Reflection #13 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 13 in a series of random reflections I have been amassing over the past couple of years since retiring from steady, local-church, “weekend warrior” worship ministry.  These ruminations are in no particular order, and they vary in significance.  I welcome discussion on any of them.

Reflection #13: Churches with multiple satellites that pipe in the sermon from the home campus are adding new dynamics to the age-old method of “doing church,” but the jury is still out as to whether those dynamics will ultimately help, hurt, or not change too radically the nature of corporate worship in the local church, historically speaking.

20180225_142848In the northwest suburbs of Chicago, we have no shortage of megachurches, most of which have an array of satellites, each 25-50 miles removed from the mothership.  Most of these churches have five or six satellites; one has 10-15.  My son, Austin, plays in the praise band at a satellite campus of one of our area’s more-visible megachurches, so I have become more familiar with satellite churches of late, and I find there are several things to appreciate.

Chief among them are the resources that wealthier home churches provide for the smaller satellites, which otherwise would not be able to utilize the sophisticated and expensive ministry tools commonplace in most megachurches.  Especially in the case of megachurches merging with smaller churches that were dying slow deaths (the modus operandi of one of our area megachurches), the satellite birthed from that merger begins its life with an established church culture and an established congregation–one which, perhaps, simply needed the megachurch’s influx of energy and cash in order to thrive (as megachurches define that term, anyway).  If this smacks, in part, of colonialism, the members of satellite churches with whom I’ve spoken are not raising a stink about it–but, again, my research is not extensive.

I also wonder if younger people, whose reliance on screens is well documented, might actually get more out of messages delivered via video feeds.  Do the difficulties millennials and Gen Zers have with face-to-face interpersonal communication (due to years of screen-fixation) translate to oration?  Could it be that younger folks pay more attention to and retain content from messages given by the two-dimensional image of a pastor than a three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood sermonizer?  Like the implications of this question or not (and I don’t), it’s an intriguing hypothesis for a future doctoral candidate’s dissertation.

Anyone looking for reasons not to like the satellite-church concept, on the other hand, doesn’t have to look hard.  An obvious detriment centers on the duties of the satellite-campus pastor, whose primary role in the church, historically speaking, gets usurped via video sermons piped in from the home church’s senior pastor, usually an extremely competent public speaker.  Yes, most satellites give the campus pastor something to do on Sunday mornings–announcements, words of greeting, even pastoral prayers–but those important tasks notwithstanding, the minute the corporate attention shifts to the larger-than-life image of the mothership’s main guy (they are almost always men) delivering the main event, the one entrusted to the actual shepherding of the satellite flock seems smaller-than-life in contrast.

Some satellites attempt to mitigate this awkwardness by scheduling the campus pastor to preach periodically–about every fifth or sixth week at one sorta-megachurch I have attended a few times.  That helps.  At another megachurch satellite, the campus pastor typically comes onstage two-thirds of the way through the worship set to give a reflection, lead in a corporate reading, or offer rhetorical material to help the congregation “connect the dots” of the elements of corporate worship (see my blog from July 2 of this year).  Although this gives the campus pastor an important role, to be sure, it also lessens the role of the worship leader, the person who would normally speak at those moments, assuming s/he has been encouraged to be a worship leader and not just a music leader (also discussed in the July 2 post).

Is there a better way?  Historians of the 22nd century will have to determine the “betterness” of the various approaches to satellite campuses currently at work in the contemporary American church.  That (and my general wariness of anything that smacks of capitulating to trendiness) acknowledged, I do like the method chosen by the sorta-megachurch with 10-15 satellites mentioned above.  Yes, all the satellites keep to the same general, overarching all-church calendar and use the same sermon series with the same Scripture passages.  But rather than recording the message of the large home church’s primary pastor and sending it across Chicagoland to the various smaller churches–which reinforces the truly-first-among-kinda-equals dynamic–the campus pastors in this satellite network all give the same sermons to their own congregations in their own ways.  They meet together ahead of time, craft the main outline points of the sermon in community, and then flesh out the rest with their own introductions, conclusions, anecdotes, illustrations, and sub-point exegesis–personalizing the mass-produced message for individual congregations in a way a one-size-fits-all recorded video never could.  That’s a lot of work, but I think each campus’ parishioners would argue it’s time and energy well spent.

I am guessing megachurch satellite campuses are here to stay–at least for a while.  The Lord be with all who labor in these vineyards as you strive to make the local church all it can be as the Holy Spirit gives you wisdom and strength.

Coming next week, Lord willing: High-top tables as pulpits.

About Warren Anderson

Emmaus Road Worshipers is written by Dr. Warren Anderson, Director of the Demoss Center for Worship in the Performing Arts at Judson University (Elgin, Ill.), where he also directs the Judson University Choir. A Judson alumnus, he has served his alma mater in a number of capacities over the past 30+ years, especially the chapel ministry, which he led for 22 years. From 1982-2016, Dr. Anderson served six different churches--American Baptist (X2), Converge, Evangelical Free Church of America, Roman Catholic, and United Methodist--as a "weekend warrior" worship musician/pastor. He is a former member of the editorial board of Worship Leader magazine. The views expressed in this blog are not necessarily the views of Judson University.
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