Wal-Mart Churches: A Rant

I was driving down Hwy 441 the other day. Hwy 441 is the main drag that connects Eustis, Florida--where yours truly lives--with Mt. Dora, Tavares, Leesburg and a dozen or so other little towns in between. All of these sleepy little burgs are about 40 minutes from the hustle and bustle of Orlando.

So, I am driving down the road and I look over and see a sign that reads thusly: "Northland: A Church Distributed Meets Here on Sundays" There was more, but I was going 50 mph (the speed limit on Hwy 441 in that particular spot) and couldn't catch the whole thing. But what I caught was enough.

Northland Church is a multi-site mega-church that has its home base in Longwood, Florida a much closer suburb of Orlando than Eustis--again, where I happen to be. It webstreams its worship services to some 1,200 sites all over the country and all over the world. They also have three other church sites in the greater Orlando area.

Apparently, the nebulous areas that exists between Mt. Dora, FL and Eustis (my town) falls under the category, "Greater Orlando Area."

I just have a question. Why set up shop in an suburban, mostly white neighborhood where there happens to be like four hundred churches within a five mile radius? What about that is "distributed" exactly? It seems to me that a church that is distributed would distribute to areas, Oh, I don't know, WHERE THERE AREN'T ANY CHURCHES?

There's only one reason why. Money.

Why distribute your church where it won't turn a profit, right?

Joel Hunter, the senior pastor at Northland, seems like a decent enough fellow. I am actually going to get to ask him my questions to his face in May when I attend the Flourish Conference in Georgia. He's a presenter. I guess he's into environmental stewardship, which is cool.

But doesn't it seem sort of like Wal-Mart to roll into a town where there are plenty of local congregations who have been slogging it out, building relationships, doing mission...? Seriously, Northland will throw its considerable resources, cool programs, blah, blah, blah at their new sites attracting, who exactly? You guessed it, Christian consumers--the church shoppers. And the churches they leave to go to the next cool, hip thing will suffer as a result.

Not mine, of course. My church is traditional with an organ, bell choir and stained glass windows all around. Top that, Hunter! You can't retro-fit your sanctuaries to be 100 years old, with that old church smell, and the dark hardwood floors. I've got a different demographic, for now.

But still, what about all of the non traditional churches that can't afford computer graphics, and awesome video schtuff? What about the churches, who can't afford to hire really relevant-looking and sounding "site pastors" who pretty much do everything but preach, which gives them lots of time to hang out in coffee shops, and think really deep thoughts.

Yup, just like Wal Mart the churches like Northland will run them out of business.

I heard that Mars Hill Church in Seattle, pastored by my least favorite evangelical at the moment, Mark Driscoll, just opened another one of their franchises in the Seattle area. They did it in front of the Mars Hill Graduate School in Seattle, which also had a church on their campus. There was no phone call, no heads up, no nothing. Driscoll's team just dropped a franchise of their multi-site mega church right across the street. And I am sure the fact that Driscoll was reportedly critical of the school had nothing to do with it.

In the late nineties I was a district manager for Best Buy and I had a front row seat as Best Buy rolled into South Florida bent on taking Circuit City out. It took them a lot of years, but Best Buy finally won. Circuit City went out of business this year, closing over 500 stores. Best Buy's day will come eventually when the next hot store rolls them over. It's Capitalism. The American Way.

I just never imagined that Capitalism and the Darwinism of the Marketplace would apply to churches.

What if instead of opening up a bunch of sites in places where there were already a bunch of churches, these huge mega-site church corporations just went where no one else wanted to go? What if they just threw their money down the drain setting up shop in the most neglected, poverty stricken parts of our country? What if they partnered with existing churches in areas they felt burdened to reach, sharing their resources, their money, their cool, hip, leaders and state of the art equipment?

What if they gave themselves away, instead of trying to grab a bigger piece of the Christian consumer pie?

Maybe then they would look like the Church, and less like Wal Mart.


  1. Well! That was one of the most cynical blog posts I've read in a long time! And just so you know, Northland didn't just decide to plop another church down in Mt Dora. It was started by a contingent of Northland members who were driving every week from Mt Dora to Longwood.

  2. I just noted this comment, which is why I haven't responded. Glad for the response, though.
    I don't think that comforts me at all to know that Northland members wanted to start a franchise of their church in an area where there are more churches per square mile than you can shake a stick, hit with a rock, etc. simply for their convenience.
    Again, this feeds right into what I was trying to say. Consumer Christians need to wake up. Consumer-based mega churches and those that would emulate them need to smell the coffee, too.
    Share resources, bless existing churches that can be strengthened through partnership, or go plant a church where there is a need for one in a place that is not so easy, so comfortable...
    That is not cynical. It's hopeful. I think the real cynicism exists within a Christianity that has reduced God to a divine commodity.
    There is a great book you should read by that very name written by Sky Jethani.
    The times they are a changin'


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