The building is of modern construction, and other than the sign, there is little to identify it as a gathering place for a church. In addition to handicapped spaces near the door, there are spots designated for “guests,” watched over by a couple who greet those who park there, and give directions. Inside, a small praise band is playing, and slides with announcements of various events are cycling through, projected on two screens at each side of the platform, like the previews in a movie theater. After a brief welcome, there is some singing, a brief video prior to the offering emphasizing a couple of “causes” which people can support. Following more singing, a pastor steps to the front and gives a two to three minute talk on the theme of the morning’s message, during which a screen drops from ceiling to floor behind him. Projected on it we see the image of a podium, some illustrations and props in the background, and a speaker steps into the picture. He will deliver the morning message from his location at a much larger church gathering in the Atlanta suburbs, several hundred miles away. Simultaneously, a dozen other congregations, located in similar suburban neighborhoods in five or six other states, who have just been through a similar experience, will also watch. After the message, there is a closing song, and a dismissal by a pastor who lets people know he is available for counseling.
The other people, gathered in the various “satellite” locations, have all had a very similar experience. Though each location had its own small “praise band,” the songs they sang today were the same as the others. The only real difference was in the announcement of local events. During the course of the week, the various small groups that will meet in homes will use the same scripture, study guide and DVD of the pastor who preached the message for their Bible study.
Welcome to the satellite congregation, also known as “The Franchised Church.”
You have to know, at this point, that if this had been my personal experience, I may have been courteous enough to remain through the whole service because I had chosen to attend there, but I wouldn’t be back. Ever.
The idea of “satellite” congregations isn’t really new. In fact, there are some who look to the scripture for Biblical support for the idea of one church, many locations. The biggest difference is that, during the time the New Testament was being written, satellite congregations were not encroaching on the ministry of other, already established churches in the community, nor were they erasing the cultural identity of local churches that formed the foundation of their ability to preach the gospel.
From my personal observation, establishing a satellite congregation is a means of church planting that is based on the popularity of a particular pastor who has built a personal and professional reputation as a result of the size of the congregation he pastors, and through that means, having a platform given to him as an author and “in demand” speaker. It becomes quite obvious that the means of getting people to come to church is that they “want to hear pastor so-and-so.” It might be inconvenient for them to drive across the metro area to attend his church, but if there’s a place in the neighborhood where they can see him on the big screen, they’ll go. Throw in some small groups and a few unique activities and you’ve planted a church.
Obviously, there are some Christians who don’t have a problem with that. Personally, if the popularity of the preacher and his speaking ability is what attracted me in the first place, I wouldn’t even bother with making the effort to go to the satellite on Sunday morning. I would just stay at home and watch him on TV or the Internet. It doesn’t appear that I would be missing much, or gaining much benefit by going to a sterile environment devoid of community culture and unique expression of faith. My couch is much more comfortable than a padded, stacking chair.
Satellite congregations do not appear to produce a large number of members actively involved in ministry. That’s a personal, anecdotal observation, based on observing those I know who attend such churches, and I know a fair number of people who do. Actually, there’s not much to observe. Most are not even regular in attendance at church, and most of the church’s ministry is done by the professional staff. The offering that is collected goes to the mother church.
If the purpose is to “plant” a church in a location where there aren’t many options, most satellites are in the upper middle class suburbs. There are a couple of well known megachurches that have attempted inner-city satellites, but not many, because they generally take more resources to operate effectively than suburban churches do, and those who show up don’t have as much to give. That’s a sad fact that governs where they go. Suburbs usually don’t need more churches, and so the satellite congregation draws its attendance not from reaching lost people with the gospel, but attracting people from existing churches because “our pastor is better than your pastor.”
There is a cultural uniqueness in each, individual body of Christ, that creates Christian community, and which allows the pastor to discern the spiritual needs of his church members, which affects what he preaches as the Spirit leads him. There’s no way that a pastor preaching at a church in the suburbs of Atlanta can know, and identify, with the people who are gathering to hear him preach off a video screen in the suburbs of Pittsburgh. If he’s not part of the community, it won’t even work if he’s only preaching thirty miles away.
The church I currently attend worships in a building that, if not for the steeple on top, would not look specifically like a church. And the room in which we worship can be converted into multi-purpose space in about 30 minutes. But our congregation lives and works in the community, along with our pastors and church leaders, and when our pastor has discerned what he will be preaching, over a period of time or on any given Sunday, there’s a good chance it will relate to the needs of those who gather together to worship. I can tell that the Holy Spirit is there, and that our pastor has been sensitive to his leadership and movement. And even though we sing songs other Christians do as well, and our worship looks similar to other churches, it has a unique, cultural identity that is formed because of where it is located. People come because they are drawn by the Holy Spirit, and because they understand their unique role as an individual member of the body of Christ with unique calling and gifts to serve, put together exclusively for this particular body. The attraction is not based on “good preaching” or the fame and reputation of the preacher.
Jesus intended for his church to be multiplied, not replicated.