Why The Summit Church Is Multi-site
I continue to get questions about the “multi-site” strategy on a regular basis. It’s not nearly as bizarre as it was when we began, but is still controversial for a lot of people. In light of that, I’ve revisited and expanded a post from a few years ago about our decision to go multi-site.
In 2005 we at the Summit Church moved to a multi-site strategy for spatial necessity. God was graciously bringing to our doors more people than we could handle. We were doing as many morning services as we could in our rented school facility, and were having to turn people away. So we opened another campus 3 miles down the road, where I preached between our other services at the main campus.
Since that time, we have concluded that the multi-site model for the church is both biblically sound and practically helpful, and we have embraced multi-site 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 are a church of about 7500 attenders, meeting on 7 campuses and 10 venues throughout Raleigh-Durham, NC. We added our most recent site in Chapel Hill earlier this year.
We believe that at the core of our mission as a church is the commission to seek and save the lost in our city, and we believe that the presence of a local body of believers is the greatest evangelistic tool for any community. We are also a church who believes that faithful ecclesiology must trump pragmatism. We have concluded that the multi-site strategy is the best way for us to both reach our community and practice faithful ecclesiology. We also believe that planting churches in strategic cities around the world is the New Testament’s most effective evangelistic strategy, so our vision is to plant 1000 churches in RDU and around the world by the year 2050.
Let me first acknowledge that I readily agree with many criticisms of many multi-site churches. Many multi-site environments encourage consumerism, foster anonymity, are built on a cult of personality, and depend more on man’s wisdom than God’s wisdom. That said, here is why we enthusiastically embrace the multi-site strategy as biblically sound, practically wise, and pastorally helpful.
I. WHY THE SUMMIT CHURCH BELIEVES THE MULTI-SITE MODEL IS BIBLICALLY SOUND
A. The essence of a local church is a covenant, not a manner of assembly.
Some argue that since a local church is by definition an assembly, a multi-site strategy fundamentally skews the nature of a local church. The essence of a New Testament local church, however, is not “assembly” but “covenant body.” If the local church is essentially an assembly, then it only exists when it assembles and only when all the members are present. “Assembly” is a much-needed function, but “covenant” is the essence.
The New Testament nowhere demands that a local church meet all together each week. Nor is a single-service assembly the only model given in Acts. While it is certainly true that we see evidences of local churches assembling all together (1 Corinthians 11), we also see evidence of single local churches which met in multiple locations. The new congregation in Jerusalem is frequently referred to in the singular, one “church” (Acts 8:1; 11:22; 15:4). However, they obviously had to meet in different times and locations. 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. It also appears that many first-century house churches came together to celebrate the Lord’s Supper as one citywide church (see 1 Cor 11:17–20; Romans 16:5).
Quite simply, the New Testament neither demands nor uniformly models that all members of one local church are to assemble weekly in the same place.
B. The New Testament gives guidelines, but not specific details, on how to best organize a congregation for pastoral care and effective ministry.
John Piper has written, “Neither here [in Acts 2] nor elsewhere in the New Testament do we get detailed instructions on how to organize the church for pastoral care and worship and teaching and mobilization for ministry. There were elders in the churches (they show up very soon in the Jerusalem church) and there were deacons, and there were goals of teaching and caring and maturing and praying and evangelizing and missions. But as far as details of how to structure the church in a city or in an area or even one local church with several thousand saints – there are very few particulars.”
C. The Apostles used the technology available to them to preach in absentia.
It is clear in Acts 2 to 8 that all eight thousand (some historians estimate that the actual size at the end of Acts 3 would have been about ten thousand) were not gathering weekly in one place to hear one teaching pastor give a message. Perhaps the Apostles were a teaching team who rotated between the houses. Perhaps groups of the church gathered with particular apostles 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 might respond, “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,” such as the middle Corinthian letter.
If the technology was available, 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 what would allow an unamplified voice to be heard by all, because in so doing it would remove the touchability of the pastor. Obviously, such questions go beyond a responsible interpretation of Scripture.
This is not to say that all technology is allowable or helpful, because sometimes the medium affects the way people perceive the message. No doubt, deciding what to do with technology that was unavailable in biblical times is a difficult subject, and we must be both open-minded and cautious in appropriating it for our purposes.
II. WHY THE SUMMIT CHURCH BELIEVES THE MULTI-SITE STRATEGY CAN BE PRACTICALLY WISE
A. A multi-site model is an acceptable, if not better, alternative to addressing a church’s growth by building bigger buildings or multiplying services.
Assuming that a growing local church decides not to turn people away when its facility is “full,” it faces three options to accommodate growth: build bigger buildings, multiply services, or plant new churches. Simply turning people away, obviously, is a terrible and unbiblical option. The Apostles did not turn away the 5000 new believers in Acts 2, even when they surely were overwhelmed with the problems these new believers posed. As John Piper said of his own church, “The question is no longer whether we’ll be a megachurch, but what kind of megachurch we will be.”
The multi-site strategy is a more financially responsible response to growth than building a huge building.
Buildings are expensive. Large buildings are enormously expensive. They are also inefficient uses of space. Large auditoriums (that seat several thousand people) are difficult to use for any other purpose than one weekly assembly of the entire church body.
The multi-site model allows churches to save much of the money usually spent on a building. Venues in which smaller congregations can meet are much more plentiful and can be rented on a Sunday or, if owned, can be used throughout the week for other purposes.
Jim Tomberlein, who has written a great deal on the multi-site movement, notes that a multi-site strategy is usually a zero-sum game, financially speaking. Most campuses will make up the money spent on startup costs within the first year.
In many cases, it will be more effective to add new venues in new locations than it will to multiply services at any one location.
The church might decide to multiply services, but you quickly reach a limit of how many any one location or teaching pastor can handle. Also, as will be discussed below, having people drive more than 20 minutes to get to their assembly place can hinder evangelism and local community ministry.
B. The multi-campus church does not preclude or even compete with church planting.
“Okay,” you may say. “Multi-site is better than more services or bigger buildings. But 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.
Many people who make that statement have never actually had to deal with a rapidly growing church. Most studies show that church planting will not itself alleviate space needs of a local church. For example, if you convince 200 of your people to go and start a new church (an extraordinarily difficult feat, I might add!), you end up making up that growth in the original congregation within a few months. In other words, even if you plant 10 churches out of your church in 10 years, chances are that you will still be dealing with space problems each year.
Furthermore, finding the people willing to leave their church to plant a new one as well as the leader who can do it are both difficult! Yes, they should be willing to leave. But there is a gap between what people should do and what they will do, especially in churches that are growing rapidly and filled with young and immature believers.
Church planting is a wonderful and effective evangelism strategy and should thus be pursued aggressively by every local church, but church planting will not provide a solution for a church’s space issues. So, 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! 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.”
So, to state it plainly: Multiplying campuses is not an alternative to church planting; it is an alternative to multiplying services, building a larger building, or turning people away. We pursue both, and in addition to planting 7 campuses in the last few years, we have also sent out over 200 of our own people to start new churches here in the United States (click here to see that list).
Because multiplying campuses is primarily a solution to our space needs, we 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 around the country, so there is no reason why we should put a campus there instead of planting an altogether new church under a new leader! Furthermore, 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 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 preacher every week?” Two reasons: First, “campus pastor” and “lead pastor” usually require different gift sets. Most lead pastors preach from their pulpit more than 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 is a blessing to them (About 20 hours a week is spent in preparing for one sermon!). 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, though, find their gifts best utilized in a role where they can devote most of their week to shepherding and leading.
We frequently send out qualified planters to plant churches, even right here in our own city! But the gift sets are different. For those who should be planting and preaching, we are committed to sending them out to do so.
C. The closer a congregation meets to where the people it is trying to reach live, the more effective can be its evangelism and community outreach.
Being closer to where the people live helps you engage them, invite them to your services, and perceive the needs of the local community. (You might drive 45 minutes to a church you love, but that person you just met at Starbucks who doesn’t know Jesus won’t be as committed.)Our desire is for everyone in our community (the Triangle) to be no more than 15 minutes from a thriving evangelical church or a Summit congregation. We tell people, “Stay where you are; serve where you live; be the church in your local community.”
D. The multi-site church is better suited for the post-pastor succession.
It is rare, in every generation, for one pastor to be able to hold the attention of several thousand people each Sunday. Many churches with one of those pastors built an auditorium to hold the audience, but for whatever reason the successor did not have the same ability. While grateful that the church attempted to be a steward of those God was bringing to them, how depressing it is to walk into one of those huge, nearly empty sanctuaries on a Sunday now!
If our church has ten thousand attenders, we believe that it would be better to have ten campuses of one thousand, who identify with ten campus pastors, rather than one campus of ten thousand who identify only with the one. If the lead pastor passes on, it is easier to find ten pastors to lead one thousand than one who can continue to lead the ten thousand. The many empty, depressing monuments now polluting the American landscape are evidence of that.
III. HOW THE SUMMIT CHURCH BELIEVES A MULTI-SITE STRATEGY CAN BE PASTORALLY HELPFUL
A. The multi-site model allows us to enjoy the pastoral benefits afforded by both a large and small congregation.
It is undeniable that large churches face pastoral issues. (It should be noted, however, that a landmark study done by Rodney Stark in 2007 showed that megachurches had more intimacy and better pastoral care than smaller churches.) That said, it is easier for people to slip in and out of a large congregation unnoticed. That is why we believe that the multi-site model is the best way for us to address the pastoral needs of our congregation.
One of the primary criticisms of a multi-site church is that you create disparate groups of people who will never know each other—perhaps never see each other! Realistically speaking, however, this happens also at any multi-service church. For that matter, it happens at any church above two hundred! The hardest ecclesiological shift for me was not in going to multiple campuses, but in growing larger than four hundred 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, either. Large churches of all types have members who do not know each other, and not every pastor knows every member.
However, of large churches, perhaps the multi-site church most effectively addresses that problem. Since the venues are smaller, it is easier for campus pastors and elder representatives to keep up with those that come. In other words, smaller venues reduce anonymity. It is easier for our members to be known by a pastor, be under the care and governance of our church elders, and served by campus deacons at a smaller campus rather than a large one.
At the same time, the multi-site model allows its members the advantages of a larger church. Churches often grow large because many people find the gifts of one pastor-teacher edifying, and the multi-site model allows for the stewardship of that gift. Larger churches are able to offer many ministries that smaller churches cannot. Large churches can often put more weight behind their ministries. John Piper writes: “Worship in larger gatherings with other believers whom we don’t know personally can be powerful (the way a whole battalion gathered before battle to hear the commander’s challenge is powerful even though the soldiers don’t all know each other).”
B. The multi-site strategy is an excellent way for a large church to develop and maximize the use of leadership.
I’ve often heard this response to the multi-site model: “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-site 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 are the ones you no longer see each Sunday?” They are serving at one of 6 campuses I don’t usually get to on Sunday. These were guys I raised up, trained, and depended on. 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-site church than we did as a single-campus church.
C. The multi-site strategy can help protect against a cult of personality.
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 every problem and answer every question. 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-site church! Summit Church members are now exposed, weekly, to many other Spirit-filled pastors in our church to whom they can look for leadership and ministry.
IV. WHAT THE SUMMIT CHURCH IS STILL WRESTLING WITH REGARDING THE MULTI-SITE STRATEGY
- We believe the “one body” needs to assemble ever so often, but how often?
- What is the best way to organize budgeting and staff structures so that each campus has freedom to organize its ministries effectively while at the same time ensuring that each campus retains the DNA of the whole church?
- How do we best do membership and discipline in the multi-site model? How much can a subset of the congregation represent the entire congregation?
- How can congregations vote on issues when gathering everyone takes a good bit of planning? Can online gathering techniques be used for voting?
- We believe local churches should be local, and thus won’t plant campuses in other cities. But how far is too far when planting a new campus in our own cities? Even if we never went farther than 15 minutes in planting a campus, eventually you could span the state of NC. How far out does our “city” extend?
- If people rotate which campuses they attend, will that make it difficult for elders and other leaders effectively to watch over them?
- How exactly will we know when a campus would function better as an independent church?
The multi-site model is messy. As with all large churches, it is easier for important things (like people!) to fall through the cracks in multi-site churches than it is in a single-campus, smaller church. Growth from evangelism always invites chaos and disorder into the church. 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! It is the same with our church. Growth creates problems, however you facilitate it. The multi-site model is messy. But our church will gladly deal with the headaches of the multi-site model if it means reaching more people for Jesus.
We must live with the holy tension of taking care of our local church body and constantly bringing new, immature sinners loaded with problems into our midst. The elders of the Summit Church believe that the best way for us to do both is to adopt an aggressive multi-site strategy. The multi-site approach, in our judgment, best allows us to be effective in evangelism, pastorally responsible over our members, and to develop leaders and church planters.
It is our prayer that in by 2050 God will allow us to put campuses within 15 minutes of everyone in Raleigh-Durham (with some rare but notable exceptions in places where a Summit campus might hinder the work of another local church), as well as 1000 churches planted in cities around the world. For us, the argument comes down not on whether you do multi-site but how it is done. Our responsibility is to do it in a way that is biblical and God-honoring.
 Rodney Stark, What Americans Really Believe (2007), 49
 “Treasuring Christ Together,” Part 2: Lessons in Love from 1 John by John Piper, September 14, 2003.