I greatly respect and have been greatly influenced by the ministry of 9Marks. I attended the Weekender conference last fall a committed subscriber to “elder-ruled” ecclesiology, and left 90% biblically convinced of Congregationalism. I know of no other organization who consistently does a better job helping the church think through healthy structures and systems from the bottom up. I would gladly recommend any church in their network and fellowship to someone looking for a local body in their region.
However, sometimes it seems they over-play their favorite cards.
Jonathan Leeman recently posted Twenty-Two Problems with Multi-Site Churches, which raised some excellent points. I think in many cases, I agree with his principles, but find his bottom-line conclusions a bit Procrustean. There were a several points, however, that seemed unfair or irrelevant to his point. Here are several of his objections and my humble responses:
3. For every additional multi-site campus out there, there’s one less preaching pastor being raised up for the next generation.
This is not necessarily the case. It may often be true, but there’s no reason to assume that local churches with “enfleshed” preachers are more generous with their pulpit than a video-venue for, say, 32 of the 52 weeks per year. One generous preacher of a multi-campus church may actually provide the opportunity for more aspiring preachers by virtue of his space-making being multiplied.
4. What effectively unites the churches (campuses) of a multi-site church are a budget, a pastor’s charisma, and brand identity. Nowhere does the Bible speak of building church unity in budgets, charisma, and brand.
Again, this argument might be true in many instances, but not in every case. The church may be united around, say, a vision and strategy of ministry in their area, or a covenant. The New Testament does seem to imply that shared truth (1 John 1:3) or a shared vision forges unity (see 1 Cor 1:10, which in context does support Leeman’s caution against leader personality forging unity, explicit in objection #5).
8. When a multi-site pastor implodes, dies, or retires, all the churches that constitute that “church” are put at risk, including all the smaller once-independent congregations that the multi-site franchise took over.
This seems to directly contradict the point made in point 5. If we can agree that the unity and identity of the church is not the leader, then there’s no reason to assume that the campuses/”churches” are any more at risk than a single assembly would be in the same situation. I don’t see how this advances Leeman’s argument.
10. Wise and sensible pastors of multi-site churches will not follow the logic of a multi-sitemodel to its rational conclusion, but will continue to insist on some gathering for reasons of prudence and even biblical obedience (though doing so contradicts their formal definition of “church”). Unwise pastors and members, however, will follow the multi-site logic to this conclusion by creating the opportunity for “Internet churches,” unchurched “fellowship,” and other forms of churchless Christianity.
Leeman actually helps articulate an important point here: multi-campus churches do require wise leadership, and may not always be a wise solution. Few faithful leaders would advocate multi-site for the sake of multi-site. In some cases, the situations and circumstances that led a group of leaders to adopt the multi-site model led faithful men to a difficult decision. Furthermore, I’m not sure how the “unwise” option is any more exacerbated by the multi-site model than any other “churchless” iterations.
22. Multi-site churches are the current trend in evangelicalism. The great question is, will they be able to make a generational transition? Will they be able to hold together when the main preaching pastor—who is usually in himself the center of gravity for the whole enterprise—goes off the scene? And how much institutional and spiritual fall-out will occur when he does? The only examples of “multi-site churches” that have survived trans-generationally are those which invest a particular office with theological significance, as in, “The man who holds this office is the Successor of Peter, the Vicar of Christ on Earth, the Supreme Pontiff of the Church, and you owe him your allegiance regardless of whether or not you like his preaching.” Whether our own evangelical brand of “multi-site churches” can make this transition without that kind of absolute claim seems unlikely.
This argument actually seemed to spiral on itself in an unusual way. In the example of a “successful” multi-site transition, the succession succeeds in spite of liking his preaching. Wouldn’t the concessive in this logic be the very thing Leeman does not want to happen? If the decried “theological significance” constrains in spite of the leader’s failure, then the alternative would be that diminishing the leader’s “theological significance” warrants leaving the church due to a personality failure. If I’m understanding Leeman’s logic correctly, you should leave a church if you don’t like the leader’s preaching. I’m not clear how that presupposition doesn’t betray the very leader-cult that seems to drive so much of the objections above.
In conclusion, while I agree with most of Leeman’s concerns, I find his basic assumptions about the motivations or underlying unity of multi-campus churches to be rather unfair as a necessary case. There may be many organizations who ought to heed Leeman’s warnings, but I believe there remains a possibility of biblically-submitted, ecclesiologically-responsible multi-campus church structure.
Update 10/2/2014: Jonathan Leeman responded to my objections with the clarification that he agrees with much of what I am saying, but that he never claimed his concerns were necessarily the case, which he covered by his initial qualifier of “prudential”. While that helps, and it’s encouraging that he does not think all mutli-campus instances are guilty of his concerns, perhaps his article would be better titled “Twenty-Two Cautions to Multi-Campus Churches”.