Do Multisite Churches Fit the Biblical Model?

For several decades now there has been a healthy debate among American Christians surrounding the concept of multi-site churches. The challenge surrounds the question of scope. At what point can different groups of people meeting at different locations with little to no interaction with each other still be called a singular church? This is one of the issues that Dustin Slaton seeks to unpack in Multisite Churches: Biblical Foundations and Practical Answers from Kregel.

Slaton’s premise is that there is a biblical basis for a multi-site model, but that there are certainly some issues with how the current models in existence reflect the New Testament pattern. He begins by giving a history of the multi-site movement, including the current landscape. His second (and largest) section deals with the idea of what a healthy church is, and whether multi-site churches can meet those metrics. The third section deals with answering critiques of the movement. It is really in the second section where the “bread and butter” of the book is found.

Slaton creates a list of characteristics of a healthy church (preaching, ordinances, membership, discipline, leadership, worship, discipleship, prayer, evangelism, stewardship, and
community) and shows how multi-site churches seek to emulate each one. This is where the book begins to struggle to make a coherent case. For example, under the concept of church membership, the author highlights that many churches bring in members based on a vote by the corporate body, but new members are assigned to a local “group.” Under this model, church members will vote into membership people who they have never met and with whom they will never interact. This does not seem to fit the concept of bringing members into the body as a whole. Another example is in the chapter on the ordinances. Slaton seems to argue that baptism and the Lord’s Supper were practiced in the early church both in corporate gatherings and small groups. His textual evidence for this is slim, but even if the point is conceded, he makes clear that allowances must be made for full “corporate” gatherings of the church and that the practice of the ordinances should be incorporated into these gatherings.

It is at these points that I take issue with Slaton. What is corporate worship if it is not the full gathering of the local church? How can a local church (singular) meet in different locations and that be considered good enough for Hebrews 10:25, but there also be a need for some kind of gathering of the “whole” body? This just screams “cognitive dissonance.” Is it correct from a methodology perspective to say that when a multisite church has Sunday morning worship it is a “church service”? If they are truly “one church meeting in multiple locations,” then I do not believe it is accurate to describe the service that way. It is not a meeting of “the” church, but rather a worship service composed of a subsection of the church. And lest someone argue that this is no different than the typical Sunday morning service at your typical church where some people are in attendance and others are not, this is a whole different kettle of fish. If someone from my church is sick or absent, the expectation is that I will see them next week or at small group. In the multi-site model, the very design of the model creates barriers to fellowship within the actual church itself.

Slaton’s book is good, and his research is helpful. It is worth reading just for the source material he cites. From John Piper to Mark Driscoll, Slaton has done his homework on how different multi-site churches handle ecclesiology. But this is where the value of the book falls off. We do not agree on basic definitions of what constitutes a church, or how a “mark” of a healthy church must be implemented in order to be seen as an identifier. I remain firmly in the one church- one location camp. At a certain point, we must look past the pragmatic concepts behind the multi-site model and even worse, the empire-building that many implement (see Mars Hill) and instead look back to the simple New Testament model of a local church. Autonomy, leadership, preaching, shepherding, ordinances, membership, discipline, etc. All practiced together. By people who worship each week together. Led by pastors who know their flocks. We do not need a “secret sauce” to build the church, but rather a stronger reliance on the one who has promised to build His church. Let us be faithful at our task, and He will be faithful at His.

I received a copy of this book from Kregel in exchange for a fair and honest review.