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Have We Ever Seen This Before? Multi-Site Precedents
According to the definition offered in The Multi-Site Church Revolution, a multi-site church is "one church meeting in multiple locations." This oneness involves sharing "a common vision, budget, leadership, and board." Moreover, noting that many churches have off-site ministries (such as a soup kitchen), the definition of a multi-site church goes further to specify that the meetings referred to in the first sentence are not for the purpose of ministry but worship. Thus, a multi-site church is "one that develops worship communities in multiple locations." The task of this paper is to consider possible historical precedents for such a church.
Let me say from the outset, there are some parallels between contemporary multi-site churches and the patterns of relationship between some congregations in church history, but there seems to me to be no exact precedent. Indeed, much in the multi-site movement assumes and depends upon modern communication, ease of travel, and technology.
EARLY EPISCOPAL MODEL?
At first glance, any connectional system of ecclesiology, which emphasizes the oneness of the church and considers local congregations more as parts of the one church than as churches themselves, might seem to be a viable precedent for multi-site churches. For example, one could claim that the developing role of the bishop in the early church is similar to that of the "lead pastor" in the organizational chart offered for a typical multi-site church, and that the presbyters (later, "priests") bear some resemblance to contemporary "campus pastors." Peter Toon describes the common pattern of organization of the church by the end of the second century in these words: "the bishop was the chief pastor and teacher of the flock as well as president of the college/meeting of presbyters."
But was the early church truly multi-site? Perhaps for a time, smaller congregations did consider themselves together as forming the church in Antioch or Jerusalem or Corinth. But the process of growth produced a breakdown of the sense of being "one church in many locations." Bernard Prusak describes the process:
While the various congregations could be described as governmentally or organizationally one, united under and in communion with the bishop, they no longer worshipped together, and the process of growth could more accurately be described as producing multiple churches. Peter Toon describes the process this way: "as city churches (with their one bishop and several presbyters) established missions in nearby towns, presbyters went to the smaller churches to serve as pastors, and so it was the bishops who came to have multiple churches in their care and presbyters came to be pastors of individual churches." This system has one leader over a number of congregations, but what he leads is a multiplicity of churches, not one church in a multiplicity of sites. It seems very unlikely that these churches shared a common budget or board of leaders, however much they may have maintained unity in terms of being in communion with the bishop. As noted above, the type of unity multi-site churches desire for their scattered congregations seems to demand modern communication, transportation, and technology.
METHODIST CIRCUIT RIDER?
Another possible precedent within episcopal polity that has been suggested is the Methodist circuit rider, who would provide pastoral leadership for several congregations. One multi-site church pastor claims "the move from horseback preacher to satellite broadcast is simply a shift from circuit rider to closed-circuit rider!"
The problem with this is an ambiguity in the definition of church. On the one hand, in Methodist polity, a number of congregations can be considered "the church." Bishops are defined as those who are "responsible for the work and oversight of the church in a particular Annual Conference," which is itself defined as "a particular geographical area." On the other hand, the circuit supervised by a single pastor, is defined as "two or more local churches," not two or more congregations. It seems unlikely that these local churches share the common vision, budget, and board characteristic of a multi-site church, or that they think of themselves as one church in multiple locations.
A similar ambiguity or multiplicity of meanings for "church" also makes it difficult to see churches operating under traditional presbyterian polity as a genuine precedent for multi-site churches. Reformed theologian Edmund Clowney believes the word "church" can be used to describe local and extra-local bodies, and that "the church can be expressed at more than one level; in smaller or in larger fellowships, or even in gatherings like that in Jerusalem (Acts 15), representing the whole church." Presbyterian polity may fairly be described as representative and connectional; and its advocates see the congregationalist's emphases on independency and local autonomy as contrary to Scripture. Yet presbyterian congregations in different locations are not governed by the same board; rather, "particular Christian churches are to be governed by spiritually qualified councils of elders/overseers." The governmental functions exercised by levels like the presbytery, synod, and general assembly over multiple congregations do not validate describing such congregations as being governed by a common board, or being described as one church in many locations in the way that multi-site churches are one.
Among congregational churches, with their traditional emphasis on local autonomy, one would not expect to find precedents for multi-site churches. But there are some incidents that may be noted.
The idea that local congregations are part of a larger whole that can take some visible expression lay behind the early development of associations in Baptist life. The statement in the 1644 London Confession of Faith carefully balances affirmations of local and extra-local bodies:
It is not individual Christians but local congregations that are identified as members of one body. This gave a theological basis for the development of a type of voluntary, congregational connectionalism that was expressed in a number of ways in seventeenth century English Baptist life.
During this era, Hugh Wamble says, "It was normal for a local church to have a scattered constituency and to be composed of several congregations," more for protection or convenience than from any theological principle, and more in rural areas than cities. Wamble adds that the scattered congregations did not think of themselves as one church, and thus this example is not a real precedent for multi-site churches. Still, he notes that the relationships of these scattered congregations were much more intimate during this era than in later times when each congregation built its own meeting place.
He also notes some of the negative effects of the dissolution of such relationships. As congregations began to focus on building their own meeting places, "The burden of debt and overhead expenses paralyzed both mutual care and mission interest." Moreover, as churches became distinct, each with their own localized services, the formerly "close ties with sister congregations tended to become limited to formal associationalism. Church walls became obstructions to outside fellowship."
While these seventeenth century English Baptists do not provide any sort of clear precedent for multi-site churches, perhaps the desire for more than merely formal association with other congregations, and the desire to avoid costly building programs are parallels that deserve consideration.
A WORKABLE MODEL?
This past November I heard of a multi-site church that seemed to avoid most of the aspects of multi-site churches that have been troubling to me. This church, Highview Baptist in Louisville, Kentucky, is one church that meets in six locations. Each of the six campuses has a pastor that teaches his flock, but there is one senior pastor, a single deacon body, and a single budget. However, the whole church also assembles in one location quarterly for services that include baptisms, the Lord's Supper, and the conducting of the congregation's business (accepting new members, discipline of members, voting on matters of official business).
I asked the person describing this church why the six congregations do not simply avoid the inconvenience of the quarterly meeting and become independent churches. His reply was that the six pastors do not want independence and the accompanying isolation. They enjoyed being part of a larger body and sharing each others' joys and sorrows as one body.
NO PERFECT PRECEDENT
Seeking intimate connection with other congregations does seem to have some slight historical precedence among seventeenth-century English Baptists, but for the most part, multi-site churches are pursuing a path with little historical backing.
It is possible that some in the early church came close to this pattern, but growth produced not multiple-site churches, but multiple churches. In presbyterian circles, local churches are connected to presbyteries, synods, and a general assembly, but one board does not govern all the churches, they do not share a common budget, and in many cases, they do not share a common vision. Finally, the desire for intimacy with other congregations and to manifest the unity of Christ's body on a level larger than the local church is laudable, and has some place in English Baptist history.
Overall, however, the idea and practice of unity in multi-site churches seems tied to modern developments in communication, transportation, and technology. History has preferred multiple churches to multi-site churches.
John Hammett is Professor of Systematic Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC
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