In this four-part blog series, we attempt to answer the controversial question: is it possible to pursue multi-site in a biblically faithful way?

We’re asking (and answering) four questions: 1. Is multi-site evangelistically effective? 2. Is multi-site a biblically sound model? 3. Is multi-site pastorally helpful? 4. Does multi-site encourage or discourage leadership development?

Today’s issue: pastoral care.

In our first post we tried to show that a multisite strategy can be a biblically faithful attempt to balance evangelistic urgency, accountability, and community. We questioned whether single-service-only advocates have given enough consideration to the evangelistic urgency in how they set up church.

Jonathan Leeman posted 22 reasons why he thinks the multi-site model is problematic. Most of his problems had to do with a supposed lack of pastoral care, accountability, and community exacerbated by multi-site churches. We take these critiques very seriously, as we believe the church is to be a family that cares deeply for its own, and that, according to the book of Hebrews, we elders will have to give an account for every member of our church. Church is not an event to attend as much as it is a community to belong to. So if multi-site truly undermines pastoral care, I’d be willing to rethink—and even abandon—the model.

But here’s the counter-intuitive truth: the multi-site model can actually enhance pastoral care. At least that is how it has worked for us.

All large churches face pastoral issues (and to note, most of Leeman’s criticisms would apply just as easily to any large church as it would a multi-site and multi-service church).[1] It is easier for people to slip in and out of a large congregation unnoticed.

Far from compounding this problem, the multi-site model has helped us address it, for the simple reason that it’s easier to hide in an auditorium of 5,000 than it is in an auditorium of 500.

“But with all of those campuses,” some say, “there’s no way the senior pastor can know all of his people…or that they can know him. They may never even meet the pastor!” True: one person can’t possibly know every person in a 5,000-person church. I’m quite sure Peter did not know all 3000 people’s names that were baptized in Acts 2 and constituted the first Jerusalem church.

But why does everyone need to know the senior pastor? “I need to be known by my pastors” is a legitimate request. “I need to be known by that pastor (because he is special)” is not.

The hardest ecclesiological shift for me happened when we grew to a size where I realized I couldn’t know every member in a meaningful way. I think that happened when we went to about 500 weekly. Most research shows that pastors can’t personally pastor a congregation of more than about 150. If you are willing to grow above 150, you’re going to have to adopt a “multiple elder” model, where everyone is known and pastored by an elder, though not necessarily the “lead” elder.

Because our venues and services are smaller, campus pastors and elders can more effectively stay connected with those that come. Smaller venues reduce anonymity. It’s easier for a campus pastor to keep up with his elders, who keep up with their small group leaders, who keep up with their people, who all (mostly) see each other every week. If you are going to reduce anonymity in a large church, smaller services/campuses are the way to do it.

Leeman suggests that multi-site churches allow members to evade pastoral care and accountability by floating between campuses. It is true, we have people who chafe under accountability at one campus who show up suddenly at another one. When that happens, the campus pastor typically asks them why they left, and then checks with their previous campus pastor to figure out what the issue is. How is that different from what a pastor of a church of 300 would do if he met a new member who came in from another church? In fact, it is probably easier for our campus pastors to walk across the hall and check with one another about the migration of people than it is for a pastor to call a pastor of a different church to find out what is going on. I’ve heard these conversations happen often around our office, initiated by either campus pastor: “Hey, wasn’t Mr. X involved at your campus? I’ve been seeing him at ours. Is anything wrong?” Or, “Has anyone seen Ms. Y? She used to be at our campus and I see she is still involved in the church but I never see her.” Sure, it’s possible to be a lazy campus pastor and not notice when someone goes missing; but it’s just as possible to be a lazy single-service pastor and not notice it, too. All this to say, there is no reason why multiple campuses has to contribute to member anonymity. For us, if anything, it has increased visibility and reduced anonymity.

Others say: “The multi-site movement fosters a cult of personality by tying everyone to one mega-teacher.” And… unfortunately, many large church leaders seem all too willing to foster that. This is very grieving to the Spirit of God.

But the cult of personality can exist as much in a small, single-campus church. In fact, in some ways, I (J.D.) dealt with the “cult of personality” more when we were a single-campus church. My congregation seemed to think that my presence was necessary for everything of spiritual significance. I had to marry and bury everyone, and my people wanted me to resolve every problem and answer every question. If I wasn’t at some event personally, it was considered JV. I genuinely tried to teach them otherwise, and even though we had other pastors, their natural tendency was to look to me as the only “real” one.

Now that we are multi-site, however, members of the Summit are regularly exposed to other Spirit-filled pastors in our church, men to whom they can look for leadership and ministry. No one thinks I need to be at an event for it to “count.” And when our people have a question or need pastoral guidance, their first move is usually toward their campus pastor. I think this is a beneficial development that has helped, in many ways, combat a tendency to over-depend on any one pastor. Multisite is not the only way to accomplish that, of course, but it has helped us.

With Leeman and other multi-site critics we profoundly agree: a church is not an audience; it is a community, a body, and a family. And those necessitate close, intimate relationships. Regardless of the size of our church, everyone should be known and cared for by their elders. But unless we strictly limit congregations to less than 150 people, we simply cannot expect that one particular person will carry the entire pastoral responsibility for any one church. The multi-site model simply clarifies the way in which a church of 150+ shares that responsibility—by campus.

A multi-site approach can certainly be organized in a way that tramples on member care. I’ve seen too many examples of that personally. But we believe that this is due less to the structure itself and more to laziness. And we’ve seen a lot of single-service churches in which member care does not happen, consumerism is encouraged, and a cult of personality is fostered—as in the most well-known single-service church: Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, led by Joel Osteen.

The issue of pastoral care does not force us to abandon a multi-site approach, but it does challenge us to do it well. One day, Hebrews tells us, I will have to give an account for our members. That honestly fills me with fear and trembling. But I genuinely believe that our structure is the best way, given the numbers of people God is bringing to us, that we can disciple them, care for them, and give them meaningful accountability. Pray for us as we pursue this!

 


[1] This does not imply, however, that small churches naturally care for their members. In fact, Rodney Stark demonstrated in What Americans Really Believe that megachurches had more intimacy and better pastoral care than smaller churches (pp. 48–49). The assumption that “smaller church” and “better member care” go hand in hand seriously needs to be questioned.