Multiplying or Dividing? (Multi-Site Part 3)
After two thrilling weeks (I’m not overstating, am I?), we reach the conclusion of our look at multi-site churches. Having taken an overview of what multi-site churches are, and a look at some of the arguments in favor of adopting such a model, we take a turn to negative town and look at the arguments against multi-site.
As I pointed out in the first post on this subject, there are a variety of ways in which multi-site churches function. This fact makes critiquing the movement difficult because criticisms of one model are often not applicable to another. Unfortunately, since all of the models falls under the category of “multi-site,” a number of sweeping statements have been made which really only apply to a fraction of the churches that have multiple campuses. The distinctions between the models are important because, I believe, some models are better than others. I want to make sure that arguments made against multi-site churches can properly be applied to all (or at least the great majority of) such churches.
Not to contradict the approach I just outlined, but before we get to a broad critique, I’d like to give some attention to one particular multi-site model. This is the multiple onsite venues model. Most of the reasons for going to multiple sites could apply to this model, but empirical evidence seems to suggest that freeing up space or expanding to reach a larger portion of the community isn’t why churches employ different venues. Frequently these different venues are employed in order to offer different musical styles to worship to. But such a practice only serves to fracture the church along such trivial lines as musical tastes. Further, it shifts some of the focus in the worship service off of God and onto the individual who’s given the opportunity to sing along with the type of music he enjoys most. It undermines the corporeal nature of the worship service and makes it more individualistic. In my estimation, this is a bad reason for making a church multi-site.
Piggy-backing on this idea of catering to personal tastes and preferences, churches that use a video feed to pipe in the sermons of a particular pastor who is universally held to be the most gifted preacher in the group run the risk of breeding consumerism in church-goers. People may head to a local campus to watch a video of a good preacher rather than attend a church that has a pastor who is admittedly less talented but who’s there in flesh and blood and able to shepherd them on a personal level. In this case, congregants become consumers of preaching. I know it’s sometimes reckless to play the slippery slope game, but once people become comfortable with the idea of sitting in an auditorium watching a preacher on a giant screen, might they decide one day they prefer to just stay at home and stream a sermon online? Now I understand this is not simply an inevitable progression, but I think the danger is there.
The concept of streaming the teaching of one preacher across multiple campuses throughout the town tends to create a sort of “celebrity pastor.” Thabiti Anyabwile rightly diagnoses many of the pitfalls this can lead to, several of which boil down to idolatry. I commend his article to anyone who’s interested in a further look at why a church shouldn’t be multi-site. (For a balanced view on the idea of celebrity pastors, also check out Jonathan Leeman’s article at 9 Marks.)
On a more general level, there are a number of practical things we need to consider that may suggest adapting a multi-site model may be inadvisable or unwise. But let’s first look to the New Testament to see if there’s a precedent that warrants such a model. Proponents have argued that the Jerusalem church was too large to meet together on a weekly basis and met instead in a number of homes, modeling what might be considered the first multi-site church. But the assertion that the church couldn’t possibly have found a location big enough to meet together in is far from certain, and the fact that the believers in Jerusalem are referred to in the singular (the church rather than churches) is scant evidence for claiming this was one church meeting in multiple locations. Further, the Greek word we translate as “church”, ekklesia, denotes a literal assembly. (For a more detailed exegetical analysis click here.) In what meaningful sense can campuses scattered all over town be considered an assembly? The case for a biblical precedent seems a bit spurious.
And if a church is not assembling together, it can be assumed that most of the members of one campus do not know and have little chance of rubbing shoulders with the members of another campus. If this is so, how does church discipline work? How can a member at campus A to be held accountable by the congregation at campus B? If a matter of discipline reaches the level of “tell[ing] it to the church” (Matthew 18:17), this amounts to little more than gossip to the people at campus B who don’t know the person in campus A caught in sin. If campus A decides to handle the matter amongst themselves, they’re now acting as if they are a distinct church. (In fact, in many practicle matters campuses tend to function as distinct churches.)
Having now taken a breif look at multi-site churches, it must be reiterated that there are a number of ways of putting multi-site into use. Each church will have its own way of doing it and its own reasons for doing so. When we looked at arguments in favor of multi-site, a common refrain from proponents is that they want to reach as many people as possible with the gospel. This is certainly a worthy motive. But the questions a church must grapple with before deciding to go this route is whether multi-site is faithful to the New Testament’s teaching about what the local church is and how it is to function and whether the use of this model is wise.
This series of posts has only scratched the surface of this subject, but I hope it has caused some to give thought to something they may have taken for granted in the past. As with all issues related to Scripture, the church, and Christian living, there ought to be room for serious thought and discussion. My hope is that churches would echo this approach when debating expanding to multiple sites.