I’ve been thinking about LifeChurch.tv lately (check the Wikipedia article on them).
In case you’re not familiar with the church, it’s one of the best-known examples of the multi-site church movement. At present, Life Church uses live video feeds to simultaneously have the same service in Oklahoma, Arizona, Texas, and Tennessee. They also stream the service over the internet.
They both start new churches and acquire existing churches (that’s their language, not mine. They are very clear that they are not proposing mergers — they are proposing acquisitions — listen to Kevin Penry). If you’d like to be acquired you can sign up online .
One thing I want to praise them for: they make their resources available online for free. They’re clearly very Kingdom-minded.
But something about LifeChurch’s approach worries me.
I’ll explain what it is after some necessary disclaimers:
- I have no fundamental theological problem with multi-site churches. If you think it’s okay for a single-site church to have two services on a Sunday morning then you’re inconsistent to oppose multiple-site churches. Once you cede the splitting of the congregation it’s all just a matter of degree (if this is not clear to you then spend some time thinking through your problems with multi-site churches and how they are also applicable to a church that has an 8:00am service and an 11am service).
- There are a lot of ways to do multi-site church and there is certainly diversity within the movement. My concerns about LifeChurch’s approach don’t apply to all the ways multi-site is done.
Here’s my concern: if LifeChurch’s philosophy becomes the norm (an excellent test of the soundness of a philosophy) then we lose something vital to the health of the church.
Let’s say LifeChurch continues to grow and spreads into 10 or 15 states. They reach 100,000 in aggregate attendance. 200,000. 500,000. 1,000,000. These numbers are not unreasonable — multi-site churches seem to be scale-free networks and thus will exhibit the winner-take-all phenomenon. The largest multi-site will be about twice as large as its next-greatest neighbor and so on down the line.
In effect, LifeChurch (or someone like it) will become the Wal-Mart of churches soon, and just like Wal-Mart the overwhelming nature of their dominance will be surprising and will take a while to sink in. And just like Wal-Mart, that will bring some good and some bad along with it.
What happens when the primary leader of the American gigachurch lapses into stupidity, heresy, or moral failure? How does that affect Christianity in America?
This isn’t an unrealistic concern — evangelicalism has a history of each of these blunders. And the higher-profile a person is the more prone they seem to be to falling into one or more of these.
- Stupidity: public displays of ignorance, particularly on political or scientific issues
- Heresy: saying things about Jesus or the Bible that just aren’t true
- Moral Failure: financial impropriety or sexual immorality, for example
As things stand now, when Joe Preacher on television has a moral blowout that church is destroyed but the rest of us rock on, saddened but unaffected.
Imagine a single church which contains 35% of all evangelicals in America (and a handful in England and Australia) having the same blowout. It’s a completely different story.
That’s bad enough, but what I really worry about is the lack of ideological diversity such an arrangement would bring about. Evangelicals are already prone to sheep-like behavior, but at least we currently hang out in different flocks.
When we create an evangelical pope who has far more direct influence over his organization than the Pope has over the Catholic church, we will lose something vibrant and vital about evangelicalism. If we’re not careful, we’ll lose a vital part of the gains of the Reformation.
LifeChurch (and the entire multi-site movement) have a lot to offer and are doing some wonderful things. On the whole, I have high praise for them.
But it is not unqualified praise.