I was recently speaking in a conference held on the campus of a Presbyterian church. One of my Presbyterian pastor friends spoke up in the presence of several other pastors and said, “I’m still working to make Josh a Presbyterian.” I replied, “I’m still waiting on one Bible verse.” The point is – I want to make large decisions like whether we baptize babies on the clear testimony of God’s Word. From the beginning, I want to be clear, I have refused to drink the “Kool-Aid” of the multi-site church model because I cannot locate one Bible verse that causes me to elevate multi-site church development over church planting.
How does your local church design the worship service? Is the music or the preaching driving the worship services of your local church? Does your church practice the public reading of Scripture during your weekly worship? Is your church led by elders or by a group of deacons? Does your church engage in evangelism? These questions are all relevant, and we find the answers to them in the sufficient Word of God. Therefore, if the Word serves as our only sufficient guide, how do we make decisions about church polity? Should we have multiple services on one campus? Should we have a multi-site church model (one church in multiple locations)? Once again, we should seek counsel from God’s Word as we make these important decisions.
Multi-Site Church Problem #1 – Local Becomes Multiple
The entire New Testament is centered upon the local church in specific cities starting in Jerusalem and spreading throughout the world through the Paul’s missionary journeys. The biblical word translated church is ἐκκλησία. R. C. Sproul defines this word by writing, “The Greek word for church, ecclesia, is made up of a prefix and a root. The prefix is ek—out of. The root is the verb coleo, to call.” The point is clear as you consider the usage of the word throughout the New Testament. Church (ἐκκλησία) has in mind the assembly of a particular group of people (the called out ones) in a specified location which is local in nature (the church at Corinth, Ephesus, etc).
Recently, Mark Driscoll, the megachurch pastor of a multi-site congregation known as Mars Hill resigned from his church under a tsunami of controversy. Driscoll, a man who was no rookie to controversy, submitted his letter of resignation on October 14th to the elders of Mars Hill. Driscoll planted the church 18 years ago and has served as the only lead pastor since the beginning. Although his personality often made him a lightening rod for drama and controversy with his salty speech and edgy preaching, it eventually caught up with him when his congregation turned on him. Following his resignation, the elders published a stunning letter explaining that the church known as Mars Hill would dissolve into local churches. The article had three main headings, local decisions, local church, and local mission. The point was clear – Mars Hill multi-site church would no longer exist. Each church that remains open will be a local congregation by the end of 2014.
The decision of Mars Hill’s leadership points to the seriousness of defining ἐκκλησία properly in the beginning. What if Mars Hill had merely planted autonomous churches as opposed to building a complex multi-site structure? The fact remains, a bride cannot be multiple. She will always be a local specific bride. The family cannot be multiple. Each family will be a local specific family by name and location. The church cannot be multiple either. Although we recognize the way in which Jesus uses the word church in Matthew 16:18 (the universality of the church), but when dealing with specific congregations – the church must remain local.
Multi-Site Problem #2 – Personality Driven?
Not all multi-site churches are the same. Some have local teaching pastors while others use modern technology to beam their lead pastor’s live feed onto a screen on stage for people to watch. However, in all cases of the multi-site model, we must admit a certain level of personality propels the ship onward. It may be the name of a pastor or it could be the name of a certain church. At times certain churches make the decision to go multi-site based on the giftedness of their pastor. Other churches have made similar decisions based on a marketing technique similar to image branding. However, at some level both of these serve as a personality / ego driven decision.
What does the multi-site church model communicate to the community? Does it communicate that our pastor is better than yours – so we’re opening another campus? Does it send the message that our church is somehow better than yours so we’re opening another site? The deeper issue may be from within the church itself. What message is communicated to the entire church? Does the main preaching pastor communicate the message that God isn’t capable of raising up other pastors 15 or 20 miles away to do what I do? What is the big deal about multi-site church? Why go that direction? Why not just plant an autonomous church in that area and cut it off? Could it have anything to do with church growth numbers and statistics? Certainly it does help boost your church up the ranks in size and growth. Remember, at one point Mark Driscoll boasted of 14,000 members of Mars Hill. Upon a closer investigation, it was 14,000 spread out over 15 campuses in 5 different states. That makes a big difference for the end of the year report.
At the end of the day, are we seeking to build a church around our own personality or the personality of Jesus – the Head of the Church?
Multi-Site Problem #3 – Pragmatic in Design
The world often functions by the rule – “If it feels good – do it.” In many ways, the evangelical church makes decisions based upon the rule – “If it works – do it.” Who can argue with the numbers, right? Thabiti Anyabwile, in his article, Multi-Site Churches Are From The Devil, writes, “As a social scientist, I’m not at all impressed with the pragmatic appeal to these gross numbers because, contrary to public opinion, these kinds of numbers do not ‘tell the story.’ And I think the jury is still out on whether ‘it works.’ That jury won’t be in with a verdict for another several decades, I’m afraid. And theologically, the pragmatic appeals to ‘it works’ persuade very little. Too many other things we’re called to be faithful in doing are simply left undone in this approach. If that’s true, what exactly is this model ‘working’ at?
In many cases, the pastoral staff and the church as a whole has walked off down the road of multi-site church structure without a clear biblical conviction to stand upon. It’s more often about how many people they can reach for Christ or how organized they can remain under the multi-site model where gifted leaders share leadership and resources under one name – although they meet on different campuses. The pragmatic nature of the multi-site model is evident in the language and argument of Mark Driscoll and James MacDonald as they sat down for a conversation with Mark Dever on this issue a while back. The full video conversation can be watched here.
Although from a business or branding model it may seem to work, is it biblical? Statistics tell us that it normally works. According to Ed Stetzer in his article Multisite Churches are Here, and Here, and Here to Stay, “Multisite churches are on the rise. This is not a fad, this is not some sort of temporary trend—multisite churches are here to stay. It’s like the megachurch now—just a part of our church landscape—the new normal.” Note the statistics from Leadership Network released February of 2014:
- In the United States alone, 5 million people worshipped at one of 8,000 multi-site churches last weekend.
- That’s 9% of all Protestant churchgoers and 3% of all Protestant churches, respectively.
- If multi-site churches were a Protestant denomination, they’d be the fourth largest.
If pragmatics rule the decisions of a local church – it seems that to grow and grow quickly, the multi-site model is the way to go. LifeWay Research reports that out of the 100 largest churches, only 12 have a single campus. Although pragmatics often lead the charge, real serious questions must be addressed. If we capitulate to pragmatics when leading a church – it’s a slippery slope downward.
Consider the local church in Acts 2:42-47 and the remainder of the New Testament. They were together for the preaching, the Lord’s Supper, baptism, discipline, and pastoral care. How is that possible under the multi-site model?
- How can the church be together for the Lord’s Supper while split up on multiple campuses?
- How can the church be together for the observance of baptism from multiple campuses?
- Is it possible to be a unified church while on separate campuses?
- Is church discipline possible through a multi-site campus model?
- Can the lead pastor really shepherd the flock through a multi-site model?
Just as with simple decisions about how we plan our worship services each week, we must come to the sufficient Word of God to answer weighty questions about how we structure the church as a whole. If it doesn’t square with the polity taught in the Word of God, we must reject it – no matter if it works or not. The decision must not be based upon popularity. The decision must be based upon chapter and verse. People of the Book must follow the Book when leading a church.
In the vicious cycle of church growth techniques, I’m reminded that I once heard Mark Dever describe the 19th century Scottish pastor, John Brown who was addressing younger pastors as he stated: “I know the vanity of your heart, and that you will feel mortified that your congregation is very small, in comparison with those of your brethren around you; but assure yourself on the word of an old man, that when you come to give an account of them to the Lord Christ at his judgment seat, you will think you have had enough.”