The year was 1980, the band was The Buggles and the one-hit-wonder was “Video Killed The Radio Star.” It was a catchy pop tune for its time but the underlying meaning of the song was its greatest take-away. In an era when the best place to find popular music was on the FM dial, the age of music videos came along via MTV. If you wanted to stay in the running for the top of the charts you had to have a video. If you didn’t keep up with the times, you had a good chance of being overlooked and forgotten (the fate of The Buggles…even with a video).
Fast forward to today and switch genres from pop music to the church. We live in a day and age where video is rapidly becoming a mainstream “necessity” within the church. In keeping up with the times and the advances in technology, the church is challenged to “stay relevant” by utilizing every means of technology we can find. Yet, in the mix of being current and staying popular while competing for the “top of the charts,” the church is in dangerous proximity of becoming its own worst enemy utilizing too much of a good thing.
For years, I have used short video clips which compliment the subject of my sermons or perhaps help draw attention to a particular holiday but still link everything back to Christ. This is a very effective element to enhance the service or message (video is good). I have also served at two different churches that utilized an onsite simulcast message broadcast from the other end of the building to create a second worship venue. The worship in both rooms was being led live and then the pastor preached in both rooms simultaneously (one room via video). This is a cost effective way to create more room for people to worship and still maintain the opportunity for both rooms to interact with the pastor before or after the service or during the week because they are still all worshipping at the same address (video is good).
A new creature has now emerged in the past decade which, on the surface, appears to be a relevant method for exponential growth for churches. Enter in, off-site simulcast church (otherwise known as “multi-site” in church circles). For those unfamiliar, this places the simulcast service at a different physical address than the main church (off-site) making it another church completely with the exception of the sermon which is experienced via video from the “main campus.” This new idea has exploded in cities across the nation. But is this a good thing?
The exponential exposure to great preaching and the Gospel going forth into new areas of the city, or perhaps even other cities, makes the video-venue church seem like the next “must have” for churches who want to make a mark on a city or region. While I applaud the seemingly genuine desire to start new faith communities, there is a warning label on the bottle that many seem to ignore: pastors are just people, too…they’re not Jesus.
Let me explain. The average size church in America today is less than 100 people. There is a simple reason for that; it’s called community. It has been said that one man can only effectively pastor about 85 people. After that, he must have help to continue to effectively minister to the needs of the faith community. This is why churches hire other ministers, pastors, and people who feel called into vocational ministry. It takes people to reach people. This is also why the most effective faith communities have countless volunteer, unpaid staff who have regular jobs, families, and other obligations, but who want to help make a difference in the lives of others and in the name of Jesus. Thus, the ingredients for a great church: pastor, ministry staff, and volunteers all running at the cross together. All three elements are essential to effectively carry out the Gospel. But the math doesn’t seem to be working anymore. Somehow, we’ve missed something.
I have feared that this new idea of video-venue church communities had a serious Achilles heel and my suspicions are becoming a reality. While I am all for an exponential model to create new churches we must never dismiss the critical nature of the pastor role. Thom Rainer published a book in recent years titled “Surprising Insights From The Unchurched and Proven Ways To Reach Them.” In this essential book for all church leaders, Rainer reports that nearly 90% of former non-christians said they continue to be a part their church because they connected with the pastor on some level. This may or may not be on a personal level but they felt a connection. Connections are important. People are relational. Thus, the dilemma: It is impossible to truly connect with a pastor across town (or in another city) whom you will never meet. You may love his speaking style or resonate with the message he brings, but you will never have coffee with him. He’ll likely never know your name. Despite this flaw in the system, you keep attending and tell yourself that it’s not that important…and then it happens, you discover the pastor is human; he fails you and he doesn’t even know you.
I have feared this would happen one day but was hoping for the best. However, humanity caught up with the novelty of video church and the exponential body-count is staggering. I’m certain this isn’t the first time the model has failed but the complete dismantling of Mars Hill Church in Seattle provides the greatest example of what can happen when we put all of our faith in one person…other than Jesus.
An excerpt from the article linked above reads: “Rather than remaining a centralized multi-site church with video-led teaching distributed to multiple locations, the best future for each of our existing local churches is for them to become autonomous self-governed entities,” Dave Bruskas, primary teaching pastor, announced today to the Mars Hill family. “This means that each of our locations has an opportunity to become a new church, rooted in the best of what Mars Hill has been in the past, and independently led and run by its own local elder teams.”
One of the most influential multi-site churches in America has now stated that the best foot forward is to be independent communities of faith at each location with their own pastors/elders at the helm. In order for this to happen, countless people have lost their jobs, buildings will go for sale, thousands of people are having to make serious adjustments to their own church involvement, and some will inevitably walk away from the church altogether after it failed them.
Whenever we place pastors on a such a critical level of performance and expectation, we are running the risk of discovering our worst nightmares come true: they are human. The Bible tells us that a man who wants to be a pastor/elder desires a noble task, and that’s a good thing. But I am afraid the task at hand for video-church mega pastors is a sphere of influence beyond what one man can live up to over time. I am certain that Mark Driscoll loves Jesus and loves it when others discover what it means to know Him. He has made a significant impact for the kingdom of God in the lives of thousands of people. But when one person is placed on such a high pedestal, and that person isn’t Jesus himself, we’re asking for dissapontment. We live in a day and age when, more than ever before, pastors are striving to make it to a stage bigger than the one they are on now. More and more honest, well-meaning, Jesus-loving pastors are falling for the corporate-ladder-of-success model for ministry. But is this what Jesus wanted? Was that the model given in the New Testament? Are we supposed to build empires for the Kingdom?
Being a pastor is my calling and that’s a good thing. And I am no stranger to this desire to gain a bigger audience or a more prominent position as a pastor. Every pastor faces that struggle on some level during his experience of pastoring. But I’ve discovered through my journey that, although He may do so, God doesn’t need to promote pastors to bigger stages or more important roles to complete His plan. God simply needs pastors to love Jesus and use their gifts in divine opportunities to preach and shepherd where they’ve been called and commit to a people group for the long haul (something I’ve discovered in hindsight myself).
Please don’t misunderstand my point, video venue churches are seemingly working well in many cities across the nation. But in reality there will always be a disconnect between pastor and parishioner if the preaching pastor isn’t at the same address as the church body. A few years ago, I interviewed for a campus pastor (non-preaching) role at one of the leading video venue churches in the nation. The position was one designed to be the local shepherd for the church but not the one preaching. Not far into the interview, I asked a simple question. I asked what the church’s plan was if something unexpected happened to the main pastor (I think I asked what would happen if he were hit by a bus). Without hesitation, the person conducting the interview quickly responded by saying that he was heavily insured. Really? He then quickly followed with an explanation that they realized that this pastor’s “replacement” was probably in high school at the moment and they were already on the lookout for him. This church never intends to train up preaching pastors at their campuses. Instead, they intend to always rest the the responsibility of the the preaching squarely on one set of shoulders (a weight too heavy for one man to bear) and hope they don’t forget to pay the power bill. I promptly and politely cut the interview short.
Jesus said for us to go and make disciples. Paul commissioned Titus to appoint elders in every church on the island of Crete. He told Titus to find the men already leading their faith communities by they way they lived their lives and appoint them as elders (pastors); many, many pastors. The criteria these men had to meet could only be testified to by the people living within their sphere of influence; people who knew them personally; people with whom they had a relationship (a task not possible via video).
Instead of striving to get the message of one really gifted pastor to everyone in the city or state, perhaps we ought to roll up our sleeves and multiply these men instead. How about we train up younger talented speakers in what it means to really pastor the church and stay focused on their calling instead of how many people are following them? How about we focus our church’s mission statements, our programs, our budget, and our time on making disciples today and planting new pastors in new churches tomorrow? Instead of building Old Testament temples in New Testament times, instead of canceling mid-week opportunities to fellowship, worship, and pray (which has been a trend in the American church over the past decade), let’s get back to community, back to corporate prayer, back to meeting together and not give it up as some are in the habit of doing. Quite simply, let’s get back to being the church Jesus died for. Fortunately, many video-venue, multi-site churches are actually doing this as well.
This reason for this post was not meant to incite anyone or cry foul to what many churches are successfully doing today. It was simply meant to challenge all of us to take some cues from what is actually happening in our churches and in the world around us, put our best, most biblical feet forward, and try to lower the body-count of those being failed by the local church. Before reaching for the video remote in the pew back in front of us, let’s reach out to the hands of the people around us and develop a community of faith together, a family. There are great organizations like the Acts 29 Network (originally founded by Mark Driscoll) and many others who are training the pastors that God needs to shepherd his people. Before installing projectors, let’s plant pastors. May we continue to think outside the box but live inside the pages of Scripture. And if someone posts a video of it online, then I guess that’s a good thing, too.
One last thing: If you are an active part of a local church tell your pastor how much you appreciate him this week. His shoulders are carrying a lot of weight. He’s not a rock star; he’s human and he needs personal affirmation from his community…from you. Trust me. Be blessed.