January 11, 2010
The Hansen Report: Valuing Visitation
A new survey of multi-site churches shows a growing disconnect between pastors and their large congregations.
In the hierarchy of church problems, most pastors wouldn’t mind figuring out how to handle a congregation that has grown so rapidly that they can no longer get to know everyone personally. The multisite church boom has met this very challenge by leveraging the best teachers with new technology to reach mass audiences at low costs. Motivated by spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ, pastors understand the number of new professions of faith as a sign of God’s blessing. There appears to be little downside to adding new church sites. There is little of the personal risk and exorbitant cost of church planting. In fact, there are few arguments against multiple sites that can’t also be made against multiple services in one church building. And most medium and large-sized churches crossed that line without much consternation some time ago. So if people don’t mind watching a pastor on television, what’s holding us back?
Maybe some people really do mind. A recent report on multisite churches by Cathy Lynn Grossman in USA Today revealed some concern about the growing disconnect between pastors and their large congregations.
“I do miss having a pastor at the door shaking hands in the ‘check-out line,’” Lauren Green told Grossman. Green, a religion correspondent for Fox News, began attending Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City to hear Tim Keller preach. Keller doesn’t record his sermons to broadcast in other locations, but he scurries between several different sites in a grueling Sunday ritual that leaves him little time to interact with members and visitors. By contrast, Green and her family shared a close relationship with their long-time pastor when she was growing up in Minneapolis. But she acknowledges that this model appears to be a quaint and outdated today.
“Today, it’s all about a personal relationship with God, not the culture of a church,” Green explained to Grossman. “And a megachurch or a multisite church can still offer this. If you are there to hear a message and it’s a powerful one, it shouldn't matter how it's delivered.”
When Christians find a pastor who preaches a powerful message, they are willing to compromise elsewhere. They aren’t so concerned if he never visits them, never talks to them, or never even learns their name. Those tasks become the responsibility of a campus pastor and a small group of fellow members. But I still worry for the primary preaching pastors in this situation. They know their churches have grown due to God’s anointing on their sermons. So they naturally expect that sharing the pulpit will hurt church attendance and giving. The numbers drop when they go on vacation. Such a heavy preaching burden precludes them from spending much time with members. And even if they had more time to visit and counsel, where would they start?
In this climate, I fear that a church is tempted to make two mistakes. It may overvalue the sermon while undervaluing the personal touch that informs those sermons . Gifted preachers understand human nature and the Bible, so they can craft messages that match the general concerns of a community. But unless they devote substantial time to caring personally for members, these pastors risk losing touch with the church’s specific needs. By contrast, the famed Puritan pastor Richard Baxter from the 1600s excelled in visiting his community. As a result, he saw dramatic change in Kidderminster, England.
“We must labor to be acquainted, not only with the persons, but with the state of all our people, with their inclinations and conversations; what are the sins of which they are most in danger, and what duties they are most apt to neglect, and what temptations they are most liable to; for if we know not their temperament or disease, we are not likely to prove successful physicians,” Baxter wrote in The Reformed Pastor.
Baxter didn’t have a lot of sympathy for pastors who have little time to get to know everyone. He recommended that overburdened pastors cut their salaries in half and hire someone else to help. We might remind Baxter that congregational care and outreach are not the sole responsibility of paid ministers. Nevertheless, Baxter wasn’t completely out of touch. He recognized in his day the same low expectation for interaction with pastors that we see in our own. He noted that many Christians just want the pastor to preach, administer the sacraments, and visit them when they’re sick. Many people don’t want to know their pastors because they don’t want their pastors to know them.
But Baxter knew that personal visitation is a powerful ministry. “I have found by experience, that some ignorant persons, who have been so long unprofitable hearers, have got more knowledge and remorse of conscience in half an hour’s close discourse, than they did from ten years’ public preaching,” Baxter wrote. “I know that preaching the gospel publicly is the most excellent means…But it is usually far more effectual to preach it privately to a particular sinner, as to himself.”
Clearly Baxter was concerned with effective ministry. But his measure was discernible growth in godliness and grace among the Christians he visited. What’s our standard for effectiveness?