Is Mars Hill the beginning of the end for multisite churches?

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?

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Praying for the one thing I don’t want

Do you ever pray for something you don’t really want? I sometimes pray prayers I hope God doesn’t answer. I often pray that God will make me humble, but I don’t really want humility, not the put others first, don’t think too highly of yourself kind. I want public humility. I want the humility of a movie star deflecting praise in his Academy Award acceptance speech. I want the humility of a football player pointing to the sky after scoring the winning touchdown. I want the humility of a megachurch pastor assuring his listeners that its not about the numbers. That kind of humility seems very attractive.

What I really want is for God to make me famous, to make me successful, to make me powerful. If I can be on the stage in front of thousands I can demonstrate true humility; alone in my office no one can see how humble I truly am. If I were honest my prayer would be, “If you’ll make me great then I’ll be humble.”

Lately God has been answering my actual prayer, not the one in my heart. I am continually reminded that I am a sheep in the herd rather than the chief shepherd. Again and again I feel God saying, “This is the humility you prayed for.” The question isn’t if I can be humble in the spotlight, the question is can I be humble in the shadows. Am I content to become the man of character God created me to be when no one else is looking?

I think God is calling me to the kind of humility Joseph demonstrated (the step-dad, not the dreamer). Joseph’s main role in the God-story that unfolded around him was to not call off his wedding because of his pregnant fiance’. After Jesus’ childhood Joseph disappears from the narrative. He is remembered not for his personality, leadership or skills; he is remembered for his humble obedience.

My natural reaction is rarely humility. When I am treated like just another member of the human race I want to shout, “Don’t you know who I am? Don’t you realize what I’ve done?” as though my tiny accomplishments matter in God’s grand story. It is finally dawning on me that as long as my self-worth comes from who I know, what I’ve done and how I’ve been recognized I will never know true humility. And without humility I will never know true contentment. I think this is what Paul calls being crucified with Christ.

My old self has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. Galatians 2:20 (NLT)

I still want spotlight humility, but I am continuing to pray for crucified humility. Thankfully God is leading to me to what I need rather than what I want.

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Peyton Manning: Worship Leader

Bronco gameI went to my first Denver Broncos game yesterday. I have been a fan since I was a little boy growing up in the suburbs of Denver, but yesterday was my first time to see a game at Sports Authority Field. (I still call it Mile High Stadium, but I’m trying to adapt.) It was a perfect day; I was with my son, the temperature was in the 60’s and the Broncos beat the Buffalo Bills 24-17.

One of the most amazing parts was seeing the crowd react when Peyton Manning, Denver’s quarterback, takes the field; 80,000 raving fans, who seconds before were making as much noise as possible, fall silent. If the sound level rises above a quiet murmur Manning raises his hands and silence again sweeps across the stadium. A sign in the end zone reads, “Quiet please, Peyton is at work.” It feels like a PGA golf match has broken out at an NFL game. I had seen this phenomenon on television, but it is one of the strangest things I’ve experienced at a sporting event. The crowd is awestruck when Peyton Manning is in the house.

I was reminded of this experience during my morning Bible reading today when I came across this verse at the end of the second chapter of Habakkuk:

“But the Lord is in his holy Temple. Let all the earth be silent before him.” Habakkuk 2:20 (NLT)

I saw an image of the entire world packed into Mile High Stadium, millions of people shouting, laughing, and speaking in 100s of languages. As Jesus takes the field silence slowly falls across the crowd, thousands upon thousands of people sitting in complete silence. A sense of anticipation, almost dread, spreads as we wait to see what Jesus will do. Habakkuk describes it like this:

“For as the waters fill the sea, the earth will be filled with an awareness of the glory of the Lord.” Habakkuk 2:14 (NLT)

I want to experience the “awareness of the glory of the Lord”, but I have pushed silence out of worship. I listen to worship music, read my daily Bible readings and type my prayers, but I rarely sit silently in anticipation of Jesus’ next move. I see the same thing in many of our church services. From the moment we arrive we are awash in sound, light and video. Often there is no time for silence as we wait in anticipation before God. I love the modern worship experience, but it is ironic that we often show Peyton Manning more respect than we do God.

At the beginning of my 53rd advent season I feel God drawing me toward more “silent night” experiences. As I reflect on the God of the universe invading earth as an innocent baby I feel compelled to sit quietly while the Lord is in his holy Temple. I want to carve out “Peyton Manning” moments when I don’t cheer, sing or even pray; I simply experience the awesome awareness that God is at work.

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Lesson from Ferguson: I am a racist

140819-ferguson-jms-2101_7006485f15b78e374f38ddbd198de0b9I spent a lot of time in the Ferguson, Missouri area when I was a teenager. My girlfriend (eventually wife) grew up a few miles from Ferguson, and her grandparents lived several blocks from the apartment complex where Michael Brown was shot. Sadly, not much has changed in the 30 years since I moved away. It is very clear from what I see on CNN that most of us continue to process life through the lens of skin color. I thought we’d changed since the 70s, but we haven’t. The situation in Ferguson shows clearly that as a nation we still struggle with racism. As I watch the images of protests, riots and looting I realize that I too am a racist. My judgement is so clouded by racism I struggle to see the truth. I am ashamed of my racism, but if I don’t admit it I know I will never deal with it.

Here is the clearest evidence of my deeply engrained racism. When I read about a black man going through a broken window and taking appliances from a store my reaction is, “He’s a thug”. When I read about a white businessman buying a struggling company, laying off the employees and selling the assets at a huge profit my reaction is, “He’s a sharp businessman”. I am not saying that profiting from acquisitions is wrong or that looting stores is right, I’m saying that I judge the actions of others based on my experience as a white man in America. I’ve never been pulled over for being white, I’ve never been refused service because I’m white, I’ve never warned my son to watch out for cops because he’s white. When I watch events unfold in the familiar neighborhoods of Ferguson I watch through the eyes of a white man.

I think, to some extent, we are all racists. We all filter information through our own demographic. Jesus indicated as much two thousand years ago when answering the question, “Who is my neighbor?” The hero of his story was a racially impure Samaritan. His Jewish audience couldn’t comprehend that the actions of a Samaritan could be more righteous than those of a Jewish clergyman. His audience struggled, just as we do today, to see the world unfiltered though skin color or background. They were racists.

I don’t know what happened between Officer Wilson and Michael Brown that afternoon in Ferguson. I know that a young man is dead and a young police officer’s life is destroyed. There is no good side to the story, and it has brought our racism into the spotlight. It is once again ok to express almost any racist thought that comes to mind. Someone recently told me that the problem in St Louis, and all the struggling cities in the north, is “the blacks”. Watching an endless stream of images of protests and riots reinforces our negative stereotypes. 50 years ago Martin Luther King Jr said,

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

We seem further from that dream than ever.

My hope is that somehow the Ferguson tragedy will force some of us to see our ourselves for who we are and admit we are racists. From a place of honesty we can try to find a way to understand what the other man sees. As I see the Ferguson story continue to unfold I am trying to understand these questions:

  1. How can I understand what its like to grow up African-Americans in America?
  2. What leads people to see rioting and looting as their only viable options?
  3. How can I see people more like Jesus sees them rather than through my racist filters?
  4. What can I do to make a difference?

Maybe if we’ll be honest and admit that we do judge people by the color of their skin, and find ways to deal with our own racism, America can progress beyond the 1970s. I hope so.

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Five Lessons from Jesus’ Biggest Leadership Mistake

betrayal-by-judas-2Jesus made one decision that seems like a major leadership mistake; he chose Judas as one of the key leaders in his organization. While Judas eventually plays a major role in Jesus’ redemptive story, why make him a leader? Surely anyone in the outer circle of followers could play the role of traitor, why waste one of the most coveted seats in human history on a loser like Judas? Not only does Jesus appoint Judas to a leadership role, he makes him the treasurer. Jesus certainly has better candidates; Matthew is an accountant, Peter is a small business owner, Nathaniel is a man “of complete integrity” (John 1:45 NLT). Why did Jesus, knowing Judas’ struggles with greed and honesty, give him oversight of the ministry’s finances?

No competent leader with the inside knowledge Jesus had would do what Jesus did. We know that an inner circle must be loyal to the leader, and anyone who handles finances must have impeccable character. To purposely choose someone for the leadership team who is greedy, selfish and disloyal is both career and organizational suicide. In fact, we use Judas as an example of what to avoid when choosing leaders. A prominent pastor teaches that there is a Judas at every table and it is the role of the leader to weed him or her out. The unintentional message is, “Only a fool would lead like Jesus.”

Obviously Jesus didn’t make a mistake choosing Judas, so what can we learn from his example. I don’t think the lesson is to make sure at least one member of your leadership team lacks integrity:

“I realize you have tons of experience and an impeccable track record, but what we’re really looking for is an embezzling traitor.”

The Apostle Paul is very clear about the ethical standard for leadership in the church.

So an elder must be a man whose life is above reproach. (1 Timothy 3:2 NIV)

Paul would have smacked Timothy upside the head if he appointed someone like Judas as an overseer in Ephesus, so why does Jesus choose Judas as a leader?

The Gospel writers are silent on Jesus’ motivation, so we can only speculate on his reasoning.  I wonder if, in spite of Judas’ character, Jesus sees potential in him. We know how the story ends, but maybe at the beginning Jesus loves Judas so much he gives him every opportunity to reach the potential God placed in him. Maybe Jesus knows that the best opportunity for Judas to overcome his character flaws is in a place of responsibility and trust. It seems that Jesus is willing, for a time, to subjugate the primacy of the mission to the development of the individual. In the end Jesus’ mission is accomplished, but not before he gives Judas every chance to change.

Rather than a cautionary tale on how not to lead, as we have inadvertently taken it, Jesus’ selection and treatment of Judas give us a model for dealing with people who don’t conform to the template of a successful leader. I see several implications in how we lead 2000 years after Judas:

We are in the people business, not the mission business

Over the past couple of decades we have become enamored with vision, values and mission. The first thing every church planter does, after picking a cool church name, is write out their vision, core values and mission statement. They recruit leaders who will follow their vision, adhere to their values and accomplish their mission. While there are positive aspects to this approach, it can miss the main point of ministry; we are not called to accomplish a mission, we are called to feed sheep. Jesus drove this home to Peter the last time they were together:

A third time he asked him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt that Jesus asked the question a third time. He said, “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Then feed my sheep.” (John 21:17 NLT)

In Jesus’ economy people don’t accomplish just the mission, people are the mission.

We develop more than recruit

Another interesting trend in the modern American church is the reliance on outside talent. We don’t have the time or resources to develop local leaders, we have to find someone with experience who is ready to produce immediately. The mission is too important to wait for local people to grow into the job.

I wonder if Jesus would have used a search firm to find disciples? If he had I wonder if he would have gotten his money back on Judas? Jesus managed to accomplish what he came to earth to do with mostly untrained, inexperienced men. He was even willing to pour time and effort into a deadened project like Judas. Although his progress was slow the eventual results were incredible.

While occasionally it is helpful to bring someone in with a fresh perspective, it seems like the biblical pattern is to develop local leaders rather than recruit outside talent.

We choose people no one else would choose

If a leader is only as good as the people around him then Jesus is in trouble; Judas is just the most glaring example of incompetence in the people surrounding Jesus. King David is another leader who led through some pretty miserable characters:

So David left Gath and escaped to the cave of Adullam. Soon his brothers and all his other relatives joined him there. Then others began coming—men who were in trouble or in debt or who were just discontented—until David was the captain of about 400 men. (1 Samuel 22:1-2 NLT)

If people are the mission then we can take risks when we choose leaders. Some of our leaders should be too young or too old for the role they are in. Some leaders should not have enough education, not enough experience or not enough talent to lead their area. The goal isn’t to assemble a circle of incompetence, but if we’re not taking risks on people we’re not leading like Jesus.

Some of our “projects” will end badly

Jesus invested three years into Judas. He modeled a godly lifestyle, he taught Kingdom principles and he mentored Judas every day. In the end, however, Judas chose to go his own way. Although Jesus’ knew it was coming Judas kiss in the Garden had to be one of the most painful parts of his life on earth. He gave Judas every opportunity to become a reflection of God, but Judas failed.

If we take risks on people some of them will fail. They will steal, they will lie, they will betray us. No matter how committed and talented we are as leaders we will occasionally encounter a Judas, and when we do it will be painful both individually and to the organization. How do we respond? Do we commit to weeding out every potential Judas, or do we continue to focus on helping people become who God created them to be?

Our job is to participate in God’s people development process

Developing people isn’t about always overlooking character flaws and forgiving mistakes; most of Moses training as a leader came during his 40 years in the desert after he blew his opportunity in Pharaoh’s house. There are times, such as in the case of Judas, when leaders self-destruct. There are other times when leaders have to be disciplined, demoted or fired. The key is our focus; are we more concerned about our mission or our people? I love how Paul prays for his friends in Thessalonica:

So we keep on praying for you, asking our God to enable you to live a life worthy of his call. May he give you the power to accomplish all the good things your faith prompts you to do.  (2 Thessalonians 1: 11 NLT)

When we discipline or fire a leader how can we help them become more like the person God created them to be? How can we keep the mission from running over the people?

Jesus is the greatest leader the world has ever known. In three years he established an organization that continue to touch every corner of the globe 2000 years later. If we want to learn to lead like Jesus we can’t ignore any facet of his leadership, including wrestling with the question of Judas and its implications on how we lead today. How will you deal with your Judas?

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