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An Ecclesiological Thought on Mars Hill’s Dissolving

Mars Hill LogoMany things have been changing in Seattle over the past several months with the challenges presented to Mars Hill Church. With the resignation of Pastor Mark Driscoll, it has been an important time to pay attention to what is going on ecclesiologically with their church. Since Mars Hill was such a significant model for many churches inside and outside the Acts 29 network, particularly with details about eldership and polity, any shift in this mega-ministry will have reverberations throughout evangelicalism.

Today, the leadership board of Mars Hill made the decision to dissolve the church and allow the various multi-sites to create either regional units or autonomous local congregations. You can read about this decision over at the ChristianPost.com site.

This decision is significant and historic. Having just completed my dissertation on the role of local church autonomy in the first two centuries, seeing this kind of shift, as sudden as it has happened, is poignant. As the leadership board of Mars Hill Church has made this move to dissolution and approved a plan to create autonomous churches, they are opting to reinforce a more mindful New Testament model of church that values the nature of the church in the first century. It is an important and helpful moment.

Mars Hill has been a major influencer, on the level of Saddleback, Willow Creek, Northpoint, and some others, on the contemporary ecclesial environment of evangelicalism. It can be said the Pastor Mark Driscoll has been as much an ecclesiological influence as other aspects of his theological ministry. With Mars Hill deciding to dissolve corporately and allow the remaining campuses to take on their own, independent identities, this marks one answer to a lingering question about the multi-site model in contemporary evangelicalism.

Mars Hill’s situation was unique; it was a church with 15 campuses across 5 states. It existed as an autonomous (or free) church ecclesiologically but did not accord that same autonomy to its multi-sites in these ranging locations. One question that seemed to always exist for Mars Hill, and that exists for other multi-site churches, is: what happens with the leader, or major figure, leaves the church? Mars Hill has provided a poignant answer.

For those who fall into a free church, or independent, model of NT ecclesiology, each local church is networksunderstood as an independent congregation that is to be free from external pressure and influence in all matters of governance, finances, and even theological decisions. While associations and networks are free to disfellowship local churches who fall out of accord with them, they are not permitted to have authority in that local congregation. Instead, the members of that local congregation are the ultimate decision makers for all these matters related to their, and only their, local church. (My particular concern is not to address all multi-site churches, indeed many are well within the NT model, but instead to point out that when a local church creates campuses outside of a natural region (where they could easily assemble as one body) they step into a dangerous area ecclesiologically.)

Many multi-site churches, specifically those with campuses outside of their local region, tread a fine line of violating local church autonomy for their extended campuses when they deny these aspects of local governance. These churches end up resembling more of an episcopal parish system than a congregational ecclesiology.

Of course it is also notable that many multi-site churches are personality driven and assemble many followers and members based on the senior pastor who is the primary communicator. Mars Hill was one of these kinds of churches. Their decision is, as a result, notable.

I am thankful that Mars Hill has made the theologically, and ecclesiologically, bold step of releasing their campuses to go off on their own. May we remember to pray for this larger corporate body of Mars Hill and then also for the, now, independent congregations that used to be part of this church. May we also continue to pray for the restoration of Pastor Mark Driscoll to ministry, surely he deserves this and we are better for it. This is a significant move that will, prayerfully, have an impact on how local congregations throughout Christianity better understand and apply the NT model of congregational (or free) church polity. We are stronger as we accurately reflect a proper NT model.

 

31
Oct 2014
POSTED BY Garet
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Multi-Site Churches as Futuristic Bus Ministries

Multi-site churches are all the rage in evangelical Christianity right now.

A multi-site church is one corporate body of believers that meets in more than one location. Over the last 30 years the movement has gone from 10 churches in the United States to over 5,000 churches who have multiple campuses.

There’s a lot to say about multi-site churches, and I hope to pull together a series of posts on them. For the record, the church where I serve has a second campus that is part of our ministry. But recently I was talking with another pastor about this movement and some of the similarities it has across church history. Multi-site isn’t so much a new concept as it is more a new way of seeing a historical concept.

One of the things that my fellow minister said, that really got me thinking, was that this movement really isn’t that much different in terms of scope than the Bus Ministries of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. 

Essentially, during this era the churches that “really got it” and were seeing growth were also doing some kind of bus ministry. If you’re unfamiliar, a bus ministry is where a local church purchases surplus (or recently retired) school buses and sends them into neighborhoods and apartment communities to pick up kids and teens, and some adults, to bring them to church. For churches that really utilized this ministry during this period they would send bus teams (driving the school buses) into those communities on Saturdays to connect with the kids and teens.

Bus ministries exploded and some of the largest churches in America had vibrant bus ministries. Annual Bus Ministry Conventions would draw in many leaders and volunteers to talk about strategy, planning, and even how to finance this ministry. Consultants would go out to churches to talk it up. Churches all across America used bus ministries and lots of growth came out of it. Now, the buses sit idle in some parking lots or are used for overflow parking (unless they’ve been moved to a new place of worship…in the junkyard.)

As my ministry friend talked about I noticed some common features with the multi-site movement. I don’t think these are bad things, but I think it offers perspective.

The multi-site movement is here to stay…for a while. The movement is growing rather fast and many large churches are pushing it as the model for their growth. For the record, I think there is a lot of upside to multi-site church growth. So my point isn’t to denigrate the movement.

It is, though, to point out that church growth movements have come and gone over the last several hundred years. Before the bus ministries of the 60s, 70s, and 80s there was the Sunday School and revivalist movements. Just a frame of reference as we continue to move forward.

What should provoke us is the constant question of whether we’re seeing this ministry movement bring true spiritual growth through lives being changed and people coming to Jesus Christ. That is the ultimate measure of any movement.

So what do you think? Is this a fair characterization?

07
Aug 2013
POSTED BY Garet
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Church

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Objecting to the Obvious Reality

As I was taking a momentary break from another late, late night studying theological French for my competency exam, I hoped on Twitter. While scrolling through my timeline I saw a tweet from the venerable Michael Frost that quoted the title of a recent Fast Company piece: “In 20 Years, We’re All Going to Realize This Apple Ad is Nuts” written by Mark Wilson.

Wilson’s article is pointing out a recent commercial from the techno-cultural guru’s in Cupertino, California. Here it is:

The ad is startling and should provoke a broader conversation. However, the ad is also honest in capturing the encounter and experience so many of us are having with our mobile and computing devices. (As a disclaimer: I use the full array of Apple products for my work from iPhone, iPad, and MacBook Air…I like them.)

The opening lines, as Wilson points out in his piece, are compelling: “This is it. This is what matters. The experience of a product.”

The images in the ad, shown during Apple’s WWDC a couple of weeks ago, then show people, students, children, and adults engaging with their devices while disengaging from those around them. The experience of the device is the ultimate engagement for them.

Now, there are certainly people that will speak more profoundly about the socio-cultural implications of the ad. My point here is this: Apple is, in an almost mind-numbing display of honesty, stating the growing reality. We are moving from engaging with each other to engaging with devices.

More and more people are preferring electronic community over physical community. They are enjoying their shows or programs digitally and neglecting the communal aspect. How easy is it to load in a movie as you hope on your next plane ride and disappear from reality for the next two hours. As we grow more technologically rich we are becoming increasingly marginalized.

This trend has been growing for some time and it is most evident in tools like Facebook, Twitter, and other “social” media services. Individuals seem more open to discuss and engage in a virtual medium rather than in person.

For our churches the growth of mediums of marginalization, be they ecampuses or even certain forms of multi-sites, where a pastor is unknown to the people he ministers the Gospel to should give us pause. While internet campuses might provide an effective platform to keep families and individuals away for a week connected, we should be challenging those who rely on them week in and week out that there is no replacement for authentic community and Christian hospitality. Both of which are marks of New Testament ministry.

It is ecclesiologically challenging to think that electronic mediums could replace physical proximity.

Yet the challenge of encouraging and embracing physical community continues to grow. Groups numbers are dwindling across the board as is the frequency of attendance from week to week. No longer is a “connected” family or person seen as one who shows up nearly 4 times a month. Yet our call to make disciples still persists.

If we consider the cost of making true disciples the necessity of physical proximity becomes the primary focus initially. When one was following a rabbi at the turn of the first century, they were expected to be in the immediate presence of that leader. Though our technological advantages allow for continued disciple-making across large geographical differences, there is still the need of being personally and physically present with the one who is doing the disciple-making.

Ultimately, we must consider this: Apple’s ad is simply stating the obvious reality…growing personal disconnect. As followers of Christ, who hope to grow true disciples, perhaps our first, and most, counter-cultural step is to call believers into physical, personal, regular community sans electronic devices.

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The Tension of Reviving or Birthing

There are many tensions that exist in present day church growth and health conversations. One of the more impacting ones is whether we focus on new church starts or church revitalization.

In my home denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, this tension exists in many of the conversations taking place about long term strategy. Of course, this tension isn’t limited to just Baptists, it includes most churches.

It’s easier to give birth than raise the dead.

This mantra is one which I learned early on in my ministry while interning at the mother church for the college I attended. It reflects an honest, and perhaps a bit ambivalent, assessment of the challenges confronting ministers who go into established churches that have plateaued or are in decline. Southern Baptists have measured that 72% of our churches have plateaued or are in decline. As a result we have a overwhelming majority of churches that are in need of intentional ministry to repurpose and revitalize their ministry

As a result, we have heard a continued emphasis about church planting that has led many of my peers to go out and start new churches. This has had mixed results, depending on who you talk to, but overall I believe it is has tremendous Kingdom value.

However, for many of our largest and focal churches across the US, they have moved away from either church revitalization and planting. They are favoring the expansion of their ministries through multi-site church campuses.

So a new tension is introduced into the conversation, it isn’t just reviving or giving birth, but also multiplication. These large churches (for a host of reasons) continue to grow at significant rates while medium and smaller churches are seeing decline. If a measure of ministry successfulness is found in numerical growth (I don’t think this is either a principal or sole measure) than these multi-site churches are perhaps the most “successful” churches in the land. Yet their approach to church strategic growth is to perpetuate their own existence by expanding their influence through new campuses. For many small and medium sized churches, it is having the same effect as what happens to small business when Wal-Mart coming to town.

So, is their resolution to this issue? Not immediately. However, if we consider that these existing churches (the 72%) still have worth if we become intentional about sending new ministers into their midst there might indeed be a wave new growth that continues to provoke change in our communities and culture. Far too often the conversation has moved to the church planting and multi-site options as having the better answers.

Church revitalization remains an important, and perhaps, more opportune ministry. By leveraging existing facilities, perhaps with a strategic rebranding and some updates, the actual barriers to entry into a ministry sphere become lower than both multi-site and planting. By revitalizing our plateaued and declining churches we might be able to also revitalize the communities in which they live.

Perhaps at this crucial moment in our churches we can embrace an ethos that motivates us to consider the all important starting of new churches an campuses alongside revitalizing established churches.

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