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9Marks Explained : A Letter From Mark Dever

How T4G Gave Me a Vision for Massive Single-Site, Single-Service Churches

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The room was massive. Around me sat almost 8000 other Christians. The vast majority, of course, were complete strangers. Yet sitting there, ahem, in the "Kentucky Yum! Center" for this year's Together for the Gospel conference, belting out songs like "In Christ Alone," I caught a vision for the powerful joy someone just might experience in a massive single-site, single-service church.

Don't get me wrong. Christians require intimate fellowship, and I am a huge proponent of elders being able to "oversee all the flock"—down to the last member.

Still, there was something uniquely heartening about sitting in a room together with almost 8000 others singing the same song to the same Lord at the same time. Together you pray. Together you hear and feel the impact of words of life. Together you respond once more in songs of confession and praise...

I don't say this primarily for people in small churches, but for people in big churches who divide themselves up into multiple services or sites. Do you know what you just might be missing?

Let me get existential for a moment. Imagine all these preached words about Christ swirling through the air. Then picture the wind of the Spirit bringing those words down into our minds and our chests, taking hold of our rational processes with undeniable logic and our affections with exhilarating power, thereby recalibrating the direction of our desires. Then listen as we sing out those same words in one voice with gusto. Listen as the melodies of our hearts echo off walls, their vibrations pressing back into our bodies. Then watch as 8000 heads drop and eyes close. Peek and look around, if you must.

Now, amidst all these words and movements, tell me that the unity of the moment is not bodily palpable.

I'm not one to typically reach for mystical language, but as I confessed sin and praised God with this massive throng of like-minded believers, I felt strangely, indeed, mystically, united to them. I was with them, and they were with me. We were together because we all wanted the same thing—to see Christ's glory and fame spread, and to enjoy him together. We all wanted our lives, our families, our work to be about him. Somehow, these 8000 anonymous faces didn't feel like strangers or enemies, but friends. I felt no desire to compete with them, or prove myself to them, but to embrace them, and be embraced by them.

Honestly, it was like sitting together at the family dinner table.

And now you want half the family to get up from the table, and either walk down the street to another building, or come back in two hours? And you don't think that will change things?

Presently, I often enjoy this kind of experience on Sunday mornings with my own much smaller local church. Indeed, there it is more profound, more complex, more sweet. But what struck me about this conference experience was that it was nearly 8000 people whom I did not personally know, and yet still I felt this strange sense of Holy Spirit-indwelt, Word-driven unity.

For the first time, I imagined what the church in Jerusalem with its 5000 men (and how many women and children?) must have been like. First, they enjoyed the power of the crowd as the all met together (Acts 2:46a; 5:12; 6:2). Then they separated for fellowship and met in individual houses (2:46b). Power and unity together, followed by a more intimate fellowship when apart.…It’s not a bad formula. Throw some elders into those individual house meetings and you got pastoral oversight as well.

So back to you pastors with multiple-services and sites. It’s no good to say, as some do, “Once your church grows beyond 1000, you might as well split into two services or two sites. What’s the difference?” The difference is that people live in bodies. And bodies together is a different thing than bodies separate. Just ask your spouse or kids. How well can you build a marriage or raise your kids over Skype?

Perhaps the lesson here is, if your preaching will bring that many people, maybe it’s not such a bad thing to build the big building after all.

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I resonate with your words, Jonathan. I was there at t4g and experienced this as well. I appreciate your work in "Reverberation", too. Your insight is a gift to the church. Press on in grace.

Excellent article! I totally agree with you!

I not only imagined how was the church of Jerusalem with 5,000 men, but also how we are going to worship in heaven! IT was an amazing time, worship, and unity. Thanks for this.

I agree all the way about the spirit of worship and fellowship. It is great to imagine the church in Jerusalem. However I can not image how many elders would be necessary to faithfully shephard a flock like that. I am in a city of 1,100 people and we have a church of 230. We did a multi site/church plant two years ago. Now we are considering the option of building a new building. It is just hard to image a 500 seat church is necessary in a town of 1,000. Great thoughts though. It was a great time of worship.

Rob, I have thought about pulling together a collection of stories/essays from small town pastors who pastor comparatively large churches in these towns, sort of micro-mega churches. I feel it is an area of the discussion which too often overlooked. If I were to email you and send you a rough outline, would you be interested in talking a bit about it?

andrewtlocke at gmail dot com

Andrew, I am always glad to talk about what God is doing in our community. You used the term micro-mega church. I am frequently listening in to the muti-site debates because the situations feel so relevant to us while the statistics are so different. We are just now starting the conversation about a building project and I am still unclear about this unique situation. Thanks for the interest.

I remember the first year (the last time I was able to go) and thoroughly enjoyed 4,000 voices raised in praise. I also remember the only time I've ever been able to visit Capital Hill Baptist Church and thoroughly enjoyed the 850 voices raised in praise. In fact, I pastor a church of 40 and thoroughly enjoy hearing those voices raised in praise.

I know this blog was not necessarily about size of congregation and more about keeping it ONE congregation, and with that I agree. But we can't forget that most pastors aren't in a church larger than 100.

Good word. Right on.

That is an amazing site to behold and to be a part of, with thousands and thousands of people together in worship. And Abraham is right to comment that a scene like this is like it'll be in heaven - as we'd be among thousands and even millions or billions of people worshipping God together and in unison!

The bummer thing about the reality of life on this side of things is how expensive it is to pull off large gatherings with thousands of people all at once. I know of arenas and stadiums that do it day in and day out because they charge $$s for admission. Except for Joel Osteen and the worship in a former arena now church building, I don't know of other churches that are doing large-scale worship every weekend.

A small glimpse of what it's like to be in the presence of our King!

Appreciate your post very much! Currently wrestling (-grin-) through the sinful covetousness of wanting to have been at T4G and being incredibly thankful for web video and technology God's given us!

I treasure those moments you described so well and wholeheartedly agree with your estimation of one service, one gathering worship. What do you suppose a right balance to be between what you described and a healthy pragmatic approach to leading congregations with even one building, multiple services?

(Side note: Thank you for your efforts in "The Surprising Offense of God's Love"! Just finished reading it and so appreciate the scope you provided for the topic. I am enjoying "Reverberation" now...about 1/2 way through it.

Thank you!

Jonathan, I know this wasn't supposed to be an air-tight apologetic for single-service church, but I hope you realize there are few leaders of multi-service churches who disagree with you. 90+% of the time, I imagine, a 2nd or 3rd service is begun not because the pastor really wants to preach for another 30 minutes on Sunday morning, but because the practical logistics of a growing church demand it. Most of the time a church that is growing expands quicker than the building, unless they happen to be worshiping in a large field. I think I heard even CHBC opened an overflow room while an expansion was being made to their sanctuary.

Further, many multi-site/multi-service proponents have argued that while they would love to have their whole congregation together in one room (a great picture of how people from all nations will worship at our Lord's coming), the church funds are better spent in non-building projects, hopefully in ways that will directly work to make heaven's worship service even larger! Another missional argument is that typically the larger a church gets, the more spread out its members are, so it makes better sense to start multi-sites throughout a city to encourage members to worship and serve closer to their neighborhoods instead of commuting in for a service.

These arguments are not tight and I know they have been discussed on this site even multiple times, but it's hard to fault them when you see empty steeple houses and cathedrals from ages past spread throughout Europe and the US, where once large churches gathered now dust collects from the withering of the presence of the gospel.

That said, I am very happy to serve in a church that is about to open a larger, "churchy" building adjacent to the office strip it was planted in, so that we can again be a unified body, worshiping our Lord together!

Thank you for this article; solid thoughts, something for someone like me, who constantly pushes people to think "discipleship" and about how to "grow smaller".

One push back to ponder: was the intense feeling of unity more a function of size, or a function of likemindedness? I noticed that phrase, "likeminded believers", came up in your article a couple of times. Simply drawing from personal experience, I have found gathering with missional brothers and sisters and belting out praises and prayers to our Lord together to be very powerful, even if there are only thirty of us. What would a massive room of shallow believers feel like?

Just a thought...

As an aside, why is "missional" continually being used to mean "better than merely Christian" in these discussions?

Great story! I imagine how powerful the church could become in our communities and nations if we were together as one. No denominations, just one like mind, with one bible, and with one mission. To help the needy and to seek the lost.!

Our church is over 4000 members strong and we have multiple services but the hope is to one day have a huge building. In fact, we know it could work because we did an Easter service at a small arena a couple years ago and over 7000 people showed for the one service. With many other churches in the area, within a mile, they could have chosen any one of them, but they came to ours. It was simple breathtaking.

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    Single service churches that are big in numbers are gaining more focus as people enjoy sharing these services with others who are like-minded.

I'm all for single service and site churches, but I wonder where church planting is in this article?

what about, when your church grows over 500 or 1,000, sacrificially sending them to do Christ's work in another neighborhood?

My problem with mega churches in buildings the size of malls is that the impact they can have is still limited to their whereabouts. a body of Christians in a neighborhood is a body of Christians in a neighborhood, so why not plant more churches in different neighborhoods instead of growing until you can't fit?

Emily, as far as I know Capital Hill Baptist is involved with church planting internationally and nationally. They also have done church revitalization where they sent a pastor and a group to another church to strengthen it.

Another thing to consider is not all counties and cities will let you build as big as you need. Our county wouldn't let us build larger than a 1000 person sanctuary, even though that wasn't enough space for our congregation. I look at their (the county) decision and think about maybe God was involved in it, forcing us to really re-examine church planting.

In our case, the county wouldn't let us build a sanctuary larger than a 1000 seats, so we built it knowing it wasn't going to hold all our people. I think God will use their (the county) decision to force us to re-examine church planting...and for that I am thankful that the county has made such a decision.

I completely agree. I also appreciated the way you presented it. In debates like these it's so easy to focus on what we're not (i.e. being against multi-site) but I loved that you should the positives of this approach.

As someone who served as a missionary in one of the larger cities of Mexico, there is something special about large gatherings of believers united for the glory of Jesus Christ. Most evangelical churches there are less than 50 people (although there are now a few with a couple hundred and very few with over a 1000). About 20 years ago, one local ministry rented a hall and invited all the like minded churches to an Easter Sunrise service. (This was the first such event in the history of the church in that city that I am aware of). There is indeed something special about large gatherings of brothers and sisters in Christ.

First: massive props to the comments from "Doug (not verified) | 4.27.2012". Exactly right.

Having been to T4G twice, I have a different observation. Back when T4G was in a smaller venue, I felt like we really were singing together because I could hear all of us singing due to the size of the venue. To make sure it wasn't just me I sat in 4 different spots in the arena over the week this time, and I can say this confidently: there's no question there were more of us singing and less to be heard because the arena was too big.

That said, 9Marks has spent what I perceive as the better part of a decade explaining the biblical vision of the local church, and creating practical and helpful resources for pastors of local churches to embrace that vision and teach it to their people. I think it's funny that with all that under our (collective) belts, Jonathan resorts here to how he felt about the T4G gathering to make his point. Are his feelings -- as well-intentioned and (as I see them) well-informed as they are -- actually a better argument than Heb 10-11, or the book of 1 Cor, or the book of Acts?

I'd be interested in how many are turned around by this experience rather than the counsel which Jonathan has previously given in a loving and expert way in his other writings from 9Marks.

Frank, you seriously nailed me. I was being completely existential! ;-)

Remember when you went to summer camp and every one recommitted their lives to Christ? And coming down from the mountaintop, real life set in? Remember going to a Billy Graham crusade and sitting in the upper deck watching all those people recommit their lives to Christ? And then they went back to their homes and real life set in? Remember at the T4G conference when you sang with 8000 other commmitted Christians? And you were blessed because you were all in one accord? And then you went back to your cities and the real life experiences of your church set in? Discipleship is not 8000 people. Discipleship is one on one real life living. Remember when those new believers got together with 5000+ people and heard the apostles preaching? And then the real life and death persecutions and murders scattered them to small meetings in homes and catacombs? Oh the real life experiences we lose when we gather, supposedly as one church, in four locations in 15 services. It may surprise you that someone else actually sits in YOUR seat during another service.

Don't lets forget that 8000 people at T4G, most of whom you don't know any better than the 7999 know you...is not the same as worshipping with folk you know, and may not always particularly like, and yet need to.

Worshipping with a large group is great, no doubt. But actually worshipping together must surely mean more than "in the same room as..." but a bit more of "sharing a life with..."

That doesn't happen with 8000, or 1000, or 500.

Don't lets forget that 8000 people at T4G, most of whom you don't know any better than the 7999 know you...is not the same as worshipping with folk you know, and may not always particularly like, and yet need to.

Worshipping with a large group is great, no doubt. But actually worshipping together must surely mean more than "in the same room as..." but a bit more of "sharing a life with..."

That doesn't happen with 8000, or 1000, or 500.

Daryl, why is it that more people do not see what you have pointed out? I think a church needs to look at itself seriously and re-evaluate themselves when their "entertainiment" budget is more than their outreach expenses, when the money spent on glossy advertisements for their Easter program is more than what they have dispersed from their berevement fund, when adding a new campus is more important than planting a new fellowship, when "this is the way you do church" is the mantra instead of lets go and make disciples, then they need to seek God's guidance. When the cost of doing business is more on their minds than the cost of discipleship, something is wrong
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I don't think it was God's plan for mega churches to exist. When in the 1st century, the early church in Jerusalem began to grow, God dispersed them through persecution throughout the empire, so that they could take the Gospel to all the nations. When churches are growing too big, and refusing the spread out to other places, they are not spreading the gospel as they should.

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