Would the Apostles Endorse Multi-site Churches?

Yes, it’s true that this post has nothing to do with the Septuagint, but it has everything to do with Scripture and its application to our lives and more importantly to the organization of our churches.  I am a member of a Southern Baptist Church and I attend Southern Seminary in Louisville, KY; therefore, I do not speak as an outsider, for Southern Baptists seem to be leading the way in this new invention called multi-site churches along with their slogan, “One church, X number of locations.” See the latest publication from Broadman and Holman on this very issue: Multi-Site Churches.  What follows in this post spawned from some stimulating discussions with some friends of mine in the library.  Although we are at Southern Seminary to learn technical and sometimes seemingly esoteric disciplines, lunch conversations always seem to gravitate towards matters of the local church, and this topic received a number of lunch conversations.

My basic assumption going into this issue is simple: the view that remains faithful to the clear Scriptural directives and can obey those directives practically should be adopted.  Thus any view of the church which would necessarily lead to the disobedience of clear Scriptural directives because of the church’s structure itself should be abandoned.  This assumption rests on the idea that the apostles gave clear commands to the local churches, which were able to be carried out and that these commands are not optional or somehow subsidiary to whatever church model one has adopted.  Rather the apostles would only endorse a church model in which the members were in a position to obey the clear commands of the Lord Jesus.

This basic assumption works as a constraint on church models.  Just because the apostles did not clearly delineate what every church throughout the ages must be like [i.e. x must be like this, but not like this], does not mean they left us to our own devices to “think tank” autonomously about church models.  If the church model does not allow for the implementing of the clear commands revealed in the NT, then the church model ought to be abandoned.

What are these clearly revealed commands?

  1. Overseers, Shepherd the Flock of God (1 Peter 5:1ff; Hebrews 13:17).  Immediately, there is a problem: which model of multi-site churches am I critiquing?  The satellite version where a separate location hears a sermon from the pastor piped into the auditorium via satellite connection? Or the model which has different preachers (are they elders or pastors?) at the distinct locations?  I think this command clearly rules out the first option, but what about the second model complete with its separate preachers?  Well, the critique depends on the status of these men.  If they are elders of churches, then how have they not become their own church, simply partnering with the other churches?  If they are not elders, then what are they?  Are they itinerant preachers? Not really.  Are they glorified Sunday School teachers who preach every Sunday morning?  In that case they are no more than church members of the larger church; therefore, they do not have the authority of elders nor the responsibility to Shepherd the Flock of God, which leads to the actual critique.  How do the pastors/elders of multi-site churches carry out this command?  If the pastor is only at one location for most of the time, then how is he in a position practically to obey this directive?  He’s not.  He has only put himself in a position to look after some of the flock on a regular basis, and he has certainly taken himself out of the equation when it comes to the teaching and preaching aspects of his calling (1 Tim. 3:1-7).  It seems that the former variant of this model may overcome this obstacle, but it creates the second obstacle which places the pastor in an ill-suited position to shepherd.  The latter model may account better for shepherding, but it necessarily removes the pastor from teaching and preaching regularly to his flock, over which the Lord has given him charge.
  2. One another Commands. Bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:1ff), confess your sins to one another (James 5), pray for one another (Ephesians 6), exhort one another while it is still called Today (Hebrews 3), and the other 35 or so “one another commands” are given to church members in the NT.  Do multi-site church models place members in a position to obey these commands?  If church members are on one side of town, are they responsible for members on the other side of town in a separate location of the church?  Yes, since the NT knows only of one church building itself up (Eph. 4:13ff).  Does the multi-site church provide a context for individual members in the church to fulfill these NT directives?  The objection to this argument will go something like this: John, are you yourself fulfilling these commands with every member in your one church in one location?  Of course the answer is, no.  However, am I in a position to do so? Yes.  I have access to the news of the church.  I know at least the faces of the people in the church.  Of course I will rebut this objection with an objection: do the members at a particular location know all of the members of that one location? The answer is of course, no.  Thus how will they ever be in a position to know and care for all of their fellow members in locations that they do not visit with any regularity, if at all.  These commands in the NT should also limit the mega-churches in our midst too, but that is another issue.
  3. Church discipline/congregationalism (Matt. 18:16ff; 1 Cor. 5:1ff).  Not all churches are congregational in polity, so this argument attends specifically to baptist churches.  If the final authority rests with the members of the church, not the deacons or elders, then how will the entire church be able to meet in order to discipline its members?  What if a church meets quarterly to take care of these matters?  Well, how will members from one location be able to assess the member of another location in one evening?  However, if church discipline happens among those who have regular contact and care for one another, this is not a problem.  Congregationalism seems to rule out multi-cite churches.  After all, ecclesia means assembly not church.  Therefore, church is all about the congregating of believers in a physical location.  It is not anything else than this.  It is not somehow an idea with multiple manifestations.  Each one of the gatherings should have elders, preach the word, and practice the sacraments and organize itself as a local church.
  4. The Lord’s Supper, “when you come together…” The Lord’s Supper has many points of debate, but the one aspect that seems undebatable is Paul’s instruction to partake of the Supper together as a sign of our fellowship with Christ and our fellowship with one another (1 Cor. 10:16-17).  How do multi-site churches handle the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper?  Do they partake of it separately or together?  Well, it seems they would have to celebrate the Supper separately, which would be inconsistent with what the Supper means.  Paul instructs us to celebrate the Supper in a worthy manner, meaning we are to be deferential to one another when we come together as the church to remember Christ’s work for us and to proclaim his death for us until he comes.  We are to be together, but multi-site churches seem to preclude togetherness because the very model of the church depends on different locations of the one and the same church.

Conclusion

I’m sure I have made caractures of the multi-site position.  I invite others to correct me where necessary and to dialogue with me and show me how multi-site churches carry out these commands of the Lord.  If multi-site churches are able to abide by these commands, then I would be more in support of them.  But as it is now, I do not think the multi-site church is in a position to obey these commands and thus one should reject the model.

16 thoughts on “Would the Apostles Endorse Multi-site Churches?

  1. Hi! Interesting question – I’ve been aware for some time of the multi-site church phenomenon, though I’m not too familiar with the details. Do you have a few “bullet points” to offer as to what the advantages are, according to multi-site church proponents?

    A few preliminary thoughts: my particular form of Lutheranism is strongly congregational, and my current understanding of the word ecclesia is that it refers either to a local assembly or to the whole Church, the Una Sancta, the body of Christ. Thus we refer to our own Lutheran church body as an association rather than a church. Regardless of how a church is constitutionally organized, in practice I believe that the groups gathering in these different spots do in fact become different ecclesiae. I’m honestly not sure whether it matters that much whether or not the groups at these separate sites have bound themselves to the same local church constitution. In some respects (not all), similar dynamics are present in a multi-site church as at a large church which holds more than one worship service. Each worship service has its core group of regular attendees; the different groups often have distinctive corporate personalities. Are they truly one local church, just because they occupy the same pews and sign the same constitution?

    I’m not sure whether or not the early Christians had thought through this question of whether a multi-site church is still one church, or whether they would think it important. In one sense (see above paragraph), I believe all local churches are branches of a multi-site church, and history is repeating itself. As I understand it, in the Bible there’s not a clear distinction between an episkopos and a presbyter, but by the time of Ignatius of Antioch such a di stinction had clearly come about at least among some Christians. An early episkopos -Heaven forbid that we call him a bishop :O) – was exactly that – an overseer of several area churches, just like the senior pastor of a modern multi-site church, who definitely better not be running a one-man show.

    Got to run, I’ll try to post more thoughts in future installments.

  2. Michael –

    Thanks for your comment. Honestly, most proponents I talk to about multi-site churches simply talk in terms of pragmatics. Thus, they are one huge church, and as such they can pool money in order to promote missions and evangelism and other such good pursuits. So generally, pragmatism controls the multi-site agenda.

    I didn’t mean to downplay the universal church in my post. However, the NT has an emphasis on local churches, organized and situated in a physical place. Thus Paul writes epistles to specific local churches at Ephesus, Thessalonica, Colossae, etc. You are exactly right in thinking my critique applies to multiple church services and as I mentioned in the post, mega-churches. The church should not be bigger than its ability to be faithful to the commands of Jesus and the apostles.

    I don’t think Christians had thought this issue in the first century. You make an interesting observation concerning Ignatius and the distinction between bishops and elders. Are you specifically thinking of the reference in Ignatius to Polycarp? I agree with your conclusion about the two titles referring to the same office in the NT and that there should be a plurality of elders, not one man.

    Thanks again for your comments Michael. Feel free to come back on these points or to add to what you have already said.

  3. I hadn’t been thinking of a specific reference by Ignatius, just that he very strongly argued for the type of bishop/presbyter/deacon threefold division that has been seen in the episcopal churches (i.e. Catholic, Orthodox, etc.) ever since.

    My quick additional comment for today is that in general I don’t see that the multi-site plan necessarily stands in the way of the important functions of the local church body that you mention, just as long as each individual “site” in fact functions as a local assembly. If one or more pastors oversee all, it would be similar in some ways to the time that I was pastor of two churches at once for a few years, something that happens a lot, especially in rural areas. Then there are cases like a pastor from East Africa who came to our seminary in Minnesota to study – he was a sort of “circuit rider”, as he was pastor of 25 or more churches! There is nothing new under the sun.

    These days I tend to be mostly concerned with what’s really happening, rather than what people think is happening. A multi-site church is on its way to being either a small denominational body or district or diocese, and the senior pastor is for all intents and purposes, a bishop. I’m not passing judgment on that at all – maybe some places it’s a smart way to “do business” – I’m just saying that the modern lingo could be distracting people from the fact that it’s all happened before.

  4. Michael –

    I agree that each “site” should function as its own church, but that’s not what’s happening. Each site, for example, is not responsible for the discipline of its own members. In theory all of the sites = one church come together in order to carry out church discipline in accordance with Matt. 18.

    Again, the circuit riding preacher in East Africa is visiting individual churches, not sites of the same church. Each one of those churches governs itself or is an autonomous church in a diocese or something like that. The multi-site church is not new under the sun, but congregational churches by definition are not hierarchical as the multi-site church movement is headed.

    Lastly, I would be interested more in your comment: …in general I don’t see that the multi-site plan necessarily stands in the way of the important functions of the local church body that you mention…

    Would you please show me how these biblical imperatives are carried out given the clarification that each site is not its own church, but a real satellite of the one church? Thanks.

  5. In general, please understand that I am no more a fan than you are of the “multi-site” plan. However, it’s my nature to step up to people’s defense and to seek that all sides are fairly represented (Proverbs 18:17).

    It’s hard for me to answer your clarification that “each site is not its own church, but a real satellite of the one church” because I believe, as stated above, that if ministry happens at each site, that each site is behaving in a churchlike manner in its own right. So my point is that when the Holy Spirit is at work, He often overrides the logical conclusions of the quirky things we do in our own wisdom, and all I’m saying is that I can see that this could happen with a multi-site church.

    As to the four concerns you bring up:

    1. Overseers – In practice does each site generally have at least one elder with a special connection to that particular site? My point in bringing up the AFrican pastor with 25 churches is that he would have similar challenges in getting to know individuals personally as the senior pastor of a large multi-site church.

    2. “One another” – the question here is, how close of a connection do you need with someone to fulfill the command to “love one another?” Everybody in the body of Christ needs to show this love to somebody, but does this mean that any one person needs to be able to fulfill this command for everybody in the local church? Sounds like this is what you’re saying. Do we find this in Scripture?

    3. Discipline – the question here is, how much of a church’s membership constitutes the “quorum” needed to fulfill the command to “tell it to the church” (Matt. 18:17)? This question goes beyond just the multi-site issue. And where in the Bible does it say that everyone involved in discipline needs to have a prior personal connection with the person undergoing discipline? There could be something good in having some involved who have been personally involved, and others who have the objectivity that comes with personal detachment from the issue. That could even be one of the reasons for the “two or three principle”, because each of these classes of people has something valuable to contribute.

    4. Lord’s Supper – this is pretty much the same issue as when one church has more than one worship service at the same site. Does everyone need to be present for there to be a connection? I don’t know if you Baptists have the custom of bringing Communion to people who are ill, elderly, or shut-in. As a Lutheran pastor I’ve done it many times, and part of the reason for it is because it makes a very tangible connection with the body who received Communion at the Sunday service, even though the person receiving individual communion wasn’t there at the time.

    An underlying issue in this discussion is, how to be know when things in the New Testament are a prescription of what must be done at all times, and when are they a description of one option? This issue is alive in the baptism-related posts you’ve made, upon which I hope to comment sometime soon.

    AGain, I’m not an advocate of the multi-site plan. When you made the comment about the pragmatic motives of pooling money for missions, evangelism, etc., it confirmed my stance that a multi-site church is really a small denomination, district, or diocese, since in my very congregational church body, joint support of missions, schools, etc. is cited as the justification for having our church body or “association.” And I agree that the problems you’ve cited are problematic. I just happen to think that the Holy Spirit often breaks through to overcome the problems that our little plans create.

  6. Michael –

    Thanks again for your commentary on this question.

    One might need to be a congregationalist to understand the problem with the multi-site program. If I or baptists were Anglicans or Episcopalians, there would be no problem with the multi-site church. However, Baptists are not hierachalists and therefore the multi-site program should be off the table of options of church models for the reasons mentioned above.

    I will respond to each of your questions:

    1. Not to my knowledge. Most of these churches employ some form of hierarchy not a parody of pastors overseeing each site of the one church. Again, it is congregational churches attempting a hierarchy, and I don’t think this is consistent at all.

    2. How close does one have to be to confess their sins to another? Or to pray for another? Or to bear another’s burdens? These commands were given to specific local churches, not the universal church which spans time and space. These commands were intended to be carried out among living members of the church. Geographical proximity is assumed in their fulfillment. Now, if one church is spread out over an entire country, how can one member in one city help another member in another city? I don’t see how it is possible.

    3. I didn’t say “prior personal connection” was necessary. What I said was since the church has the final authority in church discipline, that church ought to know and be aware of the situation. Again, how can geographically distant communities be brought up to speed in order to fulfill the role of final authority?

    4. You raise an interesting issue about the shut-ins and I have to admit, I though you were going to bring this up. I can’t speak for Baptist practice. I’m sure it is as far as it is wide🙂 on this issue. Taking the elements to shut-ins is not addressed in Scripture so we have no precedent to do such things, but that does not make the practice wrong. However, I do think there is a difference between taking the elements to shut-ins (a necessary part of life) and setting up a church model which necessarily precludes coming together for the Lord’s Supper. Again the Supper pictures unity and fellowship and should be enjoyed by the local church (1 Cor. 11 and 12). It may be a matter of the description and prescription tension. However, as we theologize and practice, we must seek right doctrine and right practice must flow from it. Therefore, if what I have said about the Supper is right, I think we ought to follow Paul’s instruction of taking the Supper together as a family meal.

    I look forward to your interaction on the baptism question🙂.

  7. Hey, bro, thought I’d take 60 seconds to mention that I haven’t disappeared on you – sometimes I’ll resurface after days or even weeks, but I have a long memory … :O)

  8. This is the first thread I’ve ever responded to. I’ve got to tell you, you both make good arguments.

    The church that I belong to is considering “planting” a satellite church in a nearby town as an outreach. I am on the fence in regards to this plan, but it didn’t sound biblical. You’ve been great help in my information gathering. I too prescribe to Proverbs 18:19 when faced with a decision like this.

    Presently, our church holds three Sunday services to accomodate our large (for the area) congregation. The arguments presented in this thread really hit home.

    The plan that our elders have pitched involves hiring a campus pastor to oversee the plant. He wouldn’t be involved in any preaching. His duties would consist of nurturing family relationships within the satellite. Worship would be provided by the existing worship teams at our church (one of my ministries) and the sermon would be “piped in”.

    The belief of the elder board is to capitalize on the “high level of talent in the worship teams” to draw people in to the satellite. This disturbs me as a member of a worship team. My responsibility is to help bring the congregation into the proper mindset of worship so the Holy Spirit can work on an individual during rest of the service. This plan labels the worship teams as performers, one negative aspect of worship that I cannot seem to reconcile in my mind.

    Anyway, after much thought, I haven’t moved from my seat on the fence regarding the concept of satellites. Given a scenario involving a church with multiple services, a large congregation, limited facilities, and proper Christ-centered leadership, wouldn’t a satellite church be an alternative to multiple services?

    I believe that the satellite church should have its own leadership since it is a separate church community. This community would no doubt want its own culture given to human nature. I also believe that this would be a litmus test of the mother church to see if that freedom of leadership within certain bylaws would be given to the satellite.

    As far as “pooling resources” goes, this would seem to have as many disadvantages as advantages. I am also involved in our youth program. Our youth group consists of between 120 and 150 children each week. Our main concern with the youth program is the lack of willing leaders within our church. I don’t believe an effective youth program will exist at our church if the leaders are diluted into the satellite program.

    Given my ministry participation and home location, I will almost assuredly be asked to volunteer heavily in the satellite program. I ask for God’s guidance in these concerns, because I cannot give my all to a program that I don’t believe to be right.

    • Bob –

      It sounds like you have a difficult decision to make. I hope that the Lord will guide you according to his word.

      blessings,
      john

  9. Pingback: Multi-Site Churches – Pragmaticism « John Ploughman

  10. Patrick –

    Thanks for stopping by. I’m glad that the post was helpful as you think through the whole matter, which is becoming a major issue in our convention.

  11. Pingback: Passion For Preaching » Blog Archive » Links for Monday

  12. Pingback: Early Christianity and Multi-Site Ecclesiology « Multi-Site Ecclesiology

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