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.

What is a “local” church?

Have you ever wondered about that?  I think most people take the answer for granted.  It’s seems kind of obvious: the church on the corner, large or small, where people go each Sunday.  It’s the place where the word is preached and the sacraments are administered.  Or maybe our house church brethren would say that it is the group of people who meet regularly to worship and be the church together.  In fact it’s so obvious, that it seems pointless to look at the New Testament for any sort of guidance.  When reading the New Testament, it’s easy to imagine the church at Ephesus or Corinth looking just like First United Methodist Church, or Community Bible Baptist Church.

However, the modifiers that have come to be attached to “church” like visible, invisible, local, and universal can’t be found attached to ecclesia in the New Testament.  I’m pretty sure that those modifiers are also not used with other biblical images for church like “body of Christ” or “people of God” in the NT either.  I should probably do some more research to figure out exactly where those modifiers came from, but the best that I can figure out is that they have arisen over time as men and women have tried to figure out what exactly “church” means.  So we delineate whether it is the visible or invisible church, or local or universal.  But we don’t need to be bound by those modifiers.  Maybe it’s time for some new ones?

In Acts 8:1-3, we see Saul persecuting the church in Jerusalem.  He goes from “house to house” dragging off men and women and putting them in prison.  Church here is used in a citywide sense, and likely includes many house churches that were connected relationally and that could also be considered “church” in a citywide sense.  Acts 9:31 talks about “the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria” having peace and being built up.  This could be understood as church in a regional sense that also consists of many separate small fellowships, but exists in a regional sense as church as well.

When you look at multi-site churches today, or house church networks, the “local” church idea tends to break down.  When a church considers itself to be one church meeting in many locations, what does local mean?  Or when a network of house churches considers itself to be church on a citywide network level, how is that “local?”  Or what about the internet campus of a church?  It’s like a whole new local.  Ultimately, I think the term should be thrown out.  It’s not really helpful anymore.  I’m not sure what should replace it though.  Any ideas?

Presbyterian Polity and Multi-Site Ecclesiology

This will be the last post looking at the polity/ecclesiology of different theological traditions and comparing them to a multi-site ecclesiology.  I’m sure that much more could be gleaned from looking at some of the Stone-Campbell traditions, Methodism, and maybe some varieties of Pentecostalism, but that will have to be done by others.  Here’s my take (as an outsider) of how a multi-site ecclesiology fits within Presbyterian polity.  I took the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) as my representative Presbyterian group for this post in an effort to make it more concrete.

The idea of the presbyter or elder is foundational for Presbyterian polity. This is the term that gives the polity its distinctive name. In this polity, all presbyters are equal, but some have different functions.  Some are ordained as ministers of the Word and Sacrament, while others are elected from the congregation as elders and fellow members of the session. This session is a representative group of presbyters from the congregation that is set apart to lead the congregation. Presbyterian polity does not recognize an office of bishop that is above a presbyter, but instead holds that both titles are used synonymously in the New Testament.

The next level of authority above the session in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is the presbytery. A presbytery is comprised of all of the particular churches and ministers of the Word and Sacrament within a geographic district.  As well as viewing a congregation as church, the presbytery is also an expression of church. These presbyteries are part of larger groups, called synods. A synod is a unit of the church that is responsible for more regional aspects of mission. The many synods, in turn, make up the General Assembly. Each of these groups, from congregations to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) as a whole, is thus led by representative groups made up of presbyters who have been elected from the congregation or the lower governing bodies.  This idea of leadership through representative groups is also fundamental for Presbyterian polity.

Each presbyter is theoretically equal to another, but some acquire more authority when they are elected to be officers in governing bodies on the basis of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Constitution.  Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) polity thus functions with a hierarchy of governing bodies, from session to General Assembly, with each having a responsibility to ensure that the lower governing bodies under its purview act in accordance with the Constitution.

Multi-site ecclesiology shares an emphasis on geographic ideas with presbyterian polity, in part because of their widespread nature. The large multi-site church that I studied differs from presbyterian polity by eschewing the use of a hierarchy of representative groups throughout its network for governance. Though it does employ some representative groups in its worship centers and the network as a whole, these groups do not play the powerful role that they do in presbyterian polity.  However, this is not at all to say that presbyterian polity could not be employed in a multi-site church.  Clearly, as a system of governance, it would not conflict with the multi-site idea.

Multi-site ecclesiology shares with presbyterian polity an understanding of church that sees it as something more than a local gathering of believers. For both of these ecclesiologies, church is something that has a larger organizational presence beyond a local gathering.  In the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), it is in the presbytery, synod, and denominational levels. For the worldwide multi-site church I studied, the idea of church extends to the worldwide network, each worship center within the network, and also the small groups or house churches which also convene on a smaller level.

Presbyterian polity seems to fit well with multi-site ideas.  In fact, I think multi-site ecclesiology differs from Lutheran, Episcopal, and Presbyterian expressions, but it is also flexible enough to be able to incorporate ideas from those traditions within multi-site expressions.  It seems that the kind of polity that really conflicts with multi-site ideas is free-church polity, which is ironic, because it appears that the majority of multi-site churches come out of that tradition.  Soon, I will give my best shot at some constructive aspects of what a multi-site ecclesiology involves.

Source: Joan S. Gray and Joyce C. Tucker, Presbyterian Polity for Church Officers, 2nd ed.

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