell the woman how much she sinned, only that she was forgiven. Something about these stories resonates with me, we don't need to come to Christ telling Him how much we've sinned not because we shouldn't confess, but because coming to Christ is the confession, and Christ knows our sin. Do we as Christians think that we have to play the role of Christ or the Spirit to tell people who have offended us how much they are guilty before God? I've found myself tempted to that all the time and I don't speak because I don't feel I can speak from that position, though sometimes out of sheer frustration I wish that I could.

So appropos of no transition, the multi-site church is a microdenomination. There is no practical, meaningful distinction between a multi-site church that has five or six campuses and a denomination. If you have multiple locations with a common doctrinal and liturgical practice, and any kind of executive leadership that makes decisions while the other pastors have the option to vote for or against particular points of doctrine it's not THAT different from a denomination. It's not even THAT different from the Roman Catholic Church since not just any bishop can make a proclamation about this or that doctrine but the pontiff can speak on behalf of all the bishops together. The jibe about Protestants having a pope at every pulpit has a kernel of truth to it. after all.

But why sell this as a multi-site church rather than a denomination? Seems simple enough, the mainline denominations in the United States sold orthodoxy up the river or embraced a strain of fundamentalism and both at their various stages of development waged culture wars to get the society around them to go the way they wanted. The religious left went this route in the 19th and early 20th centuries while the religious right tried to take back the Eisenhower era without paying attention to Francis Schaeffer from the 1980s on out. On either side of the coin the denominations bungled the battle for the culture (which is something both sides deserved, handily).

If you want to transform culture for Christ or use Christ to transform culture (because when your church is led by run-of-the-mill sinners only Jesus Himself knows which is which) and realize that movements in American Christianity have fizzled out by shooting for the moon then you avoid the word most often historically linked with such movements, denomination.

But a key difference DOES exist here. In a denominational hierarchy the leaders have paid their dues at the level of the local campus and moved on to serve as shepherds for the denomination/movement. What they no longer do is have any real day-to-day involvement with people in local churches under their jurisdiction. Someone preached a sermon about this kind of problem a few years ago in Seattle, actually. Anyway, what happens in a denominational structure is that if Pastor A leads the denomination and Pastor B is at church building Q then Pastor B does the preaching at building Q because Pastor B is, well, the pastor there. In the multi-site church Pastor A does all the preaching everywhere whether or not he or she has any meaningful connection to building Q, knows its members, or even attends. For the sake of direction within the denomination the advantage of this is that the denominational leader can speak to the entire network on any given Sunday.

The disadvantage to this is the contextualizing the Gospel to individual congregations has completely vanished. It not only doesn't happen but can't possibly happen. That task could ostensibly be delegated to the various pastors who administrate those campuses but if they are not preaching to their own flock are they pastors in the traditionally understood sense of the word? Veer away from the Protestant praxis a great deal and I could say, yeah, they are. An overseer or a bishop may not necessarily share anything new to his or her flock. But knowing how the teaching of Christ applies in a specific congregant's life evaporates. The pastor of a multi-campus church runs the risk of having no involvement in the actual flock.

Now in a denominational paradigm this is precisely what I would not only expect but encourage since the goal of a denominational/movement leader is to equip OTHER LEADERS, not the flock at each campus. That's a biblically defensible pattern we see in Scripture. The apostle Paul instructs leaders at various churches how to deal with situations they face with their flesh and blood congregations. Paul would visit churches he planted for quite some time and preach and teach there and immerse himself in the lives of that particular group of believers.

The risk of a multi-site church that uses video feed is that what is contextualized may not be Christ but simply the lead pastor, who as a de facto denominational leader may have no idea what is going on in the various flocks he is teaching on Sunday because he's never actually at those locations immersed in the lives of those he ostensibly might shepherd. Practically the solution would seem to be to let the local bishops do their work (i.e. local pastors of whatever monikor we may propose).

Once a multi-site church extends beyond a single city we are firmly outside any biblically viable explication of what the local church looks like. A huge urban area that includes a few adjacent cities could still count but beyond that it's no longer viable to say the Church of Western Washington where before you could have said the church in Olympia or the church in Bothell. The church in Bothell and Aberdeen stops being a single church in terms of biblical precedent and becomes two churches ... unless we're talking the Church in which case we're getting catholic. Or, at a more pragmatic level, a denomination.

And in the denominational network that's what we see happening, treating two different locations as unique expressions of the Church universal and of the denominational network in particular. Pastor Billy and Pastor Bobby at Hazard county live on either sides of the county but they know their congregations and take them through the Word as seems best. Or Bishop Matt and Bishop Mason have the lectionary prescribed by the denominational leadership and they go through that and tailor a short message that adds a personal touch to a liturgical paradigm whose goal is not individual application but universal application by joining churches across time and space in worship of Christ. Most Protestants don't seem to take that approach but some of them do (i.e. Anglicans and Lutherans, if memory serves).

But in a multi-site church something seems potentially out of place. The de facto denominational leader can have his or her sermon piped out to multiple locations and enjoys the privilege of the role that a pastor would have in a denominational network without the corresponding responsibility before both Christ and the denominational leadership to account for how he or she has shepherded the flock of Christ given into his care. It's like you get to kiss your girlfriend but you don't have to marry her is the potential risk involved.

By analogy, the pastor at a multi-site church has the power to speak as though a denominational leader without the responsibility of shepherding any flock at all, a task that can now be conveniently delegated to the pastors at individual churches. And because the organization is a "multi-site church" and not a denomination a figurehead status is retained in which the denominational/multi-site church leader has the role of being the Pope and assembly of cardinals, kinda, while not ever being in a position to administer a sacrament like officiating a wedding or participating in communion with his or her own flock.

Conversely pastors who are tasked with the role of preaching and teaching in other settings (i.e. a denominational network) are essentially put in a position where they have the responsibility of ensuring things run smoothly but have limited opportunities to speak to their congregation. This is not necessarily all that is entailed in being a church leader, though. If being a church leader were just about talking to people from the pulpit anyone with a blog could be a pastor, and almost anyone with a blog seems able to think he or she IS a pastor.

But if the model reveals a risk of having privileges without responsibilities someone else gets the other side of the pancake, having responsibilities without any corresponding privileges, or potentially having privileges that are abdicated by someone else. So, you're married to your husband or wife but you don't get to kiss them, that's what the matchmaker gets to do because the matchmaker set you two together.

So it could potentially be with a pastor at a multi-site church and site pastors. A denominational structure would allow the denominational leader to speak to the local leaders who could then apply the vision of the leadership at a local level while being able to shepherd individual flocks in a way the denominational leader is incapable of accomplishing. In this setting a pastor at an individual church can participate in communion and conduct weddings and funerals, all things that are part of the lifeblood of the local congregation that the denominational leader or primary teaching pastor of a multi-site church simply doesn't participate in anymore.

Other people, naturally, could beg to differ, and do so vehemently. That's cool. That's what the internet is for. If anyone reads this blog at all I would be somewhat amazed. Rather abstract and potentially detached ruminations on the "multi-site church" as a euphemism for what is historically a denomination might not interest anyone else, which may be just as well. But it's a concern of mine because I feel that sometimes you have to call a spade a spade. There have been times in the last year when I've heard "multi-site church" bandied about as though that were somehow magically not a denomination.

Okay, maybe I grant that, but I also propose that denominations have distinct advantages when they are actually set up. For one thing, accountability goes both ways. No one can get to the top of the denomination without jumping through the appropriate hoops, hoops agreed upon by the rest of the leadership at every level of the organization. No one can get to the top without having been at the bottom. More importantly, no one can get to the top from the bottom in a very short order and then rewrite the entire system to suit his or her ends because the denomination transcends him or her. For Eugene Robinson to have been installed as head of the Episcopalian church in the United states the entire denomination had to shift that direction, not just Robinson.

A relatively young church that grows to denominational proportions or quasi-denominational structure doesn't have that opportunity to curb any unwitting or intentional cult of personality issues because organization has been essentially ad hoc and organizational communication has not been consolidated--it has, in a phrase, grown up with the personality around whom the cult has somehow managed to grow. As Franky Schaeffer put it (not that I'm going to go Orthodox because I'm sure the Orthodox have had this problem, too) Protestant churches that grow quickly usually do so because of a charismatic personality more than consistent teaching. Take away the popular preacher and replace it with just going through Scripture and attendence dips dramatically. Having attendence dip dramatically when that occurs might be a sign that people are coming for Preacher John and not Jesus. The people who show up even if Preacher John takes a vacation for a few months? THOSE people are probably there for Jesus.


JS Bangs said...

Well, I read your site.

I think that you're basically right. Actually, I would go further: a single-site megachurch is already functionally a denomination, as the personal pastoral care that the people are getting (if they're getting any, which is hardly a given) is coming from their small-group leader or other pastor. The leader of a megachurch is typically a preacher and administrator. Not really a pastor of his sheep, in most cases.

Moving to multi-site video sermons was the main thing that soured me on Mars Hill. (Well, aside from the theological issues, which I was willing to overlook for the time.) Then Larisa came and hated the service we attended together--she said it felt like going to a movie theater. That was the end of it for us. Having now transitioned to a small church with about 100 members, I can't say that I regret it.

Of course we're still part of a denomination, and a remarkably dysfunctional one, at that. But at least we admit it, and our actual worshiping body is small and intimate.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

I've put my case more strongly in other contexts and no one disputed it, at least not at a personal level. At a corporate level there's no mention of denominational structure even though that is obviously what already exists. To me a denomination is essentially any multi-site religious gathering of any kind that has a common doctrinal/liturgical practice but I can see there are more or less political and aesthetic reasons for wanting to avoid that monikor, even though rebranding in itself does nothing to evade the actual status. Rebranding presents the loss of some responsibilities that the other brand would essentially provide. In the history of God's people there is both upward and downward accountability, a multi-site megachurch may not be as amenable to that.

I have remained skeptical from the outset about the viabiilty of small groups or community groups in this particular context because they always veered toward forcing a square peg into a round hole, trying to make the homiletics of Sunday apply to the actual lives of any one in the group at a particular time. That's not really taking a pastoral approach of going to the biblical passages that may apply to a person's life, nor does it necessarily need to, but at that point it is not really about the local church being the church so much as an extension of what the church is considered to be on Sunday, a paradoxically self-defeating approach.

In earlier phases this felt less pronounced or obvious because a number of groups existed that discussed all sorts of things that had no connection to the sermons on Sunday. I hear such gruops still exist but am not sure if they are the norm or not.

I have taken the potentially naive and bureaucratically impossible view that no church structure of any sort can engineer actual fellowship. It is the Holy Spirit that unites us in Christian love and no amount of hoops or structuring can compensate for the absence of that. Fellowship that doesn't naturally grow from shared lived but is mediated presents problems to me. Having said this I have never felt obliged to find my "community" or community in any one place. I'm quite happy to have friends and associates who no longer attend MH because it means my social life isn't about MH, just happens to include it.