Friday, September 21, 2012

Internet Monk: Thom Rainer on Megachurches

Rainer mentions seven trends, noted summarily as:
1. Further consolidation of people attending church in megachurches and other large churches
2. A significant increase in the number of megachurches in America
3. An increased interest in the long-term sustainability of the megachurch
(The ten largest U.S. churches in 1969 are not in the largest now, which raises the question of how sustainable the megachurch model is)
4. More youthful megachurch pastors
5. More multi-venue, multi-campus churches
6. A greater interest in groups (i.e. small groups, community groups, maybe throw in Redemption Groups since there's a push for that in some circles)
7. A greater interest in the source of growth of megachurches.

As has been suggested a time or two here at Wenatchee The Hatchet we may be in a time in which there are a few closet-case denominations.  Mars Hill and Acts 29 may protest they are not a denomination but a movement of like-minded churches that span denominational and confessional boundaries.  They are "Reformed" and "evangelical" and "missional" and "complementarian".  You can even cite those words without quotes if you like.

But here's the thing to keep in mind, they can say over and over they don't function like a denomination but let's consider some reference cases.

Four of our churches, however, are a result of mergers.

Mars Hill Bellevue

In the mid-2000s, a Mars Hill elder planted church on the Eastside of the greater Seattle area called The Vine. This plant was led by a Mars Hill pastor at the time, Jesse Winkler. The Vine started with a small core group from Mars Hill and eventually grew to be somewhere between 100 to 200 people.
Many people from that area were still driving into Seattle to attend Mars Hill in Ballard, and the number of people grew so large that we decided to consider planting a church east of Seattle. We met with Winkler and asked him if he wanted to continue as an independent church with us planting another one far enough away from his church so as to not drain his people, or if he wanted to become a Mars Hill Church. He took some time to fast and pray, seeking God’s will, and was convinced God was asking him to partner with Mars Hill to lead one church made up of people from The Vine and Mars Hill. The Vine church became Mars Hill Eastside in 2008, which eventually became Mars Hill Bellevue.

After the merger, the church saw immediate growth, going from 200 people to over 500 people almost overnight. Some Sundays, men were asked to stand outside in the wet and cold of Seattle to listen via speaker because we couldn't fit everyone into the small funeral home in which the church met for the multiple services. Since then, there has been much fruit, as Mars Hill Downtown Bellevue just moved into a new building in the heart of Downtown Bellevue and is seeing over 2,000 people worship Jesus and serve the surrounding community, hundreds of which are a result of new Christians who met Jesus and were baptized at Mars Hill Bellevue.

Additionally, Mars Hill Bellevue, along with some other Acts 29 churches, helped fund Westview Church in San Diego, California, with Pastor Jesse spearheading that plant. And the church has sent a core group of a couple hundred over to our newest location, Mars Hill Sammamish (which I’ll talk about later in this post).

The Vine got big enough that it was noteworthy.  It was a Mars Hill church plant.  Let's not overlook the obvious here.  When a Mars Hill pastor goes and plants a church, it does well, and it gets assimilated into Mars Hill at a formal level this is not a church merger in the sense that two distinct entities have merged.  The community was re-assimilated back into the parent/originating entity. For folks curious as to where Jesse Winkler went after the assimilation happened Driscoll provided a link to where Winkler went.  For sake of overview, it "looks" like a church merger but bringing the church plant of a Mars Hill pastor formally into the fold could be seen as formalizing a distinction that was not really a difference to begin with.

Now then there's ...

Mars Hill West Seattle

Mars Hill West Seattle was a result of conversations I had with Pastor Bill Clem, who now leads our Ballard church. Bill planted Doxa Fellowship in West Seattle after having served as the North American Director for Sonlife Ministries, a national discipleship ministry. The church was part of the Acts 29 network and running under 100 people when Bill and I began talking.

At the time, Bill’s wife was diagnosed with cancer, from which she eventually passed away. I called up Bill to offer support for the tough battle he and his wife were facing, and I also asked if he’d be open to letting us use Doxa’s building on Sunday mornings, as Doxa was only meeting on Sunday nights.
Eventually, as our church met in his building in the mornings, as we talked more and more, and as Bill’s wife faced a continuing and difficult battle with cancer, Doxa decided to merge with Mars Hill and become part of our church. We gave Bill many months off, paid him a full salary, and let him care for his dying wife and get a break from the exhausting work he’d undertaken in planting a church with an often bedridden wife. Her funeral was held in the church building that Pastor Bill had been given, and once he was ready, he started working for Mars Hill and is now our lead pastor at our biggest church, Mars Hill Ballard. Additionally, he has published the book Discipleship for us, and is the Northwest regional director for Acts 29.

The old church building we inherited needed a lot of work. So, the people of Mars Hill generously gave $1.8 million in one massive special offering to renovate it. It’s been a great transition over the last five years or so, with the church growing from less than 100 people to now well over 700 people coming together to worship Jesus and serve the West Seattle area, many of whom are new believers who’ve met Jesus and been baptized at Mars Hill West Seattle. Not only that, Mars Hill West Seattle has gone from being a church plant to planting churches, having planted Mars Hill Federal Way in 2009.
“As I look back in the rear view mirror,” says Pastor Bill, “I’d do it all over again. Because I see where we’re going and what [Doxa] was doing. That [Doxa] was following Jesus as [their] senior pastor.”

James Noriega gets no mention in this process.  That might have been because by November 2011 Noriega had been fired.  It was apparently also in late 2011 that the disciplinary case of Andrew was beginning to take shape but consult Matthew Paul Turner's blog for that story.  It's simply a coincidence and not necessarily pertinent to Driscoll's plug for church mergers.

What is relevant is that former pastor James Noriega and Pastor Bill Clem played the role of getting Doxa to Mars Hill and were pastors at a church with real estate Driscoll had wanted for Mars Hill for ten years. Driscoll shared in "One Body Many Parts" he'd wanted the real estate that Doxa was sitting on for Mars Hill for a decade.  He also mentioned a rent-free arrangement with CRISTA ministries that let Mars Hill use Schirmer Auditorium for free.  Tim Beltz was Chief Operations Officer at CRISTA around the time that deal was brokered, though whether or not he was involved in the deal never has been discussed.  Beltz did, however, get ordained as a pastor and executive elder at Mars Hill in October 2007 even though by the by-laws in place at the time he couldn't have been considered eligible to be an executive elder.  But you can dig through the real estate and Mars Hill tagged posts for that.

Next ...

Mars Hill Albuquerque

In 2009, Pastor Dave Bruskas, planter and lead pastor of City on a Hill in Albuquerque, New Mexico, began talks with us on merging the church he’d pastored for over 10 years with Mars Hill Church and becoming our first out of state church.

At the time, City on a Hill was running over a 275 people, healthy, and doing good ministry in their city. There was lots of discussion as to whether the merger was the right move, but as Pastor Dave relates, “One question rose above all the others as most important: ‘Would more people meet Jesus if we went through with this?’ After months of deliberation, the leaders of both churches unanimously answered that question with a resounding ‘Yes!’”

The driving force behind the merger between Mars Hill Church and City on a Hill was one of shared mission. Our desire was to see as many people as possible in the city of Albuquerque meet Jesus, and we both felt strongly that this could be accomplished better together than apart.

God has been gracious to us. Today, Mars Hill Albuquerque has over 800 people meeting to worship together and serve their community each week. And we thank God that 250 people have met Jesus and been baptized at Mars Hill Albuquerque since the merger in 2009. Today, the church has outgrown its building and is officially replanting in a new larger building on December 11. Pastor Dave is now an executive elder at Mars Hill, the #2 ranking pastor in all of Mars Hill, and a tremendous gift to our church.

Do you wonder if perhaps by now there might be something Driscoll neglected to mention in this piece about City on a Hill?  If you were to guess that the thing Driscoll didn't mention is that City on a hill was an Acts 29 church plant ...
May 3, 2009

about 4:30 into the sermon

City on a Hill is a church planted through the Acts 29 Network by Pastor Dave Bruskas. He's a great guy. Really great guy. Years ago he was actually on staff in the building our Lake City  campus actually meets at. He has planted his church in Albuquerque. It's going really well. There are over 400 people. Great church. Doing very well. Bilingual, multiethnic, eldership. Really cool things happening. And they have agreed to partner with us. We praise God for that.  We rejoice in that. So they have announced to their people officially today that they're becoming a Mars Hill campus. 

And what this means is that we hope to establish them as a regional hub to plant campuses of Mars Hill and churches of Acts 29 all over the Southeast, including into Mexico. Some of their elders are bilingual and are able to minister across cultural contexts and we praise God for that. As well at least one of their primary leaders is part of a Native American nation, tribe, and has full rights to potentially even plant a church in that context so it opens up some wonderful opportunities that we praise God for. 

Hmm ... so City on a Hill was an Acts 29 church plant and it was planted in 2009 and it was 400 people by May 3, 2009 based on what Driscoll indicated in his sermon and lo they decided to partner with Mars Hill and now Dave Bruskas is an executive elder.  Tim Beltz was Chief Operations Officers for CRISTA Ministries during the years in which Mars Hill was given free access (in apparently all senses of the term "free" to go by what Driscoll said in "One Body, Many Parts") and then Beltz ends up an instant executive elder at Mars Hill in October 2007 having been attending the church since apparently about 2004.

So if City on a Hill was an Acts 29 church plant that started in 2009 and in 2009 was swiftly assimilated into the Mars Hill fold where Dave Bruskas ended up being an executive elder then the pattern with the church mergers Driscoll cited in November 2011 would seem to be that the boundary between an Acts 29 church plant and Mars Hill is very permeable if the real estate is at a hot location and the church could be considered a hub for further expansion. Fair enough ... but the pitch for how much Jesus loves church mergers might have come across as a bit more above board if Driscoll said, "We love assimilating Acts 29 church plants and Mars Hill church plants back into our organization as we expand and outsiders shouldn't have a problem with that."

So that gets us to Mars Hill Sammamish.  Be warned a few of the links Driscoll uses have ended up dead.  The campus blog archives and blogs were all taken down in early 2012.  That might have been because of the massive amount of information about campus pastors and their wives and children and stepchildren.  Maybe Mars Hill took all that stuff down out of a concern that if Andrew's story had gone public that identifying which pastor and stepdaughter/daughter he was dating would have only taken forty seconds to discover on-line.  That would have been a legitimate concern.  Too bad for Mars Hill all the information got blogged and tweeted and mentioned in sermons and in media coverage over the course of eight years anyway.  Connecting the dots is simply a matter of a bit of time, patience and knowing how to use some rudimentary search tools.  No, I'm not going to tell you who the people are.  If you already know you already know and if you don't already know it isn't material to a discussion of how Mars Hill assimilated Acts 29 and Mars Hill church plants back into its umbrella.

But Sammamish is a bit different.

Mars Hill Sammamish

The newest church at Mars Hill is also the result of a merger between Evergreen Christian Fellowship in Sammamish, about 30 minutes east of Seattle, and Mars Hill. This is still breaking news, as it was announced just a few weeks ago and will be officially launched as Mars Hill Sammamish on January 15, 2012.

Evergreen Christian Fellowship (ECF) was a once larger church that was facing some financial difficulties as they had a newer building on over 10 acres on the plateau east of Bellevue, Washington. ECF was comprised about over 100 great, God-fearing, Bible-loving Christians who have a passion for the city of Sammamish and the surrounding area.

Facing some loses in leadership (they had no lead pastor) and some financial struggles, they reached out to us to see if a merger would be a possibility. It was a grace bomb that dropped out of nowhere for us. [don't bother following the link, it's dead and drops to the church calendar]

Through our talks, we decided to merge, as we share the same biblical convictions and both share a commitment to the same mission of seeing as many people as possible on the Sammamish Plateau meet Jesus.

“Our ministry and our mission and vision statements have been very similar, so that’s why we pursued Mars Hill,” says Guy Dalrymple, who chaired ECF’s transition team. [same dead link, same don't bother] “We had other options, but the core principles and the core doctrine between our two churches were very similar, and that’s what was really enthusiastic and that’s what drew us to Mars Hill.”

We’ve not even launched yet, but the response has been amazing. Last Sunday, we installed the first roughly 100 members of Mars Hill Sammamish and nearly all of them were the former members of ECF. I preached there live, and we had 1,100 people! The church does not even launch officially until January 15, 2012, but it’s rocketing off to an amazing start thanks in part to the hundreds of people from Mars Hill Bellevue who live nearby and moved over to Mars Hill Sammamish.

“This could have been a really sad story, a good church forced to shut its doors,” says Sam DeLay [tje same dead link], a Mars Hill leader who will serve on staff at the Sammamish location, “but God has redeemed that story. Together, we now have a great opportunity to serve this community for a long time.”

For a summary of the January 2012 opening of Mars Hill Sammamish go here.
For local coverage of how the decision was arrived at on the part of Evergreen Christian Fellowship go here and here.  Short summary for people who don't follow links, ECF was a church plant from the 1990s that used land donated by Overlake Christian Church (yeah, that one for the locals for the rest the sex scandal won't be hard to research). ECF got halfway through projected building before basically running out of money.  Needing some help they turned to Mars Hill Church which purchased the real estate (yeah ... expect this to get further discussion in a certain set of posts at this blog at some unspecified point in the future).

So in this case we've finally gotten to a church merger in which what was merged into Mars Hill was an actually (apparently) different church from an Acts 29 plant or a Mars Hill plant.  As Driscoll described it, the thing came as a surprise (because it was an idea he didn't think of, possibly?).

It would appear that Ghioni and company at Evergreen Christian Fellowship had their own transition committee and had done a lot of the work in advance.  If so then why wouldn't Mars Hill agree to a church merger where the legwork had been done in advance and they were approached as the favored candidate.  All they may have had to do was just buy the property that ECF may have been half-way to purchasing anyway.  If the land was donated by Overlake (a church that has not been in the greatest of shape since the sex scandal) it was going to be a genuinely beneficial deal for the parties involved, wouldn't it?

With so many campuses, though, Mars Hill can't consider itself a non-denominational church forever.  Institutionally it's becoming more and more in functionality what it has already effectively been, a denomination.  But for a guy like Driscoll who has spent years talking about how denominations are on the wane and with Mars Hill leaders preferring to speak of their thing as a "movement" rather than an institution Mars Hill may be a conspicuous case study in what may be described as a denominational closet case.  The boundaries between Mars Hill and Acts 29 seem pretty permeable.  This wouldn't just be the case because Jesse Winkler, Bill Clem and Dave Bruskas did church plants that were assimilated into Mars Hill.

It seems the boundaries between Mars Hill and Acts 29 churches are permeable on the basis of former Mars Hill pastor Scott Thomas landing a job at The Journey having served as president of Acts 29 and as executive elder at Mars Hill.  Shuffling leaders within and across administrative roles and regional boundaries is one of those things that is characteristic of institutions, and of denominations with some long-standing.  When Mars Hill Lake City got shut down a number of its leaders were shuffled over to Mars Hill Shoreline.  When some blogger documented that James Noriega was no longer employed as a pastor by Mars Hill West Seattle Pastor Tim Beltz, within a week, was popping up over at Mars Hill Downtown.

Driscoll opted to field a rhetorical question, "Why the negativity?"  He proposed that "merger" was simply an unappealing term. He went on to talk about "missional mergers" and mentions that Sammamish happened because of a financial struggle.  West Seattle was because of personal loss on the part of Bill Clem (the way Driscoll phrased it you might have assumed Jeannie was already dead but she died a few years later--Clem was given a full salary and the option to not work for months at a time and in exchange would run the Ballard campus.  Driscoll was able to get a piece of real estate he admitted he'd wanted for Mars Hill for ten years).  City on a Hill was seen, by Driscoll's mention of it in  a sermon in the 1 Peter series, as a great place to form a hub for regional expansion.

Driscoll's case that mergers are likely to increase because there are fewer younger people and these are less likely to be in church may have some merit if one's goal is ensuring the continuance of the megachurch paradigm.  I'm still not convinced and in the case of a man and a ministry like Mark Driscoll the long-term legacy of a place like Mars Hill "could" be reaching countless for Jesus or the age of the internet and a cult of personality as a substitute for responsible biblical expository teaching or (to borrow Lutheran ideas) proper administration of the sacraments could make the regions in which Mars Hill has influence a new kind of burned-over district in which people want "gifted" speakers more than competent biblical scholars and the giddy rush of mass musical events becomes a substitute for what in Pentecostal circles might have been called "annointed" experience.  Driscoll has said he's a charismatic with a seatbelt but the visions ... are best left undiscussed in this post.

So churches have taken a hit since the real estate bubble burst and the recession began.  Driscoll has tried to present mergers as about Jesus and not about a larger church taking over a smaller church.  That is a simplification but it's ironic for a guy like Driscoll to say we shouldn't simplify things.  He's said that people who haven't liked how he preaches on Song of Songs must be downloading porno.  What if the simplification that is accurate for Mars Hill may be that if a smaller church has grown quickly, shows promise of future growth, has a competent leader sitting on a piece of real estate that is valuable that partnering appeals to Mars Hill?  That's not a gross simplification, even if a person "could" cynically read that as Mars Hill cherry-picking the most successful Acts 29 plants as a way to maximize its own growth and making the boundary between Mars Hill and Acts 29 unilaterally permeable in Mars Hill's favor.

But because they'll say so, they're not a denomination.

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