Multi-campus churches: One Millennial’s disconnect

May 26th, 2015

In America, we like things to get big quick. American Christians are no different. We want to see "billions served."

The multi-campus church is an expression of this desire. As a church grows in popularity, it naturally seeks to continue spreading its way of doing and being church. Satellite locations are established bearing the name of the original church. Geared toward 25- to 40-year-olds and their young families, multi-campus churches are seeing a surge in popularity. However, as someone in the target demo, I find myself turned off.

There’s a clear corporate franchise model happening here. The original ministry brand established at the first location is repackaged and consumed at satellite locations. Subsequent campuses relate to the original church as the original owner of the ministry brand. If a flavor of ministry finds success, then why not expand access to it? Megachurches have played in this space for decades by expanding the number of worship services and the days of the week services are available.

The drawback to a single campus megachurch is that the location must remain attractive enough to draw members from all over the community. Car culture among members is a must, but car culture among young people, especially Millennials, is quickly declining. A multi-campus church allows the startling growth of a megachurch while accessing members directly where they are. If a satellite location is more convenient for part of the congregation, it's a no-brainer. I like my church, but the new campus is closer to home. Never mind that there are already churches in my neighborhood; just like a franchise location of, say, Chipotle, I'm reassured by the familiarity of the brand identity to which I feel loyal. If I am not already familiar with the ministry, I may be reassured by its popularity and feel compelled to visit.

With very little risk, someone who wants to check out a church in their own neighborhood is now served by the church across town they already know. In an increasingly divided society that manufactures loneliness, expanding opportunities for people to interact with each other in public is to the good.

It is this physical gathering together that causes my critique of the multi-campus church model. Though it may not be the case for every church, often the pastor isn’t present with the congregation of the satellite campuses. Instead, an image of the pastor is projected into the sanctuary via live feed from a building across town (or across the nation). Part of the appeal of megachurches in general is the excitement of being a part of something with hundreds or thousands of other people.

I see the appeal and excitement of hearing a talented pastor deliver a great sermon to a packed sanctuary. But it is important for the pastor of a church to be bodily present among her people. Can a pastor who is available virtually to her flock speak to the particulars of the satellite location? Does a pastor who encounters his congregation through a video screen address the specific struggles a congregation is having with the gospel? Can the pastor of a multi-campus church suffer with members who suffer; can she fully be Christ to her people without being physically present among them?

A further implication of the multi-campus church arrangement is that the original campus is the wellspring of authentic ministry and authority for the satellite locations. While certainly not the case for all multi-campus churches, this arrangement can serve to inflate the ego of the pastor and staff of the original church. It can also serve to stroke the ego of the original congregation, especially of those big donors to the church who now not only support one church, but three or four.

The notorious example of this is Mars Hill and the much-publicized travails of Mark Driscoll. Recently, eleven independent churches have formed as the Mars Hill franchise dissolved. One wonders why these churches could not have originally been founded as independent locations inspired by Mars Hill without the image of Mark Driscoll projected into their sanctuaries each week.

You may detect a hint of bias against video screens. I suspect my distaste for video may be a reactionary push against my own generation's total immersion in the digital realm. I want church disconnected from that. The church is keen to attract people my age with apps, streams, screens, and overly-designed logos and iconography (not the Greek kind). I find it all more than a little condescending. Give me a place to escape from my phone, where it is simply in bad taste to Tweet, and "like" and Instagram because you ought to be talking to the little old lady sitting in the pew next to you.

Criticism is easy. Building something is hard. I've already mentioned the efficiency of the arrangement laid out above. If a church is growing so quickly that it isn’t served by its original location, it makes a certain kind of sense to continue welcoming people elsewhere, and thus to continue growing. When you have a good thing going, why not allow as many people as possible to access it? Why not offer the attraction of worshipping with thousands?

Another major benefit of the multi-campus style of church is the clear well of energy that exists to build community and communion in a body that seeks to conform to Christ. Multi-campus churches are unabashedly forward about sharing that life with one another and with their wider communities. This is an energy much of the Mainline Protestant church in the United States could use today.

However, the logic at play in a multi-campus church risks replacing the most challenging aspects of faith with the familiar logic of market-based consumerism. But, efficiency, common sense and growth aren’t biblical concepts. I desire community that embraces the energy and courage on display in the multi-campus style but that rejects the urge to depend on the too-familiar logic of the market and brand loyalty, even if that means it cannot achieve exponential growth. I crave church that not only preaches a challenging message of personal and social transformation but which acts in a way that risks upsetting the established order of things. In contrast to the multi-campus model, this expression of church would more fully conform to the life of Christ and invite the Holy Spirit to powerfully dwell with those who gather in the name of Jesus.

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