I love my gospel-loving friends in multi-site churches—both leaders and members! But as Christians we work continually to reform our churches in light of Scripture. So I trust a little push back on the multi-site structure serves everyone, assuming my concerns turn out to be valid. Below are 22 misgivings I have about the multi-site model. All of these apply to churches that use a video preacher. Over half apply to churches who employ a preacher on every campus.* Some of these are grounded in biblical or theological principles; some are matters of prudence.
1. There’s no clear example of a multi-site church in the New Testament, only supposition. “Well, surely, the Christians in a city could not have all met…” (but see Acts 2:46; 5:12; 6:2).
2. If a church is constituted by the preaching of the Word and the distribution of the ordinances under the binding authority of the keys, every “campus” where those activities transpire is actually a church. “Multi-site church” is a misnomer. It’s a collection of churches under one administration.
3. For every additional multi-site campus out there, there’s one less preaching pastor being raised up for the next generation.
4. What effectively unites the churches (campuses) of a multi-site church are a budget, a pastor’s charisma, and brand identity. Nowhere does the Bible speak of building church unity in budgets, charisma, and brand.
5. To say that the unity of the church (i.e. the unity of the campuses) depends on the leaders is to say that that the life and work of the church depends that much more on the leaders. Members, in comparison to a single-site model, are demoted.
6. To the extent that a multi-site church relies on brand identity to reach unbelievers, to that same extent they are building Christianity on their brand identity.
7. Multi-site churches which use video preaching unwittingly communicate that singing is more significant for Christian growth and closer to the heart of worship than hearing God’s preached Word. After all, how many multi-site churches stream their music over video from a central location? A church wouldn’t dare import the music, it’s thought. People need to engage with a live band. People need their music authentic, personal, enfleshed. But preaching? Apparently, it can be imported from afar.
8. When a multi-site pastor implodes, dies, or retires, all the churches that constitute that “church” are put at risk, including all the smaller once-independent congregations that the multi-site franchise took over.
9. A multi-site church formally removes the concept of “assembly” from the definition of “church” since it’s a “church” that never actually assembles (but see 1 Cor. 11:18). This is what it means to be multi-site. As such, members of a multi-site church never need to gather in order to be a church. One might say they should gather for reasons of prudence. But it’s not a formal requirement of being a “church.” A multi-site church could spread its 97 members (for example) across 2 sites or 97 sites. Further…
10. Wise and sensible pastors of multi-site churches will not follow the logic of a multi-site model to its rational conclusion, but will continue to insist on some gathering for reasons of prudence and even biblical obedience (though doing so contradicts their formal definition of “church”). Unwise pastors and members, however, willfollow the multi-site logic to this conclusion by creating the opportunity for “Internet churches,” unchurched “fellowship,” and other forms of churchless Christianity.
11. A multi-site church separates authority from the people with whom you gather. Authority and relationships are pulled apart. So a multi-site church involves exercising oversight and discipline over people with whom you never gather.
12. A multi-site church makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for a congregation to fulfill its obligation to exercise the keys over the whole “church.”
13. Insofar as the main teacher belongs to a different gathering, a multi-site church separates the ministry of the word from the ministry of deeds.
14. Not only does a multi-site pastor possess all the administrative power that a bishop possesses over churches in his region, he possess even more power than a bishop because he’s doing all the preaching in all those churches.
15. The multi-site church model depends upon extending the reach of “my” church rather than partnering with and aiding other congregations. That is, it’s built on a competitive model of franchise extension, rather than a partnering model of mutual aid that we see in the New Testament. All this can foment “turfyness” and competition between churches. At the very least, every additional campus is a missed opportunity for helping another ministry.
16. The pastor of a large church has difficulty knowing all his members, but he can at least have some sense of the room in which he’s preaching. Both of these are impossible by definition in a multi-site church that employs video preaching.
17. Multi-site churches make it easier to be an anonymous Christian/church member, and perhaps easier for wolves to hide. Yes, this is true of larger churches also, but now the anonymity is built into the very structures. A person can bounce between campuses—church hop!—all in the same “church.”
18. Multi-site churches make church discipline at best more difficult and at worst impossible, as an excommunicated member could easily just switch “campuses” without anyone noticing.
19. Multi-site pours gas on the fire of “theotainment,” as members receive the Word of God from a disembodied man on a screen.
20. In an age which wants authenticity and reality, multi-site is ironically anti-incarnational: it divides Word from flesh.
21. If every local church is to be a presentation or expression or picture of the universal church, that unbelievably wonderful end-time assembly of all God’s people, the multi-site church pictures a divided end-time assembly.
22. Multi-site churches are the current trend in evangelicalism. The great question is, will they be able to make a generational transition? Will they be able to hold together when the main preaching pastor—who is usually in himself the center of gravity for the whole enterprise—goes off the scene? And how much institutional and spiritual fall-out will occur when he does? The only examples of “multi-site churches” that have survived trans-generationally are those which invest a particular office with theological significance, as in, “The man who holds this office is the Successor of Peter, the Vicar of Christ on Earth, the Supreme Pontiff of the Church, and you owe him your allegiance regardless of whether or not you like his preaching.” Whether our own evangelical brand of “multi-site churches” can make this transition without that kind of absolute claim seems unlikely.
*Multi-site “churches” that employ preaching pastors at every site or campus are in fact a type of presbytery: a group of churches united under one elder board (and for those multi-siters who call themselves “congregational,” it might be worth recalling that presbyterians vote on their pastors and, in some cases, discipline, too). Not all the points above apply to this species of the multi-site animal. I would say that points 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 9, 10, 11, 12, 15, 17, 18, and 21 apply, though shades of a few others may apply as well. My misgivings with presbyterianism would require another list.
Author’s note: Several of the points above were provided by Alex Duke, Jamie Dunlop, Grant Gaines, and Greg Gilbert.
Jonathan Leeman is the editorial director for 9Marks. You can follow him on Twitter.