The best resources I have found on the internet for exploring the kinds of questions I address in this blog is the May/June 2009 issue of the 9 Marks ejournal that deals with multi-site churches. It can be found here. I wish it had been around when I was writing my dissertation! I was reminded of that ejournal issue the other day from an article that referenced how some churches were undertaking some theological exploration before they launched out in their journey of becoming a multi-site church.
The article references the work of Professor Greg Allison of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in the 9 Marks journal. His contribution can be found here. In his article, he looks at the multi-site phenomenon through 4 lenses: biblical, theological, historical, and missional. He rightly points out some of the flawed biblical reasoning of multi-site proponents, and he ultimately argues for the validity of the multi-site phenomenon and offers a couple of suggested examples of multi-site polities for Southern Baptist churches.
I like his reasoning in this article, and I’d add these thoughts of my own:
1) The author’s emphasis on unity as a theological benefit of multi-site churches is fantastic. It is an incredibly necessary corrective to the emphasis on autonomy that is common in Baptist churches. He is right to point out how much better the multi-site system seems to approximate biblical exhortations toward unity than what typical Baptist churches practice. That should not be underestimated. However, this idea of unity is not enough to provide support for the idea of multi-site churches. I think tantalizing examples of multi-site ideas can be found in the New Testament (though not given as conclusive “proof” of anything). This is a necessary, complementary part of a justification for multi-site churches along with the idea of unity.
2) Allison points out that the common historical justification for multi-site churches (Methodist circuit riders) is insufficient. I agree with him here. He dives deep into Baptist history to find additional justification for multi-site churches in the history of English Baptists. I think that kind of historical work is particularly necessary and enlightening, though I have little familiarity with the details of Baptist history. I would, however, point out that I think today’s version of what is going on with the multi-site church phenomenon is something that is new, though not without similarities to other churches/polities both currently and historically. I don’t think we can look back at the New Testament and say that the church of that time was definitively a multi-site church (or house church network of sorts). Nor do I think we can look at other polities today and say “multi-site churches are really episcopal in nature.” I think the multi-site church movement today is unique; but it is not without solid historical, biblical, and theological precedents to draw from.
3) I don’t think the author goes far enough in what the multi-site phenomenon means to congregational churches. I think it ultimately calls into question their practices of autonomy and understanding of what a “local” church is. Allison seems to want to rehabilitate the multi-site idea so that it works with congregational churches, but I’m not sure that that is possible. I think the multi-site church idea goes beyond free church ecclesiology into a new realm.