What if Small Churches sell out to Corporate Churches?

One of the phenomenon that I didn't plan to study but has increasingly become a part of the HX critique is Wal-Mart churches: churches that spawn multiple campuses that are near-clones of itself.  Now that I'm pastoring in the Plains, Lifechurch.tv is all around me: three of its 12 campuses are within an hour's drive of me.  The pastor is simulcast via digital streaming or DVD to all the campuses.  While each have their own local flair/personality, the pastoral headquarters operates all the satellites...much like Wal-mart headquarters operates all its Wal-mart stores that drive the smaller chains out of business by its well-honed machinery.

Wal-mart Churches are churches with multiple locations, like a franchise.
In our conversations, we've focused on what happens when a big well-financed church moves into a rural area, as well as the dangers of planting Wal-mart churches in gated communities, but so far I've left out UM churches either by my own bias or lack of material to comment on.

Until now.  Rev. Adam Hamilton is the pastor of the largest UM congregation with several satellite campuses and an online campus (he is also a Methoblogger along with his online associate pastor...impressive).  However great Adam is for theological conversation and the church, I felt a deep sense of foreboding when I read Adam's eNote this past week:
Resurrection Blue Springs?  

Two months ago the leadership of North Springs United Methodist Church in Blue Springs, Missouri (located on the north side of I-70 between 7 Hwy and Adams' Dairy Parkway) contacted our church to ask if we would have any interest in allowing their church to become a campus of The Church of the Resurrection like Resurrection West and Resurrection Downtown. They are an 18-year-old congregation with about 150 committed members who have been unable to grow and who have struggled to become the church they hoped to become when they began.

Further conversations with the District Superintendent, the head of Congregational Development for Missouri, and others convinced us that the Missouri Annual Conference and its bishop supported this idea. We explored the demographics of the community, looked at the debt obligations on its current building, sought to understand what would be involved in adopting this congregation, and we considered the potential of this location, building and people as a new campus of Resurrection. Recently the North Spring's Church Council voted unanimously in favor of this idea. Last week our Church Council voted unanimously in favor of moving forward with further conversations.

In a few weeks ahead, I'll share more about this with you during weekend worship and invite you to vote on this proposal.
Let's be clear: these campuses clearly lead people to a relationship with the Body of Christ. I'm not doubting the integrity of the pastoral or lay leadership of these campuses.  I'm not critiquing the ends; I'm fearful of the means and what this might mean for the kingdom.

I've got a bad feeling about this...
What happens if we put the pieces on the table without any religious terms?
  • A struggling (or at least flat in growth) entity decides they are unable to compete in their area of specialty
  • Facing extinction or reduced viability, they contact a larger, more established corporate entity and offer to be absorbed
  • The corporate entity accepts and absorbs the initial entity into the whole, retaining some local customs but decisions ultimately come from the corporate head.
In short, this local congregation has decided to bring in the creative talent of a corporate church to (presumably) lead its worship. Resurrection has a fantastic staff and tightly crafted message and (since they have multiple locations) they already know how to bottle, transport, pop open and enjoy.  So from the small church's perspective, why not get really good worship in their space that might jump-start their community?

I would posit this is a connectional church phenomenon (ie. Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, etc).  There's an attraction to retaining a United Methodist identity.  Thus, outsourcing the worship message to another UM church or even becoming a satellite of a UM church will most likely be a connectional-church phenomenon rather than a non-denom outsourcing to Willowcreek or something.

I could see a lot more of this happening as local churches that struggle to grow and yet have great ministries decide to focus their energy on their active ministries and outsource their worship to a corporate church. I'm not saying this is going to happen with Blue Springs/Resurrection, but I wonder what might happen if more churches decide to turn their worship, the heart of the Body of Christ, over to the professionals (who do GREAT worship, let's not kid ourselves, but disturbing nonetheless).

Resistance may be Futile.
I can see the temptation. I'm a clergyperson who crafts worship, curriculum, and ministry every week and I wonder how I would respond if we did this.  If we gave over our worship time to a corporate church (in whole or part), then look at the benefits:
  • I could spend more time doing discipleship ministries (my primary interest) and less time preaching/leading worship. More time = more effective.
  • The preaching would be less personal in message but more tightly crafted by fantastic worship leaders.
  • People already watch TV all the time, they can clearly be mezmorized by handle a streamed message.
  • The parish can accept ministers with more gifts in discipleship/congregational growth rather than simply great preachers/worship leaders.
So yes, I can see the temptation to do this. The benefits are clear.  But what might the concerns be?  Since this is my first pass at it, I don't have any data to call on for support, but there's a few inklings that I have on my heart:
  • Dude, you just outsourced the primary thing that separates the church from the world: worship of Jesus Christ. Outsourcing the theological task just doesn't seem right to me, no matter how great the product is you are buying.
  • I can see more denominational splintering as multiple churches align themselves with various charismatic preachers, so in one town you have the Adam Hamilton UM church and the Tom Harrison UM church and so on.  These sort of alliances can only spell more schizmatic force and the temptation to influence the political process.
  • Further marginalization of ethnic preachers and women. Why have the guy who talks funny or the woman when you could have a white male preacher in a bottle?  Let's face it: the super-majority of  megachurches have white male pastors!  While Resurrection has female campus ministers to offer worship leadership, I could see this happen as congregations vote to marginalize their pastors' leadership and ability to craft worship.
This may be hysteria, it's OK, I know.  But for a small church to offer to become a campus of a successful corporate church, perhaps outsourcing their worship and a substantial part of their theological task to an outside agency...well, that could be a troubling trend.  Effective? I'm sure.  But like McDonalds and Wal-Mart ran out their smaller competition, I see no reason why franchised corporate churches could do the same...even within my own denomination.


(Yes, Star Wars AND Star Trek in the same post. I'm as surprised as you are.)


Lance H June 14, 2010 at 10:26 AM  

A few random thoughts:

Jesus was pretty effective at outsourcing.

Excellence is a word frequently heard in larger churches, but not often heard in small churches (from some book I just read on the 150 barrier in church growth).

What's wrong with message competition other than theological bunny trails and hurt clergy feelings?

Our founding fathers loved the concept of religious competition among all religions. Go figure.

josh June 14, 2010 at 12:32 PM  

@Lance. Jesus outsourced to a group of disciples because he was handing the apostolic task to flawed people whom he knew would make a muck of it - NOT because he thought they could do a better job of it than him. These apostles created house churches that were organic in nature and divided when necessary. They did not multiply power in the hands of a few (that happened later) but rather spread a message.

What really bugs me about all this is the seemingly implicit idea that churches are about cleverly packaged preaching. Most people forget almost everything in a sermon within minutes. I'm a high school teacher, so I know that this doesn't negate the need to try to teach well, but I still think that preaching (and wicked awesome guitar solos) are an EXTREMELY small part of what a church is. A church is community, and while you CAN build community in a megaWalmartchurch, it is in SPITE of the structure, not because of it. And don't tell me that's just the way our culture is: our culture is broken - let's stop being conformed to its patterns.

So much to say, too little space. Here's a link to a poem I wrote about what churches can/might be: http://barkingreed.blogspot.com/2009/08/steeples.html

cspogue June 14, 2010 at 1:19 PM  

"this might be hysteria"

I think you nailed it.

Of course, we should do everything we can to discourage churches from adopting best practices! That way we increase the mediocrity!!

Thomas June 14, 2010 at 4:44 PM  

On the one hand I hear what the some of the above commenters are saying, if something's working well and not theologically unsound, why not adopt it?

However I think that some of this can be a way that a church can avoid reflecting on who they are and who God has called them to be as a gathering of the body of Christ. There is a significant difference in ideas about church life being shared and adopted/adapted and submerging a church's identity because we like another church's identity better.

The congregation I worship with is experiencing some of this on a smaller scale. A church in the next town is experiencing great growth. Consequently there are some in the church (including the pastor) who just want to do what XUMC is doing, without doing any exegesis of our own community. Not to downplay the ministry of this other church, they have a vibrant life together and the Spirit is doing great things there, but part of the growth they are experiencing mirrors the fact that the community is growing by leaps and bounds as people move from Nashville out to the suburbs. Our contexts are different enough that while I hope we can learn from some things they are doing, I am worried that by trying to replicate them we'll avoid listening to who God is calling us to be.

John Leek June 15, 2010 at 1:57 AM  

I don't see any trouble with it. I know many seminarians who don't feel (and may not be) gifted in the areas of worship design and preaching/teaching. It would be great for them. We also have many churches which have lay pastors with full time jobs. Perhaps one system would primarily pipe in sermons, but also allow for local pastors to do their thing too. Many of these folks as of now have little time to do ministry outside of Sunday mornings.

I say see how it works and then freak out (later). This seems like a much smaller problem than the problem of stagnant or dying churches.

One concern on my end though would be for that connection between the message and the local pastor, but that doesn't seem to be a huge deal with these larger churches anyway.

johnmeunier June 15, 2010 at 7:51 AM  

John Wesley wanted all his Methodists to worship regularly, but he did not see worship itself as the heart of Methodism.

Maybe outsourcing worship is just a way to get back to Methodism?

Maybe not.

Just a random thought.

Jesi June 15, 2010 at 1:20 PM  

I have to agree with most of the above commenters. Disclaimer: I worship at Church of the Resurrection, and I'm interning there this summer. I, too, was a bit hesitant when I first heard about the interest the Blue Springs church had in being "adopted." But worship at Rez is something amazing and moving, and that's, unfortunately, very often not the case at other churches. If Rez can help a church inspire people during worship, then how is that a bad thing?

Also, if Rez adopts this church, while their main influence may be in worship, they won't let the church have fantastic worship and yet no outreach. Rez is passionate about outreach and community and they would definitely help Blue Springs in those areas. It wouldn't be about shallow worship with no depth of message. That's not how Rez works.

billgepford June 22, 2010 at 11:55 AM  

@ Josh - I appreciate your desire for community within a Church. However, I don't quite see how excellent worship and excellent community are mutually exclusive. Many people seem to believe that it is impossible to have active communities within such a large church, and yet I would like to disagree there. I currently work with Andrew at Resurrection Online (the Church of the Resurrection's Internet/Micro Church wing), and I grew up at Resurrection. More importantly, I was able to witness the deep community of Resurrection West (a satellite location quite similar to Resurrection Blue Springs). Though the preaching may come from the Leawood campus, the community is very organic to RezWest. Basically, I think that the multiple campus platform may well be the best way to combine both worlds - the excellence of the mega church, yet also the close community of the smaller church. If you want to know more, heres my work blog - http://billgepford.wordpress.com/

Anonymous,  August 16, 2010 at 4:15 PM  

Rev. Smith, thank you for raising this important question. I wish the UM church would show more deference to its surrounding "franchisees" and curtail this type of expansion, or at least require a higher level of approval by surrounding UM churches. Some churches should fail and their congregations should otherwise be absorbed into other churches.

I am part of this great experiment. I work at a larger company and am having major problems with the transition. It is causing problems between my spouse and me. My spouse thinks this is a good thing. I promised to give it a chance, but I am troubled by what I have seen to date.

When I talk with my spouse, I ask:

Do you think COR is all about worshiping its pastor and its past?

At what point is a UM church simply too big?

Could COR survive w/out its pastor?

How can one respect a campus pastor who is slotted to be second fiddle and speaks less than an overly-intrusive musician?

What right does a Wal-mart like church, like COR, have to unfairly compete with other stable and successful UMC churches in a particular geographic area?

Pastor Hamilton claims his church is for thinking people, but there seems to be no place for thought that questions or is critical of COR, why is that?

If I am videotaped one more time during worship, I will scream.

I can't do much but reject becoming a COR lemming/zealot. Going to church shouldn't be a painful experience. I regret giving this a chance and wish we would have directly transitioned to a smaller area church.

P.S. If someone contacts me about this post from COR, that will be the icing on the cake of COR's creepiness.

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