I Still Have Some Concerns About Multisite Church (And I Lead One)
But I have a number of theological concerns about how the “one church in many locations” model works itself out. Some of them have been in my mind since before we went multisite ourselves, some of them were put there by thoughtful observers (Matt Hosier, Carl Trueman and Mark Dever in particular), and some of them emerged, ironically, at a recent conference I attended on how to do multisite better. None of them are inevitable, in my view - that is, it is very possible to do multisite without falling into any of these traps, as I think (and hope) we are doing at Kings - and this post is certainly not intended to talk anyone out of going multisite themselves (it would be profoundly hypocritical if it was!) But I do think that several of them have significant implications, and that if we are to take seriously our responsibility to reflect biblically on our theology and practice, there are a number of issues with multisite that we need to be aware of, and which we as a team in Eastbourne have had to work through and discuss carefully. In no particular order, here they are. I’ve asked my friend Tim Jones, who is part of the leadership of a large multisite church in Brighton, to write a response this afternoon, to give another perspective on things.
Firstly, it is my observation that a number of churches have gone multisite without sufficient biblical-theological rationale. Given that the vast majority of churches in history have not been multisite, and given that proponents of multiple venues have to defend an unassembled assembly (which is counterintuitive, if not impossible), the burden of proof should be upon us. But in some cases the very idea of having a biblical argument for it has not even been considered (“Driscoll and Keller do it, so it can’t be unbiblical, can it?”), or has been laughed off the table as the anti-growth attitude of theological pedants (“it’s amazing how conservative you theologians are”, as one friend of mine put it). In many other cases, there is a biblical rationale given, but a very dubious one. The Resurgence, for example, argue that since the church in Corinth sometimes met in homes, it was a multisite church - without pointing out that the gatherings of the “whole church” (1 Cor 14:23; Rom 16:23) are completely without parallel in the modern multisite model, and that this fatally undermines the argument. A fuller defence of multisite, against the criticisms of organisations like 9Marks, helpfully debunks a number of poor biblical arguments for it (most notably those presented in the book Multi-Site Church Revolution), before making the Corinthian argument again, with all the same weaknesses. This isn’t to say that multisite church is necessarily contrary to Scripture. (If I thought it was, I wouldn’t be doing it!) It’s just to say that thought is needed before confidently asserting that it isn’t.
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. In the New Testament sense, the congregation and the church are the same, and I presume it is this fact that led to the odd comment I heard at the multisite conference the other day: “these [that is, the gatherings of Christians governed by the same group of elders] are fully functioning congregations, or, as Mark Driscoll would say, churches.” When comments like this are made by leading experts, it indicates to me a substantial lack of clarity about what exactly a multisite “congregation” is, biblically speaking - since the very notion of “one church, many congregations” has become the (literally) nonsensical “one church, many churches” - and it also makes me think that large numbers of elders may effectively be governing multiple “churches” without ever being clear that they are. Care is needed here, methinks.
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. This sounds harsh, but I suspect it stems from the fact that many multisite pioneers, particularly in the States, operated with a model of church government which was more corporate than biblical before they even went multisite in the first place. This is understandable, if not defensible; the biblical responsibilities of elders are unlikely to be the priority if the church is growing rapidly, space is needed, and the “elders” are no more than a consultative board of successful businessmen who advise the “pastor”. The result, however, is that it seems slightly old hat in some circles, and a sign of “conservatism”, or even “small church thinking” (may it never be!), to insist that elders and pastors should, between them, know the people they are shepherding, be available to pray for them when they are sick, keep a close eye on their people and their doctrine, live exemplary lives in view of the people, and spend more time on prayer than programming, more time in Scripture than in spreadsheets. Size, in the minds of some, legitimises everything, even the deconstruction of pastoral ministry.
Some of these value hierarchies have drifted into the minds of leaders whose ecclesiology, on the face of it, is more robust than that of the multisite experts. (One phrase which made me wince recently was when a leader referred to gifted pastors as struggling with growth because “they like to feel needed”, as if hospital visits and marriage strengthening were primarily activities which indulged the pastor’s desire for affirmation, rather than vital and often heroic gospel ministry. The prophet/priest/king distinction may be at work here too, insinuating as it often does that the pastor’s role is second to that of the strategic leader or preacher, but that’s a post for another day). In fairness, many of these things could also be said of large churches which are not multisite. But contextual factors - for instance, the fact that multisite churches sometimes have congregations meeting without any elders present, and one church I know has fewer elders than meetings, both of which are unlikely in a single-site model - make the challenges more acute for churches in multiple locations. Again, this is something we’ve had to consider carefully as we’ve worked out how best to serve the church as an eldership team.
Fourthly, a couple of the practical steps that are increasingly being taken by multisite churches should give us pause, in my view. Doesn’t the practice of separating out congregations by ethnicity or language, so the Hispanics worship together at a different time and place to the Africans or the English, undermine the “one new man” vision of the New Testament church? Can you imagine Paul, or James, allowing separate congregations for Jewish and Gentile believers? (Read Galatians if you’re not sure where that rhetorical question is going.) Or, to take a more controversial example, what about video preaching? Defences of this (now widespread) practice frequently respond either to practical objections (“they said people wouldn’t like it, but they do”), or to complete straw-men (“they said the Holy Spirit couldn’t speak through video, but he can”), but rarely to more substantial critiques (preaching is more effective when it is embodied, dialogical, accountable, contextualised and charismatic, and all of these things are rendered more difficult, and in some cases impossible, by physical absence). In theory, the advocates of video tell us that it’s just as good as live preaching; but in practice, they invite guest speakers to come to their church and speak live, rather than asking for a DVD, and this seems to me to indicate that they don’t really believe that! And the argument for video preaching, which is often that the main guy’s preaching is so much better than everyone else’s that it’s better to beam him in than listen to someone local, seems to me to place a greater emphasis on leveraging gifted teachers than on reproducing them. You may disagree on either or both of these examples, of course; many of my friends do. But I would encourage people not to dismiss them without thinking them through. Each should be fully convinced in his own mind.
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? Theoretically, the rationale for multisite church is fundamentally missional: “we can reach more people with the gospel if we do this.” But is this actually the case? Does a church of two thousand people across seven sites actually see more people baptised in a year than ten equivalent churches of two hundred people each? Is it the case that multisite churches preach the gospel to more people than they would if the same total number of people planted new churches? I’m not saying it isn’t, by the way; it may well be. I’m just saying that I’ve never seen or heard any evidence that it is. And that troubles me, not because I need to know something is evangelistically fruitful before doing it - who would ever take risks if that were true? - but because it is so often assumed that multisite enables us to preach the gospel to more people (and because among all the statistics I have come across, this one is conspicuously absent). Clearly, multisite may enable the preacher to proclaim the gospel to more unbelievers each week. But whether it enables the people to is another matter.
This has been a fairly lengthy and perhaps slightly negative post, and I know it may sound to some like I’m using this platform to take a pop at churches which are large, visionary, city-based and multisite. So I’ll conclude with three qualifications. As I said, I help lead a church that is large, visionary and multisite, and in a town that (in most other eras) would be large enough to be a city - and it’s that, rather than any axe to grind against any other individual or church, that motivates me to think carefully about all this. Not only that, but many of the concerns I’ve aired here would not characterise churches in the Newfrontiers family; listen to Joel Virgo and Steve Tibbert discuss their different models of eldership, and you’ll see there is no shortage of theological or ecclesiological reflection involved. And I should also point out that many of the most gifted leaders in the world today are heading in this direction, along with several prominent theologians - Tim Keller and John Piper aren’t stupid - which should make us wary of dismissing multisite as much as of dismissing the potential problems with it.
That said, I still have some concerns about the way multisite is often done, and talked about. Check out Tim’s response this afternoon for an alternative viewpoint.