What Is this Thing, Anyway? A Multi-Site Taxonomy

Article
02.26.2010

Congregational? Presbyterian? Episcopalian? Presbygational? Conbypalian? Epigregyterian?  I’ve heard them all (even made up a few myself).

“Its just as congregational as any other church,” some argue. “We have a meeting of the whole church every quarter.”

“No, it’s Presbyterian” others say. “You have a group of pastors that makes decisions for multiple congregations.”

And then the nuke: “One church in multiple locations? Looks to me like exactly how the papacy got started.”

Before we set out, I should make two really massive qualifications that may make the editor scrap this article altogether on charges of First Degree Uselessness. First, it would be impossible to say anything accurate or helpful about “The Polity of Multi-Site Churches.” That’s much too broad a category unless you’re going to write a book. There are simply too many mutli-site churches with too many different models of church government. Because of that, I think the best approach will be simply to take a look at the model of one church with which I’m somewhat familiar. That word “somewhat” is the second qualification. Apart from the one-off visit now and then, I’ve never attended a multi-site church. I just have friends who do, and I’ve talked to them and asked them some questions.

And now, ladies and gentlemen, based on a few conversations and nary a shred of first-hand experience, I’m boldly going public with some thoughts about their churchs polity! How’s that for brazen? So to those friends I’ve talked with about this article, thanks for answering my questions and letting me pick your brain. I hope I’m being fair with my characterizations here, and I’ll be genuinely glad to issue corrections or retractions about this article wherever you think it necessary.

* * *

One thing we must understand from the very beginning of a discussion like this is that not every multi-site church is interested in the least in calling itself congregational. Indeed most multi-sites, I would guess, are quite happy to wind up looking almost entirely Episcopalian in their structure—a strong senior pastor with unquestioned decision-making authority over several different campuses. Others look more Presbyterian, with a group of campus pastors who meet together and make decisions about the direction of the church as a whole. There are other multi-sites, however, that very much intend to remain congregational and elder-led, rather than elder-ruled. Those are the ones that are most interesting to me, not least because congregationalism is one of the frequent topics of conversation here at 9Marks.

When it comes to these congregational multi-site churches, I think my conclusion is that charges that they are “nothing but retread Presbyterianism” or “nothing but Romanism redux” are inaccurate. There is something distinctly congregational about the way these churches conduct themselves. But I also think that its not accurate to say that these churches are simply congregational, either. While there are distinctly congregational elements in their structure, there are also elements, I think, that are distinctly not congregational. Indeed there are elements that look very much to me like other forms of church government. Let me approach all this by asking three questions.

WHAT’S CONGREGATIONAL ABOUT IT?

First, what’s congreational about it? Quite a lot, actually. There are several elements in the structure of these churches that are distinctly congregational. First, congregational multi-site churches hold a whole-congregation meeting several times during the year. Sometimes it’s an annual meeting, sometimes semi-annual, sometimes quarterly or even more often. That never happens in an Episcopalian or Presbyterian polity. The members of the ECUSA or the PCA or the Roman Catholic Church are never invited to meet together with any decision-making authority. That’s significant.

It’s also significant that when the whole membership of a multi-site church meets together in its regular meeting, they have considerable decision-making authority. They call the senior pastor, fire the senior pastor, call the various campus pastors, exercise church discipline, vote on membership, and even celebrate the ordinances together. That is unlike anything in Presbyterian or Episcopalian forms of government.

On the other hand, it seems to me that multi-site advocates really ought to admit that the way they define “congregational meeting” is different from the way congregationalists have traditionally defined “congregational meeting.” I realize that this is where the brunt of the argument lies. But even if there are instances of “church” being used for an entire region in the New Testament, and even if there are circuit-riders here and traveling pulpiteers there in history (neither of which points do I intend to argue here), can we not agree that a “congregational meeting” has most often referred to a meeting of a single community of believers, rather than to a coming together of several different communities which do not meet together for corporate worship on the Lord’s Day? I don’t mean to make a value judgment here; I only want to point out that the meeting together of several different groups of believers does not fit snugly into the way “congregational meeting” has usually been understood. My sense is that the old congregationalists would look at such a meeting and more readily say “associational meeting” than “congregational meeting.”

WHAT’S EPISCOPALIAN ABOUT IT?

Second, what’s Episcopalian about it? Really not much, in my opinion. In the church with which I am most familiar, the senior pastor has the authority to fire campus pastors, and everyone agrees that he has enormous influence over the direction of the church. But then again, the senior pastor can’t install a campus pastor unilaterally, and senior pastors often have enormous influence over their churches, even in strictly congregational churches. That doesn’t quite qualify in my mind as a bishopric.

Indeed, there’s quite a lot about the congregational multi-site that is very un-episcopalian. The whole-congregation meeting is the most obvious example, followed closely by the senior pastor’s lack of authority to install a campus pastor. There’s also the existence of a “leadership team”—you might call it a “board of elders,” even—which consists of the senior pastor and all the campus pastors and which meets as a group to think, pray, and set direction for the church as a whole. That’s much closer to Presbyterianism than to Episcopalianism.

And that leads us to our third question.

WHAT’S PRESBYTERIAN ABOUT IT?

Third, what’s Presbyterian about it? Here’s where things get tricky, because I’d answer this by saying, just as I did about congregationalism, “quite a lot.” Not everything, obviously, but quite a lot. Of course there is that unique meeting of the whole church, and my understanding is that the members of the church, when they meet together in that way, have a great deal of decision-making authority.

But despite those important differences, congregational multi-site churches still, in my opinion, have much in common with a Presbyterian polity. For one thing, there is the obvious point that congregational multi-site churches operate with an authority structure that is outside and above the particular, local assembly of believers. If you are a regular attender of “Campus A,” then decisions about your church life are being made—at least in part—by people who do not regularly attend your weekly gathering. The leadership team of the church—essentially, the pastors of other gatherings—are able to make binding decisions about another gatherings life and direction. Again, I’m not saying thats necessarily bad; that’s not the point here. It’s just to say that the same thing is true in a Presbyterian polity.

Perhaps what is most interesting here, however, is that there are certain elements of Presbyterian polity (the PCA, for example) that are actually more congregational than the polity of multi-sites. A few examples: First, in a Presbyterian polity, a presbytery cannot install a senior minister without the consent of the particular gathering of believers. In a multi-site polity, by contrast, every attender of a particular campus could vote against a man being installed as their campus pastor, and it would happen anyway if the rest of the church voted in favor of it. Second, Presbyterian churches never celebrate the Lord’s Supper outside the particular gathering; multi-site churches celebrate it both at individual campuses and at the whole-congregation meeting. Third, in a Presbyterian polity (or at least in the PCA), each particular gathering owns its own facilities. That is not the case in a multi-site church; the church as a whole owns the facilities and could therefore make decisions about that property above the objections of those who weekly meet there.

CONCLUSION

What we finally end up labeling the polity of a multi-site church is not an earth-shakingly important question. What’s important, above all, is what the Bible teaches about how churches should be structured. Under that is what will tend to the building up of the saints. Other articles in this journal take up those more important questions.

But I think there is something important about this question of polity, however, and that’s the simple question of accuracy. In the end, I think it would serve this whole conversation well if we could all agree that multi-site churches are simply not “just as congregational” as any other congregational church. The fact is, they’re doing something fairly unique. Maybe that’s fine; maybe not. Advocates of multi-site churches should make their case from the house churches of Jerusalem and Rome, critics can fire back, and we can all have long, fun, raucous arguments in between convention sermons about the myriad practicalities involved here. But what we can’t do, I think, is cram multi-site polity into any existing, already-well-defined category—whether presbyterian, Episcopalian, or congregational. It just won’t fit.

At the end of the day, I think were going to need a new word. I’d like to nominate “Gregisanalian.”

By:
Greg Gilbert

Greg Gilbert is the Senior Pastor of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. You can find him on Twitter at @greggilbert.