Recently the most common question I get about multisite is, “What about Mars Hill?” (If you have been under a rock for the past six months this article in Christianity Today will bring you up to speed.) Is the demise of Mars Hill a sign of what is to come for other multisite churches like LifeChurch.tv, North Point and New Spring? Doesn’t this prove the point that video teaching just stokes the egos of a talented speakers? Is this the beginning of the end for the megachurch movement in America?
First let me be clear that I have no inside information on Mars Hill. I have never met Mark Driscoll and I don’t know any of the current leaders in the church. All of my knowledge is second-hand. The last thing I want to do is to sit in judgement on situations I have no business judging. Just because I might have an issue with a public ministry doesn’t give me the right to bash that ministry in public, and I think the self-righteous attacks on Facebook and in blogs are disgraceful. I don’t want to join that chorus.
The situation at Mars HIll is tragic and heartbreaking. A lot of really good people have been hurt, and the reputation of the Church is being dragged through the mud. I am praying that some great churches will emerge from the rubble that will reach people far from God and develop healthy disciples. My goal with this post isn’t to pile on, my goal is to extrapolate lessons we can apply in our own churches. Here are my observations:
1. Any church, whether single site or multisite, built on the personality and gifting of one person is in a precarious position. While most growing churches have gifted identifiable leaders, the key is collaborative accountability surrounding the leader. One of the keys to moving away from a church built on one personality is a teaching team. I believe every church, regardless the size, should develop a team of at least two or three weekend teachers. This is healthy for the lead pastor and healthy for the congregation.
2. The strength of the multisite model is in the local leadership at each campus. As John Maxwell has famously said, everything rises and falls on leadership. It seems that leadership at Mars Hill was centralized while local leaders were more “plug and play”. A pure “franchise” model that de-emphasizes the role of the campus pastor will compromise the long-term strength of the church. Strong campus pastors create tension within the organization, but to quote Andy Stanley this is a tension to be managed not a problem to be solved. By the way this is a tension North Point handles very well. While they follow a franchise model they also have very strong leaders as campus pastors.
3. Numeric growth is never the primary goal of a healthy church, numeric growth is the natural bi-product of a healthy church. According to the Christianity Today article numeric growth became the primary driver of ministry at Mars Hill. We fell into this trap for a time at Seacoast Church when we adopted a plan to launch 20 campuses by 2010. We recruited some great business minds who developed a “2010 Plan” which outlined the milestones we had to hit to accomplish our goal. Along the way we realized we were making decisions to keep the plan on track rather than responding to the leading of the Holy Spirit. We scuttled the plan after a year, returning to our main mission of growing healthy disciples.
4. Visionary leaders need the freedom to lead AND healthy accountability for their leadership. This is another tension that has to be managed; a tight church structure can prevent a strong leader from executing a God-given vision, and a loose church structure can enable an out-of-control leader. It seems that over the past few years Mars Hill has moved away from a healthy accountability to a structure without appropriate boundaries. The challenge is the pendulum usually swings too far in one direction or the other. This is why truly objective outside counsel is essential.
It is easy to extrapolate what has happened at Mars Hill onto the entire multisite movement, but it is an unfair comparison. Other multisite churches have had leadership transitions, some as sudden and unfortunate as Driscoll’s, without the devastation Mars Hill has experienced. Healthy churches survive tragic circumstances, unhealthy churches implode. Rather than dwelling on the collapse of Mars Hill or predicting which megachurch will be the next to fail, we should focus on what God is teaching us in our own context. How can you help your own church be healthy?