Church Views · Marketing

mega-churches & multi-sites

On Monday I wrote a post critiquing a comparison of the modern-day local church with the beginning of the early Church. The comparison is often used to justify multi-site campuses as the new growth strategy for mega-churches.

Aren’t multi-site campuses really just a super-mega-church dressed up in small-local-church clothing? And if so, is there anything wrong with that? Many would say they’re more effective for a list of reasons: better stewardship – a huge auditorium doesn’t sit empty during the week, more cost-effective, more localized outreach, smaller-size congregation means people can better know each other. And those things are all absolutely true. And they do in fact reflect aspects of the early Church.

The difference is, there’s no record of the Church at Corinth planting “Church at Corinth” churches in Ephesus, Philippi and Jerusalem. You see the difference. That’s because there was only one (Big-C) Church, and it was the people who became followers of The Way, later known as “Christians” who gathered in cities like Corinth and Ephesus and Jerusalem.

I live in Southern California, which is like the Mecca of mega-churches. In the Irvine/Costa Mesa area, you’ll find three churches of 5,000 or more, each with more than one campus. Saddleback, about 18 miles away, planted a Saddleback campus in Irvine.

Now it may be just me, but that’s not looking so much like the early Church as it is a coffee franchise. You know, if there’s a Starbuck’s, there’s bound to be a Peete’s or Seattle’s Best or local organic shop all in a one-mile radius. It becomes about what people prefer. Or what’s most convenient. And it’s competitive.

In today’s consumer culture, that’s known as brand-building. The real question then, is: What brand are we building? Dave, commenting on Monday’s post said, “Individual faith communities in the U.S. are operated as small businesses…an organization instead of an organism. That’s how I see the multi-site movement: a pastor functioning as a CEO and attempting to franchise his business… America tries to run everything as a business, and the Church is an excellent example of something that was never designed to operate that way.”

11 thoughts on “mega-churches & multi-sites

  1. I understand your point, but I also understand the reasons behind the “franchise” mentality — churches are so different from one another today (well, actually since the 16th century). The service and lessons of the Lutheran Missouri Synod are vastly different from those of the modern Episcopalian church. I’m happy in one, unhappy in the other. I guess I want to know what the “brand” offers before I enter the place. Especially when traveling. What’s wrong with that?


    1. I think you’re talking about different branches of the Christian faith. And yes, that’s a necessary distinction based on theology. But in the example above, all 3 of the mega-churches (and Saddleback) are the same evangelical non-denominational kind. They’re really just providing consumer options, in my mind.


      1. Yes, my distinctions are denominational — but even “non-denominational” carries a denominational flavor — a sense of what’s being offered inside that church.

        But I guess I’m thinking of Franchising more in the sense of Identification than Expansion.

        Anyway, enjoy your blog.


  2. Jan,
    I think this is simply franchising. And it’s franchising to the already Christian – rather than those who are not part of the church. It’s about “providing a better church experience” for the Christian consumer, I’m afraid.

    I say this in light of the experience a friend of mine had when moving back to SoCal to work in Irvine a couple of years ago. He was staying at a hotel that was pretty much equidistant between Mariners and Saddleback. When he asked the people at the front desk if they could give him directions to one or the other he was met with a blank stare. They hadn’t heard of either. (They weren’t evangelicals, of course.)

    Your post is particularly appropriate in light of this Tweet from Mark Driscoll (@pastormark) yesterday:

    Planning @MarsHillOC campus launch. Need facility in Costa Mesa, Irvine, Tustin, or Orange. If your church needs a pastor let me know

    Because, God knows, Orange County desperately needs a Mars Hill church.



  3. Hello,
    I’ve enjoyed this discussion so far and recognize but don’t necessarily agree with the premise that “Franchising” is bad representation of the Church. I don’t agree with building a church around a personality or singular thinking (we’re a church of “not like that”). One of the greatest potentials of the multi campus church is the ability to build community – to establish relatioships with your neighbors, to NOT hide in the crowd. This is a strong resemblence to the early church.

    I’m not positive of my church and early history but I would venture a guess that the cities of the early church and specifically the early church communities were more homogeneous than our communities today. Having listened to and studied both Mark Driscoll and Rick Warren I can totally understand that they would have appeal to different groups of people. People that may not be receptive to the message of Christ in a different “language”. As Paul spoke at Mars Hill, he met them at their place of discussion – isn’t that a similar concept to “franchising churches”?

    Thanks for keeping the discussion alive 🙂


    1. [I preface all of this with a imnsho. I don’t mean to be a jerk, I just get passionate about this.]

      Jim, you said, ” I would venture a guess that the cities of the early church and specifically the early church communities were more homogeneous than our communities today”

      Sorry to burst the bubble, but this is just flat out un-true. The cities of the first century (especially the major trade cities) were diverse, segregated by class, and as ultimately not unlike the major cities of the world today.

      The church within these various contexts organized itself into local congregations that focused not around a style of teaching or around a pastoral personality, but rather around the common identity of being a Jesus community… even as the local congregations took on various form that fit life within their city/region.

      The franchising of churches is not about planting churches that are allowed to grow and form their own identity locally in order to minister and fill the local needs of the local community. Rather, franchising seeks to take a “successfully” church and/or pastoral personality and replicate it exactly via programs, style, language, etc… There stops being any room for congregations to have an identity that is birthed from their local context. Everything is about the “corporate” vision and the personality that is being cheaply copied from the pulpit or broadcast on the video screen.

      Multi-site campus mega churches are not the model we see in the early church. Plain and simple. The Spirit knew that the medium is the message, thus that message was allowed to take on the flavors and shape of it’s local context, rather than trying to stamp “the church of Jerusalem” on every roman province they could.


    2. I hear you Jim… but I think I agree with Bill’s comment – the point you make about speakers appealing to different people seems to primarily point to the consumerism of already-Christians. Non-believing, non-church people won’t know the difference. Hopefully, what they see/hear that’s different is the Gospel lived out in a community of believers – not a branded Saddleback or Mars Hill community. and I think Aaron addresses the idea of Paul contextualizing the message. Not sure that’s what franchise church is actually doing… appreciate you weighing in.


  4. Does anyone know of research about how successfully or not these franchised churches reach church drop-outs? If they are merely rearranging the furniture by “stealing sheep”, then there is certainly room for criticism. If, however, they succeed in getting drop-outs to come to church again, then there is certainly room for praise. Also, if they are successful in converting consumers into missionaries that actively participate in the church and obey Jesus, they are scoring points for the winning team.

    Aaron, I disagree that “the medium is the message”. This quote is taken from the discourse in media/communication studies. Although there is truth to it, it certainly is not absolute. Paul’s message was the same, wherever he communicated it, and in whatever format he communicated it (written, verbally, lifestyle). He had one clear message: one Gospel. He rebukes the Galatians for adding a local “flavor” – he calls them idiots for doing so! Whatever medium you choose: do not be an idiot and change the Message. I am passionate about this.


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