The multi-site video venue church model (MSVV) has become in vogue among larger churches in America over the past 15 years.
Some MSVV churches share the same mission statement, doctrinal statement, approach to worship and preaching, yet give independent status to each of its venues. Each site has its own pastor.
Others set up their sites based on a video screen in which the teaching of the preaching pastor is piped into an auditorium. The influence of this single pastor’s teaching ministry is what gathers people.
These multi-site venues are set up to localize the gathering of people who drive for miles to “hear” this pastor.
Instead of driving 20 to 30 miles, the church sets up a site where the same preacher can be heard via video more locally.
MSVV has become a popular model of organizing for mega-churches that want to continue to expand.
And yet, I have contended for years that this form of organizing is prone to two “sins” that work against presence and mission in a local community.
1. MSVV is prone to decontextualization.
When one franchises either a teacher or a church model based on one location and transfers it “en toto” to another location, one has, in essence, disregarded the local context and culture.
Doing so assumes that who we are and what we say as a church applies to the new context with no dialogue or presence needed. It is a profound act of colonialism.
The result is that this church most often will “attract” people who already believe the same things and use the same language to gather in a homogenous group.
This group will become enclosed and defensive because it did not start with people in local context; it started with what it already knew and was comfortable with.
When this happens, the church becomes incapable of mission. It becomes a defensive enclave.
2. MSVV is prone to hierarchical organization.
Having been established on the premise of centralized organization, MSVVs make decisions, funnel funds and use other means of power from the center out.
Even worse, locations that pipe in the teaching of one powerful pastor’s personality tend to center and order authority around one person.
Not only is such a system prone to enormous abuse, but also this always works against mission.
Because decisions are made by one person, authority is extracted out of the local contexts and driven by the one vision and message of this leader who cannot possibly understand the local contextual issues in every one of the video venues.
This is why preaching tends to devolve from proclamation over the issues and problems of people’s lives and systems (in their local context), to generic teaching about how to live a better Christian life.
Extracting authority from the local centers into the hands of a central committee or pastor always stunts the development of authority and ministry from growing organically in the locales of its own people.
Because of sin No. 1, video venue multi-site churches will often fall into the abuse of empire building.
In an effort to expand the brand, they will overstretch, overspend and become consumed with raising money.
Because of sin No. 2, video venue churches will sometimes fall into the abuse of hierarchical authoritarian abuse.
As the whole system becomes built on the one personality and pressures build to manage problems efficiently and pump out “services,” the singular leader will be tempted to abuse power, make unilateral decisions and stomp over people.
These are the inevitable sins of which MSVV churches are prone. To me, Mars Hill Seattle, and its former pastor Mark Driscoll, is a case study of what happens when these churches fall into these sins.
In response, the leadership of Mars Hill basically unwound the two sins. They decentralized the organization of the churches and de-hierarchicalized its leadership (although not totally). This is the beginning of the reversing of the sins of MSVV churches.
There have also been attempts to reconcile, confess sins and deal with all the abuse and sin of this church. Some have yet to be satisfied with the steps taken.
The case of Mars Hill, however, begs the question to all MSVVs: Why wait until these sins take over?
They are endemic to the system, so why not consider the moves of Mars Hill post-Mark Driscoll and implement them now before the sins manifest themselves in all their ugliness? Why not save everyone the grief?
Every MSVV church should consider how to contextualize their sites, and how to decentralize and de-hierarchilize the organization before they become another example of Mars Hill Seattle’s errors.
At the very least, every leadership team of an MSVV church should have in place the means to shape leadership in resistance to these two sins.
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.
David E. Fitch (PhD, Northwestern University) is the B. R. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary and the cofounder of Missio Alliance. He is the founding pastor of Life on the Vine Christian Community, a missional church in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, and is currently on the pastoral staff at Peace of Christ Church in Westmont, Illinois.