Nine Reasons I Don’t Like Multi-site Churches

Article
02.26.2010

I am 35 years old. I have up to four laptops at any given time connected to my home wireless network and a data phone permanently attached to my pocket. I use Twitter, Facebook, Gmail, shoot home videos in HD, my X-Box Halo gamer rank is 31, I was among the first to own a Wii, and I have a Second Life account. So my fears of the multi-site church movement are not technological; they are principled.

I don’t wish to question anyone’s motives. I sincerely believe the basic desire of the multi-site movement is to reach more people with the gospel. While the motive may be admirable, the methods may be unprofitable. We know that manipulative altar calls and emotional decisions rarely result in mature believers, and I fear that the masses filling those multiple locations do not constitute healthy assemblies.

1. A CONTRADICTION IN TERMS

Please allow me to give just a few of the pitfalls of the multi-site church movement. Pitfall number one is giving up the church as the assembly or gathered congregation. The Greek word ecclesia most often translated as “church” means assembly or gathering. The oft heard mantra “one church many locations” is a contradiction in terms. An un-gathered “church” cannot know one another, love another, or bear one another’s burdens in the same way a single assembly can.

2. SPIRITUAL COLONIZATION

The multi-site methodology also forms mini-dioceses. The head pastor serves as the “virtual” bishop, the founding location as the headquarters, and the locations as the affiliated members. Most examples destroy the autonomy of the individual assemblies over the musical style, the atmosphere, and the message.

This methodology also negates the biblical principle of congregational polity because the founding location sets the budget, hires the staff, and determines the membership.

3. ENCOURAGING CONSUMERISM

With varying degrees of guilt, the multi-site method encourages consumerism. In the best scenarios, screens display messages from the most gifted communicators. Most locations have campus pastors who are theologically sound or they would not have been hired. They must be able to teach or they do not fit the biblical qualifications (1 Tim. 3:2). They may not, however, communicate as effectively or in such an entertaining manner as the video preacher. Perceptive audiences get the message when the more entertaining speaker has the spotlight.

In a worse scenario, North Coast Church offers multiple styles with the same teaching in the same facility. The options include “North Coast Live” with a human preacher, “video café” with Starbucks coffee and pastries, “the edge” with large subwoofers, “country Gospel” with bluegrass worship, “frontlines” with a military focus and acoustic worship, and “traditions” with a mix of classic hymns and old favorites. A family may arrive in one car and never see each other until they return to the car.

I fear that catering to worship styles and atmosphere preferences create purveyors of religious products serving spiritual consumers without creating substantive life change. This can lead to internet churches like LifeChurch.TV with a virtual campus in SecondLife.com. Parishioners never leave their homes. They simply turn on computers to watch a different screen, experiencing virtual community through discussion boards, contributing offerings through PayPal, and taking communion with saltine crackers and Kool-aid.

4. CANNIBALIZING THE BODY OF CHRIST

The worst example of this spiritual colonization I found occurred when a large multi-site church with debt encouraged a smaller church with valuable assets to partner with them. In this “partnership” the larger church replaced the pastor with someone who understood the DNA of the founding location, eventually closed that campus, sold the assets, and encouraged the members of the smaller church to attend another convenient location. Such cannibalizing of the body of Christ has no place among true brothers.

5. SHEPHERDS WHO DON’T KNOW THE SHEEP

Hebrews 13:17 says that leaders will give account for their actions and those under their charge. I wonder if video ministers will give account for those multi-site members—people who have never prayed with their pastor at the steps of an altar, shaken his hand on the way out the door, or ever seen him in person.

The sheep may know the sound of their shepherd’s voice but does the shepherd know anything about these sheep?

6. UNDERMINING PLANTING AND PREACHER TRAINING

An additional pitfall is that multi-site churches undermine church planting and the training of future preachers. The use of video lessens the urgency for our best pastors to replicate themselves. The immediate takes precedence over the important, and finding future leaders becomes the next generation’s problem. One wonders if such ministries can outlast the personality driving the train or if derailment lies around the corner. New church plants also suffer as congregations funnel money to the multiple locations rather than start new congregations or help revitalize dying ones. Even multi-site churches with intentional church planting strategies must recognize that resources are divided.

7. NO SCRIPTURAL SUPPORT!!!

Perhaps most importantly, I find no scriptural support for the methodology. I’ve heard the argument that all 3,000 saved at Pentecost couldn’t gather together, but Acts 2:44-46 indicates they did. The next report on growth in Acts 4:4 is followed by a statement in Acts 5:12 indicating they “were all together in Solomon’s Portico.” Solomon’s Portico was over 1,500 feet in length—five football fields long, which could have held many people—and we know the large group at Pentecost heard Peter’s message.

Others claim that Paul circulated letters to various churches and would have used video had it been available. Perhaps, but a video message is far different than a video minister, and even in Paul’s letters he upheld congregational authority. In 1 Corinthians 5:4 and 5:13 Paul upholds the necessity of congregational action and governance, which I do not see in the multi-site methodology.

The meaning of ecclesia, the commands to bear one another’s burdens, and congregational polity outweigh arguments from silence about congregation size or anachronistic arguments about Paul and technology. Thus, Scripture provides no firm foundation for the multi-site methodology.

8. UNANSWERED QUESTIONS

Ominous questions loom on the horizon. What happens when this generation’s gifted communicators leave? When they retire or pass to heaven, will these franchised churches of today lead to the disenfranchised religious of tomorrow? Will these locations stand vacant symbolizing a failed religious experiment? What if one location wants to call its own live preacher? Will that be allowed or does the founding assembly own the property and make the decisions? Could a remote location choose to begin piping in a new rising star with no connection to the current branches?

These represent a few of the unanswered questions concerning the multi-site methodology. Perhaps the best question is “Why not just plant churches?”

9. PRIORITIES?

I don’t doubt that true spiritual growth occurs in multi-site churches. Still, we must continually remind ourselves that numerical growth without life change does not equal success. We can look more like Christ with healthy churches of 1,000 than with entertained crowds of 10,000. I believe a healthy church distinct from the world glorifies God more than spreading ourselves too thin with larger crowds, never assembling together, with no church discipline, and little accountability. I dislike the multi-site methodology because I fear the pragmatic question of “Does it work?” matters more than the theological question of “Do these assemblies glorify God?”

  1. For a more complete treatment, see Franchising McChurch reviewed in this same journal.
  2. http://www.northcoastchurch.com/north_coast_melrose/.
By:
Thomas White

Thomas White is the President of Cedarville University in Cedarville, Ohio. You can find him on Twitter at @DrThomasWhite.