Book Review: The Multi-Site Church Revolution
The Multi-Site Church Revolution is the second book in the Leadership Network Innovation Series, which seeks to energize, equip, and inspire Christian leaders. These books are designed for practitioners, offering «real stories, about real leaders, in real churches, doing real ministry» (224) and utilizing innovative and transferable principles. The three authors of this book have all been involved in multi-site church ministry and in the Leadership Network.
The book begins with a foreword and preface, includes fifteen chapters divided into four parts, and concludes with three appendices, endnotes, and subject and Scripture indices.
According to the preface, the movement toward multi-site churches is a revolution already taking hold. The authors cite one study that claims one in three churches is considering developing a new service in a new location. And they foresee the day when, like chain hotels and chain restaurants, «multi-site extensions of trusted-name churches» will be the norm (10).
Part 1 introduces the multi-site movement. Chapter 1 defines a multi-site church as «one church meeting in multiple locations,» sharing «a common vision, budget, leadership, and board» (18). A number of growing multi-site churches are profiled, and the five most prominent models within this diverse movement are described: video-venture, regional-campus, teaching-team, partnership, and low-risk. In practice, the authors note that most multi-site churches are a blend of these models.
Part 2 is the longest section of the book, addressing the «how to» question. It begins with the question, «would it work for you?» The authors list numerous advantages they see in going multi-site as opposed to planting new «stand-alone» churches. They give churches «A Self-Diagnostic Tool» (57) at the end of the chapter to assess their readiness. Chapter 4 looks at the motivations for developing multiple venues. The two most common seem to be overcrowding of a growing church’s facility and a desire to reach out into new areas. Further chapters discuss how to discern opportunities, and promote and finance a second location. Each of the six chapters in this part includes practical exercises—called «Workouts»—designed to help churches with the nuts and bolts of developing a multi-site church.
Part 3 continues in the same practical vein, highlighting elements crucial in the success of a multi-site church. Becoming a multi-site church, rather than merely planting a new church, requires identifying and transferring the original church’s «DNA» to additional locations. Multi-site churches also raise difficult questions of structure and leadership, which are considered in chapters ten and eleven. The final chapter in part three deals with technology, an important element for multi-site churches because a major feature of many multi-site churches is the use of videocast preaching. One-third of multi-site churches use videocast preaching exclusively, and another third use a combination of videocast and in-person preaching.
The last two chapters comprise Part 4, which looks at some of the key barriers to adding locations, and seeks to inspire churches to «be part of turning the tide in a battle being lost by current approaches to doing church» (195). Appendices direct the readers to internet links for more practical tools and list some multi-site churches, both internationally and in North America.
The authors present a passionate case for multi-site churches. They clearly believe this model is the wave of the future, and see its evangelistic fruitfulness as evidence of the blessing of God upon it. They present dozens of positive examples, and believe most churches should join this revolution. For growing churches facing limitations of space, becoming multi-site seems preferable to building ever bigger buildings and becoming ever bigger megachurches. Multi-site churches have been effective in extending ministry into previously unchurched or underchurched areas.
But this model raises numerous theological and ecclesiological questions that are not acknowledged or are treated superficially. Perhaps this is due to the fact that its intended audience is practitioners rather than theologians, but practitioners should also be theologians.
For example, is there a biblical basis for the idea of a multi-site church? If so, it is not developed very thoroughly in this book. The Scripture index contains only twenty-three references to biblical texts in the book, and in a number of places, the references that are used are very much out of place. For example, is it really accurate to say that when Moses put leaders over the people of Israel (Ex. 18:21-23), he «created the first multi-site church» (143)? Attention to Scripture is minimal throughout. For example, how can the authors devote an entire chapter to leadership and never consider what Scripture says about the qualifications for leaders in 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, and 1 Peter 5?
Another example of an unrecognized issue occurs on page 28, which gives definitions for six key multi-site terms, but the critical term «church» is not one of them. If «church» by definition involves a local body of believers who gather, then a multi-site church is an impossibility. The authors assert that «Corinth and other first-century churches were multi-site, as a number of multi-site house churches were considered to be part of one citywide church» (17). But that goes beyond what the evidence actually shows. Paul does use the singular «church» to refer to the church in a city, but whether there were multiple house churches in those cities or not, we do not know. There may have been both small group and large group meetings of a body of believers that considered themselves one church and occasionally gathered as one, but multi-site churches do not have any large group meeting where all the multiple sites of the one church gather. Moreover, when Paul spoke of the churches in an area, he consistently used the plural (the churches of Asia, Macedonia, Galatia, Judea). The multi-site model sees one church extending over a region and even internationally. Finally, the seven churches in Revelation 2 to 3 are relatively near one another geographically, yet they are not regarded as multiple sites of one church but as distinct local churches.
Another question regards those who use videocast preaching. The authors emphasize the importance of each location having a «campus pastor,» who offers pastoral care but does not preach and teach his people. But can pastoral care and preaching be so easily separated? Can the elders of a church routinely give over the feeding of the flock to someone who has no relationship to them? One of the tasks most clearly associated with the office of pastor in the New Testament is that of teaching the flock. This separation of pastoral care and preaching is a serious question raised by the growing use of videocasts that needs more careful consideration.
A final question lies in the area of polity. One of the marks of a multi-site church is sharing a common leadership and board. At one point, the authors give an organizational chart of what a multi-site church would look like under such leadership (137). The lead pastor in this model closely resembles the bishop of episcopal polity. That is fine, if one happens to follow that polity. But those of presbyterian and congregational polities should be aware of the implicit polity in multi-site churches.
BOTTOM LINE: WHY NOT PLANT INDEPENDENT CHURCHES?
One question considered but never answered to my satisfaction is why developing multiple sites of the «same» church is preferable to planting new independent churches. The authors list what they see as eight advantages of developing multi-site churches over planting new churches (see 51: Accountability; Sharing of resources; Infusion of trained workers; Shared DNA; Greater prayer support; Preestablished network for problem solving; Not needing to ‘reinvent the wheel’; Connection with others doing the same thing). But all these supposed advantages could and should happen in any healthy new church plant. In fact, the authors acknowledge that multi-site can also be an effective church planting model, with the multiple sites eventually becoming «stand-alone churches» (53). Using this model for church planting or seeing multi-site churches as networks of churches would resolve a number of the questions raised above, and would be, in this reviewer’s opinion, a better use of the model.
This book is not designed to answer these questions, and so it is somewhat unfair to criticize it for not answering them. As I said, it is addressed to practitioners, especially pastors of growing churches who face space problems. However, if multi-site is to become the norm for churches of the future, the questions raised above need serious discussion. For any evangelical, the biblical basis of an idea is paramount. The authors claim that «Corinth and other first-century churches were multi-site» (17). But a one paragraph discussion is not a sufficient justification for a movement they call «revolutionary.» The leaders of this movement need to show more clearly that a multi-site church fits within the biblical meaning of ekklesia before recommending it as fervently as they do. A respect for history should cause them to ponder why earlier theologians never saw this model in the pages of the New Testament. Before adopting a pragmatic solution in response to the need for additional seating, considering the theological implications of the solution is imperative. This book should be building upon a previous work making the theological, exegetical, and ecclesiological case for multi-site churches. But that work has not yet been written. I am not sure that a convincing case can be made; perhaps it can. But before urging multitudes of churches to join the movement, the implications of the multi-site model need to be considered.
Perhaps multi-site churches are a preferable option to building bigger buildings for bigger megachurches. But why adopt what is as of now biblically questionable when the better option of planting new churches is clearly biblical? Much of what this book contains can be easily transferred to a strong and supportive church planting model, which would accomplish many of the same goals as the multi-site church while relieving many of the troubling ecclesiological questions.