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, written by guest blogger and multi-site pastor Jimmy Scroggins, responds to Micah’s concerns. 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. The following is a newly edited version.
I have been involved in three multi-site churches since 1996. The first was Grace Baptist Church in Evansville, Indiana where I served as the youth pastor. We were a formerly middle class church whose buildings were in a transitioning inner-city location. Our goal was to allow the downtown location to change in order to reflect its community, while also reaching out to the newer suburbs where most of our “core members” lived. Our second campus eventually became an autonomous church. I then served on staff at Highview Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, where we launched eight different campuses in two states and two languages from 2000-2008. I currently serve as Pastor at the First Baptist Church of West Palm Beach, where we have two campuses, and are about to launch two more in the next 12 months.
Although I do not consider myself an expert on multi-site churches, I am definitely a veteran practitioner. As such I have been asked to write a pro multi-site response to Micah’s post from last week where he raised several excellent questions about the multi-site strategy. Micah is a friend and a model pastor, and his critique was offered with humility, grace, a true sense of brotherhood with other pastors, and a concern for gospel advancement. I would like to offer my comments in the same spirit. Some of my points are in direct response to Micah, while others address items he did not bring up. Also, I want to be clear that I am a Baptist writing primarily for Baptists here. I am writing out of my own multi-site experience. I can’t speak for others, but for what its worth, here are some of my thoughts:
- Multi-site is biblically permissible. The Bible doesn’t speak directly to the multi-site strategy. In my opinion it is a misuse of the regulative principle to suggest that church practices not explicitly endorsed or commanded by Scripture are out of bounds. I believe the NT gives a very simple, core ecclesiology (summarized in the BFM 2000). The NT does give general guidelines for how to “do church,” but there are few details in the NT. So I think there is opportunity for churches to try all kinds of things in our quest to advance the gospel of Jesus and make kingdom disciples. I guess I am agreeing with Micah that multi-site is rooted in pragmatism. But then again I think every church model is rooted in pragmatism as churches try to effectively “practice” NT ecclesiology. I do not believe that multi-site requires its own biblical/theological defense, because multi-site is just doing church. In my view, a straightforward understanding of Baptist ecclesiology will suffice.
- Multi–site can be consistent with Baptist ecclesiology. A Baptist multi-site church can have multiple campuses with shared leadership, a shared budget, a shared sense of identity and mission, a single set of by-laws, and some form of congregational approval involved in decision-making. Such a church easily fits into the definition of an autonomous church in The Baptist Faith and Message 2000.
- Multi-site is Multi-service. The most common critiques of multi-site churches (creates different congregations, makes leadership impersonal, doesn’t facilitate membership accountability, makes one pastor the bishop of multiple churches, teaches the church to rely on a single gifted leader, negates congregational rule, etc.) would also be true of any church with multiple worship services. Multiple worship services have been the norm in Baptist life for decades, and almost all Baptist theologians and pastors find these services within the bounds of acceptable Baptist ecclesiology. So I do not see how a thoughtful, Baptist version of a multi-site strategy can be challenged on ecclesiological grounds unless we want to call for a discontinuance of multiple services in all Baptist churches. In fact, this is exactly how I explain our multi-site strategy to people in my own church – “We are simply starting a new worship service. Only instead of starting it here in this building, we are starting it in the auditorium at Florida Atlantic University.”
- Multi-site can exponentially increase leadership development. I don’t do video venue. I’m not opposed to it, but I don’t do it because I want to help more preachers develop their speaking gifts. Different sized venues allow people with different levels of ability to serve in appropriate contexts (i.e. – a preacher with little experience may not be ready to preach to 1500, but he might do great in a room with 125 people). Multiple campuses also allow for larger numbers of gifted people to lead small groups, work with children, greet people in the parking lot, help with marriage counseling, train parents, etc. Over the years, I have found that multiple campuses give us ways to offer high capacity entrepreneurial leaders (both paid and unpaid) challenging responsibilities – this keeps them motivated to stick around and serve our people instead of moving on to a “growth opportunity” at a different church.
- Multi-site can reinforce the role of pastors. Baptist churches accept “multiple pastors” as a concept, but in practice, many of our churches only recognize one “real pastor” – the Senior Pastor. At FBC West Palm, we have eight qualified, called, congregationally approved pastors in our church. We will hopefully ordain at least two, and possibly five more in the next 12 months. Pastors in our church may be full-time, part-time bi-vocational, or unpaid. We don’t use our job descriptions as our job titles – we are all just “pastors.” Every one of us has ministry assignments in the church, and we do have a “first among equals” polity that designates the Senior Pastor as the organizational leader. Because none of our pastors are omnipresent, our multi-site strategy (and our commitment to live preaching) requires that all of us preach, lead, baptize, lead the Lord’s Supper, and do counseling. So multi-site is actually helping our church to see ALL of our pastors as pastors, not just the Senior Pastor.
- Multi-site can be a missional strategy. Our church has historically worked to become a downtown, regional mega-church. Because of huge population shifts in our area, we are convinced that a better way to reach the diverse, far-flung, unchurched people of Palm Beach County is to think of ourselves as a “Network of Neighborhood Churches.” We currently have a campus 12 miles north of our downtown location – we call it Family Church at Abacoa. We are about to launch La Iglesia Familiar (Family Church in Spanish). Next year we will launch Family Church in Creole to reach 2nd and 3rd generation Haitians. In 2013 we hope to launch a new campus 15 miles west of downtown to reach working families. We would also like to start a Family Church in Riviera Beach, to reach and build African-American families. We encourage each campus to develop and pursue their own missional strategy to reach their own community. We believe that multiple congregations can be more culturally and missionally agile than a one-location church.
- Multi-site can be a long-term church planting strategy. Multi-site and church planting are not mutually exclusive. Our goal is to grow campuses that could become self-sustaining, self-governing, and self-propagating congregations. Once that happens I think it is possible that those churches will become autonomous. In addition to our multi-campus strategy, our church is developing and pursuing a strategy to plant 100 independent churches in South Florida over the next five years. I actually believe that being multi-site is helping our church to become more excited about church planting.
- Multi-site is a reproducible strategy. This strategy is being used all over the country and all over the world. It has proven to be eminently reproducible.
- Multi-site is complicated. Multi-site churches have all kinds of unique challenges. Multi-site exponentially complicates communication, leadership responsibilities, and congregational decision-making. The only reason I do multi-site is that in our context, I actually think this is the most effective strategy to use our resources to make disciples for Jesus. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t do it – its too hard to explain, too hard to implement, and too hard to sustain.
Some final thoughts:
– Multi-site is relatively new. The long-term impact of this approach remains to be seen.
– Each multi-site church is unique in its motivations, its approach, its polity, and its terminology. So you really have to critique each one – they are too different to paint with a broad brush.
– The ship has sailed. Thousands of churches are using some kind of multi-site approach to church. Almost all growing churches at least use multiple services (which amounts to the same thing as far as I am concerned).
– It is a local church issue. Each church must evaluate the theological and practical aspects of multi-site and then make their own decisions about how to faithfully make disciples of Jesus in their own context.
Thanks to Baptist21 and Micah for allowing me to share my comments here. I am no evangelist for a multi-site strategy – I do not believe it is best in every context. But I do believe that a multi-site approach can be used in a biblical, Christ-honoring way to reach people for Jesus.