(Part 1) Multi-Site Dialogue: Multisite Mistake? by Micah Fries

B21 is taking a look at the Multi-site debate. Part one, written by guest blogger Micah Fries, raises concerns about the Multi-site movement. Part two will be written from a pro multi-site perspective by multi-site pastor Jimmy Scroggins. We hope this dialogue will be helpful. We are grateful to Micah and Jimmy for taking part in this dialogue and we are especially grateful for both of their ministries. 

Multisite Mistake?

The current trend among fast growing, effective churches, is to multiply their efforts through the establishment of multiple campuses. The expansion of multi-site churches has moved from the realm of curious oddity to accepted practice among Evangelical churches wishing to move the gospel forward and advance the Kingdom of God. One of the surprising characteristics which makes this movement unique, at least in my eyes, is the broad range of theological and methodological streams that have embraced it. From John Piper to Perry Noble;  Tim Keller to Andy Stanley and maybe most famously, Mark Driscoll, this movement of multi-site churches has become common practice in many circles, particularly among large churches that fit in the mega-church category.

In my own circle of friends, the predominant majority seem to be encouraged by this model and enthusiastically endorse it as a viable method of Kingdom advance. You can count me, however, as among those who are not necessarily a fan. I realize that taking this position puts me at odds with men who I have long considered heroes, not to mention a number of those whom I consider to be close friends. I do not take this position lightly. In fact, when I first came into contact with the multi-site model I enthusiastically endorsed it. At one point I even presented it to our elders at Frederick Boulevard and we began to consider its implementation into our church’s strategy. However, the more I critically examined the model, the more I found myself growing concerned.

As I begin to offer some critique, please note that I do so with some level of hesitation. This hesitation exists for a number of reasons. First, I am grateful for the passion for gospel and mission that fuels those within the multi-site movement. The driving motivation behind this model seems to be a passion for mission and I cannot help but be impressed by that commitment. Second, while I may disagree with their approach, I have little problem personally or even theologically with those who lead in the multi-site model. This is not a test of orthodoxy or fellowship, in my mind. I would gladly worship and even preach in a church which practiced a multi-site model, without reservation. While I am uncomfortable with aspects of it, I will be the first to admit that there are good and strong arguments in favor of the model. Scripture does not speak conclusively in this regard and I want to approach the topic with appropriate sensitivity and, hopefully, humility. Finally I critique knowing that many of my influences, heroes in the faith and good friends stand apart from me on this issue. That, in and of itself, is sufficient reason for me to tread lightly as I attempt to walk through this topic.

Having said all of that, I would like to offer a few of the most significant critiques that I think those within the multi-site movement need to wrestle with.

1.     Is the multi-site movement founded on a thin theological base?

Having had a fair amount of discussions with multi-site proponents and practitioners I am consistently amazed at those in the movement who lead theologically driven ministries and yet who support their multi-site model almost entirely on a foundation of pragmatic practicality. Please hear me, I have no problem at all with a pragmatic argument. Unless Scripture clearly speaks to an issue, contemplating pragmatic implications is necessary as good stewards of the gospel. At our church we make many decisions for pragmatic reasons. We choose businesses to service our facility, hotels when our staff travels, carpet color, toilet paper brands and so on, all for pragmatic reasons. Pragmatism, in and of itself, is not bad. In fact it is a good and helpful thing. However, in the case of a multi-site model, when there are many missiological and ecclesiological issues to be considered, it seems odd to me to so strongly promote a ministry model on almost exclusively pragmatic grounds.

It is with that thought in mind that I find it curious, at best, to note the lack of critical theological thinking employed by many who are engaged in multi-site ministry. It seems as though we may be enamored with the apparent success stories of the more visible multi-site models (i.e. Mars Hill Church, LifeChurch, etc.) and as a result have chosen not to address the lack of theological underpinning for multi-site in the face of some questions, many of which are substantial, that strike at a biblical approach to church growth. As I have queried multi-site proponents for validation of their preferred model I have heard everything from “it’s cheaper” to “it’s easier” to “we can build it around a particularly gifted preacher”. While each of these may, at times, be helpful it seems interesting to me that theologically driven men and churches would use these as foundational purposes when so many other questions yet remain. The Resurgence.com attempted to provide an argument in favor of multi-site, authored by Mark Driscoll, but to be honest, the piece seemed to rest on theologically tenuous, if not outright odd (i.e. the argument concerning “Multi-sites in the Early Church), arguments. It certainly did not have the typical theologically robust arguments we have come to expect from Driscoll.

So, for those within the multi-site movement, is there a theological foundation upon which you can stand?

2.     For those who are both multi-site and Baptist, is the multi-site movement an attempt to redefine our ecclesiology?

For a convictional Baptist who genuinely believes in the theological underpinnings of our denominational identity I am curious to tease out the implications of the multi-site model on ecclesiology. When one considers the multi-site model, in all fairness we have to recognize that there are multiple forms of church polity in play. Elder rule, elder led and, within some circles, a form of congregationalism are being utilized. However, each of these various streams of multi-site life look significantly more like an Episcopalian model of church government than they do a baptistic model which is governed by a local congregation of believers.

No doubt, many will probably dismiss this blurred distinction as insignificant, but I do not think it is. In a time of ever increasing cooperation between denominations (a move which I generally applaud, I should add) it can be popular to take the further step by ridiculing denominational identities, or even dismissing them as insignificant altogether. I would encourage us not to take that step. Our identity as Baptists, and our belief in the autonomy of the local church is no small thing. Remember, our commitment to this model of church governance is not arrived at merely because we think “it works best”, but is instead grounded in what we believe is a strong biblical foundation. When I look across the landscape of the multi-site model I see churches gathered together under a “mother church” like congregation which is led, much like a bishopry, by a man or a group of men, and, at times, women, who preside, to some degree, over this family of churches. Even in those multi-site models which display some level of local, site specific leadership, are they still not aligning themselves under the leadership of a primary source? For those of us in Baptist life who vehemently resist the idea of a “top down” model of leadership, this sure seems like a potentially dangerous step to take.

3.     For a movement that is committed to missional living, does the multi-site movement actually assume a counterintuitive position in respect to missional living?

When my church engages in mission across the globe, a major issue which dictates our strategy is that of reproducibility. In other words, whatever strategy we employ in our pursuit of advancing the mission must be one which can be easily, and readily reproduced by local believers. While this issue can often be missed by well-meaning pastors and church leaders its impact on the advance of the gospel is difficult to overstate. You can quickly impede the advance of the gospel by modeling behavior which cannot be reproduced by local believers. Multi-site models, therefore, look to me to be difficult to reproduce models in the context of most local churches. Moving from the flexible model of a local church, to the cumbersome model of multiple campuses across a spectrum of locations, it seems that we have worked hard at producing a “franchise” model of church that looks oddly more corporate than it does missional. An additional concern flowing from this issue is the idea that one church has “worked well” and as a result, we will start additional campuses that bear our “DNA”. While I think this is understandable, I wonder if we’re not walking on the dangerous ground of replicating DNA rather than practicing faithful missiology which would dictate that each local body be grounded in a contextually faithful DNA? This is particularly curious when you realize that some of the most effective “missional” leaders in the USA are strong proponents of this model.

Which leads me to my other missiological concern. The local church is an incarnational                   representation of Jesus Christ in our community. We are, literally and figuratively, the body of Christ in the world. These local, incarnational churches, are to be led by incarnational leaders who model for their congregation what it looks like to be a living, breathing picture of Jesus. In respect to multi-site models which use a video venue strategy, how is this possible when our “leader” is on a video screen and is preaching, in some instances, thousands of miles away from my community? Are we forfeiting an incarnational ministry for a “professional” model where we exalt the “really good leaders” to the exclusion of men whom God may be calling and equipping on a local level? This commitment to enhancing the “professionalism” of the pulpit is a further concern that dove tails off of my concern in respect to incarnational ministry.

Finally, as we think through the missiological implications, I wonder how much concern we should pay to the advance of a “cult-of-personality” culture that continues to pervade our churches. While I am grateful for godly men who are particularly gifted and seem to be have some sense of God’s unique blessing on their lives, I think it is fair to ask whether or not these are the only men qualified to lead a local congregation? Those in the multi-site movement, particularly those utilizing video-venue technology, may not realize it but this seems to be the message that they are promoting. What is more, a number of multi-site practitioners have shared this with me as one of the values of multi-site. Taking “advantage” of the “super gifted” or the “uniquely blessed” is a significant motivation for the multiplication of video venue, multi-site ministries. How well does this compare with the local church’s biblical commitment to equipping the saints for the work of ministry and Jesus’ own model of training men and then rapidly deploying them for ministry? At the very least I hope we will engage this question more substantially in the coming days.

In conclusion, I ultimately pray that the multi-site model is used to bring many to saving faith in Jesus. I fervently hope that it helps to advance the glory of God among the nations. However, I also hope that in our zeal to advance the gospel among the nations, we do not attempt to do so while sacrificing a biblical identity on the altar of pragmatism. May it not be so.

Comments 0

  1. I’ll be the first to “Amen” — and do so with the same loving tone that you wrote with. Many thanks for writing this, Micah. I believe this will prove to be beneficial for many.

  2. As Thomas White and I argued in Franchising McChurch, the multi-site model may not be the fullest expression of ecclesial wisdom. Micah states this well. The expression of multi-site congregations becomes particularly challenging in a Baptist context and for churches desiring to plant Baptist congregations.

    The ultimate difficulty in discussing the movement is the wide variety in the ecclesial expressions of multi-site with some seeing it as a step to church planting (ala James MacDonald) or those who more aggressively pursue a business model. This variety demonstrates the “health” of the movement, but also makes dialogue about the issue difficult as critiques in general may not apply to all congregations.

    This discussion needs to continue – especially in Baptist circles – as we seek to reach a lost world for Christ.

  3. Great post, much appreciated:

    re1: Is there a “theological base” for an “Executive Pastor” “Worship Pastor” etc.? I don’t have a problem with that either – but that’s a practical function that didn’t exist until relatively recently.

    I would say there is Biblical warrant (thought not mandate) for “multi-sight” – I’m really not sure what a “theological base” would be. “The church in Ephesus” was a singular concept of multiple churches. And it seems, Timothy was in charge, and presumably “appointed elders”. Must we do it that way? I don’t think so… is there a Biblical basis, absolutely.

    re2: A congregation is a “gathering” συναγωγή – so, as a guy who is as Southern Baptist as they come, I can definitely appreciate the question. But how is this question any different from a church with multiple service times? Location does not determine the “gathering” it’s the group who gathers together. Obviously the 8:15a service and the 9:30a service and the 10:55a service are not in the same gathering, but they are the same church. There has been no crisis of ecclesiology in the SBC for this extremely common model. Now, that doesn’t necessarily make it right, all I’m saying is there ecclesiological issues don’t seem all that different to me, and they’ve not been an issue for Southern Baptists thus far.

    re3: I think it’s a bad idea to attempt to recreate practice in one culture in another. I believe, the multi-site model has the potential (that is, a possibility, not an eventuality) to foster church planting better than the traditional “one location” model. I know when I’ve done church planting in Africa our goal is to start churches under the umbrella of “mother churches” in order to spread the gospel and to provide mentorship and experience for the new pastors. But that wasn’t the model that best worked back in the states. So I think it’s misguided to seek a model that “works here and everywhere” – I think, rather, we should have a core message (Jesus) and by every means available, spread him around.

    If being there in person at every gathering of a church was to be preferred, then certainly Timothy (or my goodness, PAUL for that matter) certainly didn’t meet that criteria.

    BUT, like I said, great post. I think it will cause us to pause and evaluate our motives and actions. We always need to do that. We can’t simply do “what’s cool” or “what works for them” – we have to evaluate every strategy in light of the Bible, and our mission from that book.


  4. Well thought out post.

    I think it is interesting that, considering how important the Church is to God, the Scriptures actually give us very little information concerning “church models” as we speak of them today.

    Most if not all of the times where the Bible speaks of the church, it refers to the Body of believers, and not to buildings, Sunday morning worship services, or styles of government, or professional hierarchical leadership. Churches looked much more like spiritual families who did life together seven days a week. It was the priesthood of all believers in action. It seems almost possible to derive from Scripture a strong argument for any specific church model.

    That said, as you pointed out, one of the things we do know about the Church is that it multiplied like crazy. I think it is definitely safe to say that the value and principle of reproducibility is inextricably tied into the Great Commission.

    Because the Scriptures don’t proscribe a specific model of church, it is crucial for any and every church, multi-site or not, to determine how to follow the 2 Timothy 2:2 mandate to make disciples who make disciples. The work of the ministry is too much for just a few “super-leaders” to carry out. We must reclaim the priesthood of believers and raise our expectations of ordinary Spirit-empowered followers of Christ. We cannot reach the world if only 2% of professing Christians are regularly sharing their faith.

    Thanks for sharing your views, and I look forward to reading Jimmy Scroggins’ response as well.

  5. Great questions, MIcah. The hardest part for me as I evaluate multi-site is that continuum aspect of changes. I have a gut reaction to hearing of a church “campus” in another state with a video screen sermon, but if it’s just across town, or in the gymnasium down the hall… The fact that so many types of “multi-site” models are popping up makes the analysis more complex than most of us like.

    That said, I think the missiological issues for this are where I really get uncomfortable. How difficult is it to here about “doing life together” (hate the cliche, but the phrase works) when the pastor is on a screen in another state and a week previously talking about this? What does it say about the gifting of the body of Christ when a select few have “special giftings that need to be stewarded”?

    Thanks for asking those questions and I look forward to the next part as well.

  6. I think what we have in a multi-site model is further evidence of the “departmentalization” of our faith and our Christian lives. Geglio is the first one to really help this sink in for me. In “The Air I Breathe” he talks about how people treat church as an extra weekend stop on the way to the Mall. So true.

    If we hope to build true community, and see a man of God model Christ before us as a pastor should; a multi-site model would have to go Truman Show.

    That’s not a bad idea! Micah, would you care to be my guinea pig for that! 🙂

  7. Micah, I particularly appreciate your third point. There’s a stream in the missional movement that functions in a way that seems irrefutably attractional. At some point, the “go tell” message has to be undermined by the “come see” methodology. You’ve helpfully put your finger on several likely implications.

  8. Being a forty something modern minded Southern Baptist, I want to comment from a more practical and simply view. I believe many of the issues I see in the church today in regards to the division of ages within the church body is about defining the role of the pastor. Often the role of the pastor is often based on a committee’s interpretation rather than the word of God. Is the pastor to preach and teach? Is the pastor to minister to saints and sinners? Is the pastor to lead or to be lead as a servant to all. When each church ask’s these questions, they can then decide whether multi-site churches will be a good fit.

    When discussing this issue, we should always look to Jesus and the scriptures and to study Jesus you immediately know that He was all about people and multi-site churches can focus on the man in the pulpit and on the monitor rather than on Christ and the message.

    Also those many men that are present and responsible for these sites are not always prepared or equipped when there is a need to preach or to minister. I think this should be a concern for those going in that direction. Maybe this is where some of the failure could be?

    Just a thought in an already very impersonal world.

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