Multi-Site Or ‘One-Service-Only?’ A Question of Evangelistic Faithfulness

This is the first of four posts on whether the multi-site can be a wise application of biblical ideals set out for the church. From the outset, we want to be clear that we are very concerned with the pragmatic and consumeristic approach that many multi-site churches take. We appreciate concerns raised by Jonathan Leeman and others to that end–concerns we hope these posts make obvious that we share. These blogs should not be construed as a defense of all multisite practices (this will become obvious), but rather an attempt to deal with the question of whether it is ever possible for a church to utilize a multi-site strategy in pursuit of the objectives the Lord Jesus has given to his church. 

To that end we’ll attempt to answer 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: evangelism.

To cut right “to the chase,” The Summit Church has chosen to pursue a multi-site approach because our elders believed it was the most efficient way to reach the maximum number of people in our city while faithfully pursuing the other biblical beauties God prescribes for his local church. We don’t do multi-site because we like being scattered in a bunch of different places throughout the Triangle each weekend; we do it because we think it is evangelistically helpful to reach and disciple the maximum number of people possible as quickly as possible. So weekly, we gather in 9 locations around the Triangle, and we gather altogether as a congregation about once a year. Multi-site does not preclude church planting for us, not even in Raleigh-Durham. We plant churches (domestically) at the rate of four per year, with two of last year’s plants being right here in Raleigh-Durham. We sent out a total of 120 members as part of these plants.

“One service only” advocates question the biblical faithfulness of our approach, charging that we are not fulfilling God’s purposes for community and accountability in the local church (For a recent article in this vein, see Jonathan Leeman’s recent blog post). We will answer those questions in later posts, but here I want present the question to them of whether mandating “one service only” approach is evangelistically faithful.

Let me be clear: Evangelism does not trump all other biblical prescriptions for the church, but it certainly was among the closest values to our Savior’s heart. Luke 19:10 tells us that Jesus’ summation of his own ministry was that he came to seek and save the lost. A church that does not have this near the top of its priorities cannot be closely aligned with our Savior’s purposes, regardless of what else they get right. In heaven, there is more joy over one sinner that repents than how we organize the 99 who are already his.

And please know, I certainly am not trying to question the evangelistic desire of one-service-only advocates, just as I hope they do not question my desire for accountability, community, and faithful polity in our multi-site approach. I know many one-service-only advocates personally, and I have found many of them to be among the most ardent personal soul-winners I have met. But I do question their insistence on their model to the exclusion of all others. I believe their insistence on this model is evangelistically harmful, and thus damaging to the one thing Jesus told us to be most concerned about doing.

Consider this relatively conservative growth scenario: If even 15% of the members of a congregation of 400 meeting in a room that holds 500 bring one person to Christ every year, in two years members will no longer be able to bring any more of their friends to church. At that point, the church would have to overtly discourage its members from bringing any more unsaved friends, or, the reliable 80% rule (that new people will not continue to attend a room that is already 80% full) will do the discouraging for them. The 80% rule is, unfortunately, as reliable a sociological rule in the U.S. that you can find. Of course, the members could invite the people they are discipling to go to a different church, but isn’t life-on-life a crucial component of effective disciple-making? Surely “life on life” discipleship would include, in normal circumstances, worshipping together on the weekend.

Furthermore, the weekend service is still a very critical component in the conversion of the unchurched and dechurched (at least in places like the United States). Paul indicated that Spirit-filled weekend services would be highly effective for evangelistic purposes (1 Cor 14:25), so creating space for unbelievers to come in and observe is an evangelistic necessity. Similar to God’s command to Israel to keep an open and clear “court of the Gentiles” in their Temple, we must create an easy and accessible space for unbelievers to observe us in worship, which means keeping room in our services for “Gentiles” who want to come in and observe. But once you pass 80% capacity in your auditorium, unbelievers will simply cease coming—members will subtly feel discouraged from inviting them, and those who do come will often feel uncomfortable and choose not to come back. At that point, I can’t see how a church is not in direct violation of something the New Testament clearly teaches is to be a core value for the church. They are impeding, whether intentionally or not, the progress of evangelism. They are “making it hard for Gentiles who are turning to God.”

And if a church is not growing by 15% every few years, that means that not even 1.5 of its baptized members are bringing someone to Christ. Could any pastor who takes Jesus’ promises about the fruitfulness of his church seriously be satisfied with that (Luke 5:1-10; John 15:8)–and not hoping, and yearning, and planning, for more? When we see an influx of “Gentiles” that God is drawing to our congregation, won’t we do everything we can to make space for them?

Some say, “Well, build a bigger building.” That seems like a good answer, but that usually takes millions of dollars (money that could be spent reaching people), and a minimum of 5 years to raise money and build the building. Meanwhile, your church, sitting at its saturation point, loses its momentum in evangelism, which translates into people not getting saved. Plus, pastors with really large auditoriums invariably end up hating them. (I can make you a list!)

“Ahh…” you say, “church planting is our answer. Every time we get to 80% of our auditorium we’ll plant. By sending people out we’ll maintain space in our auditorium and keep reaching people at the same time.” I mean no disrespect with this, but that is the kind of answer that people give who have never actually had to deal with the problem. It looks so good on paper, but anyone who has had to deal with the reality of growth, at least in the United States, knows that dog won’t hunt. I wish it worked here, and know it does in some other contexts… but it is simply not a reliable or realistic solution to insist for all places and all times.

Here’s why: I have never seen a church in a Western context that could convince even 10% of its members, consistently, year after year, to leave to plant a new church. As I mentioned, our church sent out 120 of our members to go with our four domestic plants last year, which puts us (unfortunately) among the most aggressive church-planting churches in America. But sending out 120 is still less than 2% for us… even though we talk about church planting all the time and actually paid the full-time salary of four guys for a year to do nothing but recruit people from our church to go with them. And sending out those 120 was painful, because it involved sending out some of our most committed leaders, leaders it will take us quite a while to train up and replace. Sometimes I wonder if we can sustain even this pace–though by faith we are trying.

Even if you do manage to send out 10% of your members every year for the first few years, you will see a law of diminishing returns begin to kick in. The amount of believers ready to uproot their families and plant a new church will not remain constant at 10%. I’m not saying mathematically it couldn’t happen; I am saying that I am very familiar with the most mission-minded, mature, church-planting churches in the nation, and I have never seen an example of a church that could sustain that level of sending. The first year you harvest that zealous group–who are in a place for a new challenge and ready to go with your new plant. The next year, you convince a few more, as people in your church are maturing and becoming more willing to sacrifice… but it probably will not be quite as many. Soon, you will have run the metal detector over the sand so many times that there just is not enough metal shavings left to send out in a new plant. And, even if you could maintain the 10% sending rate, you would not be keeping up with the conservative growth rate of 15%–which I still think is a low growth percentage in light of Jesus’ extravagant promises about the fruitfulness of his church!

When you plant a campus, or start a new service, however, you are able to move a lot more people around. We see up to 50% of members in one service shift to a new service time (or campus). We’ve seen this happen on a consistent basis with little to no diminishing returns.

Never has the church planting approach been a successful strategy for addressing the space needs of even a moderately growing congregation of 400—at least not in the United States. I challenge one-service advocates to find me examples to the contrary.

To note, starting new campuses in RDU (for us) is not an alternative to church planting; it is alternative to building one gargantuan building. (This is one of the many reasons we don’t plant campuses in other cities or states, as that would not not, in any way, help out our attendance problems in RDU. We only plant independent churches in other cities and states. Or, as we like to say it–we plant campuses in those places from where we already have a lot of people coming; we plant new churches in places that we don’t.)

So if you don’t multiply services (and/or campuses), inevitably your members will become less evangelistic, and unbelievers will quit coming to your service. Thus, I contend that the one-service approach, however unintentionally, discourages evangelism.

Again, evangelism does not trump all other biblical prescriptions for the church. And, if “ekklesia” mandates that we all assemble weekly in one place, we should trust the Master’s prescriptions and do that faithfully, regardless of the perceived ramifications on evangelism. It’s his mission, after all, and we’ll do it best when we do it his way. But the case that the word ekklesia requires all church people to gather in one location, at one time, every week, has simply not been compellingly made, at least in our view. Please note: that we should gather is not in question (Grant Gaines helpfully points out that assembling is a necessary function for a church, a point with which a fully agree–more on that tomorrow). Whether it must be altogether, in one location, every week, is in question.

The only points of proof that “one-service-only” advocates bring forward to ‘prove’ that it must be all in one place at one time every week are a) what we consider to be a rather weak, tenuous inference from the word ekklesia itself, b) supposed implications in verses where Paul talks about the church assembling—but verses in which Paul is not addressing the question of whether the church must assemble altogether every week and c) the example of the nation of Israel who assembled annually in Jerusalem.

In our view, the evangelistic damage their model causes to growing churches is severe, and we must consider this reality soberly in any and all discussions that we have. If there is more joy in heaven over the one that repents than in how we assemble the 99 who are already his, surely this must color all our discussions.

The multi-site approach has its challenges, and, as I noted, it is possible to pursue it unfaithfully and harmfully. It seems that for some, in their desire to grow, they haven’t balanced the other important truths God’s Word teaches about the church. We certainly have felt that temptation, and fear it on a continual basis. Pride, materialism, and apathy lurk dangerously close in our hearts, and we ask God for the wisdom to avoid those deadly errors. Jonathan Leeman has recently pointed out some of these challenges the multisite church faces. However, a few things to keep in mind as you peruse his list:

1. Most of his critiques would apply just as equally to any large church, not just a multisite church. In fact, most of the problems he identifies would be more acute in a large, single-service church than in a multi-service one. Are we ready to argue that all large churches have departed from the biblical pattern? Could anyone read Acts 2–5 and not see the Jerusalem church as, at minimum, a large group with a lot of organizational problems, subject to most of Leeman’s critiques here?

2. Almost all of Leeman’s critiques would just as equally apply to the multi-service approach as they would the multi-site approach. In other words, to accept Leeman’s reasoning, you must shun the approach of a church with two Sunday morning services. Anything else is inconsistent.

3. Many of his critiques (particularly #3 #7, #11, #14, #15, #18, #20) will likely sound very foreign to those in a healthy multi-site church. What he supposes with these critiques is logically possible, but not necessary, and members of healthy multisite churches will not find these descriptions accurate at all.

But more on that to come.

Tomorrow, the most important question: Is the multisite model biblically sound?