This past weekend, I was featured on a radio show talking about multi-site churches. First, here’s the link: Up for Debate Radio.
Why did I end up on a program with a guy from 9Marks, given that they’re famous and, well, I’m not? It came from this blog post that I wrote on SBCVoices.com about 6 years ago. I’ll reprint my part below.
What was interesting about this was that I wrote the blog post to help spur the debate, not really thinking positively about multi-site churches. I still think the better way, and the more Bible-driven way, is individual, interconnected local churches. That is, there ought to be a real, live person preaching/teaching in front of real, live people. Otherwise, the temptation to celebrity or unaccountable pastors is too great.
That does not mean, though, that I don’t think there is a value in a multi-campus ministry. here are two thoughts on that, both stemming from the ministry in Almyra that I have just moved from.
First, pastors don’t always stay in one place. Maybe we should, but we do see Timothy and Titus going as sent, and so forth. What becomes of a smaller membership church when their pastor leaves? (Realize that even if a pastor stays put for 40 years, he’s going to die or retire.) There is confusion, lack of leadership, and so forth. If a church served by one pastor was part of a network involving multiple locations and multiple pastors, the departure of one would be softened by allowing another trusted individual in the network to fill the gap for a time. This would also allow for extended mentoring for new ministers that is just not possible in the current Baptist system. The difference between “Youth Minister in Church of 200” and “Pastor of Church of 75” is too great.
Second, pastors do not possess all the skills needed in a church. Out in the rural areas, we’re well aware that a small church has nearly every problem that a large church does. We just only have one of them. One person with PTSD. One person with drug problems. One child with special needs. One couple needing marriage counseling. And we’re frequently far outside the effective radius of referring these folks to the “big city” for more help. We just don’t have the connections to the right counselors or therapists.
Yet being a connected campus of a larger church would allow a smaller church to meet those needs with Biblical guidance far better. One counseling-equipped minister could be known by multiple congregations, one special-needs specialist could help equip multiple groups. And so forth.
I think it is far easier to do multi-site badly, even hideously, than it is to do it well. And it is too often done to safeguard egos and make more money—after all, preaching to 2,000 pays more than 200—and there is no excuse for that.
Overall, though, I think there may be something more appropriate about using smaller, distributed facilities than building megachurches. But that may just be me.
Here’s my half of the old post. It was a debate post, and I had the “pro” side. In the six years since I wrote this, the model has spread more in the US than I imagined would happen.
Multi-Site Churches: Why They Are A Good Thing
I have found the recent decade or so of discussion and emphasis on church planting in Baptist life a fascinating one. I thought that we Baptists had a natural church planting system. When you get mad, you start another church. This has created, especially in the South, Baptist churches on every corner.
Is this a good thing? I’m coming to the conclusion that perhaps it’s not. Why? Well, for any decision in the church today, we cannot simply choose based on our preferences. As Baptists, we claim that our churches are driven by Scripture, not solely by human ideas. So, let’s examine what solutions Scripture offers us.
First, we do not see in the Biblical record evidence that there existed multiple churches in one city. Peter or Paul traveled, preached, but only established one church in the places they visited. The epistles of the New Testament are addressed to the church at Rome, Ephesus, Corinth, and the like. So, we see that, Biblically, there are no cases of multi-church cities.
Second, we do see in the Biblical record that, Paul especially, but Barnabas also (Acts 15:36-41) felt a continued responsibility for the churches they started. What became the second missionary journey actually started out as a church checkup trip. Paul continues impacting the churches he started through his letters and through his dispatch of leaders like Timothy and Titus.
Finally, we have the example of Old Testament Judaism. Although the exile led to the development of local synagogues, the initial structure of worship involved the central sanctuary of the Tabernacle and then the Temple. While the Levites were spread throughout Israel, worship was centralized, first at Shiloh and later at Jerusalem. (Deuteronomy 18:1-8; 1 Samuel 1; 2 Samuel 6)
What does this mean for us? After all, we have neither apostles nor Levites; we do not live in the Roman Empire. How do we use these ideas in our days? I see these Biblical examples as supporting the use of multi-site churches.
A multi-site church is, essentially, a church that chooses to meet in multiple locations, generally, at the same time. Preaching and sometimes music are simulcast or video delivered to the locations where the preacher is not. Sometimes this setup is established in a church planting situation, sometimes it comes out of the intentional choice of existing churches. While this setup has not spread like wildfire in America, it is becoming more known and more often, at the least, considered.
How do these Biblical examples support this idea? In these ways:
0. The early church recognized the need for a central point of authority and direction for all believers. This is best visible in Acts 15, but is also noticeable in the epistles of Paul. After all, what do you think he’s doing when he writes to the Corinthians about church order? He is, while preaching elsewhere, trying to direct the affairs of another church. There, we see that being on the scene is not crucial to knowing God’s intention for the situation.
0. The utilization of one complete church in each city or basic area supported by the gifts and giving of its members. Again, we see Paul write the Romans that there are many types of gifts (Romans 12:3-8) that should work together and 1 Corinthians 12 is our classic example of how the body operates through its diversity of parts, just as the Body of Christ ought. By developing one church, without boundaries, that church would have the completed body at work.
0. Various church teachers and leaders have differing specialties. Some are gifted with marriage enrichment, some with various age groups, some with financial teaching, and others with parenting teaching. Rather than developing a church on this side of town being strong with youth, and the church on that side good with senior adults, and thus dividing the body by age, the whole body can benefit from the skills and talents of all available teachers in the area.
0. A word is due about the Great Commission in Matthew 28:16-20 and the command to make disciples of “all the nations.” Unfortunately, within America, we still retain a highly segregated approach to our church activities and services. A multi-site church should not, in ideal, focus only on one neighborhood or cultural group.
0. A word is also due about finding Biblically qualified leadership. A debate could be had over the instruction that an “elder” be “the husband of one wife” in 1 Timothy 3:2. Assuming it means non-divorced, our culture is leading to a rapid decline in the available pool of Biblically qualified elders. Add to this the additional qualifications of managing a household well, being able to teach, and being self-controlled, and it’s actually remarkable that we can find enough pastors to fill the pulpits we have now. By developing multi-site churches, the need to find excellent Biblically qualified leadership increases, but the number of positions to fill decreases, making it more feasible to fill those roles.
0. A final word should be said about the pragmatics of the situation. How many church buildings and administrative structures do we need to support? While there are different costs related to the multi-site church, more study would be needed to determine whether this is a help or a drawback, it certainly bears consideration. While there is no Scripture that flat denies using a multi-site church, there are certainly Biblical considerations of stewardship that matter here.
In all, I do not see a Biblical reason to avoid the multi-site church, and believe it is a good option as we go forward, seeking to spread the Gospel throughout the world.