In this series of articles, it has been my desire to approach the subject of the church with boldness and humility at the same time. For instance, when it comes to things that are specifically addressed in God’s Word regarding the doctrine of ecclesiology, we must be bold. However, when dealing with an issue that is a bit more complex, we must approach it with careful wisdom and a great deal of humility. It is with this latter description that I seek to approach the subject of multisite church growth strategies.
It is clear from the Bible that the early church was an assembling people. According to Acts 2, they were together for the preached Word, together for fellowship, together for the observance of baptism, together for the Lord’s Supper, together for discipline, together for prayer, together for praise, and the list could go on and on. Is the modern model of church growth a deviation from that path of “togetherness?” If so, is it helpful?
I was privileged to be in the delivery room when each one of my four children were born. On each occasion, just moments after birth, the doctor handed me a pair of scissors and I cut the cord that connected them to their mother. Why do many pastors and congregations remain connected to other church campuses rather than cutting the cord and allowing them to develop and grow independently?
One of the most helpful things we could do in this debate is define terms properly. Many people use “church plant” and “multisite church models” interchangeably. That adds confusion rather than clarity to the debate. We must be clear on the issue. Multisite church is not church planting and church planting is not multisite. They are two different things all together.
The Positives of the Multisite Model
Built-In Control and Oversight
Without a doubt, when planting a church, there is always a risk involved. This risk is escalated when you plant a church outside of your geographic area. The risk becomes even greater when you leave the continent and plant a church in another nation. The risk in church planting is clear. It is possible to go through great seasons of planning and preparation for a new church plant and watch it start off like a rocket just before it falls from the sky in utter failure. Church plants can experience unhealthy membership, unbiblical doctrine can sneak into the church, and a variety of other political power struggles can choke the life out of a church. Any congregation that seeks to mobilize efforts to plant churches understands the risks involved. Therefore, with that in mind, the multisite model is a means of built-in security that prevents a church from being led astray into the abyss of false doctrine. Certainly, even the most gifted group of pastors cannot prevent a church plant from failure on all levels, but careful oversight can prevent some of the more popular problems of our day.
Rhythm and Organization of Ministries
Within the Southern Baptist Convention, we have associations on three main levels (local, state, and national). These associations have no governing authority over the local congregations. They exist for support and missions. Sometimes these support groups fail to meet the needs of congregations who are moving at a faster clip than some of the other churches in their association. Therefore, one of the key benefits of a multisite model is the rhythm and speed of the organization of churches that are all housed under one umbrella, one name, one vision, and one leadership team.
The Negatives of the Multi-Site Model
While we can certainly see the benefits of a multisite or multi-campus church structure, it goes without saying that some major negatives must be addressed before starting another church campus under the same name as your current congregation.
The Breakdown of Community
When the early church is pictured in the book of Acts, one key element of their community is unity. When we get to the epistles years after Pentecost, we see that some disunity had crept into the church. Much of the epistles are devoted to the idea of continual unity among the people of God. When one church is split into a multisite congregation, that one community is divided. Although they can still pool resources together and organize great ministry and mission through the gospel, the intimacy of the community and the unity of their community is compromised at a certain level. Jim and Sara no longer worship together with Tom and Donna. Their children no longer attend the same campus. They are no longer in the same small groups. The intimacy of certain relationships either becomes lost in the transition or is never built as the church brings in new families. Is that what God intended for the early church?
The Segregation of Worship
The idea of assembly is embedded deeply within the word church. When a church is unable to assemble, we must ask ourselves honest questions about the reality of that particular group of people. The idea of coffee shop church is rejected by many pastors for obvious reasons, but in many cases the same men who deny the coffee shop model embrace the multisite model of church growth. When the church gathers for worship through Scripture reading, prayer, song, the Lord’s Supper, baptism, and the preaching of God’s Word the membership should be present. How is this possible when you have multiple sites around town or across the state meeting at various times and schedules? Doesn’t this segregate worship? This has not even taken into consideration the need for biblical church discipline. How can a church gather for discipline, worship, or business from multiple locations? The obvious answer is clear – it’s impossible. Next we must ask ourselves if this new way of doing church is God’s intention or man’s modern invention?
The Sufficiency Debate – Is God Sufficient?
Perhaps one of the main problems that I see with the multisite church model is what I refer to as the “Superman Complex.” We have all heard of the pastors who fly by helicopter from one campus across town to another on the south side of town. They land just in time to be quickly escorted to the pulpit to deliver the message. The question that continues to surface in this debate is centered around the sufficiency of God and His divine sovereignty. Is the “helicopter pastor” the only man God has gifted with the gift to teach and preach the Bible in his church? What about his city? Can God gift other men to stand and preach the Bible on the south side of town or must one man fly into the church parking lot by helicopter each week? We could also include the video pastor in this same question. Is he the only man who possesses the gift of preaching in this city? Does a video screen pastor overshadow the “campus pastors” in the multisite model? What about the need for elders to be in the field with the sheep and to be present to care for the sheep? How is this accomplished by the video pastor?
With our modern celebrity pastor problem, this way of doing church seems to cater to personalities. When a church is built upon a personality rather than God Himself – it becomes a very unhealthy church. The pastor can become a very unhealthy leader in this vicious cycle as well. When a church is built upon one man, one personality, one celebrity pastor – what happens when he dies? When Pastor Tom takes over for “Pastor Superman” after he dies, what will happen to the church? They have been taught to cater to a man with a big personality and now Pastor Tom is really just a simple guy. Will the church be able to make that transition?
The Issue of Church Polity – Did You Say You Were Baptist?
One of the main questions among Baptistic churches in this debate is centered upon church government. Baptist churches are convinced that from the beginning God intended each local congregation to be autonomous. Rather than having a ruling board, association, or group to specifically govern the churches – each church in each town would be planted and be led by elders in that particular location. Therefore, among Baptist churches we must ask an honest question. Is this model consistent within the Baptist church? Perhaps a more important question should be asked. Is this a biblical model?
While we can make an argument from logic, from risk management, from organization, and from a missiological perspective – can we stand firmly upon the Word of God on the multi-campus church structure? In conclusion we must examine our model. We must examine our heart. Is there a fleshly desire to be the “biggest” church in town? Is there a selfish motive lurking in our heart? Why not plant the church, nurture it, and then cut the cord? What is the big deal with multi-campus church anyway? Is it a fad? What lasting marks will come upon the church as a result of this multisite model over the next 25 years? Will those marks be healthy or detremential?
For the glory of King Jesus,
Pastor Josh Buice