Farewell Franchise Ministry

You find the entrance to John Mark Comer's office at the back of a hip coffee shop in Portland, Oregon. Stop for a moment to savor a couple shots of freshly roasted espresso pulled by a man who looks like a logger with sleeve tattoos and an iPhone. Leave the cup in the bin, then make your way through the renovated warehouse. When Comer welcomes you into his small office, note the view of the Pearl District, the stuffed deer head on the wall, his retro bicycle, and that mid-century couch under the window.

Only the Bible on the desk and the theological books on the shelves suggest this is still a pastor's space. Comer's warm welcome and gesture toward a comfortable seat open a lively conversation.

Comer came of age in the ministry spotlight, taking over Solid Rock, a megachurch in the suburbs of Portland, Oregon, when he was only in his late 20s. From early on, Solid Rock had the makings not just of a large church, but a very large church, even in the "post-Christian" Northwest.

I'd heard that the church was restructuring. People on the fringes gave me conflicting reports—some said the church was splitting, albeit amicably. Others reported that it was just expanding to more locations. Still others claimed it was planting new, unrelated churches.

Each version turned out to be both wrong and right. I sat down with Comer to get the story straight.

You're transitioning from "multi-site" to a "family of churches." Are you just calling the same dog by a different name?

Definitely not. They have some similarities, but there's a vital move toward locality and autonomy with the "family" concept.

Solid Rock Church started out in the suburbs and grew to be a megachurch. After we'd grown we planted a campus in downtown, then another campus in a different suburban neighborhood. We did the multi-site thing, but from the beginning we never used video venues. We never believed they would work even in our original suburban context, and certainly not in urban, anti-corporate Portland. There is such an emphasis here on small batch, home-grown, do it yourself, local, organic, etc. People around here place a high value on authenticity and have skepticism toward "chains."

The multi-site model is basically ministry franchising. It's the Starbucks model of "local" church. Now the good thing about Starbucks is you get the exact same cup of coffee everywhere in the world. I was in England recently (not known for good coffee), and seeing the green Starbucks sign was like finding an oasis in the desert.

With multi-site models and video-venue preaching, large churches have changed how we've done ecclesiology for 2,000 years.

But the bad thing about Starbucks is that their conformity flattens the creativity of individual baristas or shop owners. It's an a-cultural expression. It all tastes the same. So whether you're in downtown Portland or in Mumbai, India, you get the exact same cup of burnt-tasting coffee.

That's what a multi-site model (especially with video) is—despite attempts to counteract those tendencies. The very nature of it flattens diversity and color. Maybe it's bad or maybe it's good, but there it is.

Now, I want to be clear—I have a great deal of respect for some pastors who do this. Many of my friends in ministry work this way. I don't want to come across as the arrogant young guy, or dismissive, or overly critical of something that the Lord's using to draw people. But I'm finding that this type of ministry takes church in a direction that we need to pause and consider.

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