The Multisite Church, Part 1

Reprinted with permission from the Baptist Bulletin, July-August 2009.

As my family and I took our seats following the final congregational song, a large screen descended from above the pulpit. Within seconds, a pastor appeared on the screen and asked us—and the 1,200 other worshipers—to open our Bibles to Ephesians 4. He would be preaching a sermon titled, “Imitating God in Our Relationships with One Another.”

Knowing that the thriving midwestern church had embraced a multisite church structure, my wife and I had informed our children that they would not hear live preaching that Lord’s Day morning, but their response to a preacher on a screen surprised me. At first I attributed their dismay to the fact that we are from a small church in an even smaller community. But as I dug deeper into their dismay, I discovered that their problem wasn’t with the size of the church or even the use of video technology; their dismay stemmed from the fact that the announcements, prayers, Scripture reading, and congregational singing were live events, while the preaching was not. It seemed the church had unwittingly prescribed a greater importance to the parts of the service that were live. In my children’s young and impressionable minds, the preaching was of lesser value because it wasn’t an incarnational, in-the-flesh, event.

That Sunday morning in 2008 is my only firsthand experience with the multisite church movement, but because I love the church and am enamored with it, I had begun thinking through the theological implications of the multisite structure long before attending my first multisite church service. The purpose of this article is neither to defend nor attack the multisite church structure, but to ask some questions and offer some explanations regarding the important theological and ecclesiastical implications of the multisite church structure. Perhaps what is written here will stimulate some thoughtful discussion among the pastors and laypeople of our association.

Same name—different goals

As I set out to write this article, I was convinced that the multisite, multicampus craze was a new thing. Roger Ridley, a Baptist Church Planters missionary in Gretna, Neb., graciously corrected my faulty thinking. “While the terminology may be new,” he pointed out (“multicampus” and “multisite” are recently coined terms), “the practice is not. The multisite church structure has been a model traditionally used in Baptist church planting—as an intentional way to fulfill the Great Commission.”

Gretna Baptist Church has successfully employed the multisite church-planting approach on two occasions. In 2005, the Gretna church helped Peter and Mary Lou Jenks begin a Sunday evening Bible study by sending a group of its members 13 miles away to Bennington, Neb. By 2007, the group graduated from its multisite structure and became an autonomous Baptist church.

Then, in 2008, the Gretna church initiated Sunday morning services in the nearby suburb of Chalco Hills, assisted by Blane and Kelly Barfknecht, church planting missionaries who had previously mentored at the Gretna church with Pastor Ridley. The Chalco Hills church anticipates organizing as an autonomous local church by the spring of 2010.

That’s one side of the multisite church structure—the church-planting side. In this church-planting model (a hybrid of the mother-daughter church-planting model employed by many GARBC churches over the past 70 years), the mother church facilitates, oversees, funds, and staffs the secondary, or daughter, church campus with the intention of planting an indigenous, autonomous local church. The two campuses are continuously and intentionally working toward that goal of becoming two distinct local churches—a distinctly Biblical goal and practice.

On the other hand, the more popular use of the multichurch structure is not intended to produce autonomous or indigenous local churches. It’s not a method employed to plant new churches; it’s a technique used to expand existing churches. For example, a website called The Multi-Site Church Revolution recently highlighted the aspirations of Flamingo Road Church. Flamingo Road maintains official church offices in Cooper City, Fla., yet spreads its multisite structure to seven different locations—including Lima, Peru (about 2,600 miles away). The church website refers to itself as one local church in multiple locations. Their stated goal? To grow Flamingo Road Church to 100,000 people gathering in 50 campus locations.

The multisite expansion model is the only method by which Flamingo Road Church could ever reach such lofty numbers. No single building in America (apart from four major college football stadiums) is capable of housing a church of this size, and it is much more cost-effective to build a local church through the use of the Internet and technology than through adding buildings and acquiring land. This multisite expanding structure also allows a single church and its pastoral leadership to spread its influence over a larger geographic area—even across continents.

Different purposes—different practices

Writing in 2006, the authors of The Multi-Site Church Revolution documented the movement’s exponential growth, citing numerous local churches with multiplying campuses over wide geographical distances. The purpose of this “church-expanding model” (to grow a single local church) drives its practices.

If a single local church is to have more than a single location, it must be creative in its methods of addressing each of the sites as a whole and in its leadership structure. Although congregations may be separated by tens or even hundreds of miles, the church must be led by a single corporate structure—often a kind of Episcopalian or Presbyterian corporate leadership structure that makes decisions for the church as a whole and specific congregations individually. Addressing each congregation is often, though not always, accomplished through a pastor’s simultaneously preaching to individual church sites via video streaming or reproduction on a large screen—as was our family’s experience in the large midwestern multisite church.

On the other hand, the “church-planting multisite model” is driven by a different purpose—the birthing of an autonomous local church—which results in different practices. In church planting, the daughter church willingly places itself under the leadership and ecclesiastical structure of the mother church due to its infancy. Therefore, the teaching and preaching will most likely be live and incarnational rather than on a screen; deacons and church leaders will be developed; and both congregations will be working toward graduating the daughter church to self-supporting, autonomous status.

In most cases, it appears that both multisite structures are driven by commendable motives: to reach people with the gospel of Jesus Christ and to help a local congregation of believers in which they will learn, grow, and reproduce. With the apostle Paul we rejoice that “whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed” (Philippians 1:18, ESV). Although we rejoice in the fact that Christ is preached, we also understand that Paul cared deeply about how the church is structured. Church structure is not as important as the purity of the gospel; nevertheless, it is an important and significant discussion that demands our attention.

So let me ask this question: Is the multisite expansion model Biblical?


Ken Fields is pastor of Delhi Baptist Church, Jerseyville, Ill. He blogs at http://theworldfrommywindow.blogspot.com.

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There are 22 Comments

Bob Hayton's picture

I'm looking forward to this series, Ken. As you know, I have been a member at Bethlehem Baptist Church (John Piper's church) in Minneapolis for several years. They do a multi site model quite well.

You mention historical multi-site models. Methodist circuit riders, and other historic precedents exist too. Plus you could add J. Frank Norris pastoring in Fort Worth and Detroit simultaneously.

I'm just wondering, but did you read any of Nine Mark's recent e-journal on multi site ministries? It presented pros and cons quite well.

Striving for the unity of the faith, for the glory of God ~ Eph. 4:3, 13; Rom. 15:5-7 I blog at Fundamentally Reformed. Follow me on Twitter.

Jack's picture

You can download the ejournal Bob references by clicking here or click here to view it in HTML.

Bob Hayton's picture

I should have dug around for the link. I read through most of it and really appreciated it. I don't think every reason or motivation for multi-site churches is created equal. And I don't think they are all equally executed well. But certainly with some churches, the multi site model is helpful and beneficial.

Striving for the unity of the faith, for the glory of God ~ Eph. 4:3, 13; Rom. 15:5-7 I blog at Fundamentally Reformed. Follow me on Twitter.

Greg Long's picture

Bob, I believe Ken addresses that in the second part of this article.

-------
Greg Long, Ed.D. (SBTS)

Pastor of Adult Ministries
Grace Church, Des Moines, IA

Adjunct Instructor
School of Divinity
Liberty University

Bob Hayton's picture

Thanks, Greg. I finished reading the article when I took your hint and looked it up at Baptistbulletin.org. He does reference the e-journal.

I have some thoughts differing with Ken's conclusions, but I'll save them for part 2.

Striving for the unity of the faith, for the glory of God ~ Eph. 4:3, 13; Rom. 15:5-7 I blog at Fundamentally Reformed. Follow me on Twitter.

Rev Karl's picture

If a congregation grows to the point where there are more people attending than can fit in the building, why do we feel the need for multiple services or multiple campuses?

Yes, I understand and appreciate that larger churches are able to marshal more resources to present a ministry that appears to have a greater impact in the community.

But, after a certain point, why not establish sister churches, instead of multi-campus churches?

There were times when one minister rode from church to church, riding a circuit, doing what he could to meet the spiritual needs of each of those flocks. But that was not really a multi-campus church: that was a lack of pastors! The group of churches in a certain area did not - for whatever reason - have enough pastors to fill the pulpits in each church.

I don't know how it is where you live, but down here in the Florida panhandle, it seems that every little church (100 members or less) has a minimum of 3 guys (in addition to the pastor) who are called, prepared, and falling all over each other looking for opportunities to preach! (The "Big" churches have even more...)

It just seems that at a certain point (and I readily admit that I do not know where that point is) a growing church should amicably split (maybe a better term is "divide", or "replicate") to establish another one, instead of building the huge monoliths of ministry in which people can come for their weekly dose of Christianity, and then leave without any real interation with their pastor, church family, community... or God.

Just my opinion, humbly submitted.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

We'll have Part 2 out early next week.

Jonathan Charles's picture

The multi-site model isn't Biblical if the motive for doing it is wrong. Is the motive getting sheer numbers? There seems to be a difference between a church that is multi-site in its own town where the church has grown and cannot accomodate the people and the number of services at one campus. But what is the motive behind a church in Charleston, SC having a campus 215 miles away in Greenville, SC? The former is making room for growth that has occurred the latter is just a church franchising itself out.

I also think there is something to say about those who preach having first-hand contact with the people they are preaching too. I'm sure these multi-site pastors drop-in on their far away campuses from time to time, but more often then not you will not see him in person, will not be able to shake his hand, be visited by him or have him personally pray for you. Paul held himself up as an example to his churches. "You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake" (1 Thess. 1:5). How can a pastor of a multi-site church with far-flung campuses say this to a member of his flock who will hardly ever meet him in person?

KenFields's picture

... to offer your disagreements with my conclusions.

I would be very interested in your thoughts, and I realize that different churches do multi-site for differing reasons, with differing motives, and with differing methods. I attempted to interview somebody at Bethlehem, but regrettably it didn't work out (the pastoral staff was willing ... but the timing was bad).

So ... let me have it!

Ken Fields

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

Jonathan Charles wrote:
The multi-site model isn't Biblical if the motive for doing it is wrong. Is the motive getting sheer numbers? There seems to be a difference between a church that is multi-site in its own town where the church has grown and cannot accomodate the people and the number of services at one campus. But what is the motive behind a church in Charleston, SC having a campus 215 miles away in Greenville, SC? The former is making room for growth that has occurred the latter is just a church franchising itself out.

I also think there is something to say about those who preach having first-hand contact with the people they are preaching too. I'm sure these multi-site pastors drop-in on their far away campuses from time to time, but more often then not you will not see him in person, will not be able to shake his hand, be visited by him or have him personally pray for you. Paul held himself up as an example to his churches. "You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake" (1 Thess. 1:5). How can a pastor of a multi-site church with far-flung campuses say this to a member of his flock who will hardly ever meet him in person?


Franchise- that was the word I was trying to get off the tip of my keyboard. The multi-site church is not necessarily a bad thing (because some use it to plant autonomous churches), but it does seem to lend itself to these ministry franchises we see developing. I would be very concerned about motives and the mechanics of how a multi-site church would operate. Also, Bro. Karl points out that past methods were often of necessity, and should not be viewed as preferable- and I completely agree. A shepherd has a flock, and to follow the example of The Good Shepherd, he should be able to know his sheep. If he has too many sheep to minister to adequately, then he needs to acknowledge that and find a beneficial way to manage the congregation- sister church, off-shoot, whatever you want to call it.

I'm seeing a few points touched on that I hope are explored further- If the church requires branching off in order to minister to the flock, and creating another congregation is chosen as the method, and this process continues, don't you just end up with an 'association' of churches- and where does that end? How could each church become an autonomous congregation, and why do some not find that necessary or desirable?

Greg Long's picture

I posted a link article on this new trend of "franchising" called "McDenominations" on a post I wrote for the garbcquest.org blog:

http://garbcquest.org/?p=137

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Greg Long, Ed.D. (SBTS)

Pastor of Adult Ministries
Grace Church, Des Moines, IA

Adjunct Instructor
School of Divinity
Liberty University

Pastor Joe Roof's picture

I believe that God's people are not best served when the closest they can get to their pastor is the jumbo screen.

I serve God in a small church setting. 11 years ago, we went multi-site for 9 months. There was a group of people who were attending our church but lived too far away to get involved. So, I went to them and led 8:00 a.m. worship services every Sunday. It required two ours of travel back and forth, and I had to lead my church services the rest of the day. In 9 months, the group was large enough to become self-supporting and I suggested a Pastor for them and to make a long story short, that church is still going strong 11 years later. I could have just sent them a video signal but there are questions and issues related to planting a new church that could not have been answered that way. They liked me. They liked my preaching, but they were still better served by having a qualified man there personally bringing ministry to them.

Several months ago, I started travelling an hour and ten minutes on Sunday nights to a bible study in the Catskill Mountains. It makes for a long Sunday but the people are better served with a Pastor present than they are if I just told them to gather around our live video webcast every week. Just last Sunday night, I was there late because a discussion about Harold Camping came up. I could not have done that through the video.

Last year, a man from New Brunswick contacted me and told me that he was in a group of believers were watching us on the web on Sunday mornings because they had no place to go. I was thankful we could help them but still know they would be best served by having a servant of the Lord present with them.

I know the multi-site ministries hire local pastors but then have the supreme pastor preach to all of the groups through the screen and sound systems. It just seems to me that the people would be better served by a message from the Pastor who ministers to them day by day.

Bob Hayton's picture

Okay here are a few thoughts I have on multi site churches. I must stress this comes from my experience at a multi site church that was run well, and for good motivations.

1) With our multi site model, the preaching pastor (John Piper) rotates through all the campuses (now 3, was 2 for a long time). Each week he is at a different campus. Saturday nights he is at the primary downtown campus and that message is recorded for the 2 campuses he won't be at on Sunday mornings.

2) The issue of this model being biblical has been raised, and I think a link to John Owen was given where he says there is no biblical example. I would dispute that. The church in Jerusalem, was most likely according to the Scriptural record, a large number of people that met mostly in small house churches but were still considered one church. The apostles went house to house teaching. They broke bread house to house. And in Jerusalem, gathering together wouldn't have been necessarily easy. Most authorities on the early church hold that house churches were a common model. The same would hold true in Ephesus, where Paul taught for so long. The church itself was evidently quite large and would naturally have met in different smaller venues. Same goes for the church at Corinth and on and on. Scripturally churches were demarcated geographically at first, it seems. All believers in a city were called the church in that city. Most likely they didn't all meet in one place but shared elders and were ministered to by a body of pastors and teachers. Apostolic ministry also was done across local church lines, and the responsibility to submit to leaders such as apostles didn't get lessened when the apostle wasn't in their assembly.

3) As far as the ability for a pastor to personally shepherd individuals at all the sites, isn't the same problem in effect if you have one large site? If you have 5-6 thousand at one place, the pastor's ability to personally minister to everyone involved diminishes greatly. Yet from Scripture large congregations are not forbidden, we have examples of them. At my church the elders came to the conclusion that a large venue to accommodate 5,000 or so, would not be the best use of our resources, would not reach all of the Twin Cities well enough, and so they decided to do a more risky and mission-focused effort of multiplying campuses in the city. Our church still has planted churches throughout the cities as well, and has handcuffed us into giving to the poor and supporting churches with a rule that only 80% of any monies that come to our campus building fund being allowed to go toward the expenses of our own campuses.

4) Their are advantages to a campus over a separate church. Our campuses are within a 20 minute drive of each other or more. Some people drive that far to go to the church of their choice. We have the same eldership, with some overseeing all the church, others focusing more on campus specific concerns. We can share the eldership, the church statement of faith, other church documents, main offices, share resources for other administrative things. Plus when a new campus is started a couple hundred or more believers are already committed to the work, so it makes it easier for new people to come when they aren't the only people there, but there is already a functioning church for them to see and be ministered to by.

5) Our elders leave open the possibility that at some future time campuses would become autonomous churches, too. In some churches, God has gifted one primary communicator and has blessed his ministry such that people want to come hear him. This allows that ministry to expand. However, it also calls for more sacrifice and missional living from the members. Rather than a single large facility that just keeps adding services to handle all the people, we ask the people to move to other campuses, or call for them to leave and join a church plant to another region in the area. Continually there are opportunities for service. This is the bent of Bethlehem Baptist where I've seen this model lived out.

6) We must admit that church polity is only obliquely mentioned in Scripture. Outside some of the basics of church life, there is much silence in the NT. We should not jump to judge things we think are different and thus must be not scriptural (since our practice is most certainly scriptural). Arguments could be made that we shouldn't use other technological advances in our church models. We shouldn't amplify our voices, or use projectors and screens for any reason, some have said pianos are out of bounds too. Doesn't the fact that we can drive 20 miles away to a church we agree with, impoverish the local churches in our immediate area? Oh, and having 5 different churches of different stripes in the same square mile isn't exactly a biblical model either.

7) Ken's comments about his kids feeling distant from the pastor during the preaching is important. Some churches skimp on the costs of video projection and the image isn't sharp and clear. A clear sharp video image on the screen really does have a personal feel to it. And having the rest of the service live helps. But the next week, the pastor will be at that campus live, so that also helps mitigate against that feeling.

Anyway just a few thoughts here. I'm now a part of a church plant that Bethlehem has helped launch here in St. Paul. But we did attend one of the campuses of Bethlehem for over 4 years.

Striving for the unity of the faith, for the glory of God ~ Eph. 4:3, 13; Rom. 15:5-7 I blog at Fundamentally Reformed. Follow me on Twitter.

Bob Hayton's picture

Also, I wanted to share a link to an article by Tim Keller on managing church growth. That's really what it came down to for Bethlehem. Do we send people away, or steward the people God is sending our way? Church life changes dramatically with growth, as Keller discusses in this article. Whether on one campus or multiple ones, the dynamics of the church are changed for better or worse with growth. This article is worth the read: http://204.202.251.134/upload/TimKeller_edited_unabridged.pdf

Striving for the unity of the faith, for the glory of God ~ Eph. 4:3, 13; Rom. 15:5-7 I blog at Fundamentally Reformed. Follow me on Twitter.

Charlie's picture

Bob, thanks for the testimony and the links. Church growth is a real issue, and I don't have any answers about it. As a Presbyterian, I believe, like you, that the early church was a "multi-site" ministry in many ways. The challenge of connectional ministry is real, and I don't have a whole lot of answers about how to do it. I do have some concerns about the way these pastors have implemented their multi-site ministries. In the 2nd century connectional church government morphed (relatively easily) into episcopacy, and I see more episcopacy than congregationalism or Presbyterianism in the ministries of Piper and Keller. At what point would they earn the title "Bishop"? And, is that good or bad?

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

Joseph's picture

Bob,

Good thoughts - and thanks for posting Keller article; it was very good.

Keller hits at a key obstacle when he discusses the tendency to see the differences in size-culture as "good" or "bad," rather than recognizing the differences are just that: differences! And each has attendant strengths and weaknesses. Keller mentioned at a recent conference that he had someone criticize his material as "sancitfied sociology," to which Keller said, "I think it's just wisdom."

I believe Keller understands better than anyone that I've read or heard that wisdom, practical reasoning, and prudence have to be a key part of how we think of the shape of the church. If you try to over-theologize every aspect you get people who argue that ever minute difference from their own approach falls under the cateory of "deviation from Scripture." The reality as, as Bob mentioned, the church is as complex as any other institution, and therefore the forms that the church can and should take will differ significantly depending on the context in which it is located.

Many churches, including perhaps whole movements or denominations, are slowing dying precisely because they have chosen to view as normative a bunch of idiosyncratic, perhaps valuable but not universalizable aspects of their philosophy of ministry, etc. Fundamentalism to me is a prime example of this; the problem is that people want to over-theologize what are simply cultural and contextual differences. The reason, for example, that many people have issues with someone like me, even though I believe everything required to be a Fundamentalist per SI's statement, is that I reflect a radically different assumptions and sensibilities about a number of issues. Precisely because people tend to naturally view everything they prefer and do as normative and universal, they drive out legitimate and often necessary differences and innovations. When a whole group of churches do this, the natural and inevitable result is decline. (This is why Fundamentalists are losing many of their young people; and it's why many old people won't recognize the legitimacy of "YF's as Fundamentalists; their just incipient "new evangelicals,")

As Keller makes clear, flexibility is necessary for growth. So, churches that are proudly inflexible are churches that ipso facto will not successfully grow and reproduce themselves.

From the early church on, Christians have tended to theologially legitimate every variance in church polity, ranging from the very early emergence of monepisopacy (e.g. the Letters of Ignatius) to elder/deacon polity through congretational polity. And what every student of history sees is that these forms simply fit the culture in which the church found itself better than others. You can't have "congregational" polity in the Roman empire in the second century, just as an episopacy could not emerge except in a highly organized, politically de-centralized contexts like Imperial Rome, in which regional governers exerted enormous and direct power over their regions.

I think the proper response to these realities is Keller's: not relativism, but a proper understanding of the breadth and width of the space for wisdom, not specific, determinate policy supposedly derived directly and ineluctably from clear theological principles.

Bob Hayton's picture

Charlie wrote:
In the 2nd century connectional church government morphed (relatively easily) into episcopacy, and I see more episcopacy than congregationalism or Presbyterianism in the ministries of Piper and Keller. At what point would they earn the title "Bishop"? And, is that good or bad?

Charlie, I think Piper would be viewed as a bishop, if each campus felt disconnected from the church as a whole. They don't. He is one of our pastors, one of our elders. He is the pastor for preaching and vision, but he is not a bishop. He wanted to change our church's policies on some matters related to baptism and couldn't do that. Congregationalism prevented that.

As for Keller, I didn't know he had multiple campuses. He is starting independent churches by the scores, I know that much.

Striving for the unity of the faith, for the glory of God ~ Eph. 4:3, 13; Rom. 15:5-7 I blog at Fundamentally Reformed. Follow me on Twitter.

Bob Hayton's picture

Good points, Joseph. I never thought much about the tie in between history and church government before. I do think basic key points, like elders and deacons, a team-leader approach, authority and submission, the church as a whole having some kind of say, etc. can be derived from Scripture. However, there is not an overt, clear, full-orbed teaching of any particular church government structure in Scripture from what I can see.

Striving for the unity of the faith, for the glory of God ~ Eph. 4:3, 13; Rom. 15:5-7 I blog at Fundamentally Reformed. Follow me on Twitter.

Mike Durning's picture

Joseph wrote:
I believe Keller understands better than anyone that I've read or heard that wisdom, practical reasoning, and prudence have to be a key part of how we think of the shape of the church. If you try to over-theologize every aspect you get people who argue that ever minute difference from their own approach falls under the cateory of "deviation from Scripture." The reality as, as Bob mentioned, the church is as complex as any other institution, and therefore the forms that the church can and should take will differ significantly depending on the context in which it is located.

Great post, Joseph. Great points. You brought a good balance to this discussion.
But I do think Jonathan Charles' post about motives has to be given some weight here too.

I have no problem with the multi-site church and the jumbotron pastor. I'm sure some do it quite well, and honor Christ in how they do it. But I wonder about the mentality of a pastor who believes that the people will in all cases be best served by his own shepherding at such a remove. The term franchise in this connection does frighten me.

I know someone whose church was ready to be subsumed into one of the big multi-site ministries. A little investigation revealed that the larger ministry set to take them over was almost entirely run by one family, and that they were also tens of millions of dollars in debt. The church being absorbed was on very valuable land. It kind of creeped people out to think that they might be acquired for reasons of dollar value rather than ministry. For that and other reasons, they did not vote for being absorbed into the larger ministry.

Now I realize that most multi-site ministries aren't shopping for new outlets, but rather expanding with new venues to reach the lost. Nevertheless, the story demonstrates the danger of being guided by a business model for church growth rather than a Biblical one.

Greg Long's picture

Bob Hayton wrote:
7) Ken's comments about his kids feeling distant from the pastor during the preaching is important. Some churches skimp on the costs of video projection and the image isn't sharp and clear. A clear sharp video image on the screen really does have a personal feel to it. And having the rest of the service live helps. But the next week, the pastor will be at that campus live, so that also helps mitigate against that feeling.
Bob, I could be wrong here, but I believe the church Ken and his family attended was Bethelehem BC.

-------
Greg Long, Ed.D. (SBTS)

Pastor of Adult Ministries
Grace Church, Des Moines, IA

Adjunct Instructor
School of Divinity
Liberty University

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