Category Archives: Research

New multi-site research from the Leadership Network

Here is a link to an article that summarizes some of the findings from the Leadership Network’s most recent research on multi-site churches.  Interestingly, a lot of denominations are represented in the multi-site church movement.  I think it’s fairly common to assume that most multi-site churches are nondenominational, but apparently this is not the case.  Also interesting is the finding that much of the preaching at these churches is done in person.  Another common misconception about multi-site churches is that they all extensively use video of some sort for the sermons.  Check it out!

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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.

Episcopal Polities and Multi-Site Ecclesiology

One of the first things I thought when I began studying the multi-site church that was a part of my research was: “this must be like Roman Catholic polity.”  I have noticed that a fair amount of other people who come out of free-church traditions make similar assumptions.  In part, this is born out of being outsiders to the Catholic tradition and the rest of us making assumptions about how the Catholic church understands itself.  This is true too for Anglican or other episcopal polity churches, so I really had to dig in and do my best to understand how episcopal polity churches understand themselves, and then see how that fits in with a multi-site ecclesiology.  Here’s what I came up with:

For Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican churches, the diocese is the considered the local or particular church. Historically, however, with increasing geographical spread and numbers of Christians, the idea of local was stretched as helper-priests were added to administer sacraments and preside over worship in smaller congregations when the bishop could not be present. The way that the local idea is still preserved in episcopal polity is that the bishop remains the pastor of all congregations within his diocese, even while priests perform ministerial duties in their parishes each week. This is, in a sense, a local church within a local church. The bishop of each diocese has jurisdiction within it, and a priest or bishop from another diocese must obtain permission from the bishop before being able to perform ministerial functions within the diocese. Thus, the diocesan idea has a geographical, territorial emphasis.

The idea of a local church is further complicated in Orthodox understanding where an autocephalous national church headed by a patriarch with subordinate bishoprics over a large region (i.e. Greece or Russia) can also considered to be a local church. This has caused complications in the United States where Syrian, Albanian, Greek and other Orthodox have existed in the same geographic area while still remaining a part of their local church in another country. The various churches which constitute the worldwide Anglican Communion have a similar understanding of a national church also being a local church. However, Anglican and Orthodox polities differ from Roman Catholicism in that neither group has one patriarch or archbishop who is preeminent above the others that head the various autonomous national churches such as Catholics have with the Bishop of Rome.

Multi-site ecclesiology shares an emphasis on geographic ideas with episcopal polity churches partially because of their widespread nature. However, some multi-site churches differ significantly from episcopal polity churches in that hierarchy is purposefully deemphasized. Though one person can be called the lead pastor, there still can be a sense of collegiality and equality between all the pastors in the network. There is not really the “bishop” idea like what is found in Episcopal polity churches.

Like with the ELCA, a multi-site ecclesiology shares with episcopal polity churches an understanding of church that sees it as something more than a local gathering of believers. This can be on a metropolitan, regional, or even worldwide level for multi-site churches. For all of these ecclesiologies, church is something that has a larger organizational presence beyond a local gathering. In episcopal polity churches, this can be at the diocesan, national, or even worldwide level.

Clearly, though there are some similarities, a multi-site polity/ecclesiology differs substantially from Anglican, Roman Catholic, or Orthodox understandings. These traditions have had hundreds or thousands of years to develop their ecclesiologies, while the multi-site idea is still in its infancy. It will be interesting to see how this develops for multi-site churches as time progresses.

Source: G R. Evans, The Church and the Churches

7% of all Americans worship in a home

Right after George Barna wrote his book Revolution, I remember an immediate buzz about house churches and Barna’s lauding of the movement.  However, in recent days but that seems to have waned a bit.  But house churches are still evidently an object of interest for national media, as evidenced by this recent Newsweek piece by Lisa Miller.  I like Miller’s work and have read a few of her columns.  This one is particularly interesting for her digging out of a little tidbit that I didn’t see covered anywhere else: 7% of Americans say that they attend religious services in someone’s home.  I’m not sure if I have ever run across a statistic like that which actually can make a substantive claim on the extent of the house church movement in the U.S. (though I probably should have).  Reputable research on house churches is just hard to come by.

So, what does it mean?  That number seems pretty large considering that it is 7% of all Americans, not just those who would call themselves Christians or those who attend church occasionally.  Miller also points out that 6% of all Americans consider themselves to be atheists, so that would be interesting if house church people alone outnumber U.S. atheists.

It lends support as well to the purpose of this site: exploring the common ecclesiological bonds between house church networks and multi-site churches.  If there are that many house churches out there, then it is important to pay attention to the ecclesiology that is being practiced in their networking together.