I visit Gate 40 almost every week.
At Gate 40, around 130 people board a flight from Kansas City to St. Louis. Each person aboard carries a different story. Family. Business. Fun. Home. Some stick around, many simply bounce to another city.
I fly through Gate 40 every week to teach. This fall, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary launched a new extension in St. Louis to help train pastors, church planters and lay people.
Why do we do this?
We believe in incarnational teaching. While our internet education team is the best in the business and provides unique incarnational frameworks, there still is a place for a teacher working together with a classroom of students. Just visit any of our classrooms in KC or St. Louis. We wrestle with texts, consider arguments and build foundations for the future. We challenge assumptions, destroy poor logic and ground students in the Word of God. In the give-and-take of class we are sharpened by one another. There is something about presence.
It’s all part of being “For the Church.” It’s more than a slogan. We really do love the local church. Part of the dynamism of an extension is that students get some of the best faculty on their home turf. We get to serve in the context of the student’s ministry field. It helps shape our conversations in the classroom. It continues to press into our academic model the primacy of location found in the local church.
In addition, our extension centers allow us to touch base with local churches. This fall, as I travel back and forth each week, I have the unique opportunity to meet with pastors and minister with congregations in the St. Louis area on Sunday afternoons or evenings. I cherish opportunities to serve local pastors before I head to teach in the classroom on Monday morning at our extension location. There is nothing more incredible than hearing the stories of real life-change coming from churches in St. Louis!
An extension campus builds upon that very story–life change in the local church because of the Gospel. The Gospel changes lives. We are privileged to train leaders and pastors, but it’s the fruit of ministry in the local church that makes a journey worthwhile each week.
Gate 40, becomes a portal to what God is doing in the local churches. I leave behind my wife, 4 kids, and a ministry of location in KC. But the joy I find with each trip to St. Louis is wrapped in their stories–the very stories I will hear from students and those I serve over the semester. The sacrifice is hard, but God continues to show himself strong.
The news yesterday out of Seattle broke my heart. A leading congregation with 13 campuses announced that in only two months, their entire structure would cease to exist in its current form. As questions swirled around the lead pastor, giving dropped precipitously over the summer leading to the closing of three campuses and with the formal resignation of the lead pastor two weeks ago, the structure collapsed completely.
A few years ago, Dr. Thomas White and I authored a book entitled, Franchising McChurch. Our thesis -- the gathering of the body of Christ matters too much to be taken lightly. We were concerned about rapid expansion of ecclesial structures with little thought as to the long-term ramifications of how a church operates. There had to be more than the reigning “it just works” methodology – especially if the congregation wanted to multi-campus.
Our caution was simple: If a church decides to pursue a multi-campus structure, a congregation must place guardrails on the structure to keep it from being centered on one person. In the case of many first-wave multi-sites, the rapid expansion traded on the high-level capacities of the senior pastor. His vision, leadership and preaching defined the brand of the congregation thereby hamstringing the church when he leaves. And this doesn’t apply only to multi-site congregations. Many churches of all sizes struggle with the same issue. Pastors who build a strong vision tied only to themselves leave congregations with significant challenges when the eventual change of leadership occurs.
So what’s to be done?
Before we start, it’s helpful to note that the problem is not multi-site churches. The heart of the issue is found in congregations of 80 people as well as those with attendance in excess of 8,000. Below, I have given 6 ways multi-campus churches can ensure greater health ensuring continuity towards the next generation.
1.) Re-define success. As Evangelicals, we should admit that we like to win. We enjoy success that is framed and measured in ways the world even understands. Bigger budgets and buildings, increased influence and stronger platforms become the fodder for type-A pastors to focus upon. Pastoral and ministerial success is not found in numerical expansion, but in growth of the body of Christ through evangelism and the preaching of the Word. Numbers may (and often do) accompany such growth, but the ultimate standard for pastors and churches is whether or not we preach Christ.
2.) Plant churches. It sounds counter-intuitive. Send out people and resources to start a congregation instead of expanding our own brand? You bet. In an interview I had with Gene Getz sometime back, he talked about the intentionality Fellowship Bible had in the 1980s and 1990s to plant churches. When Getz reflected on how many people met weekly in a church connected back to Fellowship Bible, he remarked that the number would exceed 70,000 people – way more than the largest church in the US. But each of those churches were autonomous and Getz had zero control. I would challenge every church that decides to multi-campus to plant as many or more congregations than it keeps as part of its structure.
3.) Build an internal multi-campus structure that gives each campus the right to become self-sustaining. Make sure each campus has its own elders, pastors and identity. The campus pastors should be on the regular teaching rotation that increases every year until the main campus pastor is seen less frequently.
4.) Rotate the teaching ministry. If only one man preaches every week, that congregation is built upon that person and that person's brand. This is the joy of a strong, multi-elder structure where the entire church is encouraged in the Word of God by multiple men and our focus is on the church’s one foundation – Jesus.
5.) Ensure your elders and pastoral accountability come from inside the congregation. One of the oddest things in this particular case was the move to a board of “Advisors and Accountability” that were not members nor in that region – they were persons external to the congregation. While we all need accountability, moving to an external board for the governance of a congregation invites more “top-down” leadership and less biblical accountability from internal participants.
6.) Create a contingency plan today. What will the church do if the lead pastor is found in sexual immorality or needs to step down or suddenly passes away? The solution may be easier for a single-site structure, but for a multi-campus congregation, a contingency plan is essential for survival should something drastic occur.
As we seek to be Christ-honoring congregations, let’s pray for our brothers and sisters in Seattle so that out of this tragedy comes healing and Gospel advance in their city and beyond.
John Mark Yeats