Recently, we’ve had a lot of questions come up about why we have chosen the multi-site model for our church.  This is a post pastor J.D. wrote in January 2009 that addresses some of those questions. – Heather. 

In 2005 our congregation moved to a multi-site strategy out of what we perceived to be a necessity. God graciously was bringing to our doors more than we could handle. We were doing as many morning services as we could in our rented-school facility, and were now having to turn people away. So, we opened another campus 3 miles down the road, where I preached inbetween our other services at the main campus.

Since that time, we have concluded that the multi-campus model for the church is both Biblically sound and practically helpful, and embraced multi-campus as a strategy for growing our church and reaching our city, not merely as a temporary way to deal with a space problem. We currently, 2009, are a church of about 3000 attenders, meeting in 4 campuses throughout Raleigh-Durham, NC. We plan to add two new sites in the fall of 2009.

We believe that at the core of our mission as a church is the commission to seek and save the lost in our city. We are also a church, however, who believes that faithful ecclesiology must trump pragmatism. We believe that being multi-campus is the best way to do both.

Let me first acknowledge that many of the criticisms of various multi-site churches I find ready agreement with. Many multi-site environments encourage consumerism, foster anonymity, are built on a cult of personality, and have more foundation in the wisdom of men than of God. That said, here is why we still enthusiastically embrace the multi-site strategy as responsible ecclesiology and effective missiology:

The essence of a local church is covenant, not a manner of assembly.

I have heard the objection to our multi-site strategy, “A church is primarily an assembly, and to assemble means all the people come together in one place. Multi-campus fundamentally skews that.” The essence of a New Testament local church, however, is a covenant believers make with one another. Assembly is a much-needed function, but covenant is the essence. Where in the New Testament does it say that “all people must assemble at the same time?” To say that “assembly” means all people in one place at one time is suggestive at best. (To note: The objection that believers who meet separately for corporate worship cannot be one body in Christ would apply also to the multi-service church, not just the multi-campus church.)

In our judgment, the New Testament does not demand a church assemble all together in one place, at one time, each week. As John Piper notes, we have a clear biblical example of the opposite! The new congregation in Jerusalem is frequently referred to in the singular, one “church” (Acts 8:1; 11:22; 15:4). They obviously, however, had to meet in different times and locations. Historians tell us there was no space in Jerusalem available to the disciples large enough for 3000 plus people to meet on a weekly basis. Furthermore, it also appears that many of the house churches in the 1st century churches came together to celebrate the Lord’s supper as one citywide church (see 1 Cor 11:17–20; Romans 16:5).

Those who insist that a local church must assemble in one place at one time are taking one manner of function from some local churches in the New Testament and insisting it be normative for all congregations in all times. This is, at best, an argument from silence. And, as demonstrated above, even in Acts we see churches that don’t assemble all together every week as one body.

(This point, that the essence of the local church is covenant, not a matter of assembly, is the heart of the matter. The following arguments address the pragmatic objections I’ve heard raised by opponents of multi-campus ecclesiology.)

The criticisms of the multi-campus church can apply to any large or multi-service church.

One of the primary criticisms of a multi-campus church is that you create disparate groups of people who will never know each other. Realistically speaking, however, this happens at any multi-service church. For that matter, it happens at any church above a couple of hundred.

The hardest ecclesiological shift for me was not in going to multiple campuses, but in growing larger than 400 members! At that point I realized that I couldn’t know every member in a meaningful way and they wouldn’t all know each other. Large churches of whatever style have members who do not know each other, and not every pastor knows every member.

Every member in a multi-site church, however, is connected somewhere, known by a pastor, and under the care and governance of our church elders, just as they can in other large churches.

The multi-campus strategy is the best way for a large church to develop and maximize the use of leadership

I’ve often heard this: “Why build the church so much around you? Do you really think there are no other good preachers in Raleigh-Durham? Why not develop other leaders and teachers?”

We have found that a multi-campus church is better at developing leaders than a single-location large church. My wife remarked to me the other day, “Have you ever noticed that some of your favorite staff members you no longer see each Sunday?” They are serving at one of 3 campuses I don’t usually get to on Sunday. These were guys I raised up, trained, and on which I had depended. Now, as campus pastors, they have the opportunity to lead in ways they didn’t when we were all at one place. And, in their wake, new leaders have emerged at the original campus.

Campus pastors are guys who are gifted leaders and good communicators, but not necessarily called teachers. Many guys, who are great leaders and pastors do not enjoy doing what I do each week, spending 20+ hours preparing messages and deciphering vision. As campus pastors they exercise leadership within their gifts in a way that they could not as church planters, where they must devote an exceptional amount of time to study.

The bottom line is that we have more and better leaders as a multi-campus church than we did as a single-campus church.

The multi-campus church does not preclude or even compete with church planting.

“Why do you plant campuses? Why not just plant churches instead?” This is a significant question, so let me spend a little more time on it.

Most people who make that statement have never actually had to deal with a rapidly growing church. Most studies show that church planting do not effectively alleviate space needs for a growing church campus. For example, if you  convince 200 of your people to go and start a new church (a remarkable achievement), you will make up that growth within a few months, maybe a few weeks. So even if you plant 10 churches out of your church, chances are that you will still be dealing with space problems. By all means, plant churches, but in order to steward the people God is bringing to the original campus, you’ll need a different solution!

When more people start coming to the church than can fit into one service, you must either send people away, build a bigger facility, multiply services in the one location or multiply venues. Sending people away is not on option. Building a bigger facility can be expensive and take an extraordinary amount of time, and during that time you will likely be turning people away. Multiplying services in the one location is great, but you quickly reach a limit of how many you can do. Furthermore, some of the people driving to your campus will be coming from distances, which makes community involvement and evangelism difficult (you might drive 45 minutes to a church you love, but that person you just met at Starbucks who doesn’t know Jesus will likely not be committed enough to make the 45 minute drive with you). Multiplying campuses is the cheapest and easiest way to keep growing beyond that. As John Piper said, “The question is no longer whether we’ll be a megachurch, but what kind of megachurch we will be.” Or, as Scott Hildreth, a member of our church and director of a lot of the church planting at SEBTS, says, “Multi-site was the best solution we could come up with in a fallen world for a crisis we created for ourselves by things working too well.”

Multiplying campuses is not an alternative to planting churches, it is an alternative to multiplying services in one location, building a bigger building, or turning people away. For this reason, we at the Summit Church only plant campuses in our local city, not cities around the nation. Driving to our primary location is not an option for people in cities across the nation, so there is no reason why we should put a campus instead of planting an altogether new church under a new leader! Plus, we believe there is something about a local church that should be “local.” The people of God in a community should take on the character of that community, and if you are in cities all across America it’s hard to do that. And Hebrews talks about “knowing” your leaders. Not every person in the Summit Church “knows” me personally, but I am a “known” entity who lives locally. So while not everyone in our church knows me personally, many people do, and most people know someone who does.

Why not just make all our campuses independent churches and have the campus pastor preach every week? Two reasons: “campus pastor” and “lead pastor” usually require two different gift sets. Most lead pastors preach from their pulpit over 40 times a year. If you don’t know what that’s like, think of writing a 15 page term paper every week. Not everyone enjoys that. Some do. I do. Many of our campus pastors enjoy preaching occasionally, but they are so exceptionally gifted at leading, evangelizing, and discipling that having someone else take the majority of the preaching load (about 15 hrs of every week is spent in preparing for one sermon!) is a blessing to them. Those leaders who would enjoy that, and want to plant churches, should do that. Some of our campus pastors plan to do that one day, and their role as campus pastor is temporary. The majority of them, however, find their gifts best utilized in a role where they can devote the majority of their week to shepherding and leading.

We frequently send out qualified planter to plant churches, even right here in our own city! But it’s a different gift set. For those that should plant and and be the preaching pastor, we are committed to sending them out to do that.

The problem of developing a cult of personality is not exclusive to the multi-campus church.

I’ve often heard, “The multi-site movement fosters a cult of personality by tying everyone to one mega-teacher.” Leader-worship is certainly a danger in large churches, and unfortunately many large church leaders seem all too willing to foster it. However, the cult of personality can exist as much in a small, single-campus church. In fact, sometimes moreso! When I pastored a small 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 all problems and answer all questions. I tried to teach them otherwise, but their natural tendency was to be much more dependent on me than they are now that we are a multi-campus church! The people in our church know that I am nothing special, I’m only a man with a teaching gift! There are many other pastors in our church with the Spirit of God to whom they can look for leadership and ministry.

The multi-campus church is better suited for the post-pastor succession.

Many churches grow large under the preaching minsitry of a particular leader. For whatever reason, the successor does not have the same ability, or God doesn’t choose for the church to be the same size of it was before. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with “smaller.” If you’ve ever been in a church building that once housed a huge congregation, but today is smaller, it can be kind of depressing!

If our church is 10,000 people big, we believe that it would be better to have 10 campuses of 1000, who identify with 10 campus pastors, rather than 1 campus of 10,000 who identify only with the 1. If the lead pastor passes on, it is easier to find 10 pastors to lead 1000 than 1 who can continue to lead the 10,000. The many empty, depressing monuments now polluting the American landscape are evidence of that.

The multi-campus church is better at evangelism and social ministry in the local communities.

There are some functions of the church that are easier to do in a small, single-campus environment. If my church were only 10 large and we all met together each week, I could personally oversee their spiritual development. Layers of leaders complicates things and gives lots of opportunities for sin, corruption, and things falling through the cracks.

Churches are called, however, not just to watch over its own, but to reach their communities. Being closer to where the people live helps you engage them, invite them to your services, and perceive the needs of the local community.

Effective evangelism invites chaos and disorder into the church. It is messy. But it is a wonderful and welcome problem. My wife and I sometimes rue the loss of the neatly-packaged, clean, simple life we had before kids. We lived without the worry, fear, chaos, frustration, and dirty diapers that dominate our lives now from dawn to dusk! But we wouldn’t trade it for the world!

We must live with the holy tension of taking care of our body and constantly bringing new, immature sinners loaded with problems into our midst.

There is no reason to think that the Apostles would not have used technology and preached in abstentia, had they had it

It is clear in Acts 2–8 that all 8000 (some scholars estimate the actual size at the end of Acts 3 would have been about 10,000) were not gathering weekly in one place to hear one teaching pastor give a message. Perhaps the Apostles were a teaching team who each rotated between the houses. Maybe sometimes they got together in small assembly places (campuses). Yet they were one church.

We know that many of Paul’s letters were intended to be circulated for reading throughout the churches. If Paul could have cut a DVD from the Philippian jail and passed that around, I can’t see why he wouldn’t have done so. I know that some here might say, “Well, yeah, but Paul’s letters were the inspired Bible. He was an Apostle. That’s why his letters could be passed around.” We know, however, that there were several of Paul’s letters passed around that were not “inspired” (think the middle Corinthian letter).

If they had had the technology, don’t you think Peter might have burned a DVD of himself and sent that around? If they could have simulcast John’s recounting of his last meeting with Christ, don’t you think they would have done it? Is there anything that says that we must be able to see the actual flesh and blood of the preacher? Those who say that video removes the “flesh and blood, incarnational” nature of Gospel-preaching would also have to question the use of voice amplification. If it is argued that video removes the incarnational nature of preaching, a similar argument could be made that God did not intend churches to ever be bigger than could be comfortably heard by an unamplified voice, because in so doing it would remove the touchability of the pastor. Obviously, such questions go beyond a responsible interpretation of Scripture.

Conclusion

The elders of the Summit Church believe that the best way to grow a healthy church, multiply leaders, and spread the Gospel in Raleigh-Durham is through an aggressive multi-campus and church planting approach. It is our prayer that in the next 40 years God will allow us to see 10 campuses and 20 church plants in Raleigh-Durham, as well as 1000 churches planted in cities around the world. For us, the argument comes down not on whether you do multi-campus but how it is done. Our responsibility is to do it in a way that is Biblical and God-honoring.


[1] Ed Stetzer and Warren Bird, Viral Churches, “Multi-site Strategy.”

[2] Rodney Stark, What Americans Really Believe (2007), 49.

[3] “Treasuring Christ Together,” Part 2: Lessons in Love from 1 John by John Piper, September 14, 2003.