Book Review: Multi-Site Churches, by Scott McConnell

Review
03.03.2010

Me reviewing this book is like a PETA employee reviewing a hunting manual.

Let me explain. I don’t think churches should be multi-site. I think that the New Testament church’s example, the meaning and use of the word ekklesia, and the nature of congregational authority all indicate that a church is by definition, and therefore should only be, a single assembly that meets in one place. Strictly speaking, I don’t think that multi-site churches even exist. I think that each site or campus or venue is by definition a separate church, at least if we use the word “church” the way the New Testament does.

Yet this book by Scott McConnell, associate director of LifeWay Research, was not written to persuade people like me about the biblical legitimacy of multi-site churches. It was written to give practical help to those who are considering going multi-site or have already done so.

OVERVIEW

In order to provide this practical help, McConnell interviewed dozens of pastors of multi-site churches and both synthesized their perspectives and allowed them to speak for themselves. Nine of the twelve chapters feature advice from multi-site pastors such as James MacDonald, Geoff Surratt, Dino Rizzo, and Jon Ferguson. The rest of the book is largely made up of anecdotes, advice, and practices from the first- and second-generation multi-site churches McConnell investigated.

In its twelve chapters the book covers the reasons for multi-site (Ch. 1), the things a church should have in place before going multi-site (Chs. 2-3), how to define your multi-site church (Ch. 4), finding a campus pastor (Ch. 5), developing other leaders (Ch. 6), deciding where to launch (Ch. 7), how to communicate with the different sites (Ch. 8), how to adapt your staff and continue developing leaders (Chs. 9-10), and how to keep the sites connected (Ch. 11). The book’s final chapter addresses two special types of new sites: an ethnic or multi-cultural site, and merging with or absorbing an existing church (Ch. 12).

Multi-Site Churches is straightforward, practical, and fairly comprehensive. If you’re a pastor set on leading your church to become a multi-site church, you’ll probably benefit from this book’s collection of the ideas and experiences of dozens of pastors who have gone that way in the past few years. And there are some things about the book I would commend, especially the evident evangelistic zeal of all of the pastors interviewed for the book. These brothers are clearly pursuing multi-site ministry out of a genuine desire to reach more people with the gospel. So, while I have serious problems with the method they’re using, I rejoice that these men are laboring to reach others with the good news about Christ.

But if you’re a pastor intending to embrace multi-site, there are a few problems with this book that I think should cause you concern about the thinking behind this promising new “tool” for doing church.

PRAGMATISM

The first problem is pragmatism. This pragmatism comes across in two ways. First, the book never seriously wrestles with the question, “Is multi-site biblical?” I know that this book is meant to be a how-to guide, not a theological treatise, but it is troubling that the book never provides a scriptural justification for multi-site, although a few of the pastors who contribute to the book at least raise the issue. James MacDonald, for example, writes, “Theologically I have no hesitation with multi-site… There is definitely a multilocation dynamic to the church in Acts. And I don’t see anything in Scripture that forbids it” (22). And that’s about it: a multi-location dynamic in the book of Acts and no apparent command against it. I’m sure that the brothers interviewed for this book have spent a lot of time examining what the Bible teaches about God’s holiness and man’s sinfulness and Christ’s person and work and our need to repent of our sins and trust in Christ. And perhaps these brothers have given similarly serious thought to whether or not the Bible supports multi-site. But whether they have or not, this book almost entirely ignores the question, “Is multi-site biblical?”

Second, McConnell and the pastors he draws from endorse the multi-site method not because it is faithful to God’s Word but because it works. How do they know it works? Because more people are coming to church. Throughout the book there is a running appeal to the number of attenders as the test of a church’s success (see pp. 20, 68, 152, 153, 230). And in the book’s epilogue McConnell writes, “Naysayers shake their heads at the multi-site movement, wondering…if somehow multi-site is bad” (235). He then cites Jesus’ saying, “For each tree is known by its own fruit,” (Luke 6:44) and responds, “The fruit has been abundantly good” (235). This is classic pragmatism. The ends justify the means. Good things are happening, so what we’re doing must be right.

While I don’t doubt that people are coming to Christ in multi-site churches, the point is that an appeal to pragmatic results in order to justify a practice undermines the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. If our question is not, “What does God’s Word say we can and cannot do as a church?” but “What will bring the most people through the door?” then we have rejected Scripture as our authority and decided that we have enough wisdom to decide what’s right for ourselves.

NUMBERS

The second problem is an overwhelming concern for church growth as defined by the number of people attending. I mentioned the book’s running appeal to numbers as the all-sufficient test of success above, but it’s worth pointing out again. Throughout the book, churches are defined by the number of attenders. Success equals lots of people attending. Failure equals fewer people attending, or even the dreaded “plateau.” While I do think that a biblically healthy church should grow, numerical increase in attendance is by no means a surefire guide to a church’s success. Pastors must actively resist the temptation to covet numbers, not justify their methods by an appeal to them.

GOD TOLD ME TO GO MULTI-SITE

The third problem is an unbiblical accent on subjective experiences of God’s guidance. I don’t deny that God can lead his people in specific ways through subjective guidance, but I do think that a reliance upon “God’s leadership” (4) as experienced through a subjective sense of guidance is a dangerous thing to put a lot of weight on. At the end of the day, how do you know when it’s God talking and when it’s just your own thoughts? How do you know when it’s God talking or Satan talking? Weigh it in the balance of Scripture? Exactly. But the irony is that this book is full of “God led us to…” (see, for example, pp. 1, 4, 6, 16, 18, 19, 32, 34, 44, 103, and 114) with very little about what God has concretely said to us in his Word.

STARBUCKS, MCDONALD’S AND QUARTERBACKS

The fourth problem with this book is an uncritical reliance on the corporate world as a model for the church. Like so much literature on the church today, Multi-Site Churches looks to the corporate world as if it holds a magic key for success. How can churches determine which are the essential aspects of their ministry they need to replicate at each new site? Dave Ferguson tells churches to take a good look at McDonalds and Starbucks (69). They seem to have figured it out. Or what makes a good campus pastor? Geoff Surratt writes, “I think the best example of what an effective campus pastor should look like is an NFL quarterback.” (101). While these kind of examples can be useful as illustrations or analogies, the pastors in Multi-Site Churches place far too much weight on worldly examples of success, rather than building their philosophy of ministry on Scripture.

WHAT ABOUT MEMBERSHIP AND DISCIPLINE?

The fifth problem is that this book entirely ignores church membership and discipline. This is especially disappointing because not only are membership and discipline crucial biblical components of the life of the church, they are two of the issues (particularly discipline) that would most strain multi-site ministry. How does a multi-site church welcome in and see off members? Do members who go to one site have any responsibility to the members who go to other sites? Whose responsibility is it when a church member who goes to campus number five is living in open, unrepentant sin? While this book has a whole lot to say about team teaching and video broadcasting and restructuring your staff and budget, it has nothing at all to say about church membership and discipline.

But my point in these five critiques is not to convince you that this is a bad book. My point in highlighting these weaknesses is to challenge you to develop a conviction and then have a conversation.

A CONVICTION AND A CONVERSATION

The conviction? That Scripture is not only authoritative, but sufficient. While I’m sure the pastors represented in this book intend to take Scripture seriously, they don’t seem to think it has much to say to multi-site churches one way or another. But in order to obey God and faithfully carry out the Great Commission, as these pastors are commendably eager to do, we must believe that Scripture is both authoritative and sufficient. We must believe that it is true and that it is all we need in order to faithfully preach the gospel and shepherd God’s church. If we don’t believe that Scripture is sufficient for the church, we’ll constantly be looking to the next trend, the next method, the next model, the next technique, or the next tool as if it offered us the success we could obtain in no other way. Yet if you believe in the sufficiency of Scripture you’ll not only test all of these enticing models and methods and techniques in the light of God’s word, you’ll constantly turn back to Scripture in order to understand it better and better. And in this way your ministry will bear increasingly better fruit as you teach God’s Word, live in obedience to God’s Word, and lead your church in increasing conformity to God’s Word.

And the conversation? Before we talk about multiple services or sites or venues or anything else, we need to have a conversation about what the Bible teaches about the church. What does the New Testament word for church mean? How is it used? Does it ever refer to multiple gatherings in different locations? Does the Bible provide a pattern for church government and church structure today? If so, what does it look like? Who has authority in the church? Can a body outside of a local congregation exercise authority over it?  What makes the church different from any other gathering of Christians?

This conversation is both important and neglected. And while Multi-Site Churches: Guidance for the Movement’s Next Generation contains plenty of good advice and even some biblical wisdom, I think it would serve pastors better to back the train up about six stops, affirm that Scripture is sufficient, and have a conversation about what the Bible teaches about the church. I hope this review has been a small step in that direction.