Mega Pastors, Shepherds, & Avengers

We’re presently living in the dorms at a university near the coast, which is also where the satellite campus of a mega-church meets. So this past Sunday, our summer staff decided to take the 100 yard walk from our quads to the building where they meet. Each campus of this church does its own music, has its own ministers, etc. Yet when it comes time for the sermon, that part of the service is beamed in as video from its main campus. 

The sermon is usually given by the church’s lead pastor. As with most mega-pastors, he is disproportionately lauded and demonized. I could write about the issues that I had with his sermon on Sunday. But on the whole, I don’t think that would be constructive on this broad a platform. Besides, God knows that people have likely had issues with the things I have said when I have preached. But I do want to share some thoughts about pastors and mega-church culture that have crossed my mind in the days since our visit.

When the sermon began, it was strange because the person speaking wasn’t physically there yet people were responding to his promptings all the same. Over the course of the sermon, I got used to Video Pastor partly because Human Pastor is an engaging communicator. But at the end of his sermon, he asked non-Christians to pray to receive Christ (another blog for another time) and then he asked them to look him in the eye. That’s when it got really weird really fast for me. In fact, it got even weirder when I discovered that the sermon was pre-recorded.

This is not to say that God cannot use something pre-recorded. God can use whatever God would like from a talking donkey to WALL-E to speak to people. But what made me uneasy was the act of evoking something intimate—like looking a person in the eye—when that intimacy was completely imaginary. The pastor was not in that room. He was not even saying those things in any room at that time. This is not to discount any of the decisions that were made that morning. They were not false, but everything surrounding that moment felt hollow and inhuman to me. In that moment, Video Pastor was trying to make a connection, but that connection—the one between him and the people he was asking to look him in the eye—was an illusion.

Ultimately, I think my issue comes down to a belief that pastors should be present. Early on, the church grasped this analogy that a pastor was like a shepherd. This makes sense because as a leader, Jesus called himself the Good Shepherd and he told us that the Good Shepherd knows his flock. A pastor in that mold cares for his or her congregation like a shepherd cares for the flock. That means that a pastor is there and shares in, or at the very least knows about, the joys and sorrows in the lives of the women, men, and children that they serve.

EA and I attend a Baptist church in Spartanburg; one that is much, much smaller than this mega-church. It isn’t perfect, yet we love it and part of the reason is we feel like we can always approach our pastors. Dean and Lisa (and by the way, despite both of them holding doctorates, they encourage us to call them Dean and Lisa rather than requiring us to call them “Doctor” or “Pastor” as some do) know us. They know and love our son. We don’t talk on the phone with them everyday or anything like that, but we do feel like we can go to them with anything. And we have. After all, they are our pastors.

This isn’t to say that a pastor has to be best friends with every single member or is a monumental failure if they forget someone’s name. But a pastor should be accessible. A pastor should breathe the same air as you. And when a pastor delivers the sermon, it’s good for that individual to have a thorough knowledge of what that specific congregation is going through. There are times when a congregation needs to hear a word spoken to them and not a blanket message for mass consumption. Yes, there are many general messages that are needed and useful, but some of the most convicting sermons I’ve heard were born out of the highs and lows of our congregation. I believe in the local church and every local church is unique.

I know that mega-churches like the one we visited have pastors at their satellite campuses to foster a local church environment and minister to the congregants there. That’s wonderful. I am so thankful that they have that. But I see many people that go to mega-churches tweeting about how the head pastor, the video pastor is their Pastor and an incredible one at that. I’m sorry, but if I went to the a satellite of this church, I couldn’t call the Video Pastor my pastor. He would have no clue who I am. We wouldn’t even share the same room on a weekly basis. He’d just be a guy that talked to me from a video screen each week. To me, calling him my pastor would be like calling the characters I watch on Community or Parks & Rec my closest friends.

That might sound harsh, but the Christian faith is incredibly relational. It is in fact so relational, that we believe that the God of the universe knows and loves us as an individual, which sounds kind of ludicrous. But we believe it to be true. So I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that one’s pastor should know who she or he is. I simply believe that a pastor should be living life with their congregation. 

If the pastor is just beamed in from another place and the purpose of that satellite is to revolve around that main hub, then that local congregation loses its uniqueness. Like Christ, we are called to be incarnational—present in our communities. The voice of the local congregation is not primarily its voice but an echo of another congregation. Mega-churches with satellites become franchises. And I completely understand the appeal of a good franchise. You know what you’re going to get. And I can tell you that at the campus we visited, you will get friendly greeters, great production quality, and some phenomenal childcare (honestly, everyone we encountered was warm, helpful, and friendly). If the franchise had all of that, but it’s own individual pastor then I’d probably be okay.

Yet these mega-churches ultimately revolve around a charismatic leader. It would be as if there were no individual managers at Chick-fil-A franchises, but Dan Cathy was beamed in to give a pep talk to every crew every morning. The problem with the mega-church franchise is often that it is hard to know where the charismatic leader ends and the church begins. For example, on the back of our bulletin was a large advertisement for the pastor’s new website. I find this reality to be a bit dangerous.

Even though I enjoyed The Avengers, I have had several conversations about the extreme lack of foresight on the part of the invading aliens during the movie’s climactic battle. For such a theoretically advanced race of warmongers, the aliens should have known better than to have one point that if destroyed would destroy them all. It’s a horrible plan, because then Iron Man throws a nuke at a single spaceship and suddenly all your other spaceships, assorted alien vehicles, and thousands of alien warriors themselves are non-operational. It’s really a plot contrivance to tie things up neatly (and one previously used by Independence Day among others) because if the aliens had were smart enough to have their source of power in three or four different ships then the battle would have carried on interminably. In fact, The Avengers would likely have been a very different movie with a not-so-happy ending.

I sometimes feel like the ministries that are built primarily on an individual personality have more in common with those short-sighted aliens than they would like to admit. We have these satellite churches made to revolve around a single individual who is fallible. This is part of why Paul kept getting at the church of Corinth for emphasizing how they followed Peter, Paul, or Apollos. Jesus was the one they were supposed to follow, the other three were flawed, humble people that were simply a part of the Christian ministry. 

Cards on the table, there is a good bit about which I don’t see eye to eye with a lot of mega pastors. But I also don’t want to see their ministries go up in flames. Yet I fear what will happen to their churches and its satellites if they were to leave the church or even, God forbid, have a colossal moral failure. Plus, the trouble is success often isolates people. The bigger and more successful someone gets, the harder it is for them to be held accountable. That’s what worries me about these satellites. If you suddenly take away the gravitational force upon which the satellites revolved, the results could be catastrophic. Churches collapse. People get hurt.

I don’t want to suggest that I think all the people that go to mega-churches idolize their pastor. Nor do I think that pastor and the leadership of this are doing this for nefarious reasons. I suspect they have sincerely good intentions. And they are doing some very good things for people in need. Plus, I know that they’ve made a huge splash across the state. Yet numbers don’t necessarily indicate the best path is being taken.

But, as I look back on my experience at this past Sunday, I guess the main thing I wonder is why. Why does the pastor have to beamed in even when he’s on sabbatical? Why can’t all of these wonderful resources and volunteers be given by the church instead of loaned out under its name? Why can’t a word from God be spoken in the room? I don’t know. Maybe it’s just when a pastor of a church tells me to look him in the eye, I want to actually look him in an eye.

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