Multi-site? Please press pause
Scott McConnell, associate director of LifeWay Research, reveals the trajectory of this movement in a new B&H book, "Multi-Site Churches." As McConnell notes, several varieties of the methodology exist, but the most common format typically centers on a strong main campus with multiple branches allowing the congregation to reach more communities than their single location could have done.
This makes great business sense. Shared costs, broader market penetration and centralized teaching bring cohesive structures that help healthy churches rapidly expand. After all, businesses have been franchising successful brands for years.
Yet the question must become, "Is this a biblical approach to church growth?" After all, as Baptists, we want to grow biblical churches, not just churches that keep up with the trends. As Thomas White and I have argued in the book, "Franchising McChurch," when we talk about the multi-campus movement, there may be some reasons for Baptists to press pause.
Structurally, in most multi-campus structures, the new campus is simply a branch of the main congregation so all decisions are ratified and maintained by the pastor and the leadership team at the main campus. Instead of being an autonomous church that owns its own facilities and practices the New Testament model of submitting to one another in Christ, they are subjected to the external control of a centralized business structure.
For example, in some branches of the movement, offerings taken at the satellite campus are deposited into the main campus' accounts and the leaders at the main campus determine how much money goes back out to meet the needs of the satellite. While this is efficient and provides for cost sharing, your local congregation has limited control. In function, the multi-campus church can quickly fall prey to a form of hierarchical denominationalism where the main campus dictates what each satellite campus must do.
The irony cannot escape the more careful observers. The vast majority of congregations utilizing multi-campus strategies could be categorized as "free churches." Historically, Baptist churches have been vociferous opponents to anything but a free church structure that emphasizes the centrality of the local church in the plan of God to reach a lost world.
Free churches emphasize independence from outside denominational control, elect their own pastors and leaders, and typically practice some form of congregational church polity. Members give of their resources and time to support the work of God in that location. The local church provides the organic structures of discipleship, service, church discipline and accurate teaching of the Word of God. Their independence gives them flexibility to address pressing needs on a local level and reach more people with the Gospel.
In creating multi-campus structures, we run the risk of thinking that the teaching of the lead pastor, the dynamism of the worship leader or the branding of the church supersedes the Biblical process of planting new, autonomous churches. To be sure, some of the advocates for multi-campus methodologies see the multi-campus structure as an intermediate step to planting an autonomous church, but many do not have that intention. The allure of "one church, many locations" is just too strong.
Pastors Geoff Surratt, Greg Ligon and Warren Bird emphasized this in "The Multi-Site Church Revolution." They pointed out the growth potential of the movement and encouraged pastors to start new campuses instead of planting churches. Their rationale was that multi-campus structures cost less to open, cost less to maintain and increase the revenue stream of your church because you never send out core givers and volunteers to start a new work.
At the heart of the rhetoric on both sides is a very important discussion about what it means to be the ecclesia of God. In fact, many decisions taken for granted in today's churches potentially compromise the meaning of the term itself.
The word "ecclesia" is the Greek word most commonly translated in the New Testament as "church." The word mainly means "assembly" and primarily refers to a local visible assembly of believers in Christ. When the believers assemble visibly -- whether as a large church in Jerusalem meeting at Solomon's porch, or a small church gathered in Thessalonica -- they are the visible church gathered in that place. At a base level, decisions that compromise the "gatheredness" of the congregation can potentially harm the Biblical foundation of the church.
When churches multi-campus, they may be able to talk of partnership, working together and sharing resources, but they cannot on any level participate in true togetherness that qualifies as ecclesia. When placed in historical context, multi-site churches look more like mini-denominations in hierarchical form or historic Baptist associations when in networked form. Yet associations and denominations are poor replacements for the local church.
If Baptist churches choose to pursue a multi-site approach, they should make sure the negatives and potential pitfalls are researched. If your congregation chooses to commit to becoming multi-campus, consider the following suggestions to keep the church more healthy:
-- Establish each location in such a way that if the campus wishes to separate from the founding location at a later date, it can do so and retain any facilities and property.
-- Take structural steps to minimize personality-building and consumer-oriented methodologies.
-- Have several events a year where all members are invited to one location for shared services and to perform congregational business.
-- Allow each location to have some level of congregational control.
-- Mentor at least one person at all times who has the ability to take over one of the campus locations as the teaching and preaching pastor.
-- Support at least one church plant for every multi-site location started.
No matter the statistics, Baptists should approach the multi-site methodology cautiously. In most of the dominant expressions, it can feed into a consumer mentality and undermine autonomous church planting. Worse, it can lead to compromise on a basic level what it means to be the church. While recognizing this criticism rings truer with the most ambitious forms of the multi-site movement, every church leader should consider the lasting implications.
John M. Yeats is assistant professor of church history at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. He co-authored "Franchising McChurch: Feeding Our Obsession with Easy Christianity" with Thomas White.