Recent news of the “meltdown” of Mars Hill Church in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. has generated much commentary on the character of Mark Driscoll, the fate of Mars Hill Church, and the nature of multisite mega-churches.
My generation of church leaders has found great success in the establishment and growth of multisite churches. The Leadership Network has documented more than 5,000 multisite churches in North America.
Many of these congregations broadcast a sermon by a central preacher to the satellite campuses.
At least one that I know of uses an internet-based metronome to control the tempo and timing of the worship music to best coordinate the live broadcast of that sermon.
The collapse of the Mars Hill network is sad. I have at least one dear friend who has lost his ministerial position and will certainly be in a state of uncertainty and trouble because of the breakup of Mars Hill.
I am sad for Driscoll and for his family, and for the thousands that will go through a period of mourning and transition as they, hopefully, look for a new church home.
We should never celebrate the collapse of a ministry that was proclaiming salvation through Christ (Luke 9:49-50).
The breakup of the Mars Hill model reveals something else that I’m interested in: the relationship between the sustainability of a congregation or network of congregations and a single minister.
There can be little doubt that Mars Hill Church’s decline has been directly related to Driscoll’s departure: attendance, giving and momentum have all significantly declined since his announced leave of absence in August.
Mars Hill, as it had existed, was unsustainable without the singular personality of Driscoll.
It was the preacher’s personality, delivery and activity that kept the organization not only thriving, but also alive. Once that personality was removed, the network had no hope of staying together.
This relatively new model of ministry is the consequence of our departure from denominationalism.
As denominations crack and splinter over social issues and react to new bureaucratic and management paradigms, large, multisite churches are able to address missions and ministry directly.
These congregations, though, are often built on the personality and preaching of one single minister.
As these congregations invest in missions, buildings and ministries of increasing scale and complexity, they increasingly risk catastrophic collapse if their lead pastor departs.
My primary concern is the congregational model of church leadership. The saga of Mars Hill’s collapse reads, at least in hindsight, as a story of the consolidation of power into a smaller and smaller group.
Even though the staff and membership of the network were growing numerically, authority over institutional decisions was placed into the hands of a shrinking group of Driscoll’s supporters.
Congregational authority was diminished in two ways:
1. The scale of the network rendered the distance between a believer and institutional power too great to be meaningful to the member, and the sheer quantity of worshippers reduced that authority so much that a single believer had little to do with the leadership of the church.
2. With Driscoll managing the entire network in a hard-line, authoritarian way, the membership was effectively left out of ownership of the congregation, thus relegating them to some sort of “consumer” status.
If a church is to be congregationally led, that is, if the autonomy of the local church is to have any meaning in the 21st century, then believers must be given and must take responsibility for the institution itself.
The pastors are certainly responsible for the spiritual care and leadership of the people, but power to make institutional decisions must not reside in the senior pastor or even in the pastoral staff.
The congregation, whether through a committee structure or through a strong emphasis on lay leadership, must be cultivated to engage the work of being the church so that, regardless of pastoral leadership, the church may thrive.
In this way, the congregation reflects what Baptists have believed for generations about the priesthood of the believer and the autonomy of the local congregation.
Our churches should not break apart when a pastor leaves; there should be such a strong sense of the congregation as the body of Christ that ministry, mission and work exist independently and sustainably in partnership with preaching and pastoral leadership.
I worry about other multisite mega-churches. When the charismatic pastor or preacher departs, who will fill the void?
Brock Ratcliff is a minister at Madison Chapel in Madison, Mississippi. He also teaches mathematics and computer science at Clinton Alternative School in Clinton, Mississippi. A longer version of this column appeared on his blog, Fides Quaerens Intellectum, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @RevBrock.