In Defense Of Multi-Site – Part 1

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This is the first in a three-part series “in defense of multi-site churches.” Check back on Thursday for part 2.

I was both encouraged and challenged by Dr. Hammett’s article a couple weeks ago on the multi-site church model, and passed on his article to numerous team members. His is a charitable, lucid approach to the issues. Here are some reflections on why we have pursued the multi-site model with the ecclesiological considerations he deems essential. (Note: I am not saying that he necessarily endorses our church model—he’s never told me either way–simply that he and I have dialogued over the years about a proper ecclesiological model and his observations have been formative in our approach.)

In 2005 The Summit Church moved to a multi-site strategy for spatial necessity. God was graciously bringing to our doors more people than we could handle. We were doing as many morning services as we could in our rented school facility, and were having to turn people away. So we opened another campus 3 miles down the road, where I preached between our other services at the main campus.

Since that time, we have concluded that the multi-site model for the church is both biblically sound and practically helpful, and we have embraced multi-site as a strategy for growing our church and reaching our city, not merely as a temporary way to deal with a space problem. We currently are a church of about 6500 attenders, meeting on 6 campuses throughout Raleigh-Durham, NC. We plan to add a new site in Chapel Hill in just a few weeks.

We believe that at the core of our mission as a church is the commission to seek and save the lost in our city, and we believe that the presence of a local body of believers is the greatest evangelistic tool for any community. We are also a church who believes that faithful ecclesiology must trump pragmatism. We have concluded that the multi-site strategy is the best way for us to both reach our community and practice faithful ecclesiology. We also believe that planting churches in strategic cities around the world is the New Testament’s most effective evangelistic strategy, so our vision is to plant 1000 churches in RDU and around the world by the year 2050.

Let me first acknowledge that I readily agree with many criticisms of many multi-site churches. Many multi-site environments encourage consumerism, foster anonymity, are built on a cult of personality, and depend more on man’s wisdom than God’s wisdom. That said, here is why we enthusiastically embrace the multi-site strategy as biblically sound, practically wise, and pastorally helpful.

I. WHY THE SUMMIT CHURCH BELIEVES THE MULTI-SITE MODEL IS BIBLICALLY SOUND

A. The essence of a local church is a covenant, not a manner of assembly.

Some argue that since a local church is by definition an assembly, a multi-site strategy fundamentally skews the nature of a local church. The essence of a New Testament local church, however, is not “assembly” but “covenant body.” If the local church is essentially an assembly, then it only exists when it assembles and only when all the members are present. “Assembly” is a much-needed function, but “covenant” is the essence.

The New Testament nowhere demands that a local church meet all together each week. Nor is a single-service assembly the only model given in Acts. While it is certainly true that we see evidences of local churches assembling all together (1 Corinthians 11), we also see evidence of single local churches which met in multiple locations. The new congregation in Jerusalem is frequently referred to in the singular, one “church” (Acts 8:1; 11:22; 15:4). However, they obviously had to meet in different times and locations. Historians tell us there was no space in Jerusalem available to the disciples in which three thousand or more people could have met on a weekly basis. It also appears that many first-century house churches came together to celebrate the Lord’s supper as one citywide church (see 1 Cor 11:17–20; Romans 16:5).

Quite simply, the New Testament neither demands nor uniformly models that all members of one local church are to assemble weekly in the same place.

B. The New Testament gives guidelines, but not specific details, on how to best organize a congregation for pastoral care and effective ministry.

John Piper has written, “Neither here [in Acts 2] nor elsewhere in the New Testament do we get detailed instructions on how to organize the church for pastoral care and worship and teaching and mobilization for ministry. There were elders in the churches (they show up very soon in the Jerusalem church) and there were deacons, and there were goals of teaching and caring and maturing and praying and evangelizing and missions. But as far as details of how to structure the church in a city or in an area or even one local church with several thousand saints – there are very few particulars.”

C. The Apostles used the technology available to them to preach in absentia.

It is clear in Acts 2 to 8 that all eight thousand (some historians estimate that the actual size at the end of Acts 3 would have been about ten thousand) were not gathering weekly in one place to hear one teaching pastor give a message. Perhaps the Apostles were a teaching team who rotated between the houses. Perhaps groups of the church gathered with particular apostles in small assembly places (campuses). Yet they were one church.

We know that many of Paul’s letters were intended to be circulated for reading throughout the churches. If Paul could have cut a DVD from the Philippian jail and passed that around, I can’t see why he wouldn’t have done so. I know that some might respond, “Well, yeah, but Paul’s letters were the inspired Bible. He was an Apostle. That’s why his letters could be passed around.” We know, however, that there were several of Paul’s letters passed around that were not “inspired,” such as the middle Corinthian letter.

If the technology was available, don’t you think Peter might have burned a DVD of himself and sent that around? If they could have simulcast John’s recounting of his last meeting with Christ, don’t you think they would have done it? Is there anything that says that we must be able to see the actual flesh and blood of the preacher? Those who say that video removes the “flesh and blood, incarnational” nature of gospel preaching would also have to question the use of voice amplification. If it is argued that video removes the incarnational nature of preaching, a similar argument could be made that God did not intend churches to ever be bigger than what would allow an unamplified voice to be heard by all, because in so doing it would remove the touchability of the pastor. Obviously, such questions go beyond a responsible interpretation of Scripture.

This is not to say that all technology is allowable or helpful, because sometimes the medium affects the way people perceive the message. No doubt, deciding what to do with technology that was unavailable in biblical times is a difficult subject, and we must be both open-minded and cautious in appropriating it for our purposes.

 

  3Comments

  1. Stephen   •  

    Looking forward to the rest of the series, J.D. I am especially interested to know how Summit holds the tension between being a church-planting church while continuing to open multi-site campuses and how this is different from “consumerism” or “personality cult.” This is one of the biggest issues it seems in our Baptistic, Evangelical circles and I appreciate the thought that Summit has been putting in.

  2. Joel Griffis   •  

    Thanks for this series, J.D. I’m glad you’re writing it. Here are some of my thoughts on part one.

    You said, “The Summit Church moved to a multi-site strategy for spatial necessity.”

    It sounds like you’re saying that the move to multi-site was a necessary solution to your space issues. But aren’t there other ways to deal with space, like old-fashioned church planting? Surely there are qualified guys who can shepherd, preach, and teach at those other sites without needing your sermons piped in on a regular basis. Nothing against your sermons, of course. You’re a great preacher. But other guys can bring it, too.

    You said, “The New Testament nowhere demands that a local church meet all together each week.”

    That’s a tough standard. The New Testament nowhere demands that we refuse baptism to infants either. Nor does it command us to give communion to women. Yet we rightly do both of those things. We infer these convictions from good and necessary consequence; not simply express commands.

    In the absence of an express command on the multi-site issue, we have to ask questions like, What is the church?, What is her responsibility?, What is a shepherd called to be?, What other pastoral injunctions are we given that might influence and inform how we deal with this grayer area? The absence of an express command to the contrary does not legitimize or excuse a practice. Most of your exegetical points seem to be proving only that multi-site churches are biblically not-forbidden, rather than biblically sound.

    You said, “If the technology was available, don’t you think Peter might have burned a DVD of himself and sent that around? If they could have simulcast John’s recounting of his last meeting with Christ, don’t you think they would have done it?”

    Sure, perhaps, maybe, I guess. But do you think they would have liked the idea of making this the permanent status quo? The norm? I can’t imagine so. Paul longed to be with his brothers and sisters in person (Rom. 1:11-13; 2 Tim. 1:4), and I would think shepherds ought to feel the same way about their flock. Letters would suffice as a temporary means of communication, but there’s nothing like “flesh and blood” fellowship, especially between a pastor and his people. We shouldn’t devalue touchability; we should cherish it.

    On this point, I think what Carl Trueman calls “the metaphysics of presence” is insightful. As human beings, we instinctively know that physical presence is meaningful and important. There’s a reason Rick Warren apologized and expressed his own deep disappointment when it turned out that he was only going to be able to speak at the Desiring God conference by pre-recorded video. It’s because he understands that presence is meaningful and important. There’s also a reason multi-site churches (all that I’m aware of anyway) go to great lengths to make sure that each site has its own live worship band. It’s because they understand that presence is meaningful and important. I want to maintain that same acknowledgment when it comes to the preaching of the word and the day-to-day life of a pastor with his people.

    I’m looking forward to reading the rest of this trilogy! Regardless of my own criticism of the multi-site model, I sincerely thank God for the way he has used the Summit to greatly reach Raleigh-Durham with the gospel. I pray God’s continued blessing and favor on you and your church.

    Grace and peace,

    - Joel

  3. Scott   •  

    JD,
    Great series of posts that I am very interested in. I appreciate the devotion you have to approach this biblically. I do have some reservations. You make the argument that the church is not primarily an “assembly” but a “covenant body”. I agree with the important understanding of church universal, church local, and how those might differ from assembly. But I would like some greater detail on your move away from the term assembly. That is a more biblical term than covenant body. Numerous times the NT church is assembling, has assembled, or is commanded not to forsake assembling. It is not a body if it is not functioning together which requires being together.
    It also seems to me that you are taking some liberties that the book of Acts doesn’t address. Acts does not tell us how the thousands of believers met. We just know that they did. Historians speculations should not replace the emphasis of the biblical text. I can do the same thing. Maybe the entire church did assemble all-together outside of town in a field. We must be careful with arguments from silence.

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