Is the Summit Re-Considering Its Multi-Site Approach?
One of the benefits of being connected to other churches around the country is that we get to learn from each other. Sometimes that “learning” is a little more one-sided, where (for instance) I glean all of Tim Keller’s wisdom and he occasionally peeks over at what I’m up to. Most of the time, though, the Summit ends up being enriched by our friendships with other churches.
When our church adopted a multi-site strategy a few years ago, even then the strategy was old enough for us to see how different people were doing it. Asking our friends and looking into the ways that others have practiced multi-site helped us think through how we could do it in ways that were consistent with our theological and philosophical convictions. I once heard John Piper say that it was unwise to make confident, dogmatic assertions about the future of multi-site because it was so new that none of us could see exactly where it would end up.
We remain committed to our multi-site approach for a number of strategic and biblical reasons; however, we are grateful for those who have taken different approaches than ours because we get to learn from their approach, even when we don’t come to the same conclusion.
Last fall, one of our good friends, The Village Church in Dallas, TX announced a plan to transition their remaining campuses to autonomous churches. They actually began this process back in 2014, but their recent announcement outlined a more robust timeline for the transition over the next five years. In addition to transitioning their campuses, they also stated they will no longer launch new campuses. In effect, The Village Church is moving away from multi-site and returning to a single-site strategy. Here is their official statement:
We feel led by the Holy Spirit to transition our five campuses into autonomous churches by 2022. It will be risky and take courage, but we believe this move gives The Village Church the best opportunity to reach DFW [Dallas-Fort Worth] and beyond with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The Village is a church for which we have great respect and affection. Their multi-site strategy has in many ways mirrored our own, and we hold many of the same core values. Naturally, their shift has raised the question: Does this make us rethink our multi-site strategy?
As I mentioned above: No, it doesn’t. In this season, we remain committed to our multi-site approach for a number of strategic and biblical reasons. I’ll get to those in a moment.
I do want to make clear, however, that in their explanation of this decision, The Village has not made any statements against the general philosophy or ecclesiology undergirding a multi-site strategy. They have communicated to us that this is simply a strategic decision for them, one they feel the Spirit is leading their church to make at this time.
Additionally, The Village will continue to utilize multiple services. This may seem like an obvious fact, but it’s an important distinction. Some of the more fervent opponents to the multi-site model insist that the true “gathering” of the church necessitates not merely a single site but a single service. The Village is not taking this approach.
For us at the Summit, we continue to sense that the Holy Spirit is leading us in our current multi-site strategy. We recognize that the multi-site strategy presents both pragmatic challenges and raises biblical questions. We have wrestled with those questions for many years, and will continue to do so. As we often say, we are eager to hear from anyone who comes to us with an open Bible and an open mind.
1. A Greater and More Effective Way to Reach People
The multi-site strategy has allowed us to have a greater reach in the Triangle and surrounding communities by enabling members to worship and serve in communities closer to their homes. We have always and only launched campuses where members of the Summit already live. These are people God has called to be a part of this church to reach their community. We believe that the multi-site strategy platforms them to fulfill this call.
2. The Best Way to Keep Pace with Growth
Statistically, we can’t plant churches fast enough to deal with the growth God is giving to our church.
We are very committed to church planting, having sent out over 457 of our members in the last ten years to plant 42 churches in the United States, including several right here in the Triangle. When we plant a new church, we are typically able to send a core group of about 25 to 30 people. By God’s grace, we replace those 25-30 people in just a week or two. When we plant campuses, however, the core group we send out averages several hundred, sometimes as large as 1,000. Church planting is one of our most important missional assignments, but it will not by itself deal with the growth God has brought to our church.
3. A Better Pastoral Alternative to Building “Six Flags over Jesus”
At one point, we considered building one central building for all of the people of the Summit to attend for worship. Fortunately, logistical reasons kept us from making this decision, because we now see that no central building could possibly be expanded fast enough to account for the growth at our church. Building megachurch buildings is time-consuming and resource-exhausting. We’d rather use our time and resources to multiply campuses throughout the Triangle than erecting some kind of mammoth “Six Flags over Jesus” facility.
The longer we’ve done this, the more we’ve found that multiplying people into smaller campuses is more effective at pastoring and shepherding than having them all together in one large gathering. The multi-site strategy has provided us a way to effectively pastor a congregation of 11,000. It takes a problem (too many people for “the pastor” to shepherd) and makes the solution more obvious (diversify and expand your pastoral team).
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.
Multiplying campuses takes a “problem” (too many people for one pastor to shepherd) & makes the solution more obvious (expand your pastoral team).
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.
4. We Won’t Turn People Away
Without a multi-site approach, the last few years would have seen us repeatedly turning people away. When I consider Jesus’ parable about the importance of prioritizing the 1 over the 99, I simply can’t rest content with the idea that we have no more room for people to hear the gospel. Without the multi-site approach, we would be reaching fewer people, a trend that we believe will continue in the future as well.
5. Unique Ministry Opportunities
We didn’t get into the multi-site approach in order to reach prisoners with the gospel. But that’s one of the surprising things God did with this strategy in the past few years. Had we maintained a single-site approach, we never would have launched campuses in two area prisons, where members of our church are able to gather every week. These prisoners consider the Summit their church. And when they are released, they have the rare experience of transitioning into something they already know. Seeing God work in our area prisons has been—and continues to be—a beautiful and encouraging blessing.
6. Empowering Others and Developing Leaders
One of the biggest critiques of the multi-site strategy is that it necessarily creates a cult of personality. I’ve written elsewhere that this isn’t nearly as automatic as people seem to think. In fact—and we were surprised by this at first, too—we have found that the multi-site strategy actually serves to develop and empower local leadership.
Are there people who still go to the broadcast campus (and past three other campuses on the way) to see “live” preaching? Yes. But that is a small minority, and we continue to disciple these people to attend and serve where they live.
Generally speaking, though, we have found that most people at our church are more interested in being in their community and reaching their neighbors than they are being part of “the main” campus. Many people will never meet me. That’s actually not a problem, because they are being well pastored at their local campus. Our multi-site strategy depends on new leaders and new pastors being raised up.
7. Planting Campuses Means Planting More Churches
Again, too often people assume that planting campuses competes with planting churches. In our experience, the opposite has been the case. The more we plant campuses, the more our people catch our vision for planting churches, too. This is why I wasn’t surprised to learn that multi-site churches are actually 29% more likely to plant new churches than other churches of similar size. (That statistic, as well as numerous other helpful stats and stories, comes from Leadership Network’s comprehensive survey of American churches, the “Multisite Church Scorecard.”)
So, let me be clear: Planting campuses doesn’t replace planting churches. It replaces the building of a behemoth church building. Planting campuses—instead of building a huge building—lends itself to an outward-facing posture for the church. A large building says, “Come,” but a multitude of campuses say, “Go.” By planting campuses, we communicate that it is more important for us to reach people than it is to build an empire. Our people have responded by going, both to new campuses and to new churches.
Planting campuses doesn’t replace planting churches. It replaces the building of a behemoth church building.
8. The Multi-Site Approach Can Represent a Biblically Faithful Ecclesiology
I’ve written about this at greater length elsewhere, but let me recap some of that reasoning here. Not every multi-site model is a biblically faithful one. (Nor is every single-site or single-service model.) But evidence throughout the New Testament indicates a pattern of church assembly that strengthens—rather than weakens—the multi-site approach.
Throughout the New Testament, we see evidence of single local churches that apparently met in multiple locations. Roger Gehring’s landmark study on the early church, House Church and Mission, has amply demonstrated that this kind of house church network was prevalent in the first century. New Testament and archeological evidence show us that Corinth, Jerusalem, Rome, Antioch, Thessalonica, Ephesus, Philippi, and Laodicea were referred to as one “church” even though the Christians there gathered in various houses.
The new congregation in Jerusalem, for instance, is frequently referred to in the singular, one “church” (Acts 8:1; 11:22; 15:4). However, they obviously met in different times and locations, at least on a weekly basis. Historians tell us there was no space in Jerusalem available to the disciples in which three thousand or more people could have met on a weekly basis–and to insist that was happening, yet the New Testament just never told us about it, seems a rather flimsy and convenient argument from silence. Apparently, however, many first-century house churches came together periodically to celebrate the Lord’s Supper as one citywide church (see 1 Cor 11:17–20; Romans 16:5).
This isn’t to say that multi-site is the only viable method of church practice. But it is certainly a biblically attested possibility, and arguments against its use require evidence that is equally biblical and robust.
Are We Leaving Kingdom Possibility on the Table?
Many of our friends at other churches will parse this differently than us. Some will continue to pursue multi-site models. Some will transition away from multi-site. Some will continue to employ the single-site, single service model that they are currently using. For all of these groups, we wish them well, and pray that God would bless them richly to reach their community. I continue to expect God to move in great ways through the thousands upon thousands of churches that are not multi-site. As we continue to seek the guidance of the Spirit, however, we will continue to plant campuses here in the Triangle.
Are we leaving a lot of kingdom possibility on the table by not focusing on church planting alone? I don’t think so. Over the next five years, we hope—by God’s grace—to plant dozens of churches while still utilizing a multi-site strategy. There is room for multi-siters and single-siters both in God’s mission, and we want to see a spectacular harvest from every church in our nation, regardless of the number of campuses or number of members.
If you want to know more about our multi-site strategy, this collection of articles provides a more comprehensive reflection on our approach: