John Hammett: What Makes a Multi-Site Church One Church?

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[Mondays at Between the Times are devoted to posts from the faculty of Southeastern. Today's post is by John Hammett, Senior Professor and John L. Dagg Chair of Systematic Theology. Dr. Hammett winsomely and gracefully engages the growing trend of multi-site churches. What do you think?] 

One of the most important movements in the contemporary church is the development of what are called multi-site churches, which describe themselves as “one church in many locations.”[1] Under this model, what makes a church one is not that the members gather at one location. What, then, do they offer as justification for seeing them as one church? Most often, they point to organizational or missional elements. As one book says, “A multi-site church shares a common vision, budget, leadership, and board.”[2] But such a definition of oneness could fit restaurant chains, hotel franchises, or banks with multiple branches, or an association or convention of churches. Surely the unity of a local church involves more.

One additional element of unity would be theological. Members of one church should be united in believing the “one faith” Paul describes in Ephesians 4:3–6.[3] Indeed, many of Paul’s letters to churches included theological instruction and correction so that the churches could be one in faith, both internally and in relationship to other churches.

But most often, the oneness of a local congregation in the New Testament seems to be relational, rooted in the relationships among the members. So, in Acts 2:44, we read that “All the believers were together and had everything in common.” Acts 4:32 continues, “All the believers were one in heart and mind.” The image of the one body with many members in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12 emphasizes equality in value and honor despite diversity in gifts, and is given as an incentive to mutual care. In fact, one of the major themes of 1 Corinthians is Paul’s appeal to all the members there “to agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought” (1 Cor. 1:10). Similarly, the Philippian church is exhorted to make Paul’s joy complete “by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose” (Phil. 2:2). Unity seems more much a matter of the quality of face-to-face, shared relationships among members than with organizational matters among budgets and boards.

The challenge facing multi-site churches is how to foster such relational unity among believers scattered over a geographical area meeting at different times in many locations. Even churches that meet in one location face a similar challenge, for as they grow larger they will soon have too many members for any one member to know all the others. This makes the development of genuine fellowship across all the membership a matter of concern, not just to multi-site churches, but to all churches that grow beyond a very small size. Somehow the New Testament churches, even the very large church in Jerusalem, managed to live out relational oneness. Their example calls us to deeper commitment to the brothers and sisters with whom we covenant in local church membership.

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This article is adapted from John S. Hammett, “What Makes a Multi-Site Church One Church?” Great Commission Research Journal 4, no. 1 (Summer 2012): 95-107. Bruce Ashford let readers know about this article in 2012. See the post here.

[1] Geoff Surratt, Greg Ligon, and Warren Bird, The Multi-Site Church Revolution (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006). The sub-title of this book is “Being One Church in Many Locations.”

[2] Ibid., 18.

[3] Theological unity is given both primacy and greatest prominence in the list of five areas of church unity advocated by Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears in Vintage Church: Timeless Truths and Timely Methods (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), 137-140. In addition to theological unity, they highlight relational, philosophical, missional, and organizational unity.

Church Membership: Do I Stay or Do I Go Now?

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[Editor's Note: This post originally appeared on September 11, 2013.]

One of the topics I  teach on regularly at Southeastern Seminary and in local churches is the nature of church membership. When teaching on membership, I’m frequently asked two questions: 1) What criteria should I use when deciding whether or not to join a particular church? 2) What criteria should I use when deciding whether or not to leave the church of which I’m a member? I answer by sharing four criteria for each question. I list them below, in the order that I personally prioritize them.

Criteria for Joining a Church

1. Doctrine: What does the church believe about primary, secondary, and tertiary doctrines? How clear are they in their doctrinal commitments? Do you share the church’s core beliefs? Are you willing to submit to the teaching ministry of the church when it comes to (presumably minor) doctrines where you might disagree?

2. Emphases: Does the pastor (or pastors) emphasize text-driven preaching and teaching? Does the church emphasize discipleship, accountability, and spiritual formation for all its members? Does the church emphasize personal evangelism and global missions?

3. Geography: Do you live close enough to regularly worship with this particular body of believers? Do you live close enough to regularly serve alongside the members of this church? If you live more than 20 minutes away from the church’s gathering place, are you willing to either drive frequently or relocate closer so that you can be vitally involved in the body life of the church?

4. Preferences: Are you comfortable with the church’s approach to music and worship? Are you comfortable with the church’s approach to age- or gender-specific ministry? Are you comfortable with the general ambience or atmosphere that is being fostered by the church?

Criteria for Leaving a Church

1. Geography: Have you relocated far enough from the church’s gathering place that it is no longer possible to be meaningfully involved? (e.g. you move across town)

2. Doctrine: Has there been a change in the doctrinal convictions you hold or those espoused by the church’s leadership that makes continued membership difficult? (e.g. the church changes its position on female pastors, baptism, speaking in tongues, or eternal security)

3. Emphases: Has there been a change in the church’s emphases that makes continued membership difficult? (e.g. the pastor has abandoned text-driven teaching and preaching or the leadership refuses to emphasize evangelism and missions)

4. Preferences: Has there been a change in how the church handles some of your preferences that makes continued membership difficult? (e.g. the music style has changed, the children’s ministry strategy has changed, church gatherings have become more or less casual than they were)

I am convinced that one of the reasons we have so much church-shopping and church-hopping in American evangelicalism is because we tend to join and leave a church based more upon our preferences rather than other matters that are more important. Perhaps better ordering our priorities will help us to be more discerning in pursuing and/or ending church membership.

Some of you may quibble with me over where I rank some of these matters–there is room for debate. Nevertheless, I hope you find these lists helpful.

 

Are We Multicultural Because of Our Community, or Because of Heaven?

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This following is borne out of a conversation among some of our staff about the importance of multiculturalism in worship. The question: do we incorporate various cultural and ethnic elements because of our surrounding community, or because of the final vision of “every tribe, tongue, and nation” worshipping around God’s throne in Revelation 5?

When I mentioned multiculturalism and worship in a sermon a few weeks ago, I mentioned that the church in our age is only a sign, not the fulfillment of Revelation 5. So we give a dim shadow, where we can, of what is to come. Even our best multicultural effort here is still all in English, which is not really multicultural, because heart language is the most basic element of a culture.

The following is borne out of a conversation among some of our staff about the importance of multiculturalism in worship. The question: do we incorporate various cultural and ethnic elements because of the makeup of our surrounding community, or do we do it because we are trying to replicate the final vision of “every tribe, tongue, and nation” worshipping around God’s throne in Revelation 5?

When I mentioned multiculturalism and worship in a sermon a few weeks ago, I mentioned that the church in our age is only a sign, not the fulfillment of Revelation 5. That means, at our best, we can only give a dim shadow of what is to come. Our best efforts here are severely limited. For one, even our best multicultural efforts here are still all in English, which is not really multicultural, because heart language is the most basic element of a culture.

Furthermore, geography makes certain kinds of multiculturalism impractical. To judge a church in Northern Ireland for not being multicultural when their entire community for miles around is made up of only one race is unfair. Using Revelation 5 as the goal for a church overlooks the distinction between the church as “sign” of the coming age and “fulfillment” of that age. Only in heaven will we experience the fulfillment of multiculturalism. Here, we give a glimpse of it whenever we can. But the best we can do is give a glimpse.

Think about it: Can any church say it truly “looks like heaven?” Not many churches in America pursue elements of Arabic and Eskimo music, even though those groups will be in heaven with us.

In our community, we have large African-American, white, Asian and Hispanic populations. Thus, we believe our church (and church leadership) should reflect that. We believe God is more glorified through a multiplicity of cultures in worship, and we believe that picture gives a glimpse to our community of the unity found only in Christ  (Revelation 5:9; Eph 3:10-11). But that we don’t have an Middle Eastern pastor on staff (yet) should not dismay us, even though there will be lots of Middle Easterners around the throne in heaven. They’re just not as heavily represented in our community yet.

Furthermore, our pursuit of multiculturalism has to be balanced by another biblical command: the command to reach the lost in the majority culture around us and the need to contextualize the gospel into their culture to do so. Paul indicated that lost Greeks would be reached by his becoming “like a Greek” to them (1 Cor 9:19-21). He did not expect lost Greeks to be won to Christ by seeing the gospel in its multicultural dimensions (though that may help); he expected Greeks to be reached as he put the gospel into Greek clothes, Greek expressions, and Greek styles. In other words, he doesn’t expect the lost Greeks to become multicultural before they are saved; he will adapt himself as closely as he can to the culture of the Greeks in order to reach those Greeks. After all, embracing other cultures is a sign of maturity–and how can we expect that of people before they are saved? Thus, we have to balance our pursuit of multiculturalism with the demand to clothe the gospel in the culture of those God has positioned us to reach.

Furthermore, God makes each person, and each congregation, particularly suited to reach certain kinds of people (or specifically calls them to certain groups), and they need to adapt their presentations of the gospel to those people. There’s nothing wrong with that–it’s at the heart of what Paul says in 1 Cor 9. But each church should be seeking to teach those people to love, fellowship, and submit to believers from other cultures as they reach them.

I think there’s a real potential to go off course here. I’ve observed a number of ministries make a good thing–multiculturalism, the only important thing. But the core of the Great Commission is making disciples of lost people; it’s the one thing Jesus enumerated when he gave that Commission. So, as we set up our ministries, we have to balance the pursuit of multiculturalism with the need to keep contextualizing the gospel to make disciples of the majority culture around us. But as believers in the majority culture are reached, we need to lead them to appreciate and embrace multicultural expressions of worship, as modeled by Paul and Luke in Acts 13:1-4 and Eph 2-3. That’s part of discipling them.

It’s not wrong for our ministry styles and leadership to reflect many of the forms of the majority culture around us–in some ways, it’s being faithful to 1 Cor 9. But we believe that believers in the majority culture should be seeking to adapt themselves to believers of other ethnicities–that they should go first and farther in their adaptation. Why must they go first? That’s just the way of the gospel—those in a position of “strength” must consider others (and other races) to be more important than themselves (Phil 2:1–5). But, that majority culture has to remember that, as they seek to adapt to other cultures, they still have a lot of lost people within their own culture to reach, which means continuing to express the gospel in ways that the majority culture can understand and are culturally comfortable with. Or, to put it Paul’s language, If a Greek is charged to reach other Greeks, he has to keep expressing the gospel in Greek ways.

We have to reach our own lost community as fast as possible. But the most culturally diverse place in the whole community ought to be the church, so we out to push the majority culture to embrace and love the cultural diversity of God’s kingdom.

Well, I’m simply thinking out loud here and probably being really repetitive. At the Summit, we still have a long way to go, but we are are actively pursuing this as God enables us. I’m grateful for all the patience church members are giving us as we pursue these biblical objectives, and I welcome the continual dialogue as we grow together.

So for now, we have to take many of our cues from the cultures that are in our midstand in proportion to how much they are represented. We also have to balance our pursuit of the demonstration of this sign with the fact that multiculturalism is not our only goal: making disciples is, and that requires some elements of homogeneity. To the Greek, Paul says, he became as a Greek, not that he insisted the Greeks learn to appreciate Arabs before they were saved. It’s unfair to expect people to act mature in Christ before they are mature, and embracing other cultures is a sign of maturity.

I have seen a lot of churches go badly off course here. They replace the one most important thing—disciple-making—with a good thing, multiculturalism. And when a good thing becomes ultimate, it becomes an idol. We can’t let that happen. Our context is still, at present, largely white, and it’s okay if a lot our music and leadership still reflects that. And that we don’t have an Arab pastor on staff (yet) should not dismay us. That’s not to say we still don’t have a long way to go, or that we stop seeking these things. I just want us to be clear on our expectations.

I certainly don’t want this to end the discussion. Nor do I think that I see this issue with perfect clarity. This is my perspective, and I welcome others to enrich our thought as we continue to grow in diversity.

 

*Not his actual name. Sadly, we have no one named “Frank” on our staff . . . yet.