A young guy wearing a cobalt blue hoodie and shiny leather jacket has just robbed a woman’s purse. Rummaging through his quarry, the thief, all sinister swagger and furtive glances, passes by one of those fortune-telling machines with the wood finish and flashing white lights dancing across a litany of potential fates. He greedily pulls a coin out of the stolen purse and plays the game. The larcenist lands on “Death.”
So begins the first episode of LifeChurch.tv’s new series, I Deserve It. After this cinematic prologue, the video cuts back to Pastor Craig Groeschel at one of LifeChurch.tv’s campuses, who proudly declares this to be the church’s 19th Easter service. He’s using this Easter sermon to launch the I Deserve It message series, and soon weaves the hooded thief and the fortune-telling machine into a larger discussion about Christ, the crucifixion, diverging fates at Golgotha, repentance, and humility. On Easter Sunday, the video of Groeschel’s sermon was streamed to all of LifeChurch.tv’s 23 satellite “campuses” across the country, in keeping with the church’s highly popular but occasionally maligned multisite model. Publications like Christianity Today and countless Christian blogs at times deride multisites for what they perceive as a kind of “selling out”—an act of franchising and branding that runs counter to authentic, immemorial faith and evangelism.
Watching Groeschel’s sermon on video, you can more or less see why LifeChurch.tv has used technology to push past the boundaries of traditional services and beam Groeschel into each of its campuses and homes across the country and beyond. He’s confident and dynamic, with an athletic build fastidiously preserved from his days on scholarship for tennis at Oklahoma City University; outgoing; articulate without being didactic; and just the right amount of goofy. Two things really give this particular sermon its punch. When Groeschel tells the story of Jesus and the two thieves with whom he shared his pitiless fate, drying out on a cross under a scorching sun and the pecking beaks of scavenging crows, he sprinkles in autobiographical details about his own checkered past. He, too, was a thief, a petty larcenist in his prodigal college days, and sees himself—or his two potential fates—in the two men who died alongside Christ. Groeschel makes the gospel resonant, not through abstract sermonizing, but by laying bare the details of his own life. He also does the one thing all successful, riveting pastors do: he gives the Bible passages immediacy, as if the clouded, abstruse path to personal revelation most of us face while reading the Bible were blasted right open for him; the correspondence is perfectly translucent. Groeschel’s insight during the Easter Sunday sermon is that each person in his multifarious audience is one of the two thieves suffering next to Jesus: either giving up his repentance or smugly hiding it.
In 1996, Groeschel began what was then known as Life Covenant Church in the humble setting of many American origin stories: an old garage. Craig and his wife’s friends let them use their spacious doublewide, which they had converted into a makeshift auditorium. In an act of shoestring prestidigitation, Craig insisted that they put a massive mirror on the back wall to create the illusion of a larger audience at those early homespun services.
In the next few years, Groeschel’s congregation expanded rapidly, leading him to open Life Covenant Church’s first facility in Oklahoma City. In 2001, Groeschel was approached by the Edmond-based MetroChurch, which suggested that the two congregations merge. Their name now changed to LifeChurch.tv, Groeschel’s garage prayer group was now a “multisite” church—technically just a self-evident description of a congregation that meets at multiple locations, but for some a crossing of the Rubicon that symbolizes a church’s unholy relationship with consumerism and corporatization. The online journal 9Marks has been particularly outspoken in its criticisms, asserting, among other critiques, that multisites have no biblical precedent, violate the tenet of a single assembly, and suffer from the paradoxical misnomer of being one church with multiple congregations.
For a time Groeschel would drive between campuses, delivering his sermons throughout Oklahoma. But in 2001, when his wife was in labor, Groeschel knew he wasn’t going to make it to both weekend sermons. So his LifeChurch team decided to videotape his sermon and show it at that Sunday’sservice. “The response was fairly unremarkable,” Pastor and Innovation Leader Bobby Gruenewald told Metroland in 2009. Which is to say, it was successful; according to Gruenewald, little, if anything, was lost in digital translation. They had somewhat haphazardly discovered a novel way to harness the charisma of a single pastor within a multisite church. They continued using videotaped sermons by Groeschel at LifeChurch.tv’s satellite campuses, and it did nothing to stifle their growth. Even during the early years as a multisite, many of the churchgoers in Oklahoma City and Tulsa never meet Groeschel in person. Their only exposure to the church’s head pastor was through his video teachings, and for them that was enough. Groeschel and his team followed up those satellite campuses with church plantings in Stillwater, another in Oklahoma City, and then two in Arizona.
Meanwhile, LifeChurch.tv was burgeoning online in, arguably, even more impressive ways. Thousands were streaming Groeschel’s services from all over the world. LifeChurch.tv launched a new “campus” on Second Life, the virtual community of avatars that thrived in the mid-2000s (you can take a virtual tour of LifeChurch’s Second Life campus on its YouTube channel). In 2008, LifeChurch.tv had perhaps its most significant technological breakthrough. Gruenewald, the tech-savvy member of Groeschel’s leadership circle, debuted YouVersion, Apple’s first Bible app. Despite early pushback from Bible publishers over licensing, the app became a phenomenal success. Transcendent, really: as of March 2015, YouVersion has been downloaded nearly 175 million times, in over 700 languages. The app is completely free and is part of a larger host of “digital missions” that includes a second Bible app for kids, free access to online sermons, and resources for other pastors and ministries, or what LifeChurch.tv calls investing in “the capital ‘C’ Church.” The I Deserve It series that debuted on Easter Sunday is an example of these online sermons; previous series include Chasing Light and God Never Said That, the latter of which features Groeschel dispelling comfort maxims mistakenly attributed to God. One apocrypha Groeschel debunks is that “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” which seems to be a blunter version of a more lyrical aphorism—“If God brings you to it, he’ll bring you through it”—splashed over social media.
Even if it sometimes feels like LifeChurch.tv is not as hip as it would like to think, their slow-grow online empire of sermons, apps, and religious communities is one of the more successful innovations to come out of American evangelism in years. Christianity, and religion in general, continues to decline in the U.S.: a 2012 Pew Research poll found a third of adults under 30 have no religious affiliation, compared to 10 percent of Americans 65 and up. LifeChurch.tv manages to thrive in this increasingly unaffiliated landscape because it makes itself far more accessible to young people in the wired places where they spend so much time.
But LifeChurch.tv is most conspicuous as an emerging paradigm, both to be envied and looked upon with wariness, in the multisite-church movement. No longer just videotaping services on a Saturday and playing them on Sunday, Groeschel’s sermons air live via satellite at all of LifeChurch.tv’s campuses. As Kevin Penry, operational leader, says in one of LifeChurch.tv’s YouTube videos, “It wasn’t this idea as to, gee, ‘a multisite sounds neat let’s do that.’ It was born out of constraint.” LifeChurch.tv was growing so fast in the early 2000s that they simply couldn’t fit everyone in their Oklahoma City facility, forcing them to temporarily hold services in a movie theater before eventually merging with MetroChurch and officially going multisite. Now with 23 campuses and counting, LifeChurch.tv seems intent on taking the satellite sermon as far as it can go.
But some of the deficiencies of having sermons led by a television screen seem inescapable. Congregants lose the immediacy of standing a few feet from their pastor, waiting with bated breath for that paroxysm of spiritual insight that might shoot from him to them like a bolt of lightning. Can we really imagine the Azusa Street Revival, the tidal of glossolalia, and the birth of Pentecostalism brought on by video sermons? What about laying hands on the sick, handling serpents, administering water baptisms? The great irony of video sermons is that, in an effort to spread the magnetism and charisma of a single gifted pastor, churches are sacrificing the spontaneity inherent in the house of worship itself, its potential for charisma and collective electricity and the inexplicable currents of faith and abandon running between a pastor and his ardent followers.
In what’s now known as the Toronto Blessing of 1994, a small church near Toronto Pearson International Airport housed hundreds of followers, night after night, as they reported healings, were slain in the spirit, roared like wild animals, and fell into fits of uncontrollable holy laughter. That’s the stuff of physical connection, unscripted and visceral like a sucker punch or a crying jag. It was surely a manic, unsettling spectacle, but as Dr. James Beverley told Christianity Today on the 20th anniversary last year, “There is no doubt that the vast majority of people [at the Toronto Blessing] have been helped, and there have been radical conversion experiences and radical renewal in many lives.” It’s one thing to lead a church, sustain a following, hold weekend services. It’s quite another to capture the spirit of revivalism, to watch people dry-heaving Satan and laughing in silly spells of ecstasy and crumbling onto the floor like God’s marionettes. A revival like that sucks out time; the faithful suddenly look and act no differently than their 19th-century counterparts. It’s possible that the multisite model, bolstered by satellite sermons, will lose those coveted moments when the church is descended upon by the quicksilver spirit of revivalism, and the Holy Spirit rolls through like a wave swollen with storm, smacking a whole congregation into religious ecstasy.
In a 2008 article for Outreach magazine, “Questions for McChurch,” Ed Stetzer wondered how multisites would be able to reproduce new leaders if so many are “relegated to hitting the play button.” How is church leadership being cultivated when a single preacher conducts all the services, delivers all the messages? LifeChurch.tv certainly has other pastors, but it’s Groeschel’s likeness that graces the massive screens via satellite approximately 19 minutes into each service. Although there’s a pastor on each campus—known (with unintended derision?) as “the face with the place”—he is more caretaker than architect, shepherding parishioners through each stage of worship services and ushering them into the satellite “experience.” These LifeChurch.tv pastors, whose other primary responsibility is establishing relationships with their congregants and building each campus’s parish, are far removed from the traditional ideas of priesthood. They are no longer principally focused on performing Christianity’s rites—Eucharist, Baptism, Confession, and the rest of the holy sacraments. The multisites have drifted from the traditional, once-inviolable notion that a priest’s chief role is to perform the Christian liturgy, to ensure that its rituals are flawlessly reproduced in his church. Part of this is simply a consequence of Protestantism, with its shift from ritualistic services to an increased focus on sermons. But the absent, or at least drastically reduced, physical presence of the ministry at LifeChurch.tv’s campuses further diminishes the priest in contemporary churches.
In a country with more than twice as many Protestants as Catholics, and an increasingly perilous shortage of Catholic priests, the obsolescence of the priesthood has long been in the offing. Priests are vicars, representatives of higher Catholic authority that traces all the way back to Rome. From Southern Baptists to Lutherans to the Assemblies of God to nondenominational churches, America has long been championing the evangelical pastor over the punctilious priest. The impassioned, raving preacher, beholden to no one but God and his audience, is pure Americana, canonized not in Rome but in the wooden pews of Kentucky, Arkansas, Texas, and Oklahoma.
The problem is, multisites like LifeChurch.tv might be deadly to both Catholic priest and American pastor. LifeChurch.tv’s leadership structure, which includes Senior Pastor Craig Groeschel and his four-person leadership team—Operations Leader Kevin Penry, Innovation Leader Bobby Gruenewald, Team Development Leader Jerry Hurley, and Sam Roberts, head of campus operations—functions as much like a business as it does a church. These men are responsible for elaborate logistics, campus operations, human resources, and technological innovations. With each LifeChurch.tv “experience” micromanaged practically down to the second, the church feels as much like a prominent tech company preserving the sanctity of its latest gleaming device as it does a Protestant church espousing the virtues of evangelicalism and salvation through Christ. Ten minutes before each service, the slick LifeChurch.tv logo appears on the video screen, accompanied by a countdown clock. When the service begins, it’s meticulously choreographed, with worship songs and brief notes from the campus pastor flowing into the main event—Groeschel’s sermon, flashed in from Edmond.
Congregants might get the very best of Groeschel, a talented minister, but the chances of the next Great Awakening taking place in front of celluloid are slim. The dramatic irony of LifeChurch.tv—it’s easy to see from the fringes of spectatorship, but probably impossible from the inside—is that by consolidating and innovating the multisite model through satellite services, they are not only spreading the evangelism of one pastor but draining it from the church itself—that humble vessel ever-ready for the capricious whims of the Holy Spirit.
Originally published in This Land: Summer 2015.