Tag Archives: Ecclesiology

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.

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

Multi-site churches and Lutheran Polity

I think it’s helpful to survey the ecclesiology/polity for  a few different faith traditions as a part of figuring out what an emerging multi-site polity might look like.  I was immediately confronted with polity questions when I first started researching a large multi-site congregation and I started trying to figure out just what kind of polity/ecclesiology this was.  Was it similar to Roman Catholic?  Presbyterian?  Lutheran?  Episcopal?  Or maybe something different entirely?  It certainly went beyond the free-church ecclesiology that many of these multi-site churches came out of.  Eventually, I came to the conclusion that multi-site ecclesiology shares something in common with each of those polities, but is in itself something entirely different.  I also don’t thing that there’s just one multi-site ecclesiology/polity; however, I think some generalizations can be made that cover a lot of house church networks and multi-site churches.

So, with that in mind, I thought it would be helpful to look at the polities of several faith traditions and then see how it connects with a multi-site polity.  This time, I’m going to look at Lutheran polity, specifically that of the ELCA.  In actuality, Lutherans have lots of different polities – not just one.  So, to make this concrete, I’m going to consider the polity of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).

Great latitude exists for Lutherans in church organization. Lutheran territorial churches and denominations run the gamut from congregationally-governed free-churches to episcopally-governed state churches.  For Lutherans, it is God who gathers the people, and the church must then create the organizational type to best support its mission.  Thus, much of church organization falls under the category of adiaphora for Lutherans. However, the one non-negotiable aspect of church polity is the “existence of an office of ministry to the gospel.”  Though the forms that surround and support this office can change, this office must remain.

The ELCA has chosen to include the office of bishop within its structure, but it differs from episcopal polity churches in that it does not technically employ a hierarchical structure.  The ELCA is one church that exists in three expressions: congregations, synods, and churchwide.  These three expressions of church are interrelated with one another and engage in different aspects of mission. Though synods and churchwide are also considered to be church in the ELCA, it does not employ the term local to describe them.  This term is reserved for congregations, similar to free-church polities.

A multi-site ecclesiology shares with the ELCA 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. For the ELCA, this is found in synods and churchwide, while for some multi-site churches, 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. This is clearly transforming free-church ideas while not simply adopting other ecclesiologies.

So, can multi-site churches fit within ELCA polity?  I think so.  It doesn’t appear that there is anything prohibiting them, and Lutheran polity/ecclesiology is certainly flexible enough to accommodate them.  In future posts I will ask similar questions of Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, and Free-churches.

ELCA/Lutheran polity sources:
Chapter three of the ELCA constitution, “The Nature of the Church.”  It can be found here.

The Missional Church and Denominations, ed. Craig Van Gelder.  Especially Dan Anderson’s chapter on the ELCA.

Lutheranism: The Theological Movement and it’s Confessional Writings, Eric Gritsch and Robert Jenson (pp. 136, 204)