Category Archives: Ecclesiology

Multi-site and house church network similarities

As already stated on this blog, I think there are some definite ecclesiological links between house church networks and multi-site churches.  Here is a link to an interesting article that talks about one multi-site church that is purposefully incorporating house churches into its multi-site strategy, which seems to at least in part support my claim of the two types of churches being linked organizationally.  I don’t think I would like to participate in a house church that relied on a video message, and I think a lot of traditional house church people would probably recoil at that idea, but I think Northland is absolutely fascinating for trying this thing and they are really breaking some new ground in North America.  Check out the article!

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Neil Cole on multi-site churches

Neil Cole, of Church Multiplication Associates (and author of several books) recently weighed in on the multi-site church phenomenon over at his website.  I think what Neil has to say about the phenomenon is absolutely fascinating, partly because he seems to be arguing for a network of house churches, and against multi-site churches.  I found from the few that I studied that ecclesiologically they are practically the same, so I’m not sure what all the fuss is about on that point.  I’ll make that argument in a subsequent post (if I haven’t already).

One claim that Cole makes that is flat-out wrong is that all multi-site churches have one centralized headquarters, out of which they operate.  The multi-site church that I studied actually was in the process of decentralizing away from that model.  They were moving from a “server” type of configuration, where all of the resources came from one central location, to more of a network with multiple hubs.  I’m not sure how that has gone for them, but I know they were certainly aware of the issues around centralization and they were working on decentralizing.

That being said, Cole does make a pretty good critique of the movement as a whole.  I agree with him that centralization in a network or group of churches should be avoided.  I also share his dislike of video sermons.  The article, however, kind of devolves at the end into a critique of all things megachurch.  I think Cole seems to be equating the multi-site church phenomenon exclusively with megachurches.  I know that this is not true at all for the multi-site church I studied, where the pastor himself purposefully did not want to set out to make a bunch of megachurches.  I also know that there are churches of many different sizes that are multi-site churches – not just megachurches.

Geoff Surratt, guru of all things multi-site, responded to Neil Cole on his blog, and Neil Cole joined in the conversation as well.  It’s a good read.  I think if both of them got in the same room together and had a conversation they would find that they have much more in common than they have differences.

Theology and Multi-Site Churches

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.

Networks, House Churches, and Multi-Site Churches

It goes without saying that not all multi-site churches have the same style of organization.  Likewise for house churches that affiliate together.  One of the interesting facets about multi-site churches and house churches is how some of them have chosen to affiliate together in network forms.

These networks seem to be less formal and more relational than denominations.  This may be because of their relatively small size compared with denominations.  Yet, they also appear to be much more relationally connected than churches in other types of networks, like the Willow Creek Association, or the Purpose-Driven network.

Here is a link to an article that talks about two churches that have merged together into one multi-site church.  They operate as two separate 501c3 organizations, but they partner together as one church in separate locations.  The network-type churches that I studied were likewise interested in connecting on a much more significant level than simply as “local” churches that voluntarily affiliate together.  They each considered the network to be “church.”

For one house church network, this meant that “church” was the network of house churches spread out over a 6 square block area as well as each home church.  For another house church network, this meant that “church” was both the individual home churches and small networks, as well as the larger network that encompassed a citywide area.  For the large multi-site church I studied, the one church that met in many locations was literally a worldwide multi-site church.  So “church” was the entire worldwide network, as well as each individual worship center.

I think these developments raise some interesting questions:

  • What exactly should count as “church” and why?
  • Why would churches want to be so closely bound together when they could instead be independent and autonomous?
  • What happens as these networks grow larger and larger?  Do they one day turn into a denomination of sorts?  What exactly is a denomination?

And so on.  I have a little bit more to say on denominations, but I’ll save that for another post.

Early Multi-Site Ecclesiology Research

It seems that there is more and more talk online about multi-site ecclesiology, even though it is definitely a concern for only a select few people. When I first started looking for resources to help me think theologically about multi-site churches, one of the first and most important that I came across was a D.Min. thesis by Scott Reavely, from Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon: An Ecclesiology for Multi-Site Churches: Thinking Biblically about the Local Church in Multiple Locations.

I honestly couldn’t find much else that had been published and that I could use in my dissertation. Scott did a great job getting the ball rolling on this whole idea. Hopefully I have been able to add a little bit myself.

Scott made a few important points in his thesis:

  • He attempted to salvage the term local in his thesis by arguing that ekklesia in the book of Acts is fluid enough to encompass one assembly or a number of assemblies meeting in the same area.
  • He views the resolution of the dispute regarding circumcision in Acts 15 to be best explained through a multi-site model, instead of seeing it though the lenses of church—church plant, regional council, or denominational structure.
  • He similarly views the church in Jerusalem as well as the shifting of funds to help impoverished churches as additionally being best understood through a multi-site lens.
  • Finally, Reavely views some of the terminology in the book of Romans and Colossians as supporting a multi-site ecclesiology (though his arguments here may be somewhat suspect)

I guess he used to have a blog, long before I started this one, but with a similar focus.  If you want to check it out, it can be found here.

Acts 15 and Multi-Site Churches

How do decisions get made in the church?  What about between churches in different cities, or maybe even different locations of the same church?  I think Acts 15 has a lot to say to these various questions.
Some hold that the earliest apostles were a special case as far as leadership and decision-making is concerned, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the case.  Acts 15 is a good example of this.  It shows the apostles and elders from the church in Jerusalem meeting with Paul and Barnabas from the church in Antioch to solve an issue together.  After coming to a consensus, they sent news back to the church in Antioch.
When I read this, I see: one church, meeting in different locations (cities in this case), solving common issues through processes of consensus (not voting, etc.).  I also don’t see hierarchy (like the apostles setting out doctrine for everyone else to agree with).  Although, to be fair, clearly the apostles and elders had special roles in the community when it came to leadership.  But the apostles didn’t seem to be set above the elders in this process; they worked together.
I also don’t see separate, autonomous churches in Antioch and Jerusalem.  Clearly, these churches (or one church in separate locations) were much more closely tied together than congregational or nondenominational churches are today.  They were closely united enough to speak truth to one another and help each other move in a similar direction.  Antioch was clearly not “autonomous” from Jerusalem, and I don’t think it was just the special case of the earliest apostles that made this the case.  Why should it be?
If the apostles weren’t around, then these churches would set their own doctrinal directions, with only suggestions from the other?  I don’t think so.  Clearly, those apostles were special, but I don’t know that their specialness meant an entirely different process of decision-making.  It seems more likely that the earliest Christians were living out their relational connectedness to one another in how they made decisions, and their understanding of being together as one church meeting in many locations.
Why can’t a similar structure to this be utilized today?

Is there ONE RIGHT polity?

The post that really gets comments and attention around here is the one on multi-site ecclesiology and the earliest churches.  I feel like I should clear something up though, because I feel like I am having to argue for something I don’t necessarily believe.

I don’t think there is ONE RIGHT WAY for churches to organize themselves.  Nor do I think the New Testament presents ONE RIGHT WAY.  I think the New Testament presents a plurality of polities in the different churches, and is largely concerned with matters other than polity.  So I don’t want to argue that a multi-site polity is more “biblical” or correct than any other type of polity.  Or that I have special insight into the practices of the earliest Christians that lets me know that the earliest churches were really multi-site churches like that exist today.  They weren’t.  I know they weren’t.  A multi-site polity is really our creation after the fact, just like presbyterian, congregational, episcopal, or other polities.  I just find that the whole multi-site ecclesiology discussion opens up a whole new creative lens for reading the New Testament.

I think, actually,  that polity is a mix of theological and cultural concerns (like everything else about churches).  The way churches and denominations in the United States are organized today probably says as much about our modern, disestablished, democratic, and individualistic milieu as much as anything else.

Think about this: if a first century Christian walked into your church, what would he or she think?  How about: why are there “senior” and “associate” pastors?  Those weren’t there in first century churches.  Why is there a “youth” pastor, and “office administrator?”  They weren’t there either.  Where is the prophet?  Teacher? Evangelist?  Bishop/Overseer?  Apostle?  Those are gifted people that God gives to the church, so why don’t they have official jobs?  Where are they?  Better yet, why are all the churches so separate?  Why aren’t they connected together?  Why do they all act like little kingdoms unto themselves?  And so on.

So, no church has the perfect, “biblical” polity.  Every church (including the multi-site congregations) has to pick and choose what to emphasize and de-emphasize in scripture to make their polity work.  That being said, I do have some preferences.  I like polities that emphasize trust, openness, empowerment, speedy decision making, egalitarian relationships, and interdependence, and I dislike polities that lead to being closed, suspicious, slow, bureaucratic, autonomous, and hierarchical.  Some of that is just personal preference, and some of that is from theological concerns.  Of all the polity choices out there, I think multi-site polities have the best potential to tend toward the former list instead of the latter.  In future posts I’ll talk more about churches and their polities that have qualities I admire.