I have been deliberately late to discussing this here at Wenatchee The Hatchet because real world concerns trump virtual world concerns and virtual preaching at multi-site venues, though interesting to me, has had to take a back seat to real world concerns.
The discussion Dever, Driscoll, and MacDonald highlights what I consider to be the real debate behind the viability of multi-site church model. The debate is not about missiology and ecclesiology, as Driscoll put it, the debate is not necessarily about whether eklessia refers to the physically gathered assembly as Dever was moving toward (though I'll grant it can and does touch on that). I think what we're seeing in that video is a debate amongst Reformed Baptists about sacramentology.
The reason a multi-site model can be controversial is because we're looking at a church tradition with such a low approach to sacramentology that guys like Driscoll and MacDonald can basically have it both ways. On the one hand MacDonald can say J. Vernon McGee's Bible study broadcasts should not even be on the radio anymore because McGee is dead while on the other hand claims that there's no disconnect between a multi-site pastor's video feed and a satellite campus even though in principle a video sermon creates the same temporal and spatial disconnect between a pastor and a congregation that a recorded radio broadcast does.
So, somehow, a video venue with a week delay is okay as long as the pastor is alive but once he's dead it's somehow not kosher because the Spirit is somehow no longer working through a dead pastor's ministry. MacDonald's argument is inconsistently applied if it works on the matter of video preaching and self-defeating if it works on the supposition that a pastor must be alive and present for the Spirit to use video preaching because at that point he's making a sacramental assertion about preaching that would suggest Dever's concerns are right and that it makes more sense for a pastor at a satellite campus to handle the majority of preaching.
So if MacDonald is right that McGee shouldn't be on the radio because he's dead and the Spirit has moved on does that mean we shouldn't have preserved for us the sermons of John Donne, Charles Spurgeon, David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the lectures of Cornelius van Til, or the lectures of J. I. Packer (who, obviously, isn't dead yet)? I don't see why that would be the case. There wouldn't be a Reformed Baptist movement if MacDonald's case that preachers and teachers should stop being in mass media like TV if it is necessary for a person to be alive. There wouldn't be a Bible if people stopped circulating the letters of Paul because the apostle had died and the Spirit was no longer working through him. I mean, really, my Orthodox relatives could just go to town on a logical fallacy big enough to fly the entire fleet of B-2 bombers through!
Now to be clear my objection to MacDonald's reasoning is not that I think there's no place for downloadable sermons. For people who are disabled or poor and unable to get to church, having at least PART of a church service available in downloadable form is wonderful! If a nasty snow storm in Seattle makes it too dangerous to get to church for someone with a disability of some kind that person can at least download the sermon. Or they can be the hard-core of the hard-core and brave the snow and risk their safety to hear a preacher preach via video feed here in Seattle but I hope you'll forgive me for that possibly inexplicable moment of being a smart-ass.
But if the pastor has to somehow be alive for the teaching to have power do not the canonized epistles themselves demonstrate the falsehood of this assertion? The problem is more that guys like Driscoll and MacDonald want to have their cake and eat it, too. Driscoll explained to Dever that the satellite campuses are slow, long-term church plants and that when he dies those churches become independent. Well, great, but most of the pastors are around Driscoll's age so around the time HE dies those pastors are likely to die, too. Dever's question in reply is the not-so-tacit, "Okay, so why can't they be that way now?" MacDonald's claim that McGee's time has passed and that when he himself dies he wants all his sermons pulled can be called out as being poor reasoning. There's no compelling theological reason a sermon is only effective while the pastor is alive. If we as Christians practiced a religion that said that ONLY the spoken word conveys the power of who Christ is then there might be a case but I bet guys like Driscoll and MacDonald have books and books of reprinted sermons that demonstrate this isn't true.
I trust I've beaten that dead horse enough in the abstract and demonstrated a weakness in the position. The easiest practical way to illustrate the fallacy of MacDonald's reasoning about the death of a pastor in a video-based multi-site is to give an example of what may inevitably occur. Let's say Mark Driscoll never retires and keeps going until he dies. He's a workaholic sort so that seems a safe guess. Further, let's say that yesterday Mark Driscoll died. He preached his last sermon and next week goes in the ground. If sermons are only effective and Spirit-used while a preacher is alive does this mean that Mars Hill is going to tank yesterday's sermon and not send it via DVD to the satellite campuses for next Sunday as they normally would under current procedure? Of course they wouldn't do that! Driscoll's sermons can be useful to edify and teach people after he's dead. In fact that Mars Hill defense of video-venue preaching about six years ago was that a Driscoll sermon on video was like one of Paul's epistles, able to teach and edify regardless of spatial or temporal boundaries. In other words, Driscoll and other multi-site advocates appealed to Pauline epistles to justify their use of video venue and multi-site to begin with. Just as Paul used epistles, cutting edge technology in his day, so Mars Hill uses video preaching to ensure that the message of Jesus gets out to as many people as possible.
But the very nature of that defense reveals that it's impossible for a MacDonald or Driscoll to have it both ways. The sermon has no inherent quality that makes it necessary for the pastor to be alive for the sermon to be effective. Furthermore if the pastor need not be physically present to preach a sermon effective for a church he has oversight for (as has been defended at various points by the appeal to Paul's epistles to the churches) then there's no reason for a Mars Hill campus to not cycle through Driscoll sermons after he's dead. Would it seem daft to recycle sermons because the jokes and cultural references got old? Why do we even sell Spurgeon sermons or make them available on the internet if anyone actually took that argument seriously?
By the same token, though, there's no reason Driscoll has to preach 75% of the sermons every month when the campus pastors are able to do that work now. In fact in several cases I found the campus pastor sermons to be of substantially high quality in terms of exegesis and exposition than Driscoll's sermons over the last three or four years. It's not exactly that Driscoll's sermons are bad it's that the campus pastors who actually invest their lives in the local flock preach better sermons because they are preaching and teaching to their own people, not as a denominational spiritual head who has no idea what's going on in the trenches.
To borrow Driscoll's old analogy from the early `00's, he's completely immersed in the air war these days and the ground war is handled by the campus pastors. He's functionally the lead preacher and denominational figurehead in a church that has an episcopal form of government and is a denomination in all but name. Now I'm plugging into a denomination right now so, obviously, I've got no problem with denominations! But I do believe it bears repeating to say that Driscoll is now at a place where old Driscoll would suggest that he, as a functionally denominational leader, is not really in touch with what's actually going in his church at the trench level. There's already a relational gap so large that most people who hear his sermons hear them a week later after they have been burned to DVD. Why not, in principle, concede that this is already doing the same thing as Through the Bible Ministries did? Or, for that matter, Pat Robertson? Well, some folks don't realize the degree to which they have reinvented the wheel and that's okay. It falls to each generation to reinvent the wheel in its own unique way. That is one of the joys of the human experience.
Driscoll correctly points out that giving and activity is higher in the campuses where he isn't preaching but to say that this is because those folks aren't consumers like the visitors at Ballard skims over the reason the satellites have higher committment. The satellite campuses have higher committment because they generally involve a pastor and people who served in ministry with that pastor for years before the satellite plant happened. That's how it was with me and most people I knew at the Lake City campus when I was still over there--and I'm pretty confident that's how it worked with all the other campuses besides Ballard. If Dever knew this he might suggest that the reason those campuses are as they are is because of the tangible connection to the campus pastor rather than to any connection to Driscoll ... so why not let those campus pastors do 75% of the preaching rather than the 25%?
I'm glad there's a plan on paper for a leadership transition when Driscoll inevitably dies but I've got to say, as a former tithing member, I wonder if that plan will work so well in real life when pastors close to Driscoll's age start dying off and have to be replaced. I remember when the pastors had a great plan for the continuing development and growth of the church and it involved a capital campaign to purchase a building that never got developed into the thing we were told it would in the capital campaign or in Reformission Rev, Driscoll's 2006 book about how he planted Mars Hill. I want their ministry to continue and successfully bring people to Jesus but that doesn't mean I remain convinced that every plan devised by Mars Hill leaders is necessarily a good plan. The plan Driscoll explained to Dever has a big, gaping obvious hole in it that is that by the time Driscoll dies most of those campus pastors will be close to death, too. I've met a few of them. I know how old several of them are and I even know some of the health problems some of them may continue to deal with.
I don't say this just to bag on Mars Hill. I have friends and family there I love a great deal. I trust that they are apprenticing guys in their 20s now so that the real, sensible transitional plan will be that pastoral apprentices are at each campus to take up the leadership there. Meanwhile, I hope the plan is better than just having campus pastors take over after Mark dies. As the churches that James Kennedy and Robert Schuller founded have already attested, it doesn't matter how smart you think your succession plan is, it can still end up with your church being completely ripped apart by the power vacuum left by the death of your church's dominating personality.
Then again, I'm at a Presbyterian church so I have already arrived at my convictions about what the more practical and historically reliable to church governance seems to be than a megachurch that seems to not want to admit it's a new Calvinist Baptist denomination to the public. In any case, I did want to eventually write about this subject because I used to be at Mars Hill and admit to being profoundly skeptical about the biblical and logical viability of the defense of the multi-site church model I saw in this interview, especially in light of how making comments about McGee fits into that. Full disclosure, I loved listening to J. Vernon McGee's ministry on the radio when I was in my teens.