Multi-Service, Multi-Site, Multi-Church

Some things become so common as to seem normal, even inevitable, when in reality they are innovations. For many churches, it’s normal to repeat the same worship service multiple times on a Sunday. Such a “multi-service” church might advertise an “8am traditional service”, a “10am family service”, and a “5pm contemporary service”. On the other hand, a “multi-site” church has a central leadership team overseeing a number of different sites or “campuses”. Such groups talk about “one church with multiple, multiplying congregations”. These approaches, which arise from a desire to grow the Church, are common now, and perhaps accepted as normal.

There are good reasons to consider them. Both approaches make use of economies of scale. With the multi-service approach, the same sermon can be preached in the morning and evening, meaning that a minister need only prepare one sermon per week. Whether that is good or bad is up for debate, but it frees up time for other things. With multiple services, more people can have their musical preferences met, and likeminded young people can more quickly build the vibrant community life which so many evening congregations share.

The multi-site approach, likewise, has benefits. The various congregations can coordinate evangelistic and ministry efforts in strategic ways. It is easier for a group of congregations to plant a new congregation together, than for an individual church to multiply on its own. The saying that churches are “better together” has proven true in many examples. Congregations can share finances, spur each other on as iron sharpens iron (Prov. 27:17), and reduce the overall administrative overhead by producing and using common resources. What is freed up can support missionaries, or care for the downtrodden. These are genuine benefits.

But there are also drawbacks, which should give us pause. With the multi-service approach, the congregation is inevitably separated into different demographic subgroups. On the whole, older believers worship in the morning, and younger worshippers in the evening. This means that a young person could be part of a church congregation for years without making friends with an older person, which seems to be a missed opportunity.

Our elderly are able to love and serve the church in unique ways (Job 12:12). For example, older women are called to “teach what is good, so that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands and to love their children” (Tit. 2:3-4). Yet the wisdom of the older women is not only for the younger women. I was much encouraged one morning after church when, having shared of a personal struggle, an older saint reflected on a similar situation in her own life from decades earlier. The Lord himself strengthened me by her words. Our elderly, like parents in the Lord, can help us avoid the mistakes they made in their youth, but only in the context of genuine friendship, so we should avoid even inadvertent compartmentalisation in church (Gal. 3:28).

The multi-site model also has drawbacks. When one session oversees multiple congregations, there is the risk that some elders won’t get to know some of the members under their care. Unless all the elders worship at all the sites, the shepherds will be unable to develop mutual relationships of love and responsibility with all of their sheep. Perhaps some elders won’t even know the names of some of the people entrusted to their care, and some of the flock will not know their shepherds.

A shepherd in the church is like a father in the family, so Paul asks, “If anyone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of God’s church?” (1 Tim 3:5). This shows the importance of an authentic relationship of love and responsibility between an elder and the people he leads. An elder trying to lead a people with whom he rarely worships is like a father trying to lead a family in another home – he might make helpful contributions, but it will be impersonal and unusual.

To combat this effect, multi-site churches assign specific elders to specific congregations, with an overall meeting of the session, say weekly, for broader collaboration. This is an appropriate corrective. Yet such a church has almost started its own presbytery – but not a normal one. In this new presbytery there is usually a senior minister who directs those underneath him in something like an employer-employee relationship.

By contrast, there is a third approach to church growth which retains the benefits of multi-service and multi-site churches, while avoiding the drawbacks. This approach might be labelled a multi-church model, traditionally referred to as “Presbyterianism”.  In this model, a local church is the whole people of God regularly congregating at the same time and place for worship, led by a whole session, but not isolated from other churches.

Taking this approach, the whole congregation – young and old; shepherds and sheep – all worship together each Lord’s Day. God’s household (1 Tim. 3:15) is all together in one home, together at the same dinner table each night. This entails genuine personal relationships of responsibility and love between the elders and those in their care. Authority and responsibility go hand in hand.

Yet none of the benefits of the other approaches are lost. Churches can cooperate in all the beneficial ways mentioned above. Whatever a multi-site church has found to be effective can be replicated across a presbytery. The churches in a presbytery can share resources, spur each other on, hold combined events, and strategically plant new churches. When a given congregation outgrows its building, that congregation, together with other churches in the presbytery, can plant a new church in its own right. If it is not immediately feasible for the church-plant to stand on its own two feet, the presbytery can assist by providing assessor elders for a time-limited period of, say, three years.

It is true that it might be more difficult, initially, to collaborate with other churches when one doesn’t have the power to direct the others, but it is better in the long run to have cooperation without control. A multi-church approach transcends any one gifted leader, and helps to avoid parochialism, which is always a danger. The combined strength of the larger group of churches is greater than any subgroup can achieve on its own. Perhaps God is using multi-site churches to remind us all of how closely we really ought to be cooperating.

Although the multi-service and multi-site models might seem normal today, they ought not to be regarded as the only approach for the future. We truly are “better together”.

– Jacques Nel