Foundations: No.72 Spring 2017

Multi-Site Church

Multi-site churches litter the American churchscape and are beginning to crop up on the British scene. This article examines what they are, how the multi-site movement arose and what biblical rationale there might be for their existence. Appeals have been made both to church history and to evangelistic success by their advocates whilst the critics major on the nature of church and its oversight. The paper investigates whether multi-site church is an end in itself, a dangerous distortion to be avoided or a pragmatic tool that might help structure a transitional phase for some church plants and mergers..

Our story

In the summer of 2002 I realised we needed to do something. The Kensington Baptist Church family had been meeting at the Riverside Leisure Centre whilst the main church building, a ten-minute walk away, was being refurbished. The fourteen-month absence was going to conclude that September and the 400-strong congregation would be returning to their newly modernised building. But what of the location we would be leaving behind? Having worked hard to proclaim the gospel in that context, what should we do?

The answer was obvious. We needed to leave a congregation behind, and in God’s goodness we had in membership a remarkably gifted planter who would be the leader. Church planting itself was not in vogue at that time, even the intentional “brand” planting of a number of Charismatic groupings seemed to have run out of steam at the turn of the century. And I was sure that this new fledgling congregation (that was to begin in January 2003) didn’t fit those conventional church-planting categories. What we needed to do required a closer bond between “mother” church and the new congregation. But what was that to look like? There were no obvious parallels we were aware of in the UK, and news was only beginning to slowly seep out of the American scene about a multi-site movement that seemed to have begun with Randy Pope and the Perimeter Church in Atlanta, Georgia at the beginning of the 1980’s.[1]

So we made it up as we went along – committed to Scripture but trying to work out how this new congregation could be tied in to the “mother” church for its own well-being and support. We certainly didn’t want that new grouping of thirty adults to be faced immediately with issues of polity – its focus was evangelism, and so we planned that for its initial start-up phase it should remain under the oversight of the “mother” church.

As it turned out, my own church planting naivety was to be exposed in the three years that followed. I failed to properly take into consideration the location of this new plant, and although “Riverside Christian Fellowship” did remarkable work in trying to reach out with the good news of Christ, the changing social geography of the area inhibited any growth so that after three years we closed it down. The faithful, hard-working group remained more or less the same in number but few others would venture down the cul-de-sac to an industrial area increasingly frequented by hard drug users.

At the same time a church in south Bristol was coming to the end of its life. It occupied a strategic location in an unreached area but was down to the last dozen members with an average age in the late 70s. After careful approaches it was agreed that Kensington Baptist could come in to help, and so in January 2007 a group of 40 adults and 13 children (many of whom had been involved in the first plant) set out to revitalise and establish Headley Park Church under the leadership of Neil Todman. This time we felt it was appropriate that this church didn’t need to be tied in to the “mother” church (except for graduated salary payments), so “multi-site” disappeared from our thinking.

However, the gaps left at Kensington by the departing plant members were soon filled and the church building was again up to over 80% capacity. So what to do? Another service? A larger building? Neither of these options made sense to us so we returned to thinking about the multi-site model, and in September 2009 launched two new congregations into areas identified as being unreached. One plant of twenty people went into the centre of Bristol, meeting in a large function room attached to a Premier Inn – we called this BC3 (Bristol City Centre Church); and at the same time another plant of twenty adults and ten children went to the eastern sector of Emersons Green, a newer housing estate to the north of Bristol. This went under the name of The Village Church.

We called these “satellite” churches. They met on a Sunday morning and came back to the “mother” church building on a Sunday evening. Church membership was under the oversight of the “mother” church and, where possible, resources were shared. The same passage was preached on in each of the three locations by a different preacher, and joint prayer meetings across the congregations became an occasional feature.

At the start our expressed assumption was that each congregation would, in its own time, become an independent, self-governing church, especially so in the light of the rapid growth that was experienced in the first two years, when “non-Kensington” attendees began to far outnumber those who had been sent from the “mother” church.

Now why do I share these details of the church that I had pastored up until 2012? To demonstrate that we had to wrestle with many of the questions and caricatures that have come to be associated with the multi-site church model. I still worship at one of these satellite churches (The Village Church) and have been able to observe both the positives and negatives associated with this model.

The American influence

What was most striking was how the multi-site literature had mushroomed in quantity between our faltering experiment in 2002 and the launch of our satellite churches in 2009.

Inevitably it was the American experience driving these innovations. Brian Frye, in a doctoral thesis, argues that three factors were pivotal to the rise of this movement in America: economic advancement, accelerated mobility, and technological innovation.[2]

Key to the promotion of multi-site churches was the involvement of the Leadership Network. Founded in 1984 the Leadership Network’s aim was to help connect innovative programme leaders who were helping to develop the church. By the turn of the century the slow-burning, multi-site movement had gripped the imagination of this small network, and in 2002, Greg Ligon, a United Methodist student worker who had joined the Network back in 1997, somewhat reluctantly accepted the facilitator role for the first Multi-Site Leadership Community. Comprised of pastoral leaders from twelve early multi-site churches, this group gathered regularly over a two-year period to explore and develop multi-site understanding and methodology via a collaborative learning process.[3]

Out of this came the book that moved the multi-site movement into the American mainstream – The Multi-Site Revolution. Published in 2006 it was co-authored by Ligon, Geoff Surratt and Warren Bird. The three of them were to follow that up three years later with A Multi-Site Church Road Trip in which they reported on 15 different multi-site churches and the lessons they had learned. By this stage (2009) they described multi-site as “the new normal”[4] and reported that five million people in the United States and Canada attend a multi-site church.

In the same year LifeWay Research published the findings of Scott McConnell, an associate director, in a book covering similar ground to the “Road Trip” book, which continued the march of multi-site to centre stage[5] and a year later Ed Stetzer and Warren Bird wrote their ground-breaking and hugely influential book on church planting – Viral Churches – which included a chapter on “Multisite strategy: a fast growing trend that affects planting”.[6] (Although coming out as a Leadership Network Publication suggested that it should be no surprise that multi-site should receive such an affirmation.)

By 2014 it was reported that if multi-site churches were a Protestant denomination, they’d be the fourth largest in the USA. In that same year Leadership Network conducted the most extensive study ever on the multi-site phenomenon.[7] It surveyed 535 churches across 12 countries (91% USA, 4% Canada, 3% UK, 4% other) that together represented 1.8 million people in weekly worship.

They summarised their findings like this:

  1. An impressive 85% of surveyed multi-site churches are growing – and at the strong rate of 14% per year.
  2. Churches typically go multi-site in the 1,000 size range, though almost half say they could have become multi-site earlier.
  3. Campus viability starts at 75-350 people, depending on the model.
  4. The typical multi-site church is just four years into the process, and 57% plan to launch an additional campus in the next twelve months.
  5. One in three (37%) churches started a multi-site campus as the result of a merger.
  6. The vast majority (88%) of churches report that going multi-site increased the role of lay participation.
  7. The vast majority (87%) of campus pastors are found internally – trained and hired from within the church.
  8. Multi-site campuses grow far more than church plants, and likewise multi-site campuses have a greater evangelistic impact than church plants.
  9. Nearly half (48%) of multi-site churches directly sponsor new churches.
  10. The recommended distance between campuses is a travel time of 15-30 minutes.
  11. In rating what campuses do well, spiritual growth and volunteering are near the top, and newer campuses do better at reaching the unchurched.[8]

So what are we to make of multi-site churches? It is clear that we cannot stand by without thought when such a movement has grown so rapidly, and although it is clearly an American phenomenon, we know well enough that such ideas will inevitably seek to take root in British soil. I was very conscious in talking to my British friends in the early days that many of them regarded multi-site with undisguised hostility. Their own exposure to it in the Christian press was one of two things. It either represented the attempts of a rock star/egomaniac pastor to video-cast his image in to as many outlets as possible, or it was associated with the pronouncements of Mark Driscoll, the ruggedly dynamic and eloquent leader of Acts29[9] and Mars Hill Church Seattle, which grew rapidly under his aggressive multi-site policy.

However, the passing of years gives an opportunity for reflection and definition and, although growing in number, the statistics of multi-site churches (as we compare research from 2009 and 2014) suggest the growth is beginning to plateau and that the movement itself is becoming more self-aware and self-critical.

Let’s start by trying to define multi-site. Indeed, so much of the controversy that has been generated (certainly this side of the pond) seems to have arisen out of careless definitions and lazy generalisations. Probably the best place to start is the book that started the revolution, The Multi-Site Church Revolution. They define a multi-site church as

one church meeting in multiple locations – different rooms on the same campus, different locations in the same region, or in some instances, different cities, states, or nations. A multi-site church shares a common vision, budget, leadership, and board.[10]

And within that definition the authors identify five different models:

  1. Video-Venue Model: Creating one or more on-campus environments that use video-cast sermons (live or recorded), often varying the worship style.
  2. Regional-Campus Model: Replicating the experience of the original campus at additional campuses in order to make church more accessible to other geographic communities.
  3. Teaching-Team Model: Leveraging a strong teaching team across multiple locations at the original campus or an off-site campus.
  4. Partnership Model: Partnering with a local business or non-profit organization to use its facility beyond a mere “renter” arrangement.
  5. Low-Risk Model: Experimenting with new locations that have a low level of risk because of the simplicity of programming and low financial investment involved but that have the potential for high returns in terms of evangelism and growth.[11]

Major practitioners of the multi-site model, whose use of it gave credibility within the reformed evangelical world, were Tim Keller and John Piper. However, Keller’s motives appeared more pragmatic whereas Piper sought theological justification for the changes they introduced at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis.

Keller wrote this in a Gospel Coalition Blog on 29 January 2010:

So what were the reasons that we adopted the multi-site model?

First, we sent our services out into different locations so that people could worship closer to where they lived. People can become more deeply involved in the community and can more easily bring friends if they attend services in their neighbourhood. This was an “anti-mega-church” move, since huge churches create a large body of commuters who travel long distances to attend church. We wanted to resist this tendency and root people more in their locales.

Second, the multi-site model is a transition design for us. Redeemer has a timetable for turning each site into a congregation in its own neighborhood, with its own pastoral leadership.

In fact, when Keller announced his retirement from Redeemer on 26 February 2017, Christianity Today covered the story with the following:

Keller, 66, announced at all eight Sunday services today that he will be stepping down from the pulpit. The move corresponds with a decades-long plan to transition the single Presbyterian Church in America congregation – which has grown to 5,000 members since it began 28 years ago – into three particular churches… Each of the three Redeemer churches will remain collegial and still partner together for programs, but will officially be their own congregations with their own leaders and elders (pending a May 20 congregational vote). They also each will plant churches in three more locations – resulting in nine total daughter churches – starting with Redeemer Lincoln Square, which is scheduled to launch on Easter Sunday.[12]

Whereas John Piper argued this back in 2007:

We are a multi-site church. As part of the Treasuring Christ Together Strategy, we aim to multiply campuses. Therefore, from our Downtown Minneapolis campus which was established in 1871, we have launched a North Campus in 2002 and a South Site in 2006. Unlike new church plants, the campuses are all part of Bethlehem with a single vision, a single strategy, a single theological foundation, a single eldership, a single constitution, a single band of missionaries, and a single budget… In Acts 11:22, Luke writes, “The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch.” Not “churches” but “church”. And in Acts 15:4, Luke describes the welcome of Paul and Barnabas in Jerusalem: “When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders.” Not churches, but church.

So there is no evidence that the believers in Jerusalem were several churches. But consider the numbers. In Acts 2:41, “there were added that day about three thousand souls”. In Acts 4:4, Luke says, “Many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand.” And the word for “men” refers to males. So the real number of believers was at least double that, because it says in Acts 5:14, “More than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women.” So we have one church of at least ten thousand members. How did they do that? How were they structured? What did church look like?

Don’t misunderstand. We are not operating on the assumption that if we knew the exact structure of the Jerusalem church or the Philippian church or the Corinthian church we would have to structure ourselves just that way. We believe that where the New Testament commands us to do something or implies that it is right to do it in all times and all places, we obey. But there is no command in the New Testament that says, “Replicate all the structures that you see in the early church”. Some are commanded; some are not. Our aim was simply, Can we see some guidelines? Can we see mandates and prohibitions if there are any, and can we see opportunities and permissions?[13]

One major American church leader stood apart from this and began to raise theological concerns about the direction this movement was heading in. Mark Dever is pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington DC, and in a now famous video discussion with Mark Driscoll and James McDonald, graciously probed the thinking behind their multi-site strategies. Although quite fiercely opposed by the other two, Dever’s questions exposed some of the theological fault-lines in their reasoning. The video was put on the Gospel Coalition website in late 2010 but was deleted from the site in 2014 following the resignations of both Driscoll and McDonald. It can, however, still be found on alternative sites.[14]

At the same time the “9 Marks Journal” (published by Dever) dedicated its May/June 2010 issue to “Multi-Site Churches”. In an even-handed approach it balanced warm commendations of multi-site church by Gregg Allison, J. D. Greear and Matt Chandler with serious questions from Grant Gaines, Jonathan Leeman, Bobby Jamieson and Thomas White.[15]

Interestingly, the criticisms offered then are substantially the same that have been repeated over following years and can be summarised as follows:

1. The nature of ekklesia

When is a church not a church? When is a gathering of believers together in one place under Christ for worship and the word, not a true gathering of the church? If believers are meeting together then they are the ekklesia / church. The word was always used to denote a literal assembly of believers in the same place:

One should assume that a particular expression of the church is capable of being referred to as an ekklesia because its members are characterized by actually assembling together. Thus, even the possible non-literal (or abstract) use of the word would not be grounds for structuring a church in such a way that the members do not regularly, physically assemble, as multi-site structure does.[16]

Bobby Jamieson went on to examine the whole theme from the perspective of historical theology (or as he calls it – “dead guys”):

Baptist John Gill (1697-1771), a master of the biblical languages, wrote, “The word ekklesia, always used for church, signifies an assembly called and met together.” J.L. Reynolds wrote, “The word Church (in the original Greek of the New Testament, ekklesia), means a congregation, or assembly.” Baptist John Dagg (1794-1884) wrote, “But whenever the word ekklesia is used, we are sure of an assembly; and the term is not applicable to bodies or societies of men that do not literally assemble.”

J.L. Reynolds wrote, “In its sacred use, [ekklesia] is confined to two meanings, referring either to a particular local society of Christians, or to the whole body of God’s redeemed people.” Congregationalist George Punchard (1806-1880), noting that ekklesia can also refer to a secular assembly, wrote, “The Greek word ekklesia… is used in the New Testament, for the most part, to designate either the whole body of Christians, or a single congregation of professed believers, united together for religious purposes.”

Baptist William B. Johnson (1782-1862) wrote concerning several texts about the church in Acts: “The first nine quotations relate to the church in Jerusalem, and very satisfactorily shew, that the term church indicates one church, one body of the Lord’s people, meeting together in one place, and not several congregations, forming one church.”

J.L. Reynolds wrote, “We read in the New Testament of ‘the Church’ in a particular city, village, and even house, and of ‘the Churches’ of certain regions; but never of a Church involving a plurality of congregations. So, a local church is by definition – and therefore should only be – a single congregation.[17]

Andrew Wilson was a multi-site pastor within the Newfrontiers movement in 2012 when he wrote a blog expressing some of his reservations about the multi-site phenomenon. As he reflected upon the biblical definition of church he commented – “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.”[18]

2. The understanding of 1 Cor 11:17-20; Acts 2:46; Rom 16:5

The Scriptures listed above (along with a few others) have been cited as scriptural grounds for multi-site practice. It is significant that in the book that moved multi-site mainstream – The Multi-Site Church Revolution – no attention was given to the biblical justification for what was happening (except, perhaps for one paragraph on page 17[19] and a few paragraphs on page 92 which suggested that the Antioch church was a multi-site extension from the Jerusalem church!) And in the follow up book by the same authors three years later – A Multi-Site Church Road Trip – there is a brief chapter (Chapter 14) revealingly entitled “Are you sure this isn’t a sin?” in which Bethlehem Baptist Church, pastored at that time by John Piper is quoted as the example, and five objections are briefly answered, although no biblical justification is provided.

Grant Gaines, arguing that the usage of epi to auto means “in the same place” and is used to describe the local church gathering in both 1 Corinthians and Acts, goes on to conclude under this point,

the claim by some proponents of the multi-site model that “Corinth and other first-century churches were multi-site, as a number of multi-site house churches were considered to be part of one citywide church”, clearly does not measure up to the evidence. In regard to passages such as Acts 2:46 (“breaking bread from house to house”) as well as the several references to “house-churches” (Rom 16:5; 1 Cor 16:19; Col 4:15; Philem 2), it should be noted that the former instance by no means supports a “one church in many locations” model, especially since verse 44 states that they were also meeting “in the same place” (epi to auto, my translation). Rather, it simply states that they broke bread together in various homes. In the instance of house-churches, it is significant that these are always considered “churches” and not mere “campuses”, “sites”, or any other word denoting a portion of a church. A citywide church consisting of multiple house-churches is not in view in Corinth and is never mentioned in Scripture.

Instances in Acts in which the whole church in a particular geographic location is designated as having come together in the same place by the phrase epi to auto include 1:15, 2:1, and 2:44. The latter two instances make it even more explicit that the entire church was in the same place by noting that “all” (pantes) were “in the same place” (epi to auto). Acts 5:12 and 15:22 are other instances in which “all” (pantes) or the “whole” (holç) church in Jerusalem met together. Acts 14:27 and 15:30 reveal that there were times when the whole church in Antioch met together as well. These latter instances are probably not references to regular Lord’s Day assemblies, but they do show that the whole congregation in this city was capable of coming together in the same location.

The ease and frequency with which Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians and the book of Acts speak of one church coming together “in the same place” suggests that this was the common practice of a New Testament ekklesia.

Some might object that all the members of a particular church in the New Testament would not have been able to fit together in the same place due to space limitations, but this is an argument from silence that it is contrary to the explicit scriptural examples given above. The text says that whole churches met together in one place, whether in a house or not. Besides, this objection contradicts the plain evidence of the text, at least for the church in Jerusalem, which we know numbered in the thousands and still managed to meet together: “And all those who had believed were together” (Acts 2:44); “And they were all with one accord in Solomon’s portico” (Acts 5:12); “Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number… the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples” (ESV, Acts 6:1-2).[20]

3. The place of the pastor preacher

Critics of multi-site point out that out-lying sites are likely to have an absentee pastor. This is especially the case when the senior pastor is regularly beamed in by video (a very rare occurrence in the much smaller British scene), but even when there is an associate pastor or “campus” pastor present it is not possible for the lead pastor / elder to be physically present all the time with the flock that he leads. Indeed, when we change the nomenclature and use other Biblical terms to refer to sites as the “family” or a “body” or “flock” rather than a congregation or an assembly then the absence becomes all the more significant. And for most examples of multi-site in the UK this also means that oversight is in the hands of a body of elders, some of whom may never have attended the “site” over which they have responsibility. How does this relate to the recognition of elders by members of the flock who have had no opportunity to know let alone view the example of their lives? Of course, this state of affairs might be due, in part, to the business model that helped grow the American multi-site movement in the first place and has been uncritically adopted this side of the Atlantic.

The absentee pastor also brings a disconnect between preaching and leading. It is so often as God’s word is ministered and applied in unique situations by local men that a body of believers is strengthened, emboldened and envisioned. If that preaching is not done by the leader of that group but by a representative, then leading and preaching are subtly separated. As Randy Pope, the founding father of multi-site, recognised, “If the leader isn’t preaching, and the preacher isn’t leading, there’s a serious disconnect.”[21]

4. Developing a consumer mind-set rather than a sacrificial heart

Multi-site is predicated upon the idea of making church services more local and more convenient. Of course, this is not a bad thing in itself. Indeed, many a single-site church would do well to reconsider how they might better connect the gospel with their surrounding community rather than follow the whims and preferences of existing members. But in this mobile age the danger is that multi-site churches are developed to offer a range of styles that fit the preferences of their “consumers”. If you prefer a Getty / Townend experience go to Site A; if pre-1950 hymns are your thing go to Site B; or if electro-funk is your preference then go to Site C.

Instead of working hard at creating a multi-cultural church that demonstrates the barrier-busting power of the gospel, multi-site can tend to divide a “church” into separate cultural streams. Although widely critiqued, the homogeneous unit principle of McGavran and Wagner, once popular in the 1980s, seems to be making a subtle comeback through a variety of culture-specific congregations.

Yet such gatherings can seem to deny the reconciling power of the gospel and the reconciled nature of the church. Part of Christian growth and discipleship involves working out, within a broad context, what it means to be part of the body of Christ in all its variety. It will not always be comfortable. It will challenge the racial and social beliefs I grew up with. It will force me back upon the message of grace. It will make me recognise that church revolves around the glory of Christ and not the personal, individualistic comfort of the believer. And of course, if a church is built around cultural preferences rather than cross-shaped living, then it can become an unwitting participant in ethnic, social or political conflict.

The writer knows from personal experience how hard (and well-nigh impossible) it is to build a truly multi-cultural church in a multi-cultural community. The reality is that one particular cultural, racial or linguistic group will tend to dominate. And therefore, even if we are opposed to the theory of the homogeneous unit principle, in practice we tend to identify around a particular worship-style, denominational allegiance, or theological emphasis. This in turn means that a largely middle-class evangelical constituency can be excluding of significant swathes of the population.

So we must be careful in our critique to ensure that single-site churches do not become guilty of the very same fault they see in the multi-site movement.

The case for the defence

We need to be aware of what arguments are being put forward to justify a multi-site movement.

Theological

Although an argument from silence, the question raised by Piper and others needs consideration. If the church at Jerusalem was as large as numbers seem to suggest, how did that church meet? Did they break that one body down into more manageable units, especially for pastoral care and oversight?

Historical

The American scene was notably shaped in the late-eighteenth and early- nineteenth century by the Methodist circuit riders who travelled between various churches to provide preaching and pastoral leadership. They were responding to a fast-changing and mobile situation where the number of trained pastors was not keeping up with the growth of new churches.

In the UK, Gregg Allison cites the collaboration between Calvinistic Baptist churches in London in the seventeenth century and quotes from the First London Confession of Faith (1644):

And although the particular congregations are distinct and several bodies, everyone a compact and knit city in itself; yet they are all to walk by one and the same rule, and by all means convenient to have the counsel and help one of another in all needful affairs of the church, as members of one body in the common faith under Christ their only head.[22]

(However one does wonder whether Allison has not scored a spectacular “own-goal” by referencing a clear association of independent churches rather than a multi-site model.)

And Hugh Wamble, in his doctoral dissertation, writes:

It was normal for a local church to have a scattered constituency and to be composed of several congregations. For convenience or protection, the membership was divided into several parts for worship.[23]

This arrangement was particularly prominent throughout Britain during times of persecution such as the Restoration. In rural areas also, the “conventicles” or small congregations were parts of the originating church. For example, the Ilston church (Wales) of John Miles consisted of widely scattered congregations: Abergavenny, Llanwenarth, Llangibby, Aberavon, Llanddewi, and Llanelly.[24] In many such cases, one pastor would preach at these various sites, engaging in itineration for the conventicles.[25] Occasionally, a number of capable preachers served multiple congregations.[26]

Ecclesiological

There does seem to be a strong reaction to the fierce autonomy that has characterised a number of independent churches. Church leaders have been catching a vision for a unity and co-operation that stands in marked contrast to the bitterness and divisions that have marked other so-called gospel works. And through the structures and connections inherent within a multi-site network, pastors have been working out what they see as more like the New Testament model of inter co-operation. Indeed, a number of practitioners regard multi-site as an antidote to the mega-church movement and as a means of growing smaller, more local congregations.

Missiological

It works! The multi-site model is more effective at reaching people with the saving news of Jesus Christ. Or at least so its advocates declare. Thabiti Anyabwile, in a famous blog-post (Multi-site churches are from the devil) questioned the basis for this pragmatism:

…the claims to “it works” seem to me a bit myopic. Works in what way? Well, you begin to hear the statistics and numbers. We’ve increased attendance or grown membership or conducted x number of baptisms, for example. But these metrics are blunt. They’re not refined by numbers leaving other churches, or numbers becoming anonymous in these massive congregations, or numbers who once had a personal relationship with their pastors who now do not. As a social scientist, I’m not at all impressed with the pragmatic appeal to these gross numbers because, contrary to public opinion, these kinds of numbers do not “tell the story”. And I think the jury is still out on whether “it works”. That jury won’t be in with a verdict for another several decades, I’m afraid. And theologically, the pragmatic appeals to “it works” persuade very little. Too many other things we’re called to be faithful in doing are simply left undone in this approach. If that’s true, what exactly is this model “working” at?[27]

Sociological

The availability of buildings for new churches to meet in is very limited and can be very costly. In addition, the political expectation to sign-up to the values expounded within equalities legislation, shrinks the market of suitable property further. Therefore it is argued that renting or leasing smaller properties makes more sense and is more acceptable within a “renting” generation, unable to afford their own accommodation. Therefore multi-sites can be more mobile and more cost-effective. And the decrease in size, away from the anonymity of worshipping in a mega-church auditorium, facilitates a greater sense of intimacy and community, which can be so missing for Generation Y.

Conclusion

Randy Pope, the afore-mentioned multi-site pioneer, concluded his reflection upon the movement with these words:

I think the multi-campus model is a great means of planting churches. Why not use a leader’s gifts and popularity to form new works which in time become churches with their own pastor-teachers? It’s a great opportunity to develop new leadership, the hope of our future… I certainly wouldn’t ask pastors of multi-campus churches to dismantle their structures. Instead, I’d ask them to consider why they’re using that model and what is being produced. If any outcome other than healthy Kingdom advancement emerges, then use these sites to become healthy church plants with leaders prepared to build their local congregation for the community, and who are willing to say to their people, “Follow me as we storm the gates of hell in our community.”[28]

Indeed, this is the overwhelming conclusion of those who have written upon the subject. Grant Gaines makes this suggestion in his article for 9Marks:

In view of the fact that multi-site churches are outside the bounds of Scripture, why not plant churches and maintain close cooperation with an associational type of model? This practice has the potential to preserve many of the “benefits” of the multi-site approach, while simultaneously respecting the biblical nature of the local church as assembly.[29]

Thabiti Anyabwile writes:

I think the multi-site, multi-campus strategy that is not speedily and intentionally moving to church planting unravels the local church with an absentee pastor model. Indeed, “church” becomes a strange moniker for this situation. A “church” is not just an assembly, it’s an assembly that is also a “family” where the members do all the one anothers and also a “body” where the joints are connected to supply to one another and a “flock” kept in a corral where the shepherds feed, bind, lead, and guide in personal relationship.[30]

As someone who was responsible for helping launch two “satellite” churches in Bristol, and who for the last five years has worshipped within one, whilst retaining membership of the sending church, I can only concur with the conclusions recorded above. These churches would never had been established but for the multi-site model. But there comes a time in a congregation’s growth when the multi-site congregation must be freed to own and develop the work the Lord has called them to and become a fully autonomous, self-governing church in its own right.

It may well be that such a church will decide to pursue an association with other churches locally as many do nationally within the FIEC. And it is at this local level that more thought, humility and imagination is required as to what such association will look like. Each church might determine that there will be a number of activities that can be carried out jointly (youth work, training, global mission) and various ways that fellowship between church leaders and church congregations can be strengthened. It may involve the newly independent church determining to financially support the original sending church for a while to help the transition (or vice-versa). We need more warm-hearted, clear-headed models of this on the ground.

But not only can multi-site be a helpful transition tool for churches as they plant other churches, it can also be used for the revitalisation of dying causes. One unforeseen consequence of the multi-site movement in America is that many a “dying” church looks to merge with a larger, thriving church who brings them into their orbit within a multi-site model.

The Gospel Coalition reported that Jim Tomberlin, a leading consultant within the multi-site movement, commented that he “has over the last 12 years, consulted on more than 100 mergers, a trend he says has “increased dramatically”:

Almost 40 percent of multisite campuses now come about as a result of a merger or acquisition… Most of the mergers we’re seeing now are being initiated not by the lead church, but by the declining church. They know who is doing well in their community, and often times there are good relationships among the pastors as well.[31]

Whilst the American models of multi-site are plentiful, the UK scene is much smaller. The four main advocates (as far as I can discover) are Holy Trinity Brompton, Kings Church Catford, KingsGate Church Peterborough and City Church in Aberdeen. The literature that has emerged from these groups is not extensive either in quantity or in the depth of theological reflection (excepting some blogs from Andrew Wilson).[32]

Praise God for passionate gospel people who want to communicate the news about Jesus Christ as far and as effectively as they can, and many of us need to repent of our stupefying passivity which we can disguise behind a mean and critical spirit. And praise God for those who are able to help shape movement leaders with pertinent questions, insightful theological reflection and gracious comment. We need to work with both. May the Lord give us the ability to look and listen, and the vision to reach our communities and nation with the wonderful saving news of Jesus Christ. To him be the glory.

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