Concerns about Multisite: A Response
Firstly, it is my observation that a number of churches have gone multisite without sufficient biblical-theological rationale.
Maybe this is true of some churches. I don’t know much of the thinking or action of other churches on the issue of multisite. At Church of Christ the King we are pretty cautious about how we build as we seek to respond to the prophetic call that God has given us. I think that to pursue growth at any cost would be sheer folly.
Secondly, the phrase which has become almost a slogan in some quarters, namely “one church, many congregations”, doesn’t seem to me to make very much sense.
Yes, I agree that “one ‘ekklesia’, many ‘ekklesiai’” doesn’t really work as a construction, but surely we understand what is being said: a church that shares in the same vision, mission, values and leadership yet meets as different congregations. This really isn’t very far removed from merely having multiple services - something that is hardly an innovation. I guess I would see it more as descriptive device than a theological statement.
Thirdly, and linked to both of the above, I am concerned that in many churches I have come across, there has been little or no reflection on the biblical roles of elders, pastors, teachers and overseers.
The situations you outline as examples towards the end of this point are pretty worrying, frankly, and do not bear a resemblance to our leadership setup or priorities. I think legacy Newfrontiers churches like ours have something of an embarrassment of riches to draw upon in terms of teaching from the first generation. I think there has been helpful teaching on this subject from outside, too (Strauch’s book and so on). Naturally, taking an approach which is focused on the extension of our church’s mission and growth, whilst holding fast to Biblical leadership, necessarily entails the deliberate and ongoing training and formation of many candidates for future eldership. It is not an option for us to grow at a faster pace than the leadership we can supply. PJ Smyth and GodFirst church have been a helpful provocation to us in the way that they are constantly training, mentoring and cultivating future elders to serve their mission in Johannesburg.
Fourthly, a couple of the practical steps that are increasingly being taken by multisite churches should give us pause, in my view.
Personally, I can’t speak to the language / ethnicity segregation you speak of as it is not something we’ve faced. With video, on the other hand, I’d want to make three points in response.
First, there is the question of physical presence. Does the dynamic of sitting under preaching necessarily require the physical presence of the preacher? No, I don’t think so. Listening to a preacher is not like hugging your child or catching up with an old friend. Actually, it is not a dialogue at all despite the points that Carl Trueman makes about the connection between speaker and hearers. It is not uncommon for friends in our church to comment that they actually feel more connected to the message when presented through video than when seeing the preacher live. This surprised me when I first heard it, so I asked why. Apparently the fact that the preacher was larger on screen than in person was a factor in this particular individual feeling more engrossed. Make of that what you will! Perhaps years of training at the hands of television plays a part for some in feeling at home with video. Whatever, it certainly does not agree with Trueman’s assertion that relationship between preacher and hearer is “blunted, distant and relatively impersonal.” If the handful of people I have asked the ‘connection’ question are to be believed, it is - if anything - enhanced. Weird, but there you have it.
Second, I do not accept the premiss that ‘beaming’ the Senior Pastor more often is to do with pedigree or the degree of his preaching gift. Maybe that is true for some, but for us it is rather an issue of governance and navigation. It makes sense to us that our whole church should be led in the same direction, and since our church is led from the pulpit, it also makes sense for the team leader to take the lion’s share of the preaching time. It is also worth noting that none of our sites are purely video-based. There is a mixture of live site-based preaching, Joel Virgo on video and other preachers on video.
Third, regarding speakers just sending a DVD rather than visiting: our understanding is that the ascended Christ gives the person as the gift to the church (Ephesians 4:7-13), and therefore I suppose that the point of inviting someone to speak to our church is that they might impart something of what God has made them. Paul sent the letter to the Romans, but also longed to be with them so that he might impart a spiritual gift to them, and be likewise encouraged in the faith by his time with them. Maybe this sounds as if I am contradicting myself! What I mean is, perhaps it has more to do with the intention of the visitor to minister to our church than his physical presence at all meetings where his message will appear. The usual understanding we have with a visiting speaker is that (either in person or on video) he will address the whole church – every service, every site – because we want the gift that he is to be enjoyed by the whole church.
Finally, a question. Why is it that I have heard multisite advocates issue forth numerous, detailed and impressive statistics about everything - numerical growth, church participation, monthly giving, satisfaction surveys, church planting - except the number of people who hear and/or respond to the gospel?
Our prayer meeting on Tuesday morning is possibly the most thrilling time of my week. We meet as an entire staff, and the elders from all of our sites will, amongst other things, report back on ‘Connect’ card responses from that Sunday. We offer people the opportunity to commit their lives to Jesus at all of our services, and usually there are two or three responses per site per week. This is amazing and we thank God and pray for more. Of course, behind the stats are great personal stories. I know that if we had not launched the two new sites that we have this year, there are families and individuals who would not have come into contact with our church and thereby been brought into living relationship with the Lord. Therefore, I am of the opinion that the more front doors we are reasonably able to provide for our mission in Brighton the better.
All in all, then, I think several of Andrew’s concerns are unnecessary. Perhaps some churches have gone multisite without thinking carefully through some of the implications, but it is possible - and, in my view, extremely important - for churches who feel called to it, to pursue multisite without compromising deeply held biblical values. That, I believe, is what we’re doing in Brighton, and I trust it’s what Andrew is doing in Eastbourne.