It has been nearly 10 years since The Summit Church moved to a multi-site strategy. We’ve learned a lot during that time, and continue to evaluate how this strategy is serving God, our people, and our community. One of the objections I hear a lot to our multi-site strategy is this: “In a multi-site church, I don’t know the pastor (and the pastor doesn’t know me).” For those who make this objection, multi-site appears to be a hindrance to good member care. And because I believe the church is to be a family that cares deeply for its own, and that we elders will have to give an account for every member of our church, I feel deeply, and personally, the weight of this objection.
Here is the heart of my response: Why is the Senior Pastor the one expected to administer all the pastoral care? Doesn’t that presuppose the very “cult of personality” for which multi-site churches are often criticized? “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.
It is undeniable that large churches face pastoral issues. But so do small churches. 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). Stark’s research notwithstanding, however, let’s acknowledge that it is easier for people to slip in and out of a large congregation unnoticed. In fact, this is why we moved to a multi-site model as our church began to grow. It’s easier to hide in an auditorium of 5,000 than it is in an auditorium of 500.
Our people ceased to “know me” when we passed 500 people. In fact, that was the hardest ecclesiological shift for me—going to more than 500 weekly, not going multi-site! When we hit 500, I realized that I could no longer know every member in a meaningful way. And even then I was behind the curve, since a lot of research shows that pastors can’t personally pastor a congregation of more than about 200! So in reality, the problem of the lead pastor not knowing everyone in the congregation is an issue for any church of more than 200 people. Unless you want to stay below 200, 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.
I think that the multi-site church may most effectively address that problem for churches of several thousand. Since the venues are smaller, it is easier for campus pastors and elder representatives to keep up 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, when they all see each other every week.
But still some say: “The multi-site movement fosters a cult of personality by tying everyone to one mega-teacher.” Perhaps. And unfortunately, many large church leaders seem all too willing to foster it.
But 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, and even though we had other pastors, their natural tendency was to look to me as the only “real” one. If I wasn’t there personally, it was JV.
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. When our people have a question or need pastoral guidance, their first move is often toward their campus pastor, because that is a relationship in which they know and are known.
The bottom line is this: A church is not an audience, it is a community, a body, and a family. And those necessitate close, intimate relationships. So, regardless of the size of our church, everyone should be known and cared for by their elders. But unless we strictly limit congregations to 200 people, we simply cannot expect that one particular person will carry the entire pastoral responsibility. And whenever the expectation arises that everyone must know that specific pastor, then we’ve elevated that pastor to an impossibly super-human role. That kind of expectation is not fair to the pastor, and it bypasses the ways in which God has gifted other elders in the church to care for his flock. The irony is that those who accuse multi-site churches of a ‘cult of personality’ are often guilty of a cult of personality themselves.
God has called churches to do two things that can sometimes compete with each other: a) take care of our local church body, and b) reach new people as fast as possible. If we lean too far toward evangelism, we risk neglecting pastoral care; if we lean too far toward pastoral care, we risk becoming insular and neglecting evangelism. It’s so much easier to pursue just one. But we have to do both. In our judgment, the multi-site approach allows us to continue drawing unbelievers in while still being pastorally responsible for our members.
A multi-site approach can certainly be organized in a way that heightens the pastoral cult of personality and squelches other leadership. But we believe that this is due less to the structure itself and more to sinful human nature, which can lionize personality in any structure. For us, the argument comes down not on whether to do multi-site but on how to do it. And our responsibility is to use this structure in as biblical and God-honoring a way as possible.
Special thanks to Chris Pappalardo for helping pull together these thoughts in the writing and editing of this post!