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.
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.
Here is a link to a blog post that asks the question: “would the apostles endorse multi-site churches?” The real value to this post is in the discussion which follows the post, in which lots of issues that are germane to what I’m trying to talk about on this site are brought up. The actual post critiques multi-site churches because of ambiguity regarding elder/overseer roles, the place of the Lord’s Supper, uncertainty about being able to adequately be there for one another while existing in multiple locations, and because multi-site would seem to preclude congregationalism.
I think those are fair questions to ask of multi-site churches, but I think they come from inadequate assumptions regarding what church is. If one begins with something called a “local” church, that looks like current Baptist churches today, and then tries to extrapolate theologically to a multi-site church, then the two won’t fit together very well. I think it’s better to instead imagine the early church as a multi-site church and then see how that influences the way one reads scripture and understands churches today.
The modifier “local” is not found in the New Testament with regard to churches. “Local” is a later accretion that is actually used in various ways in different theological traditions. Here’s how Dave Browning (Lead Pastor of Christ the King Community Church) explained his take on the earliest churches:
I think the original model was organic, cellular, decentralized. Like, all through Acts, every time the church in Jerusalem is spoken of, it’s spoken of in the singular—church. Yet, we know that in the first week, you know, there were 10,000 people possibly involved in that story. And they were meeting house to house and in the temple courts and it says they were adhering to the apostles doctrine. So, it’s: apostles—plural, church—singular, locations—plural. That’s to me what the Jerusalem church was. And so, the whole business of, you know, the idea that there were multiple churches—plural, independent, autonomous from each other in Jerusalem. . . at least in Jerusalem that doesn’t make any sense at all, and the language doesn’t bear that out at all.
I think he’s brilliant to have come up with this. No doubt it was influenced in part from his experiences with his own multi-site congregation and how that changed the way he understood scripture. He needs to write the book on that stuff! Why do we think of the earliest Christians as inhabiting multiple, independent, autonomous churches? I think we read that back on the text. No doubt questions regarding fulfilling one another commands, celebrating the Lord’s Supper, and serving as elders/overseers in multi-site churches were faced early in Christian history just as they are today in multi-site churches, and the answers are there to be found.
Here is a link to a Relevant Magazine story about “Chuck” star Zac Levi. It talks a bit about Zac’s house church, how he came to help found it, and what it means for him. I think it’s interesting that the house church phenomenon has reached into even Hollywood. That would seem to be the last place to find this sort of thing – but who knows? From my limited perspective into the world of house churches, it seems like not all house churches work equally in different contexts. I have heard of house churches struggling to get off the ground in some suburban contexts, while in others they have done just fine. More urban contexts seem to work well for many house churches. It makes me wonder about how connected Levi’s church is to other house churches, and just what type of context it exists in. Interesting nonetheless. And I love “Chuck” too, so that makes it all the better!
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.
My argument is “yes,” but that may not be immediately obvious. In my research, I found one example of house churches existing as a part of a multi-site church, so that case serves to support the idea that they are related. However, I also found the people who comprise house church networks and those in multi-site churches to be quite different and to embrace quite different emphases (both leaders and attenders).
There was a pervasive anti-institutional feeling among house church people. One of the reasons they were a part of house churches was because they were tired of the passive aspects of larger churches. They detested the idea of sitting in rows of chairs or pews and staring at the back of peoples’ heads without knowing anything about them. They didn’t like that 20% of the people did 80% of the work. They felt that being the church involves intimate relationships with other believers, which is lacking in larger churches (or at least much more difficult to achieve).
The people in the multi-site church that I studied shared some of those concerns, but went about addressing them in different ways. The church heavily stressed small groups as being a key part of its mission, and it aggressively sought to involve attenders in many aspects of serving. However, its sites still suffered from similar challenges that other large churches face with attender passivity.
So, how can these groups be related to one another? Especially other multi-site churches that seem to care less about member passivity and appear instead to simply be replicating one megachurch at another site? I think it comes in the larger connectional aspects of their ecclesiology. One cannot argue the differences in ecclesiology that show up in practical matters like the way worship is conducted and understood, and how house churches live out being the church together. However, they share some important similarities in how they understand themselves as a church that meets in many locations.
Many house church networks and multi-site churches understand themselves to be “church” on at least two levels. For house church networks, “church” is often both the house church and the network as a whole. For some multi-site churches, “church” is the individual site and the church or network as a whole. This is the similarity that binds them together. So, is this important, and what does it mean? I hope to lay out some of my ideas about that in future posts.