I have a theory.
When leaders lose faith in our Restoration Movement institutions they become cynics, casting off traditional gatekeepers and validators of programs and ideas. Elevated by passion, they cut corners and jump over arguments, asking followers to transfer their faith from orthodox institutions to religious demagogues. Specifically, two kinds: charismatic celebrities and themselves.
The first category includes everyone from Craig Groeschel to Kanye West. We live in a time where many of our leaders seem less interested in putting trust in sound theology, and more interested in following the advice of charismatic pacesetters with whom they’ve formed a personal bond – both real and imagined.
The second category is of leaders who have decided to become their own authority, relying upon their theological instincts rather than depending on biblical scholarship or deferring to long-standing institutions. Without the slightest hesitation, they squander a trove of accumulated experience and embedded wisdom. They live disconnected from the past, unaware that when you amputate historical memory, you end up taking the present for granted. So it’s unsurprising when, for example, they insisted that past North American Christian Convention attendance numbers (10k) were an indictment of poor leadership, but never argue that Spire’s exponentially worse attendance figures (1.5k) are an indictment of their own leadership. (They are predictable that way.) In fact, while suffering from a state of nearly pristine ignorance regarding the theology of the church, and the unfortunate contretemps resulting in a failed online platform launch, one might think that these upstarts would now be circumspect about their own opinions, but they aren’t – that’s pragmatism for you.
When asked: “What is the purpose of the church?”
Many, if not most, reflexively respond: “To fulfill the Great Commission.”
And while this view of Christ’s kingdom is certainly biblical, it is severely insufficient as it omits Paul’s most trenchant writing on the subject. In fact, Paul writes to the Ephesians, “that the eyes of your heart be enlightened” and then launches into a comprehensive, six-chapter treatment of the purpose and nature of the Church of Jesus Christ and how it is to operate in human history.
And yet, like Pharaoh hardening his heart, much of our blindness persists. Our scholars warn us that the crowd-building temples we erect – with their dependent satellites and protean theologies – are simply mini-denominations built upon the shifting sand of human ingenuity; religious institutions where anything seems believable, yet nothing seems entirely credible.
Riding the tide of the megachurch movement fervor, multisite churches contribute to the solipsism affecting so many in this age of hyper-individualism, and it is uniquely dangerous to the work of the church – not to mention the grid of morality-forming institutions that serve and support it.
The defining feature of the multisite congregation offers the security and comfort of crowds as a cheap substitute for faith and biblically sound doctrine. They endorse a form of faith that has become increasingly personalized, governed by our own judgments, instincts, and passions. Indeed, one of the great ironies of this reality is that while multisite churches are, arguably, the most significant development of our era, the client-churches they produce have never been weaker.
This is the multisite paradox: The satellite campuses think they are empowering themselves by associating with the brand identity and charisma of the primary church, when in reality everything the mothership gains, the satellite congregation loses.
By its very nature, the multisite church tends to undermine people’s faith in their capacity for biblical self-government. And as church members become weaker and more incapable, it is necessary to render the parent church more skillful and more active in order to do what individual congregations can’t do. But this all becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, in that an increased role for centralized power leaves client-churches less able to work together at any level, much less address their respective problems.
What the conventional wisdom overlooks is that when churches fail to create other independent churches, it becomes harder to produce healthy churches dedicated to the principles and habits that, for example, created our Movement in the first place. The natural decline of autonomous churches (that the multisite concept will inevitably bring) decreases the mediating, moderating layers of both authority and autonomy endangering them both.
The multisite philosophy is an unholy mix of extreme individualism (“Your church can’t tell my church what to do!”) used to achieve extreme centralization (“My megachurch can tell your satellite church what it must do!”). Within our national gatherings they endorse a hyper church autonomy which supersedes all other biblical good, and asserts itself through expressions like “Who are you to judge (me)?” Expressions not only contradicted by each unilaterally decided doctrine within our national gatherings, but also contradicted by the addition of each new satellite campus under their own control.
This I believe, if continued, will become a defining insight for future historical critiques of our time.
The tendency of extreme individualism to be joined to extreme centralization is, perhaps above all, a challenge to our national character, because it collapses the space in which we ultimately become healthy congregations. That is, it’s built on a competitive model of franchise extension, rather than a partnering model of mutual aid that we see in the New Testament.
It should also be noted, fueling much of this is the fact that religious leaders have discovered the key to real success is in having a personal following. So it naturally follows that the church (with its multisite network) is reduced to the role of providing supernumerary platforms upon which these celebrity-seekers stand, preening, to increase their own fan base. It also hints at the how, and why, some of our own megachurch ministers can, with little reluctance, swap podiums on any given Sunday with an equally charismatic leader of a competing unorthodox “tribe.”
And they refused to stop there – as we’ve witnessed now for the last five years – even commandeering the platforms of our national conventions. They go so far as to loosen the RM’s theological “blinders” to be open to tribes who, they say euphemistically, “do it differently” because they may possess an enlightenment for such things as “driving out demons,” de rigueur views of gender, endorsing unbiblical marriages, and/or countenancing a kind of social justice which scolds, “socio-economic injustice exists, not because God is unloving, but because God’s children refuse to share.” All of which they find preferable to our own long-standing beliefs.
Don’t get me wrong, It’s not that they want to abolish the RM or Independent Christian Churches. But their efforts, however noble or ignoble, are unfocused and weak – as was demonstrated at last year’s Spire Conference. A conference whose directors at times behave like a drunk looking for his keys at night but only where the light is good. They see other “tribes” and pragmatic networks, like Willow Creek, doing things they think we should be doing, but don’t look for what they don’t want to see: a radical feminist agenda, a theology that filters the Word of God through a political lense, and the corruption and moral failings that are just as central to pragmatism as its “enlightened” investments in this or that.
What they seem to not understand is that the good that our churches and institutions do is a function of their ability to shape and structure desires rather than serve them, to form habits rather than reflect them, and to direct our longings rather than simply satisfy them; which is why many of the most learned among us stand in particular tension with the multisite ethic of today.
The tension this ethic creates is not a function of the Internet or other technological developments, and it is not even primarily a function of church growth methods sweeping over our congregations. It is a function, and ultimately perhaps the most significant social consequence, of modern individualism itself.
The point is this, the charismatic leaders of Spire Network promised diversity and choice. What they delivered is polarization and division. That is why the cure for what ails us is sound doctrine. The only solution to our woes is for the RM to re-embrace the core ideas that made the RM possible, not just as a theological framework, but as a cultural attachment, a relentless commitment. In our time, no less than any other, ICC congregations should live out their faiths and their ways in the world, confident that their instruction and example will make that world better and that people will be drawn to the spark.
Various & Sundry
Health update: I appreciate everyone’s concern I have received through texts, emails, cards, and visits. The past 12 months have been the most difficult of my life – recovering from a failed back surgery. I’m still seeing my orthopedist and have yet another MRI coming up. Gratefully, our ministry at Playa still continues to grow and expand. Thank you to Brian Johnson, Perry Fuller and Dr. David Fincher for visiting me here. For all the visits, meals, advice and support from Dr. Lee Mason and the support of The Christian Restoration Association. For the encouragement from John Mitchell at the Restoration Herald and Harold Orndorf. And to Dr Tommy Mobley, my erstwhile mentor and loyal friend. His presence can never be replaced, as we shared texts, updates, and conversations over the last year about working with the LAPD, ministry, and navigating the vagaries of our respective health care systems. He will be missed. So glad I’m surrounded by such caring people and some of the most respected men and women in Christian leadership today. The saying is true, if your leading alone – you’re doing it wrong.
Terry Sweany has served as senior minister of Playa Christian Church since 2006. His education includes a MA in Marriage, Family, and Child Counseling from Hope International University and a BA from Cincinnati Christian University. He is author of the book Life In Ministry and his greatest joy is helping people deepen their relationship with God. He teaches a summer course on Pastoral Counseling at Louisville Bible College, and was honored with a grant from The Christian Restoration Association in 2018. Terry lives in Westchester, California and is a member of the LAPD Pacific Division Clergy Council. He and his wife, Patty, have been married 34 years and have a daughter and grandaughter.