Multi-Site Churches: Not A Good Option
Our family was once involved in a multi-site church at its satellite location. We began that experience with enthusiasm and anticipation. The possibilities seemed endless. It was located in a brand new community development. We had the weight of the mother church and all its resources behind us. The mother church had installed a strong Bible expositor as its pastor. Over time, however, the difficulties of this arrangement seemed to outweigh its benefits. To be sure there were many positives in our experience, but we finally concluded that the model was less than ideal for a number of reasons.
The reasons I’ll outline are pragmatic and theological. I am not persuaded that Scripture offers a clear voice for or against the model, though I do believe that those who employ the term “church” to denote the aggregate of the multiple campuses are fundamentally changing the New Testament meaning of that word. That is, if a church is not in fact the assembly, then it is being defined some other way. More often than not in multi-site churches, “church” is being defined institutionally.
One caveat: not all of these critiques will apply to all mutli-site churches equally. This is partly because there are numerous models of the multi-site approach; partly because some multi-site churches have handled the pitfalls better than others. Here are some chief concerns:
1.Multiple campuses can struggle to maintain biblical unity with the mother church.
Though a satellite location will usually begin with a contingent of members from the mother church, it will in due time become filled with members who have never had ties with the mother church. This can create strain as members from both locations attempt to work through such issues as the allocation of resources, who has the right to make decisions affecting the satellite location, and so on.
Imagine a scenario in which a church votes to install a pastor at the satellite that a majority of the folks at the satellite vote against. Such a scenario might not even mean that one campus of the church is in the wrong. It’s natural that “hands” which meet across town and rarely have interaction with “feet” will find cooperation strained. Churches that have opted to begin multiple services have often felt these tensions under one roof–much less across town.
Further strains can result from impure motives. Multiple sites can sometimes generate more revenue than they cost the mother church. They can sometimes be used cynically as feeders to the mother church. At the very least, many secondary sites will struggle with the perception of having a second-class status.
2. Multi-site churches that use video technology to pipe in messages can minimize the value of incarnational ministry.
The Bible places great value on incarnational ministry. God could have revealed himself through a video presentation, but he chose to send the Son to earth and become present as a man. It is flawed to say, as some have, that this argument calls into question even voice amplification. The issue is not mediating technology per se, but technology that removes one of the communicating parties.
A further objection is that Peter and Paul gladly made use of the main technology of the day, the epistle, as a substitute for their absence. It is interesting to note, however, how often the apostles lament their having to do so (Rom. 1:11, Phil. 4:1, 2 Tim. 1:4). The church is one of the last places on earth where meaningful communicative interaction takes place between people, and we should be cautious using any method that might detract from that.
One further consideration is that when a pastor is not present with his flock, the challenge of watching over them becomes even greater than it already is. Certainly pastoral care responsibilities can be delegated, but will the pastor who takes the lead role in shepherding the flock through teaching not be called to give an account (Heb. 13:17)?
3. Multi-site churches pose a unique set of ecclesiological problems to Baptist churches.
Baptists have historically held to the autonomy of the local assembly of believers who live out their Christianity in mutual accountability. For those who have embraced this ecclesiology by conviction, submission to another congregation’s authority, as well as regularly spreading an individual “church” across miles, runs counter to these ideals. Beyond that, the structure creates problems for church ordinances and maintaining church membership.
This is especially true if we understand a church to be in part defined by right administration of the ordinances. How do members at the mother church vote into membership candidates from the satellite locations whom they have not and may never meet? Will the alternate site be vested with the authority to baptize new members? How will the whole church celebrate communion together? How will the whole church know whether church discipline is justified in cases of which many in the church will have no firsthand knowledge?
4. Multi-site churches rarely seem to fill a ministry void that would not be better filled with an autonomous church plant.
The whole idea of setting up multiple locations begs the question, “Why not just plant a new autonomous church?” In many cases, that is what the multiple locations end up becoming anyway. This is what happened with the satellite location of which we were a part. We must be careful to concern ourselves less with building our own little kingdom than with building the Kingdom of God.
There are other important concerns such as whether, instead of contextualizing, multi-site churches squelch diversity by imposing the mother church’s culture broadly; whether multi-site churches can undermine the training up of new pastors; and what this phenomenon might unintentionally bring about as it becomes more pervasive. As one who has experienced the multi-site approach firsthand and is presently ministering in the shadow of a mega-multi-site church, I believe the multi-site approach creates more problems than solutions.
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.