The folks over at Zondervan sent me a copy of the recently published A Multi-Site Church Roadtrip: Exploring the New Normal by Geoff Surratt, Greg Ligon, and Warren Bird as part of a blog tour organized to promote discussion of the book. The book provides a great overview of various churches across the United States who have gone “multi-site” (a ministry strategy creating multiple sites or venues as part of one larger church). Highlighting fourteen different churches, the book focuses on issues such as leadership, technology, and implementation that arise within this model.
Having previously attended, served, and worked at a church that adopted elements of the multi-site model due, in large part, to growth and space issues, I have close connections with those who are excited and supportive of the potential for this way of “doing church” (and appreciate how God is working through the people of this church). At the same time, I am currently part of a small urban church community committed to contextual and incarnational church planting (rather than launching venues or sites) in different neighborhoods of Los Angeles. So, while I appreciate some aspects of the multi-site church movement, I have mixed feelings as some elements of the model explained in this book give me pause. These are not necessarily things that I disagree with or get upset about, but instead are approaches of the multi-site model that I think deserve more critical attention and thought. So, in lieu of a traditional review, I will pose four questions that came to mind as I read through the book followed by some elaboration and reflection.
1. Is this really normal?
The subtitle of the book is “exploring the new normal.” While I recognize that this may be a growing trend, I am not sure that I would be comfortable saying that it is the ‘norm,’ even in American evangelicalism. Over the last few years, I have come to appreciate the tremendous diversity present within the movement of “evangelicalism,” ranging from rural to urban to suburban, from mono-cultural to multicultural, from independent and free churches to traditional “high churches”, from mega to mini, from conservative to liberal, from missional to attractional, from charismatic to stoic (and everything in between). All that to say, I do not know if there is anything beyond teaching, worship, and sacraments that can be considered “normal” in the practice of American Christianity.
2. What does this look like if you are not a large or mega church?
Though the authors specifically state that the multi-site movement is not restricted to the megachurch, the book overwhelmingly focuses on megachurches as the examples of how multi-site is being done. Of the 14 churches profiled, the smallest has a physical attendance of 900 (which, while not technically a mega church, is certainly very large) and most others are at least 5,000 or more. As I was reading through the book, I found myself wishing that the authors spent more time discussing what this looks like in a non-mega context, particularly because they acknowledge that all “healthy churches” can take advantage of multi-site principles.
3. Has enough been said concerning the use of technology?
The multi-site model of ministry, as it is outlined in this book, is nearly impossible without modern forms of technology. At the bare minimum, heavy use of basic communication technology is needed (telephone, e-mail, etc.) as going multi-site depends on some level of shared (i.e. communicated) leadership, vision, values, etc. across geographical locations (some in close proximity, others thousands of miles apart). In a more extreme multi-site model, state of the art recording, projection, satellite dishes and connections, high-speed fiber optics, etc. are used.
I recognize that nearly all churches (if not all) depend on some forms of technology. I think technology is useful and beneficial and am not an advocate of removing technology from ministry and worship. However, I begin to have more concerns about the use of technology when it becomes a primary vehicle through which relationships are fostered. I do not have a problem with a creative and artistic video being shown as an illustration or a part of worship gathering, but feel that technology is being used in a different (and, for me, possibly concerning) way when the primary teaching/communication in a church comes through a medium that does not allow for a two-way relationship. Further, I have doubts about the efficacy of an “internet campus” to offer the full experience and reality of what it means to be the body of Christ. There is something essential to the Christian story about what is real and tangible and personally believe there are limitations on how “real” an experience can be when a connection is flesh-to-keyboard (or flesh-to-video projection) instead of flesh-to-flesh.
So, while I do not want to dismiss the power of technology to shape and change the practices of ministry, I wonder whether there is more space and time needed for critical conversations about long-term results of the use of technology in the church.
4. How important is proximity to the practice of incarnational and contextual ministry?
I do not take issue with all multi-site models, and appreciated many of the churches described by the authors. I have been a part of what I felt was a healthy, God-honoring multi-site church that did not sacrifice the importance of connections and relationships either within the congregation or in the wider community outside the church. Yet, I have grown to respect how critical physical proximity is in my own ability to minister in an incarnational and contextual way.
For a while, my wife and I were driving 11 miles to attend our church’s weekly gathering, but it was not long before we felt like this was simply too far away to truly connect in the community. We have since moved closer, and feel significantly more involved in the rhythm of our church community. Proximity also, I believe, affects teaching and preaching; a sermon is an event which takes place in a particular time and a particular space. Much can be gained from listening to sermons from other contexts, but I do not know if it can or should replace the power of highly local and contextual proclamation for a particular people and a particular place at a particular time.
With many of the churches featured in the book using video teaching from a main/first campus (or even from a different church) in their satellite campuses, I wonder whether something is lost or missing. Can a teaching pastor in one setting communicate important and universal truths that translate into a different setting? Absolutely – but is it not also possible that direct communication which does not have to be translated could be that much more effective (even if it is not as snazzy or dynamic)? How much more effective is a teacher who can craft a sermon directed not for “whichever location you happen to be listening from” but to “you, sitting in the fifth row, whose situation and context I know deeply because we share a space and a time together”? Having experienced video venues (and not disliking them), I do not doubt that one can learn and grow from this approach, but I do wonder if there may be something lost when the proximity piece is missing.
I appreciated the manner in which the authors demonstrate various ways that churches are creatively seeking to follow God in furthering their ministry, reaching their neighborhoods, and making wise use of their resources. The breadth and variety present in the multi-site conversation should, I think, prohibit anyone from writing off the movement as a whole; there are simply too many subtleties, nuances, and unique expressions of multi-site churches to say that they are “all right” or “all wrong.” I am encouraged to see conversations happening about what the church can and should look like, and the multi-site conversation adds a great deal to those conversations, yet the book left me with the lingering questions posed above. Is this really becoming a “norm” that can be for everyone, or is it a high-profile trend in large and highly resourced churches (which is not necessarily a bad thing)? Is there room for more conversation about the use of technology and the importance of proximity? Every choice has both pros and cons. While the book makes clear what can be gained through a multi-site model of ministry, I wonder if there might not be things that are lost through using such a model and would be interested in further dialogue on these potential areas of loss and disconnect.
What do you think? Thoughts on the questions posed? Any experiences you have with multi-site churches?