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Theological Defense of Multi-Site
Let me begin with a brief comment on my involvement in the topic of multi-site churches. Through the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, I facilitated an independent study course in 2007 on the multi-site church phenomenon at Sojourn Community Church. Sojourn is an emerging and dually aligned (Southern Baptist Convention and Acts 29) church that targets the artistic community in Louisville, Kentucky. Sojourn and its pastoral staff, well led by Daniel Montgomery, are seriously considering developing a multi-site church approach, and this course was designed to read some of the literature, research some of the players, and draw some tentative conclusions.
That course resulted in an earlier draft of this essay, which I originally presented on November 20, 2008, at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in Providence, Rhode Island.
In this article, I use the fourfold grid (biblical, theological, historical, and missional) that we used in the course to evaluate what we read and observed. Specifically, I will ask, how strong are the biblical, theological, historical, and missional arguments used by advocates of multi-site churches. I will also offer some thoughts on church government because the multi-site model raises issues related to congregationalism. But I will not take the time here to address the issue of technology, like using videos for preaching, because that's an important topic unto itself (and, frankly, beyond my expertise).
WHAT IS A MULTI-SITE CHURCH?
Because multi-site churches are a relatively new phenomenon, a significant literature has not yet built up around the topic. Therefore, let me begin with some introductory comments. The operative definition of a multi-site church comes from The Multi-Site Church Revolution:
As this definition indicates, this phenomenon is composed of several varieties of multi-site churches:
Though not an exhaustive list, the following, overlapping models are common among multi-site churches.
With the video-venue model, a church employs videocast sermons (live or recorded) at multiple sites on the same campus, each of which offers distinct worship services. These services may be differentiated by language, music style, or other factors.
For example, the North Melrose campus of the North Coast Church in Vista, California has six sites:
In 2007, 38 percent of multi-site churches used this approach (LN, 9).
With the regional-campus model, a church has multiple campuses in a regionlike Seattleeach of which replicates the experience of the originating campus. This model is often adopted because of spatial constraints at the originating campus and/or because of the church's missional commitment to extending the gospel and its ministries to other communities in the geographical area.
This model may be combined with the first model, such that the sermons are videocast from the originating campus; or it can be combined with the third model, such that the sermons are preached by members of the teaching team.
For example, Mars Hill Church meets in six locations in Seattle (Ballard, Bellevue, Downtown Seattle, Lake City, Shoreline, and West Seattle) as well as in Olympia.
In 2007, 62 percent of multi-site churches used this approach (LN, 9).
With the teaching-team model, a church has a strong teaching team that is responsible for preaching at the multiple sites on the same campus or at other campuses. This model does not employ videocast sermons.
An example of this approach is Community Christian Church in Naperville, Ilinois.
In 2007, 24 percent of multi-site churches used this approach (LN, 9).
Total Number of Multi-site Churches
Though current statistics are hard to obtain, the best estimates place the number of multi-site churches at somewhere in the several thousand range, with predictions that in the next few years, that number could reach a staggering thirty thousand churches (MSCR 11).
Now that the multi-site church phenomenon has been briefly introduced, I will offer my assessment of it according to the four-fold grid.
As one might expect, some multi-site proponents misuse Scripture to support the multi-site phenomenon. Some examples include:
Though I promised not to delve into the issue of technology, I will say that some proponents of multi-site churches offer disconcerting interpretations of Scripture on this point. For example, the authors of MSCR argue from Hebrews 4:12 to say that "The power of the Word isn't limited by the medium" (MSCR 93; cf. 165-166), which seems shockingly naïve and utterly besides the point of the passage, to say nothing of the fact that it divorces how God means to use both the life and doctrine of a preacher to save himself and his hearers (see 1 Tim. 4:16).
Also troubling is the understanding of leadership promoted by some multi-site writers. Although Scripture gives explicit requirements for church leaders (e.g. 1 Tim. 3:1-7), the "top five campus-pastor qualities" listed for developing multi-site churches are the following (MSCR 144):
Substituting biblical qualifications for requirements such as these denies the sufficiency of Scripture and establishes a kind of leadership that fails to reflect biblical standards.
A Better Biblical Case for Multi-Site Churches
I believe a better case can be made for multi-site churches from the biblical data. Certainly, the New Testament emphasis is on the church assembling together. It's mentioned three times in 1 Corinthians 11:17-20:
At the same time, the New Testament indicates that the early Christians met together regularly both in large gatherings and in the homes of the more well-to-do members: "And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts" (Acts 2:46). Even in the example cited above from Corinth, the house-churches in that city would come together as the "church of Corinth" to celebrate the Lord's Supper (cf. Rom. 16:5).
These examples may underscore what would have been normative for the early church, as the many multi-site house churches were considered to be part of one citywide church (Elmer Towns, Aubrey Malphurs, MSCR 17). These smaller congregations met regularly in homes (i.e., campuses) as well as all together as a church (i.e., the originating campus).
Theological warrant for multi-site churches is often anemic. Some examples of poor theological support or theological framework include the following:
These considerations become particularly important when proponents claim, "Multi-site could eventually change the location people picture when they answer the question, 'What is a church?'" (MSCR 199). This claim is offered without any theological consideration of whether the question "What is a church?" has a right or wrong answer and what Scripture affirms as the answer.
Better Theological Arguments for Multi-Site Churches
I believe a better theological justification can be offered for multi-site churches. Specifically, theological arguments that may better support the multi-site model include the following:
Unity. The New Testament emphasis on love, unity, cooperation, and interdependence certainly addresses the sanctified reality that should characterize churches individually. But I wonder if these virtues should be extended beyond the local church level to address the sanctified reality that should characterize churches together in a particular locale. Examples such as the Jerusalem council (Acts 15) and the raising of money from the churches of Macedonia for the relief of the Jerusalem church (2 Cor. 8-9) developed on the basis of such love, unity, cooperation, and interdependence.
When we come to multi-site churches, then, are we that far removed from this theological ground? This notion appears among proponents of the multi-site approach. For example, Richard Kaufmann of Harbor Presbyterian Church says, "I think the whole concept of cooperating as churches is a significant theological point in order to demonstrate the unity of the Christian body." Drew Goodmanson of Kaleo Church in San Diego likewise says, "with multi-site strategies you give the city witness to kingdom expression as seen in the unity of multiple sites working together."
This theological emphasis on unity is often cited as a key reason for preferring multiplying campuses rather than multiplying church plants: when a new church is spun off, the mother church and the daughter church quickly move away from each other and stop cooperating.
Paul lists fifteen "works of the flesh" (sin nature) in Galatians 5:19-21, and eight of them focus on disunity and division within the church: "enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy." He addresses these sins with dire seriousness: "I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God" (5:21). Because such sin is so entrenched with our churches today, we should pause and ask whether or not multi-site churches better embody these virtues than most independent churches today. After all, the very structure of the multi-site church explicitly stands against such sins in order to promote the opposite values of love, unity, cooperation, and interdependence.
Pastoral Care. A theological concern often raised in opposition to multi-site churches is the issue of pastoral care: how can multi-site churches provide the pastoral care that is envisioned in Scripture and demanded by churches that take the responsibility to disciple their members seriously? The response from responsible multi-site churches is that the pastoral team at each campus/site is responsible to provide the full range of pastoral care for its campus/site.
For example, at Mars Hill Church in Seattle,
At the same time, different campuses will share resources with one another. Sharing resources is part of the strong connectionalism envisioned by multi-site churches.
Responsible Church Growth. Finally, the multi-site church structure can aid responsible church growth. Here the issue is not merely numeric growth for the sake of numbers, church prestige, or pastoral notoriety. Rather, what must be considered is growth that comes from God and how a church is to embrace such growth and adapt itself to accommodate it.
John Piper and the elders at Bethlehem Baptist Church wrestled with this issue first by looking at biblical data on growth and then developing a theological conviction. As for biblical input about growth, the Gospels underscore "the public ministry of Jesus to large crowds" (Matt. 14:14, 21; 15:38; Mark 4:1, 6:34; Luke 12:1). Next, the book of Acts "records the amazing growth of the church both in Jerusalem and in Antioch" (Acts 2:41; 4:4; 5:14; 6:711:21, 24-26). Furthermore, the New Testament emphasizes that "the gospel is good news to be spread in all places" (2 Thess. 3:1; Acts 9:31; Matt. 29:18-20; Acts 1:8; Luke 14:21-22). In light of the preceding, Piper articulates his theological conviction:
The multi-church structure is a way of managing responsible church growth.
Little serious work has been done either to establish historical precedent for multi-site churches or to discuss how such precedents are relevant. The case from church history generally consists of appeals to mission stations, Methodist circuit riders, and brand Sunday schools done by bus ministries (MSCR 91). For example:
The problem with this historical precedent is that the situation that faced the early Methodists was a lack of trained pastors to preach in all the churches. Such a dearth of pastors is hardly the case in America today, and I have never once found an appeal to such a shortage of personnel as a reason for multi-site churches.
Better Historical Support for Multi-Site Churches
Baptist Statements of Faith. A better historical precedent for multi-site churches, to begin with, can be found in the emphasis on collaboration between congregationally governed churches and their denominations which can be found in historic statements of faith. For example, in 1644, the First London Confession of Faith, representing the seven Particular or Calvinistic Baptist churches in that city, was quite explicit about the cooperation that should characterize the churches:
This emphasis continued fairly steadily throughout Baptist history and appears in the latest version of the Baptist Faith and Message (2000). Section 14 on cooperation affirms,
Multi-site churches embody this emphasis on strong connectionalism. Certainly, the documents cited above call for unity between separate churches. But is it not possible to achieve that strong connectionalism more readily through the multi-site approach?
Connectionalism and Cooperation. This element of strong connectionalism among multi-site proponents arises out of an intense longing for cooperationas strong as it is for interdependence as it is against the fierce independence and exaggerated autonomy promoted by rugged American individualism in evidence in a growing number of churches today. I have found that multi-site pastors and churches (1) desire deeply to live life and engage in ministry together, (2) repudiate strongly the fierce autonomy that has typified many independent churches in the past, and (3) reject the formalized structures for cooperation between churches (e.g., local ministerial groups, state associations) that currently exist. Too often, they find these networks bureaucratically heavy-handed, ponderously slow and even incapable of offering realistic help, and staffed by incompetent workers. Thus, they expand their ministries through multi-site churches that enjoy a strong connectionalism.
As these pastors and churches develop a vision for expanding their ministries in order to impact more people, a basic dissatisfaction with traditional models of planting churches directs them to search for a different way. They find the concept of multi-site churches attractive.
For instance, one church exists in various locations or campuses, and the pastoral teams of the various sites engage in ministry together by meeting weekly, sharing ministerial resources, encouraging personal accountability, fostering pastoral cooperation through the preparation of sermons together, addressing problems, distributing monies from a shared budget, and the like. They sense that this strong connectionalism is more biblical than the far too prevalent reality of fiercely independent churches competing with one another and denouncing the attempts of other churches to intervene in their local matters, even when such intervention is sorely needed.
Multi-site Baptists in Seventeenth-Century England. Some more concrete precedents for multi-site churches can be found in seventeenth-century British Baptist history. In his Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Ph.D. dissertation, Hugh Wamble writes, "It was normal for a local church to have a scattered constituency and to be composed of several congregations. For convenience or protection, the membership was divided into several parts for worship."
This arrangement was particularly prominent throughout Britain during times of persecution such as the Restoration. In rural areas also, the "conventicles" or small congregations were parts of the originating church. For example, the Ilston church (Wales) of John Miles consisted of widely scattered congregations: Abergavenny, Llanwenarth, Llangibby, Aberavon, Llanddewi, and Llanelly. In many such cases, one pastor would preach at these various sites, engaging in itineration for the conventicles. Occasionally, a number of capable preachers served multiple congregations.
Consideration of these historical precedents may help to dispel the notion that the contemporary multi-site church phenomenon is merely the latest (twentieth- and twenty-first century) fad fueled by business models of franchising and branding, a lust for notoriety, or other insidious reasons.
Much attention has been placed in recent discussions of ecclesiology on the church as missional, or its identification as the body of divinely-called and divinely-sent ministers to proclaim the gospel and advance the kingdom of God (John 20:19-23). Jurgen Moltmann emphasized the importance of understanding "not that the church 'has' a mission, but the very reverse: that the mission of Christ creates its own church. Mission does not come from the church; it is from mission and in light of mission that the church has to be understood." Accordingly, George Hunsberger underscored the focus and necessity of "a missional ecclesiologyan ecclesiology that sees the fundamental missionary character of the church as critical for its self-understanding in a post-Christian, postmodern setting." This contrasts with missions being seen more as an activity of the church rather than in terms of the church's essential image of itself. Missional is a matter of identity first, then function:
Moreover, missional is a matter of corporate identity first, then individual engagement.
Proponents of multi-site churches make much of the missional nature of the church and appeal to it as a justification for their approach. Some of these appeals are less than convincing. For instance, some claim that "multi-site churches are more evangelistic than those with one site" (MSCR 23), which leads them to conjecture "Multi-site may be the only vehicle big enough to complete the Great Commission" (MSCR 178).
Though empirical data is unavailable, it is probably the case that some multi-site churches are more evangelistic than some churches with one site, and some churches with one site are more evangelistic than some multi-site churches. Furthermore, I would hazard a guess that the Great Commission will be completed by many vehicles.
The multi-site model is envisioned as the latest attempt (following seeker-driven churches, purpose-driven churches, and postmodern churches) to give a contextualized "response to the skyrocketing number of unchurched Americans and the constant need to apply a biblical worldview to current contexts" (MSCR 23).
I concur that the missional nature of the church demands that it engage in contextualization. At the same time, it should be admitted that some contextualization efforts turn out to engage in overcontextualization, thereby significantly weakening or even destroying the church through syncretism. Accordingly, it's just not enough to claim to be contextualized. Multi-site churches, like all other churches, must engage in responsible, appropriate contextualization.
The claim is made that multi-site churches are most focused on the mission: "Imagine the power of a church not built around a personality or a facility but instead built around a mission!" (MSCR 200).
Yet multi-site churches are probably as susceptible to "the cult of personality" as one-site churches (whether those churches are large or small) (VC 256-257).
Why Multi-Site Churches Really Are Missional
Missional discussions that may better support the multi-site model include the following:
Reaching the City. Multi-site churches for city reaching may grasp the missional identity of the church better than other churches, because they are designed with the specific missional purpose to reach the city with the gospel as a community. This is often done with sites targeting specific areas or groups within the city.
In a sense, multi-site missionality reverses the trend of taking people out of their missional/relational networks in order to attend the church; it instead establishes campuses at multiple sites so as to affect all the neighborhoods in the city (paraphrase of Darrin Patrick, The Journey). One might say the multi-site church is more locally minded, because it's not forcing everyone in a church into one centralized location.
Growth Is a Blessing, not a Curse. Missionally, growth that is from God is a blessing, not a curse. And a church that is experiencing God-given growth must expand and restructure so as to accommodate this growth and minister effectively to each person coming to Christ and incorporate them into its missional community.
For example, Bethlehem Baptist Church has opted "to create and nurture a radical, risk-taking mindset for 'spreading' by multiplication as opposed to the more comfortable mindset of expansion by centralized enlargement." Accordingly, its "Treasuring Christ Together" vision encompasses multiplying "churches and campuses" and works from this principle:
Why Not Just Plant Churches? People commonly ask multi-site churches why they don't just engage in traditional church planting. Though empirical data is not forthcoming, a number of multi-site churches (like Bethlehem Baptist Church, noted above) exercise a dual pronged expansion strategy: plant churches and multiply campuses.
Another example of this is Mars Hill in Seattle, which initially tried to manage its staggering growth with church planting through the Acts 29 Network, even being "honored as the second most prolific church planting church in America" (VC 249).
But church planting is especially difficult for several types of churches:
Other factors influencing some churches to move toward multi-sites rather than doing church planting include the following:
In 2007, 12% of multi-site churches spun off sites to become independent churches (LN 11). In actuality, then, this approach may contribute to church planting in the long run.
CHURCH GOVERNMENT ASSESSMENT
Episcopal or Presbyterian
I am not sure how multi-site churches would be governed in a "high" (e.g., Anglican) episcopal system, and I could not find any examples of multi-site churches in this system. In a "low" (e.g., Methodist) episcopal system, the lead pastor does not become the "bishop" over the various campuses; rather, the one church with multiple sites functions like a single site church under the regional bishop.
As for multi-site churches in a presbyterian system, the elders of the various sites constitute the one session of the church. When a site develops its own session, then it becomes independent of the other sites.
Some multi-site churches do not have any structures above the local church level that exercise authority over the campuses. These would be considered legitimate multi-site congregational churches. In this congregational model of multi-site churches, each campus has its own leadership team (both campus elders and campus deacons) that is responsible for the oversight and full-orbed ministry at that site. In addition, the elders from all the sites meet together regularly as a "council of elders" to share resources, cooperate for high impact ministry, pray together, assist one another in identifying and resolving intrachurch problems, prepare sermons together (in a teaching team model), promote mutual accountability, and the like. "The power and synergy of an interconnected network of churches held together through vision and values is far more greater (sic) than the segmentation and disconnectedness of our present system" (MSCR 7).
TWO FINAL MODELS
To conclude, I offer two models of multi-site congregational churches:
Model #1: Traditional Southern Baptist Multi-Site Church
Model one is a traditional Southern Baptist churchHighview Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. It is one church with six locations. Its governmental structure has one senior pastor (Kevin Ezell), a group of pastors (composed of the lead pastor from each of the other campuses), one deacon body (composed of representatives from all of the campuses), several committees (finance, personnel, grounds, nominations; each committee is composed of representatives from all of the campuses), one budget, and one congregation that engages in accepting new members, excommunicating sinful members through church discipline, voting on official business, etc.
This one congregation meets together quarterly for Sunday Night Celebrations that include worship, baptisms, the Lord's Supper, business meeting, and so forth. The pastoral team meets together weekly for sermon preparation, site updates, mutual accountability, prayer, and more. There are also weekly ministry meetings for the pastors leading (at all of the campuses) children's ministries, student ministries, adult ministries, and worship.
Model #2: Elder-led, Deacon-served, Congregational Multi-site Church for City Reaching
This second model would constitute my own proposal. Under the sovereign direction of Jesus Christ, its head, the church is led by a plurality of elders. This council is composed of the elders from the various sites. As a team, they are responsible for teaching, leading, praying, and shepherding the church, which exists in multiple locations. Some of these elders may be paid while others are not. Some may preach and teach at the various campuses while others have a specific campus assignment. But all shoulder together the leadership for the entire church in the areas designated as their responsibilities. Coming together regularly, the elders support one another in prayer, share ministerial resources, encourage personal accountability, prepare sermons together, address intrachurch problems, distribute monies from a shared budget, and the like.
The church is served by deacons. Whereas the office of eldership is dedicated to the work of teaching, leading, praying, and shepherding, the deaconate is devoted to serving in all other areas of the church. These areas may include men's and women's ministries, youth and children's ministries, worship ministries, sports and fine arts ministries, bereavement and mercy ministries, evangelism and mission ministries, and many more. Deacons are campus-specific; that is, they engage in their ministries at particular sites and not system-wide.
As a congregational church, it is elder led, not elder ruled: the elders work with authority in their sphere of responsibilities (noted above), and the congregationwhich exists at multiple sitesworks with authority in its sphere of responsibilities, which includes confirming the elders, receiving new members, excommunicating sinful members through church discipline, affirming the budget, approving any major changes to the constitution and the philosophy of ministry, and doing whatever else is designated as their responsibilities. Regular congregational meetings, which bring together all the members from the various campuses, exhibit and foster unity among members, display and promote strong connectionalism between the various sites, provide opportunities for members to discharge their congregational responsibilities, model the pattern of the early churches, and so forth.
The church exists in multiple locations for the purpose of city reaching. Accordingly, there is a geographical limitation placed on the multi-site church, which is the city the church is attempting to reach with the gospel and its ministries. Its strong sense of missional identity translates into the church as a whole reaching out to the city's residents, including adding other sites to expand the church's reach into heretofore outlying areas of the city.
Though much more study is required, I am hopeful that this model (or several models) of multi-site churches can pass muster according to the fourfold evaluative grid of biblical, theological, historical, and missional (as well as governmental) matters.
Gregg R. Allison is Associate Professor of Christian Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
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