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The Two Sins of Multi-Site Video Venue: The Case of Mark Driscoll/Mars Hills and How Should We Respond?

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It’s been a while since Mark Driscoll’s stepping down from Mars Hill Seattle church was announced and the dissolving of its central organization. So perhaps now, after all the Twitter fire has died down, we might ponder the meaning of these events for what it means for church life in N America, specifically, the model of organization known as Multi-Site Video Venue.
Over the past fifteen years, the Multi-Site Video Venue church ‘model’ (MSVV) has become in vogue among larger churches in America. There are different versions of it. Some churches share the same mission statement, doctrinal statement, approach to worship and preaching and yet give independent status to each of its venues. Each site has its own pastor. Other multi-site churches set up their sites based on a video screen in which the teaching of the preaching pastor is piped in to an auditorium. The influence of this single pastor’s teaching ministry is what gathers people. These multi-site venues then are set up to localize the gathering of people who drive for miles to “hear” this pastor. Instead of driving 20/30 miles, the church figures its better to set up a site where the same preacher can be heard via video screen more locally. People can gather to hear the same teaching and be provided the rest of the religious goods and services via the closer more local venue. This is what I refer to as MSVV – the Multi-Site Video Venue church ‘model.’

MSVV has become a popular model of organizing for mega churches that want to continue to expand. And yet I contend ( and have contended for years) this form of organizing is prone to two “sins” that work against presence and mission in a local community.  I want to be careful NOT to over generalize because I know of multi-site churches who vigorously work to overcome these two sins. But to me, if you examine the culture of many multi-site-video venue churches, these are the two stunningly repeatable sins that occur regularly within them. If one elects to become part of/or a leader in a MSVV church I would urge that person to vigilant in discerning these two sins creeping into the organization of the church. Here’s the two sins as I see them. .

SIN #1 – Multi-Site Video Venue (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, its culture and instead assumes that who we are and what we say as a church applies to you with no dialogue or presence needed. It asks people to come to me on our terms. We have what you need. It is a profound act of colonialism. The result is that this church most often will “attract” people of like ilk who already believe the same things and use the same language to gather in an homogenous group. This group cannot help getting enclosed and even 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, this church has become incapable of mission. It becomes a defensive enclave. This is why decintextualization is sin# 1 of video venue.

SIN#2 – Multi-Site Video Venue (MSVV) is prone to hierarchical organization. It is after all built on the premise of centralized organization. It in essence makes decisions and funnels funds and other means of power from the center out. Even worse, many video venue churches, that pipe in the teaching of one powerful pastor personality, tend to hierarchilize this authority around one man (rarely a woman). The organization becomes centered and ordered towards the authority in this one man. Not only is such a system prone to enormous abuse, but this stunningly always works against mission. Because decisions are made by this one person, authority is extracted out of the local contexts and driven by the one vision and message of this one man. And yet this one person 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. This kind of teaching always lends itself to building up existing Christians (not entirely a bad things) as opposed to challenging people and bringing hope in the midst of mission. But, even worse, extracting authority from the local centers into the hands of a central committee/pastor always stunts the development of authority and ministry from growing organically in the locales of its own people.

What Happens When a Video Venue Goes Bad: The Case of Mars Hill

Because of Sin#1, video venue multi-site churches will often fall into the abuse of empire building, land acquisition (as I described here). In an effort to expand the brand, they will over stretch, over spend, and become consumed with raising money. This, in my opinion, always goes bad. Because of Sin#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’ product, the singular leaders will be tempted to abuse his power, make unilateral decisions, and stomp over people. This in my opinion always goes bad. It never results in Kingdom. These are the inevitable sins of which multi sit video venue churches are prone.

To me, Mars Hill Seattle, and its former pastor Mark Driscoll, is a case study of what happens when multi site video venue churches fall into these sins. They got caught up in spreading the brand, protecting the brand, spreading the brand to places far from Seattle (Albuquerque NM). It took so much money so they were forced to raise money under dubious practices. Meanwhile the pastor got caught up in authoritarian leadership. He did not lead collegially but in patriarchal abuse. Driscoll consolidated power more and more to the point where he singularly ruled over a small group of elders chosen to agree with him. He became unaccountable to anyone. All the theological implications of this were patently ignored. This led to the huge downfall.

The Response and Ours Too

The response? (Seen here and here) 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). I say ‘kudos’ to Mars Hill leadership (finally). This to me is the beginning of the reversing of the sins of multi-site video venue 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 here.

The case of Mars Hill however begs the question to all MSVV’s: Why wait until these sins take us over. They are endemic to the system. 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? This to me is what all MSVV churches should consider. Every MMVV church should consider how can we contextualize our sites and decentralize de-hierarchilize our organization BEFORE WE TOO BECOME ANOTHER EXAMPLE OF MARS HILL SEATTLE. At the very least, every leadership team of a MSVV church should have in place the means to shape leadership in resistance to these two sins.

What do you think? Is the diagnosis right? How has your MSVV avoided these two sins?

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9 responses to “The Two Sins of Multi-Site Video Venue: The Case of Mark Driscoll/Mars Hills and How Should We Respond?

  1. Thanks for this balanced approach to the topic. So much discussion on multi-venue churches either demonize it or praise it as “the” way to do church.
    Every new idea has its pitfalls and benefits. This article gives a great assessment of both.

    1. If this is balanced, I wonder what the deomonizing variety looks like. I don’t disagree with the assessment here, but…the whole thing is framed around two sins endemic to this way of being church. Not exactly aiming to be balanced (which is fine by me).

  2. Thanks for the article,I just think that the whole idea of multi-site church is simply sad.
    Unbelievingly sad. We so much have nothing left, that we accept to see a preacher-star on a screen, and call it “church gathering”…

    We often analyze things retrospectively, but, we could say that the exageration of the centrality of preaching seem to explain that developpment in recent western suburb context. Since the reformation, we have the tendancy to gather not around the presence of Christ, so something should replace it. It becomes “the” good teaching of “that” church (fundamentalist churches), and/or the charismatic personality of the preacher, or the felt presence in the worship style. … So: decreasing the centrality of the real presence leads to exaggerating the importance of the preacher. (Hauerwas says something like that about our liturgy-less gathering and our need for preacher-entertainers, and the non-sustainability of it…)

    That this kind of sad multi-site “gathering” developped in recent North-America evangelicalism is therefore, retrospectively, not really a surprise, even though it’s always surprising what kind of “wal-mart-ization” of the church people are able to tolerate without becoming totally depressed… (… but I suspect we, North American christians, are somewhat cynical, and would need a shock treatment with some chestertonian common sense…)

    The second “sin” you mention lets easily see your anabaptist preferences. From a catholic point of view, hierarchy is not working against mission (catholic are, up to now, the largest christian group in the world, and it was not, contrary to the secularist myths, forced conversions all the way from China to Chile, and from Africa to Ireland).

    Saying — sorry for being a bit harsh here — “platitudes” like “hierarchy may lead to authoritarian abuse, so hierarchy is bad” is like saying “some fathers are jerks, so let’s ban all fathers”.

    You have probably written elsewhere about the crisis of thrust toward authority, explained in part by church abuses. We can have 2 attitudes in that kind of debate: situations like Mars Hill happen, so hierarchy and authority are bad. Or: God build his church, whatever may happen. If a hierarchy can thrust God, and can thrust that Christ is really present in each gathering in each church, then the authority of this hierarchy is counter-balanced by this local reality. In other word, if Christ is believed to be really present in every gathering of every church, the authority over those church need to be very careful how they exercise this authority.

    It comes back again to my first point: around what are we gathering?

  3. Tommy,Helpful. Thank you. I’m on my phone so this response is short. IMO hierarchy only works in consolidation. Structures which organize existing believers. It works for numbers of reasons in Catholic church in this sense. I’ll comment more later. 🙂

  4. I was on staff for a short time at as MSVV. We tried very hard to have it all, to be both missional and multisite. The fact was, we were always an afterthought or even a bothersome inconvenience to the mothership.
    More importantly, “content” was made by and for the (mostly upper-class and white) mothership. We had one venue near a trailer part and another in a 99% hispanic neighborhood.

    Imperialism seems inevitable.

    As I said in my own post on this topic “The kingdom of God is at hand. How can anything be called a church that is not also at hand?” http://www.chrismorton.info/2014/11/06/which-multi-site-megachurch-will-dissolve-next/

  5. MSVV stems from a prior problem: that people are attracted to the preaching of a particular person. As that preaching draws more and more people, you either become a megachurch meeting in a stadium or you go MSVV.
    Now, the remedy of course is to build mitosis into the DNA of the church, so that as you grow you grow toward dividing into two rather than just growing in size. That sounds good in theory, but you’re still left with the reality that a lot of people prefer to listen to one preacher over another. Driscoll has mentioned this before, that they tried planting churches but those plants died out as people didn’t want to leave the parent church.

    Now, there may be all manner of ways of building in safeguards against this, but at the end of it all the preacher must be willing to pull the nuclear option on the congregation and be prepared to step down from preaching altogether. They have to be willing to wean the congregation off of them and onto Christ.

  6. I am an ordinary layperson who has been a “preacher’s kid” for over 60 years. I have lived through and experienced many of the “fads” of church leaders—“church growth movement”—“seeker sensitive” movement—MSVV—etc. etc. Let’s keep it basic and authentic. I am weary of “fads” and “marketing” techniques.

  7. […] The Two Sins of Multi Site Video Venue (MSVV) Churches – In the wake of what some consider the key Evangelical news story of 2014: “Multi-Site Video Venue (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, its culture and instead assumes that who we are and what we say as a church applies to you with no dialogue or presence needed. It asks people to come to me on our terms. We have what you need. It is a profound act of colonialism.” […]

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