Monday, March 28, 2011

Church Cloning Via Video Feeds

DAY 20 OF 46

Once again, I'm forced to ask: Can anybody tell me the merits of satellite churches?

No, not churches that have been shot into Earth's orbit, silly! I'm sure if that were possible, plenty of us would find great benefit in the idea. Even though astronauts would be forced to contend with even more space junk.

By the term "satellite church," I refer to the recent trend of large churches cloning themselves by launching separate campuses linked by videos of the same preacher. Kinda like franchising the church experience, with a dose of Brave New World autocracy.

Granted, most satellite preachers don't wear glasses,
and they look a lot younger.
Remember the eerily prophetic commercials for the world's first Apple computers? Homogeneous autotrons watching a hypnotic talking face on a big glass screen?

OK, so maybe attending a satellite church isn't as much mind control as it is petty egotism. After all, don't churches that create replicas of themselves and pipe in preaching from the mother ship pretty much bow to the senior pastor's awesomeness? At least they're not forcing anybody to attend.

I simply can't get over wondering if the teaching minister wasn't so full of himself, why his church can't plant daughter churches the old-fashioned way: by launching new congregations with their own preachers?

Coming Home?

Hmm... have I just answered my own question? After all, how many preachers today like anything that even smells old-fashioned? So what if we have a glut of seminary graduates who can't find preaching jobs? So what if some churches can't compete because they don't have the media budgets that other mega-churches have? So what if 21st Century Americans have become so enamored with vicarious living through digital technology that having a video for a preacher seems to make perfect sense?

Yesterday, Prestonwood Baptist Church here in North Texas announced that it will be acquiring a smaller church campus inside the northern section of Dallas for the site of its second satellite church.  Just a few years ago, Prestonwood was located a couple of miles up the road from the building it's going to purchase, but they relocated to what had been farmland in suburban Plano (pronounced "PLAY-no"), constructing a monstrous campus that some people have described as an aircraft hangar on steroids.

Not that Prestonwood's original campus in far north Dallas was tiny. One of the world's first mega-churches, the old Prestonwood was known far and wide for its cavernous sanctuary, notorious lack of parking, and its shopping-mall-meets-college-hall layout, complete with two levels of walkways, sitting areas, fountains, an on-site bookstore, and a coffee shop.

But even then, not all of its members worshipped on the same campus. A private Bible study was held on Sunday mornings at a nearby country club for church members who apparently couldn't bring themselves to sit in the same pews with people of lower tax brackets. Of course, that was before digital video technology, so I guess the country club group wasn't an official satellite church.

Perhaps it's uncharitably un-Christian of me to denigrate the way such a publicly successful church pursues growth. If anybody who's a member of Prestonwood read this essay, they'd probably chalk up my cynicism to a lack of faith, jealousy, or small-mindedness.

Yet I'm comfortable challenging the integrity of satellite churches based on those same three elements.

Satellite Church Small-Mindedness

We'll start with small-mindedness, since it was Prestonwood's senior pastor, Jack Graham himself, who was quoted in our local media yesterday as saying that there are thousands of young families now living in the area of Dallas targeted by Prestonwood that aren't attending church.  As if that demographic didn't exist in this same densely-populated neighborhood when Prestonwood bailed for the suburbs in the first place.

Or that the reason people in this neighborhood aren't going to church is because no churches exist nearby. Hey, this is Dallas, Texas, where there's virtually a church on every corner. One of Dallas' biggest contemporary churches, Watermark, is located just a couple of blocks away from Prestonwood's proposed acquisition. If people in this neighborhood aren't going to church, it's not because no churches are convenient. Good grief - they're even buying a church building from an existing congregation!

The reason the church which currently owns the property is moving - a church with a contemporary style - is because its congregation is shrinking, and existing members need to downsize their mortgage. Might the reason the current church is losing membership have something to do with the relatively new Watermark nearby, poaching membership with its hipper, slicker brand of contemporary worship?

What makes Prestonwood think its Baptist product will be different enough to compete with the popular, nondenominational Watermark? Or be so unique that the neighborhood will give church another chance?

Something tells me instead that Prestonwood's existing congregants who live in north Dallas have simply grown weary of schlepping all the way up to Plano to attend church. And they'll likely comprise the bulk of the new satellite congregation. This scenario would require a lot less spin, and probably also pacify any banks funding the purchase.

Satellite Church Jealousy

Second is jealousy. One of the largest churches in the country is Fellowship Church in Grapevine, a suburb of nearby Fort Worth, and a sister Southern Baptist congregation.  Fellowship Church already has five satellite churches, including one in Miami, Florida, of all places.

Southern Baptists are notorious for keeping up with their intra-denominational Joneses.  Might Prestonwood, feeling as though their longtime luster as a trendsetting church needs some polishing, be feeling the itch to play copy-cat with the satellite trend?

Satellite Church and Faith

Third is a lack of faith.  I realize it sounds presumptuous of me to suggest that Prestonwood's leadership exhibits a lack of faith by buying another campus to expand its ministry.  But that's not what I'm asking. What is any church using the satellite prototype saying about the Gospel of Jesus Christ when they imply that their pastor is the best man to evangelize multiple congregations?

North America is flush with seminary graduates. Anecdotal evidence suggests that few of them want to minister in small, rural churches or poor inner city ones. Which is a problem in and of itself. But let's go with the theory which says large, affluent urban/suburban populations need more professional Christians. Still, we have a glut of churchless pastors, at least according to this Fuller Seminary professor.

Not that mega-churches like Prestonwood, Fellowship Church, and all the other satellite players are single-handedly responsible for reducing the backlog of churchless seminary grads.  It's just that if these graduates have been genuinely led of God to pursue a seminary degree, to what degree are churches responsible for providing opportunities for service so the skills learned by these folks don't go to waste? (Or, for that matter, seminaries; if they're creating an illusion of urgent demand?)

By placing video feeds of one preacher in multiple "congregations," how do satellite churches support the integrity of the pastoral profession? Are they more interested in having a shepherd for their flock, or marketing a man with good pulpit vibes? Sure, some preachers are more gifted at teaching the Word of God than others, but how much better is Jack Graham than any of the guys out there looking for a preaching ministry?

Think about it: we can't say the cream rises to the top when the supply is greater than the demand; not everybody gets a chance to rise or fall.  So is Jack Graham really as good as his church thinks he is?  Yeah, he pastors a large church, but how much does size matter?  Are satellite preachers afraid there might be somebody out there better than themselves, so they try and monopolize their pulpit?  All we know for certain is that congregations like Prestonwood think preachers like Jack Graham are better than the other preachers they've heard.

Besides, being able to teach is only one part of being a minister, isn't it?  Preachers who preach via video feed may be evangelizing, but they're not really shepherding, are they?  For example, do congregants have an opportunity to go up to the video preacher after the service, shake his hand, and look him in the eye? Not that all of us do that anyway with our in-the-flesh preachers, but we like knowing we could if we needed or wanted to.

Indeed, one of the luxuries of being a preacher in a mega-church is that the larger your congregation, the more distance you can place between yourself and your congregants.  To top it off, most of them understand that even though they'll feel like they know you, they really won't.  Does that sound like the kind of leadership the New Testament writers were thinking about when they listed God's qualifications and duties for those who would lead His flock on Earth?

After all, it's God's flock, isn't it?  With the superstar preacher mentality many congregations have in North America, it's easy to forget that the church losing membership in north Dallas is part of God's flock, as is Prestonwood, and Fellowship, and all other churches claiming to be led by the Holy Spirit.

It's not that the Bible teaches against technology. But discipleship is uniquely dependant on relationships, isn't it?  And evangelism is only the first step in discipleship.  Being a mega church pastor already has built-in drawbacks to building genuine community between pastors and congregants, but don't those drawbacks increase exponentially when you throw in the fact that the preacher ain't even live?

Satellite Church is a Bad Way to Plant

Now, please be careful: If you think I'm against church planting, then you haven't read this essay well. Done properly, church planting is a viable, even essential component of how Christ builds His Kingdom, and I would be woefully, regrettably wrong if I were to speak against the concept. Instead, I'm concerned about the growing temptation of congregations to market their preachers through satellite churches, and claim it's legitimate church planting.

As a Bible-believing, God-led minister of the Gospel, there's absolutely nothing that Jack Graham or any satellite preacher can say or preach regarding salvation or anything else pertinent to Christ's Gospel that any other man, sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit, cannot. There are no new visions, prophecies, or truths being revealed that any Godly minister can claim as their own, or that deprive other congregations of the Gospel if they don't hear it from a specific mortal. At least, not as long as you're preaching the Bible.

If people in north Dallas aren't going to get saved unless they hear Jack Graham's preaching, then it's probably not salvation they're receiving.


  1. Satellite Church is good idea. It means more people get to hear a preacher they like. The congregation is not limited to that preacher however. The preacher could easily let other upcoming pastors preach at the other venues or preach in his/her place on a Sunday.

    You said:

    "As a Bible-believing, God-led minister of the Gospel, there's absolutely nothing that Jack Graham or any satellite preacher can say or preach regarding salvation or anything else pertinent to Christ's Gospel that any other man, sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit, cannot."

    So does it really matter then? You're focusing on the kid out of seminary with a supposedly 'lack of opportunity'. But if our focus is on them, and their career, where's the focus on God? Jesus said that God takes care of the birds, how much more will he take care of us. this focus on getting a church, or getting into ministry takes our focus off God.

    Just because it's showing the service at another venue does not mean other pastors lose out. Despite your claim you failed to recognize all the other opportunities that a multi-site church would open up. At a mega-church not everyone has a part to play. You may have one, two... maybe five guitarists tops. If a single mega-church has too many guitarists, then each musician may only play once a year. Attempting to use their gift among the body becomes a joke.

    This is obviously different at a multi-site church. This way it can stay small and everyone has a part to play. The surplus of guitarists, or singers, or preachers can just spill over into the other venues.

    Plus if I ran a multi-site church I would have pastors/usher type people. These men and women would transition the worship to the video preaching, to the alter call etc. This way the congregation has a father in the faith to speak to and 'shake their hand'. What's more important shaking the hand of the pastor or taking some personal action from the message preached? In this scenario the congregation can do both, maybe not the preacher, but I'm sure the pastor at their venue can help them. There's no super-apostles.

    Just some thoughts.

  2. Thank you for taking the time to provide your thoughtful feedback.

    - I would respectfully suggest that having "favorite" preachers is one of the fallacies of evangelical Christianity. The "I am of Apollos" branding that even the Apostle Paul documents in 1 Corinthians 1:12 should discourage us from picking favorites, although it can't be denied that some preachers are better communicators or have greater charisma than others.

    - My point about the seminary graduates is that preachers who try to gobble up market share do the same thing in churches that monopolistic companies do in capitalism - they deny chances for others.

    - I'm glad to see that you have particular respect for the service opportunities of worship musicians. I think many of us marginalize the role these people play in our communities of faith. The distinction between satellite video church and conventional church planting shouldn't affect worship leaders, though, since in either case, you'd still have a new congregation needing live worship musicians.

    - It's the cloning of select preachers that I'm having a problem with. If we evangelicals actually evangelized by ourselves, and didn't rely on professional Christians to spread the Gospel for us, wouldn't the church-planting model function more effectively? Preachers and denominations wouldn't be calling the shots, but communities of disciples. And video preaching simply can't substitute for live interpersonal discipleship, can it?

    In our post-modern video age, it's easy to accept the ways technology replaces human interaction. However - and speaking as a blogger! - I think we need to be very careful about how we incorporate technology with preaching - a "means of grace" which is basic to our faith, a personal relationship between God and His people.


Thank you for your feedback!