There are churches in America who regularly move into a new locale, set up a “site” complete with video screen, staff, an array of religious goods and services, a massive children’s ministry and worship band, and then either use a video stream or present live their celebrity pastor for the opening Sunday.
Because there are a couple hundred fans of the celebrity pastor already in the area, several hundred people are present the first Sunday when the celebrity pastor will laud the efforts of this new site to bring the gospel to this neighborhood.
He will perhaps even say something like, “No church preaches the Bible more faithfully in this community like this church will do.”
These large churches call this “church planting,” as if they are engaging non-Christians and their neighborhoods for the gospel.
I know of situations in the greater Chicago area where this actually has taken place.
What we discover is this “site” now attracts hundreds more attendees from smaller churches in the neighborhood.
Often this mushrooms to a thousand attendees in a matter of months, most of whom are from other churches.
The next step is even more insidious. Some of the smaller locally engaged community churches lose much of their congregation to the new “site” and struggle to pay their bills.
The large church behind the “site” contacts that church and says, “We’ve heard of your struggles. Perhaps we can help?”
They offer to come in, assume the mortgage and other bills, share the church facilities and help with various needs.
Within months, however, they have “Pac-manned” the original church.
The properties have all been assumed by the “site” church, the leadership has all been replaced, and a new sign out front now boasts “the brand” of the megachurch of which these sites all are part.
Is this Kingdom building or empire building? I see these tactics doing three things specifically that work against the Kingdom.
1. This destroys community.
By taking people out of local community churches, we individualize and “consumerize” the church.
It is a function of the bigger video church that the focus is upon the teaching delivered and the various religious services offered.
Community engagement moves down the pecking order and now becomes a program of the church.
Getting to know and be present with each other as a congregation is diminished.
This, in turn, diminishes the wherewithal for a church to present to its neighbors and neighborhood.
It segregates Christians into more narrow-minded defensive enclaves trained to adhere to one very charismatic, sometimes authoritarian, pastor’s teaching.
2. This encourages Christianity as a spectator sport.
Larger churches require less participation and offer more paid-for services. Smaller community churches require participation to survive. It is a part of what church is.
Given the option, I believe less mature, busier Christians will be lured to the former.
Before they even have a chance to be in a community of mutual life and discipleship, they are warehoused into a more “spectatorized” Christianity.
3. This de-contextualizes Christianity and insulates it all the more from mission.
Anytime you import a celebrity pastor, you are de-contextualizing church. This takes place, for example, in preaching.
Yes, teaching the basics of the Bible can span across cultural contexts.
But when it comes to actually proclaiming the gospel over the specific circumstances in a local community—the needs and dynamics of a community’s life in context—this kind of proclamation must be done locally with a preacher who lives in and among the people.
When this is lost, we lose the ability to fund imagination for mission through proclaiming the good news.
Instead, the church attracts people who already agree with the celebrity preacher.
This dynamic separates a church from its context as opposed to engaging it. These same dynamics happen when leadership is centralized in a place detached from the context of its various multisites.
For all these reasons then, I believe “church cannibalism” is a bad thing for the Kingdom of God.
Why, then, is there so little discussion and no accountability within these megachurch structures for this kind of activity?
Where are the elders and directing boards? What are they thinking when such tactics are carried out again and again?
I’ve even heard one of these pastors acclaimed for the gift of real estate acquisition.
There will be times when old churches need to die, and congregational life renovated.
There are times when fresh works of the Kingdom need to be birthed amid other churches.
But this should be done with care, dialogue and cooperation, not corporate merger and acquisition strategies.
And so I believe the tactics described above work against the Kingdom of God and should be called out, but I hear nothing. Should they be called out? At least questioned?
David Fitch is the Betty R. Linder chair of evangelical theology at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois. A longer version of this article first appeared on his blog, Reclaiming the Mission, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @fitchest.