By Bob Smienta; reprint from The Tennessean 10/22/2009
In the parking lot, volunteers welcome latecomers with cups of free coffee. Inside a converted office suite turned worship space, a countdown clock on a video screen reaches zero, and the band breaks into song.
Within seconds, the Rev. Craig Groeshel appears on a video screen, beaming his satellite message to the crowd, because he is almost 500 miles away in Oklahoma.
Welcome to http://www.lifechurch.tv/">LifeChurch.tv — one of the biggest churches in America.
Nearly 27,000 people attend LifeChurch.tv's 13 locations, known as campuses, scattered from Arizona to New York. Headquartered in Edmond, Okla., LifeChurch.tv is the second-largest Protestant church in the United States, according to Outreach magazine. It's also one of 2,000 multisite congregations that use satellite technology to unite worshippers meeting in different locations.
Church leaders say multisite congregations are the wave of the future. But critics fear this approach turns churches into mega-chain worship centers void of the personal relationships that church members build with one another and their pastors.
Multisite campuses like the one in Hendersonville function a bit like chain store retail locations. The central office provides all the content, from Groeshel's sermons to the Sunday school materials, which are shipped in every month.
The central office also handles all the money. All the donations go to the church's main offices in Oklahoma, where all the bills are paid. The main office hires all the staff and makes decisions about how the church is managed.
That bothers Thomas White, who teaches theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, not far from another LifeChurch.tv campus. He believes local congregations should govern themselves.
"You forfeit local church autonomy and you forfeit your congregational polity with all of the decisions and money going to the main congregation," he said. "And the different congregations never meet together so you don't know each other. You can't pray for each other or lift up each other's burdens."
White also wonders about the wisdom of having one preacher speak to many locations, rather than having a preacher for each church. At most multisite churches, the same preacher speaks at every campus, either by satellite and video recording or by traveling from site to site.
Each site has a group of campus pastors who lead Bible studies, mentor and pray for church members, organize community service projects, conduct weddings, baptisms, and funerals — all the normal pastoral tasks but preaching.
Church plugs in
The Hendersonville campus began as a small congregation known as Church Unplugged. Kacie Frazier and her husband, Brandon, now one of the Hendersonville campus pastors, were two of the founding members. The church struggled with 50 members.
After merging with LifeChurch.tv in 2006, the congregation grew to 430, with hopes of growing when they move into a new place at the former Indian Lakes Cinemas building next year.
Frazier said the campus still has the feel of a small church, with the bonus of Groeshel, a megachurch preacher, and the resources of a larger congregation. It also has a "come as you are'' approach to church. "I like that my tattoos can show, and nobody will look at me and say, 'She must not know the Lord,' " Frazier said.
Scott Thumma, a professor of sociology of religion at Hartford Seminary, says that multisite churches can succeed because they draw on both the strengths of small churches, where everyone knows one another, and the quality programming of megachurches. "These folks feel like they are involved in a small, intimate congregation when in fact they are part of congregation of thousands," he said.
Pastor Ken Behr, who leads the Hendersonville campus doesn't mind not having to preach each week. Behr is a former Ford Motor Company executive who also served as the head of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. He came to LifeChurch.tv because he wanted to serve in a small congregation.
Not preaching, he says, frees him up to build relationships with church members and to recruit new volunteers. It takes about 100 volunteers each week to run the Hendersonville campus.
"Typically, a pastor delivering a message has to put in about 20 hours of preparation, to do it right," he said. "I can spend that 20 hours meeting one on one with people or leading a group — it's a much better use of my time.''
Campus pastors like Behr are one of the reasons multisite churches like LifeChurch.tv work, Thumma said. Because they're not worried about sermons or about big picture planning, campus pastors also are able to focus on welcoming and getting to know newcomers. That's important, because Groeshel ends every sermon with an invitation for people to accept Jesus.
When that happens, the campus pastor works to integrate the new believers into the life of the church, often by mentoring them or helping them join a small Bible study known as a Life group.
A steady stream of newcomers has fueled growth of Lifechurch, which began with a handful of people meeting in a rented dance studio in Oklahoma back in 1996.
"We are reaching a lot of people who don't know Christ," Groeschel said. "When this happens, those new Christians still have many friends who aren't followers of Christ. The new people are often highly motivated to share what they've experienced with their friends."
Churches save money
For a large church, having multiple sites makes economic sense. Once a church gets to several thousand members, there's pressure to build larger and larger worship spaces, with costs running in the millions.
That has led some other churches, like Crosspoint Church in Nashville, to move to a multisite model. Crosspoint, which draws about 3,000 people on weekends, has campuses in Nashville, Dickson and Gallatin, and plans to start a new campus in Bellevue.
"For us, the multisite model means we are able to be really good stewards," said the Rev. Pete Wilson, pastor of Crosspoint. "We reach a lot of people, while spending less money. The days of the sprawling 100-acre campus, with 10,000 people on it at a time are over."
Back in Hendersonville, the multisite approach has won at least one new fan. Rick Shown and his wife weren't sure they would like the church, and they only visited because their daughter invited them. Shown liked the sermon, which stressed that people — not a building — are what matters in a church.
"We were skeptical about the video at first, but it works," he said. "I'd be willing to come back”