Is the End of Mark Driscoll’s Church a Sign for Satellite Churches?

Mars Hill Church is dissolving its network of video-powered churches. What does this mean for the growing satellite church movement?

At the Acts 29 Conference in Dallas, Texas last week, the recent events surrounding Mark Driscoll and the network he founded were in the air. But as one attendee commented to me, the pastors there weren’t focused on Driscoll himself so much as what they could learn from Mars Hill Church’s recent decision to dissolve its video-powered network of 13 churches.

As of January 2015, each Mars Hill Church location will either become an independent church or will cease to exist. And as the satellite model of churches continues to develop nationwide wide, the larger question, not just for Mars Hill but for churches and denominations of all kinds, is whether the video satellite model is a viable way to do church.

Can video-based churches work?

I get to do a bit of writing and speaking on technology and faith, and in my travels I’ve found that the most-asked question among Christians is, “Why is everyone so addicted to their iPhones?” But the second is, “What do you think of video churches?”

For some denominations, the answer is already fixed and unhackable. Video satellites are simply too foreign to some traditions’ ecclesiology and liturgy. Even the Mars Hill Church organization once took the stance that an online-only campus was outside the boundaries of its understanding of “church.”

However, for many non-denominational evangelical churches with an entrepreneurial spirit, video churches have become a popular way to expand.

My own inclination has been to avoid video satellite churches on the grounds that physical presence is important in some difficult-to-articulate way. But, as I’ve talked to friends who utilize video streaming as part of their ministry, I’ve seen that pastors who are doing this have carefully considered the downsides and, to varying degrees of success, implemented strategies to overcome them. Here are a few of the key objections, along with the methods churches are using to address them.

1. Video satellites make it impossible to know the pastor.

This is certainly true, but it’s hardly a problem unique to video satellite campuses. Perhaps it would be better to recognize that pre-Internet technologies like cars and microphones made it relatively easy to have a church whose size exceeds the capacity for one pastor to know everyone. In fact, this is a good example of how new technologies (like cars and microphones) make certain new things possible­­ — large churches have the resources to support ministries small churches cannot — and other things impossible — in this case, knowing the pastor.

Advocates for video satellites will tell you that the satellite model actually works against the depersonalization tendency of megachurches by keeping campuses small and hiring a “campus pastor” for each location. Because the campus pastor doesn’t need to spend time preparing a sermon each week, he or she is free to spend more time with the local attendees, forming a tighter, more intimate community than would be possible with a single, larger auditorium.

In an alternative model, some churches in sparsely populated rural areas band together to hire a single pastor who rotates among the locations, beaming the video to the others in the network. The preachers for these churches function much like the Circuit Riders who ministered among early European settlers in America.

2a. Video satellites are personality/celebrity driven.
2b. Video satellites don’t create new leaders.

I’ve put these two common critiques together, because, while they are independently important, they are also inextricably tied together.

As with the televangelists of the 1970s and 80s, one of the main questions for video satellites has been, “What happens when the charismatic personality dies, retires, or does something to disqualify himself?” Well, in the case of Mars Hill, we now know one possible outcome.

At the church where my family and I worship in the Dallas area, the staff has decided to create a preaching team of men and women who rotate each Sunday. A few years ago, the senior pastor was diagnosed with colon cancer, which limited how often he could preach. Though we missed him and prayed for him, the worship didn’t feel significantly different, since we were already used to the rotation.

My friends at the Acts 29 conference began their church with a similar model of a preaching team, and when they decided to open a few video-satellite locations, they continued to rotate who preached and also began rotating the location from which they preached. In theory, this overcomes both parts of this objection. They are avoiding a sense of celebrity popularity while continuing to cultivate new leaders and preachers for each location.

3. Video satellites promote a church brand over local needs.

Related to the idea of celebrity pastors with massive influence, large churches now spend enormous amounts of time and money promulgating and promoting their brands. (Sadly, it has been reported that Driscoll once said, “I am the brand!”) Today, the size and scope of some large churches can exceed that of an entire denomination.

Here again, some video-based churches are taking a more careful approach by allowing each satellite to work toward authentically meeting the specific needs of its immediate geographic region. This means that each branch location may not have the same ministries or even the exact same feel, even if they do share some preaching duties and leadership oversight.

Of course, you’d have to be a part of these communities to gauge the success of their attempts, but I’m heartened to hear that local concerns are one of the first considerations such churches make when opening a new satellite.

4. Video satellites emphasize the word over the table.

The Reformers said the local church had two primary duties — the preaching of the word and the right administration of the sacraments. However, the kinds of churches willing to experiment with video satellites have tended toward a more “remembrance” view of the sacraments instead of a “means of grace” understanding. This usually means they don’t consider communion an essential component of weekly worship — such as singing or preaching — and so only offer it monthly or quarterly.

In this context, preaching from the pulpit is clearly emphasized over the table, and it would seem that a video satellite would further exacerbate this issue. The giant person on screen every week looms large over the crackers and juice.

When I asked my friend about this, he said that his church leans more toward a “this is my body” view of the sacraments and believes it is important to distribute the bread and wine as a part of every worship service. In an unexpected way, this actually heightens the importance of the table, since the elements are physically present while the preaching is often not. If you didn’t grow up in a non-denominational church, it’s hard to imagine what a big shift this is — and even more surprising that it’s happening in a high-tech video campus model.

So, are video churches good or bad?

I don’t intend for this to be an apology for the video church model, but these examples show that some of our reflexive critiques may not be very strong, and that what actually happens at video churches can be counterintuitive.

In any event, the Mars Hill decision doesn’t pose a long term threat the viability of the satellite model. If anything, it seems to have caused deeper reflection and spawned some creative, and hopefully humanizing, new practices.

Image courtesy of Fbcjax.

John Dyer
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  • http://bookwi.se/ Adam Shields

    I think the sacramental issues are important. My (satellite using) church does not do communion/eucharist at all during Sunday worship. And never during video. The only time they do eucharist is during a weeknight service, roughly quarterly. This was in place before satellite and internet streaming, which allowed (from what I understand, but was not present for) some of those that were uncomfortable with multi-site and/or internet to allow it because it wasn’t the full blown worship without eucharist. But that really meant that the ‘full blown worship'(my words) only happen occasionally. And I think this is one of the significant issue with the ecclesiology of my church. But I think the root cause is not the multi-site issues, but the original non-denominationalism that has given rise to many (if not most) of the multi-site churches that I am aware of.

    That being said, I think Mars Hill is a pretty bad example. Just because it is the first real church to go down in flames does not mean that it is a model of how other multi-sites will go down in flames. If anything it is a model of how bad leadership can lead a church down in flames, but we didn’t really need another example of that, we have known that poorly lead churches will eventually die for a long time.

  • Mikal Kildal

    John,

    Thoughtfully presented. We too struggle with balancing the priorities of teaching and the table. What seems to be missing in the sacrament discussion is baptism. I would love to hear the input of others who read this.

    Another Guy on the Path…

  • drew

    I’ll be blunt, video churches are the worst thing ever in the history of the church. It creates the cult of personality. It denies the rightful place of the Holy Spirit to work through all the members of the body and ultimately it destroys the “cult ” leader. there is oonly one rock star in the body of Christ- Jesus our Lord!

    • http://j.hn/ John Dyer

      Drew,
      Thanks for commenting. In the article I directly addressed the personality issue. What did you think about that part?

  • Jennifer Prestash

    A couple of points:

    1. Mega-Churches are focused on the preacher, not on Jesus. This is true even with the best intentions of a good preacher. Think about all the churches you know. What are they known for? The quality of worship? The ministry in the community? Or the preaching? If it’s only the preaching….

    2. Mega-Churches are too large. If you are a regular worshiper at a church and you miss a Sunday will anyone notice? If not, the church is too large. [And, sure, a church can be too small, too. Ideal size is probably between 400-800 people.]

    • http://j.hn/ John Dyer

      Jennifer,
      Thanks for commenting. In the article, I gave examples of churches that have a rotating team of preachers. What did you think about that?

      • Jennifer Prestash

        I think it would depend upon how many rotating preachers there were. People crave and need stability in worship. An occasional change of preachers can be useful, and I think a small rotating team of 2-3 could be healthy for a church. But if it’s the point where you don’t see and hear the same worship leader/preacher for weeks on end it would be like visiting a different church every week.

        As I re-read the article, I find myself very much at odds with a video-satellite concept of church. The thought flooding my mind is “All prayer is local”. I don’t see what advantages in worship a mega church with video satellites can have over a small, local gathering of the Church. Sure, mega churches have money for professional stuff, like musicians. But professional bands just stir up emotions to prepare for the preaching. I know good preaching is necessary, but Sunday is not only about preaching. Sunday is about worship.

  • Jason Seville

    Great work here, brother. I love the way you think and write on these issues; so helpful. Point #1 still depresses me a bit, though, as I think of my good friends who are in such church contexts because I think these guys would be even more effective shepherds if they were preaching more.

    The fact that the disconnected-pastor problem predates satellite campuses doesn’t do anything to get satellite campuses off the hook (not that this was your argument). As a pastor myself, I see knowing my congregation AND preaching the Word from the pulpit as vital and interconnected parts of my ministry. Guys who preach but don’t disciple and shepherd folks in the flock probably aren’t preaching as effectively as they could. Likewise, guys who shepherd while not preaching from the pulpit are missing out on a key avenue for shepherding/teaching/leading the congregation IMHO.

    The “because the campus pastor doesn’t need to spend time preparing a sermon each week” line was one that jumped out at me. Sermon prep for me isn’t a “need to” or “have to” in my ministry but a “want to” that is essential in my shepherding and leading my congregation. Since some of your observations were anecdotal, I’ll offer this: I know not a few (at least 5 that I can think of as I sit here at my laptop) campus pastors who would LOVE the opportunity to preach every Sunday or at least 3 out of every 4, but the culture of beaming the “main guy” in from the main campus prohibits that. I rejoice each time one of these places decides to make the church its own plant with its own elder team and own preachers who personally know and minister to and preach the Word to their congregation.

    In my church, a plurality of elders helps as we shepherd our church because we each help shoulder the shepherding load as we each naturally have some stronger relationships with various members of our church. And it also helps because I’ll preach 3 or 5 weeks in a row and then take a week or two off as those other men step in to the pulpit. It’s a great break during which I DO get to ramp up my discipleship, one-on-one meetings, reflecting on vision/mission/direction of the church, etc.

    Thanks again John – this post impacted me (softened my stance a bit) and definitely helped me see things from another viewpoint (I’m typically hardcore, anti-satellite campus). I still don’t think satellite is the way to go in most instances (I think the rural context in an updated Circuit Rider context makes more sense than urban or suburban areas), but you’ve given great examples of how satellite pastors are intentionally thinking through these issues to shepherd their congregations. I’d love to lock you and Svigel in a room and make you talk about this with cameras rolling. :) Hope you’re doing well. Cheers! Jason