The recent trend in the way that churches have for growing the kingdom has me disturbed. I guess it’s because part of me has the feeling that churches have lost track of their mission to be growing the kingdom of God and have become more concerned with extending their own personal empires.

One church I know believes in producing satellite churches. Replicating itself by having videotape services of its worship/preaching time fed to its various branches. In my mind, it’s not different than watching a televangelist or any talking head. Plus I can’t see how that could be pastoring in any conventional sense, though I’m sure that there is an on-site pastor, just not the guy who is doing the teaching. Granted, part of what rubs me the wrong way is the way that this church caters to the white flight phenomenon that’s been going on in the city. Like many churches, it talks about wanting to be a multi-racial church, but has done little to implement this vision other than to stick a “Negroes welcome” sign out front. (Conveniently, all of the satellite churches have sprung up in areas where their members have fled to).

Nor is this limited to white mega-churches. Another local church plants branches all over town, from the inner city to the suburbs (because black folks like the suburbs, too. Either we’ll give you a reason to keep running or at some point folks may recognize that they may all be fleeing from the same thing: the lower class). This pastor used to drive around preaching at each location, arriving at each church just in time to preach then taking off after his ending message point. I’m going to assume that now that they are up to a half a dozen or so locations, this has proven impractical and they have worked out a new system.

The telling sign is that all of the satellites and branches retain the same name, popping up all over town like a McDonald’s franchise. The church essentially maintains brand loyalty. To give the leaders the benefit of the doubt, I bet that they started off with good intentions. They may see the way that they do things as a way of keeping integrity to what they want to do. Their sudden growth was unexpected, and they are in catch up mode, not knowing what to do with the massive numbers of people who attend their services. We’re talking about sincere, good men here, not money grubbing hucksters.

However, at some point, they lost sight of their mission and began serving their institution.

Because of the way many churches are set up, this might be out of the head pastor’s control. The elders, and I don’t want to spin it as them consolidating their power or exerting their control, might not have a vision for how to grow the church. So they fall back on what they know: the business model. The question becomes “how did we get here?”

Part of this is a function of the pastor and the cult of personality that develops around him. Many of these mega-churches have become all about the pastor, his personality, his interpretation of Scripture. What these men have in common are dynamic personalities and a winning speaking ability. In many ways, the head pastor has become the Protestant version of a (mini-) pope. But live by the cult of personality, die by the cult of personality: when that pastor gets sick, moves on, retires, or dies, the churches flounder. Many of their members drift off to the next charismatic preacher or bigger program. Because they came together not to form a community but to be entertained or serviced.

We feed into this in other ways, too. I think one of our problems is we expect the pastor to be this super-Christian. As if they have every gift and can do everything. (this might explain why we also have a habit of putting them on pedestals). Pastors or pastor-teachers are to shepherd and teach; that means they dedicate more of their time to study and preparation. The best leaders recognize their people’s gifts and let them run with them appropriately. Somehow this has translated into us feeling more comfortable paying someone to do the “real” work of the church. Almost like “we have staff to look out for folks” so that we don’t have to. Money is our contribution, our buy-off, as opposed to having to get off our butts and loving people. We put pastors on a pedestal then act surprised when they topple off.

Corporate policy and philosophy dominate our culture and the church has bought into it. Some people see the main job of the pastor as that of businessman. They see church as a business. The pastor is the CEO. The elders are the board of directors. Tithes become income, or worse, profit. The Gospel becomes the product they’re trying to push. You don’t think we try to advertise our product in the best light? I think the rise of the health and wealth Gospel proves otherwise. They’re marketing religion to the masses. Their congregations are consumers that the church ends up selling bits of its soul to keep happy. It ends up producing consumer-Christians content to drive to whoever pleases them and their needs the most. The church ends up feeding our narcissistic mentality, leading to our constant search for the better speaker– the ones who tickles our ears–with morality as entertainment. And the churches end up competing to for the “found” and forgetting about the “lost”.

It doesn’t stop there. We break down these consumers like they are a part of a targeted market campaign. We divide our community by advertising niches such as age (children’s ministry in two year increments, youth groups) or by life situation (college/career, singles, young marrieds, marrieds, single agains). Hmm, you say that we have trouble building community.

So it’s no surprise when I see various mega-churches turning around and engaging in corporate take overs. These churches take over struggling smaller churches, becoming its own association. I can see why the home church movement has started to build momentum. It’s a reaction to the churches who feel the need to drop $40 million on a new campus because they believe in maximizing their property or that as a bigger church they can do more. Certainly there has to be better uses of money in their own community, much less around the world. Maybe that’s just me.

When all is said and done, I’m not against these churches. There is room for all models of churches. Larger churches can indeed do things and have resources that smaller churches don’t. That doesn’t make them better: smaller churches can do things that larger churches can’t, also. There is plenty of kingdom work to be done, the more laborers the better. But the church has to be about the kingdom work, not lose sight of it in their rush to build their own personal empire.