Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Multi-campus Mega Churches

It is amazing to me how little we learn from history. Of course, to learn anything from history you have to know something about it. In our day of historical ignorance it is no wonder we make the same mistakes again and again. Contemporary churches are doing it again! Conditions are developing that can result in a full blown ecclesiastical system. Once that system comes into being it soon becomes controlling and tyrannical.

I’m talking about the development of multiple campus churches. Multiple campus congregations are as old as the second century church. The developing of an ecclesiastical structure was not intended then but it was an unintended consequence of forces put into play as early as AD 107.

The pressures of false teaching and Roman persecution led to the development of the monarchical bishop. Leadership in the first century local church consisted of bishops/elders and deacons. In those early years bishop and elder were synonymous terms. Recognizing the need for a more responsive leadership, the early church started elevating one of the bishop/elders to a position of greater authority. By the early second century Ignatius of Antioch advised congregations to appoint one elder as bishop. It was a common sense response to the slow decision making of a plurality of elders. When necessary the bishop quickly determined how a church would respond to false teaching or persecution.

As the second century progressed, the bishop supposedly guaranteed orthodox teaching and practice. The second century church soon accepted the idea that without a bishop there could be no communion or baptism.

As congregations grew in the major cities churches established satellite assemblies in the suburbs. Each week the bishop blessed the elements of the Lord’s Supper and members of his family (elders) carried the sanctified elements to these satellites. Remember, no bishop no Lord’s Supper! Elders (presbyters in Greek) became identified with specific satellite congregations. They developed into the priesthood. The bishop of the original congregation became the authoritative leader for all of the congregations in his city. Over time the suburban congregations became large enough to reach outside into the countryside where they planted others. The progression started again. The “down town” bishop was now the leader of a region.

Bishops in larger and more important cities eventually exercised tremendous influence on bishops in smaller communities. Bishops in five major Roman cities were soon recognized as Metropolitan Bishops. Appeals from bishops of smaller areas appealed to the bishops of Rome, Carthage, Antioch in Syria, Jerusalem, and Alexandria for advise and direction. All bishops were theoretically equal but the “big boys” still exercised considerable clout. Development continued until Innocent III had full papal power in AD 600 even though he rejected the title Pope. The rest is, as they say, history.

Today congregations of all manner of denominational and non-denominational stripes are establishing satellite churches. Perimeter Church was one of the first I heard about. In the Restoration Movement one of the first was the church in Naperville, Illinois. Many of our mega churches and near mega churches are now establishing satellite churches. Among them are Rivertree Christian Church, Massillon, OH; Christ’s Church of the Valley, Peoria, AZ; and Central Christian Church in Mesa, AZ. These churches invest millions of dollars in facilities for these satellite congregations. The satellites contribute to one central treasury and one eldership oversees the work of them all. Since the elderships of our mega churches generally make the “big decisions” (five percent of all decisions) that means effective leadership for these congregations is directed by the “Senior Minister” of the organizing congregation. All that remains is for them to adopt the title bishop.

I don’t think anyone intends for all of this to eventually end up in an ecclesiastical system. Mark my words, it will. It may take some time but eventually the result will be indistinguishable from the ecclesiastical system of Roman Catholicism, Episcopalianism, or Methodism. It may not happen with first generation leaders or even second generation leadership. After all, it took 600 years for Catholicism to develop.

At some point a core of leaders will arise in these satellite congregations to challenge the leaders of the originating body. Conflict will deepen until there are fissures and ultimately schism. At this point, who will own the facilities? Will there be freedom to follow Scripture according to the dictates of their own hearts or must they adhere to the “creed” of the originating church?

These are legitimate questions and the issues are real. The New Testament Church was always local. The Restoration Movement has always understood the church, wherever it is located, to be one body in Christ. We consistently understood, however, that the church exists as separate congregations each with its own leadership.[1] We have avoided intrusion into the life of other congregations. No matter how we protest, a satellite church soon becomes its own congregation. We long heard that multiple services result in multiple congregations in the same location. If that is true, it is even more likely for a second assembly located in another part of a city. When there are different services in a single location there is shared programming for children, youth, and other demographic groups. A satellite congregation will establish its own programming but it is not certain it will share the same demographics as the originating congregation.

Leaders in many of our mega churches are egotistical enough to believe their formula for success works everywhere. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I know the establishment of multiple satellites comes from a desire to reach people for Christ. I don’t fault their motives. I do, however, fault their long term thinking. Few stop to think through possible consequences. Even those who do can’t foresee all the potential problems. Furthermore, fallen humanity is not in a position to foresee all the possible consequences. Wouldn’t we be wise to learn from the lessons of the past and avoid making the same mistakes again and again?

Just something to think about!

[1] Thomas Campbell, “Declaration and Address.” See Propositions 1 and 2.