When most people in the world think of a “church,” they think of a building. The Greek word ekklesia, which is most often translated as “church” in the Bible, never refers to a building, but always a group of people. The church is not a building: this is a message which requires proclamation to the world and reinforcement among the people of God.
Christians in a local church are to meet together to encourage one another (Hebrews 10:25); local churches therefore must give some thought to facilities. But what kind of facilities are necessary for the church to do its work? Such has proven to be a contentious and divisive matter, sadly. We do well to search the Scriptures and gain principles from its pages.
A recent trend in the world of “Christendom” features multisite churches. Multisite churches involve a church that may have begun in one particular location but has grown to establish other “campuses,” building locations in other parts of a given metropolitan region and/or in other cities. Generally all of the “campuses” of a multisite church share the same type of name and “branding”. Some multisite churches function essentially as individual local congregations with their own staff and direction; other multisite churches truly feature a “main campus” with many “satellites,” maintaining a consistent lesson and teaching plan across all campuses, and sometimes even having one sermon and speaker telecast to every campus. Multisite churches and the multisite church concept have grown in number and popularity over the past few years and is most prevalent among Evangelicals but is making inroads among churches of Christ as well.
The development of the multisite church concept in our day is not coincidental. Among Evangelicals, on account of ecumenicalism and general cultural forces, denominational affiliation and loyalty have generally been diminished or abandoned over the past few years. “Nondenominational” or “community” churches have grown significantly; many churches with denominational affiliation have “rebranded” themselves in such a way as to seem less denominational (e.g. First Assembly of God becomes “First Assembly”). Meanwhile certain preachers or certain churches become quite popular and famous, either in a given metropolitan area or across the country, and many people want to listen to the preacher or be a part of that church. The result is a “multisite church” concept, providing a consistent brand and experience across many locations. In many ways a “multisite church” becomes a “mini-denomination,” establishing an institution or organization for branding and logistical purposes without the cultural baggage of denominationalism. Is a multisite church concept consistent with God’s purposes for the church as revealed in the New Testament?
In the New Testament the church is spoken of either in terms of all Christians who belong to Christ across time and space (the “universal church,” Matthew 16:18, Colossians 1:24), or in terms of a group or groups of Christians who assemble in a given place at a given point in time (the “local church,” 1 Corinthians 1:2, Galatians 1:2). In the ideal, the members of a given “local” church reflects the members of the “universal” church in that area at that moment in time; functionally most of the way the members of the church work together for encouragement and edification is done through the local church (e.g. Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:12-28). The church is founded on the Apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus as its Cornerstone and Head (Ephesians 2:20, 5:23-32). Local churches were shepherded by elders and served by deacons at the discretion of those elders (Acts 14:23, 20:17-35, Philippians 1:1, 1 Timothy 3:1-12). Members of local churches were aware of each other’s existence (1 Thessalonians 1:7-10); they would provide financial support to each other in times of need and could support an evangelist in the preaching of the Gospel in other places (Acts 11:27-30, 1 Corinthians 16:1-3, Philippians 4:14-20). Nevertheless the New Testament betrays no understanding of any level of organization of the church between the “local” and “universal” levels; all Christians were subject to Christ, Christians in a given local church were subject to the elders of that local church, yet in terms of each other local churches remained autonomous (Hebrews 13:7, 17, 1 Peter 5:1-5). No local church exercised authority over any other local church.
Therefore, on an organizational level, we can see that the multisite church concept is at odds with what is revealed about the nature of the church in the New Testament. A “multisite church” brand would exist between the level of the “universal” and “local” church, and there is no authority in the New Testament for such a thing. If the “main campus” of a multisite church exerts any sort of authority over the “satellite campuses,” the autonomy of each local church has been compromised. The multisite church concept, as a sort of “mini-denomination,” comes under the same disapprobation as denominational structures (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:10-13).
For good reason did the Lord establish His church as one body yet organized only in terms of local assemblies: each local church has its own members with their own particular challenges and situations. While the doctrines of the faith are to be the same and preached and taught upon consistently in all churches (1 Corinthians 4:17), even in the New Testament we can see different situations and challenges among the Christians in Corinth than among the Christians in Philippi or Thessalonica. Such is why each local congregation is to build itself up, shepherded by its own elders who know their own flocks (Ephesians 4:11-16, 1 Peter 5:1-4). A multisite church has the pretense of unity without the substance thereof; most people will end up assembling at one site and will get to know only the members at that site, members of the leadership will either only know a few in each location or will focus on one location, and/or a “satellite” location will be made to feel like a “satellite” church, not the “real” one, if it remains entirely dependent on the “main campus.”
It is good for a local congregation to grow; it may well be that a given local congregation may grow to the point of needing to “multiply.” The Biblical solution to such a wonderful challenge is to establish a new local church, not to establish a multisite church. Informal relationships can still exist among the congregations. Its members can still know each other and encourage each other as they have opportunity. This way both local churches can continue to grow without disrespecting the way the Lord established and governs His church. Let us work to encourage fellow members of the Body of Christ and maintain Jesus’ form of organization for His church!
Ethan R. Longhenry