Tuesday, October 07, 2014

A Multiplication of Woes

Need one of these to diagram your local church?
Multi-site churches. Wow.

If you want to get wrapped up in a modern church problem not contemplated by specific doctrinal teaching in the New Testament, this would surely be a prime candidate.

I didn’t even know what a “multi-site” church was until I read Jonathan Leeman’s recent blog post about the problems that tend to result from them.

Call me out of touch, but now that I think about it, I know of more than one local situation in which this sort of arrangement might appear to present a potential solution to complications resulting from sudden or unexpected church growth.

What is a multi-site church, you ask?
“A multisite church is one church that meets at multiple locations. Churches began to use the multisite church model in the mid-1980s. Today’s approach ranges from transmitting a sermon by satellite to multiple locations, to creating a number of worship opportunities within the same congregation at multiple times and sites.”
The 1980’s, eh? I totally missed it. I should’ve been reading Christianity Today, apparently. They tell us:
“Multisite is the new normal
Among recent church trends, we continue to see multisite churches becoming more and more common. No longer just a new trend, they now number more than 5,000 churches, and growing. Among the 100 Largest churches, we find only 12 have a single campus …”
So it’s a problem, or it’s not, depending on your perspective and your level of discernment. Jonathan Leeman seems like a pretty discerning guy. While obviously modern and growth-oriented in his thinking, he displays the pretty admirable quality of instinctively yanking us back to scripture to answer questions like “Should we?” or “Could we?” He uses scripture, for instance, to make the point that “There’s no clear example of a multi-site church in the New Testament, only supposition.”

Arguments from Scripture

In theory, using scripture to make your case instead of just assuming it shouldn’t be an event worthy of celebration, but it’s become rare enough that I tend to make at least a mental note when I see it.

Leeman attempts to demonstrate that the example of the early church is not a divided one, but a church that was “all together”:
“And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts …”
(Acts 2:46)
If the believers attended the temple together, they were indisputably in one location (which is something Luke tells us more than once) and saw themselves as a single entity, even if it may be true that they necessarily broke bread in homes and therefore in smaller sub-groups. 

He also mentions this:
“And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.”
(Acts 6:2)
apparently concluding that if it is possible to summon the “full number of disciples”, you are demonstrably all part of the same church.

Of course the question may be legitimately raised as to whether Acts is giving us doctrine here or simply telling us what the church did at its beginning. I think most of us would answer that Acts is a book of history. Most of what is recorded is useful and suggestive as examples, but without specific apostolic teaching in the epistles to back it up we might reasonably conclude that what was done then was more in response to circumstances and immediate need rather than with the intention that it remain authoritative over the next two millennia.

But still, Leeman’s consistent appeal to the authority of scripture is refreshing and to be commended.

Arguments from Silence

He also argues against various practices from the absence of scriptural authority for them, an approach I find persuasive, at least in this instance: “Nowhere does the Bible speak of building church unity in budgets, charisma, and brand,” he says, and I have to agree.

Arguments from “The Keys”

On the other hand, he keeps referring back to this thing he calls “the keys”. In a 2012 piece on the subject, Leeman describes “the keys” as “the authority to do what Jesus had just done with [Peter]: to act as God’s official representative on earth for affirming true gospel confessions and confessors”.

Um. Well. I’ve got to think about that some more before I write further about it, but you can probably guess what it is about that language that gives me a queasy feeling. For now let’s just say it sounds awfully institutional.

In any case, the whole “keys” thing rears its head on and off throughout the 22 issues he identifies as problematic with multi-site churches: a church is “constituted by the preaching of the Word and the distribution of the ordinances under the binding authority of the keys”, he says. He makes the further point that a multi-site church makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for a congregation to fulfill its obligation to “exercise the keys over the whole ‘church’.”

Arguments from Practicality

But when we leave keys out of it, we find Mr. Leeman raising a number of very logical and practical concerns with the multi-site concept:
The pastor of a large church has difficulty knowing all his members, but he can at least have some sense of the room in which he’s preaching. Both of these are impossible by definition in a multi-site church that employs video preaching.

Multi-site churches make it easier to be an anonymous Christian/church member, and perhaps easier for wolves to hide. Yes, this is true of larger churches also, but now the anonymity is built into the very structures. A person can bounce between campuses — church hop! — all in the same “church.”

To say that the unity of the church (i.e. the unity of the campuses) depends on the leaders is to say that that the life and work of the church depends that much more on the leaders. Members, in comparison to a single-site model, are demoted.
To say that each of these represents a significant danger to church life is no exaggeration, particularly in the area of church discipline.

Scriptural or Not?

So are multi-site churches extra-scriptural? That’s not hard to demonstrate. Are they anti-scriptural? Maybe not intentionally, but Mr. Leeman makes a good case that the design itself leads almost inevitably to the flaws he points out. And in doing so, he does a service for those in the church at large who may be considering the option.

You can read his entire post here.


  1. I thought the definition of a church was "a multi-site group of local congregations all part of the Body of Christ. But if that's what the church is, then why would we need a flow chart in order to locate our authorities? There are elders, then there's the Chief Shepherd: did I miss something?

  2. WAY too good a question to get lost in the comments! Watch for a post in reply ...