A Response to J.D. Greear on the Fidelity of the Multi-Site Church Model

A few weeks ago, J.D. Greear, the lead pastor at The Summit Church in the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina, posted four blog posts (1, 2, 3, 4) defending the multi-site church model (hereafter, MSM) against objections and concerns raised primarily by Jonathan Leeman at 9Marks.

While many arguments could be levied against the MSM and against Greear’s posts (which you must read first in order to appreciate what I will say below), I want to offer two main responses arguing that the MSM is not biblically faithful. First, I want to point out the problematic unspoken assumption behind Greear’s arguments in favor of the MSM. Second, I want to critique Greear’s argument in his second post about the biblical fidelity of the MSM regarding the essence or identity of the church.

I write as a pastor who previously worked on the pastoral staff of a multi-site church here in North Carolina that looked to The Summit as a model and that invited Greear to come speak on a number of occasions to provide counsel and leadership advice. I have shared a meal with Greear and spoken to him on a few other occasions, and I always found him to be kind, intelligent, and full of charisma. While I have concerns about the model he and The Summit have adopted, I want to be clear that my criticism should not be interpreted as personal attacks but as concerns for Christians I care about and desire to see thrive. But I am concerned with the MSM and with The Summit in particular, especially in light of the recent events at Mars Hill in Seattle with Mark Driscoll (a friend and example to Greear).

A Problematic, Unspoken Assumption

Greear’s main argument in favor of the multi-site model comes in his first post regarding the evangelistic faithfulness of the model. His explicit aim in adopting the MSM is to reach more people for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I have no objection to the desire to reach more people for Christ. But what Greear fails to admit in any of his posts is the belief that, in order for The Summit to do this, they must plant campuses throughout the Raleigh-Durham area instead of planting churches because of the appeal of his celebrity-pastor status. This assumption is overlooked as Greear cites statistics, the 80% seating capacity principle, and arguments about how church members won’t leave to plant churches. He doesn’t seem to see that everything needed to plant a site in the ways he describes throughout his posts contains all the ingredients needed to plant a church. This reveals that the real reason why they plant campuses as opposed to sites is because of the unspoken (perhaps correct) assumption that the church is evangelistically effective because people come to the church to hear J.D. Greear. If they plant churches, there would be no Greear appeal.

So let me briefly show why it’s the case that a church could be planted just as easily as a site according to Greear’s own arguments. Virtually everything Greear argues in his third post on pastoral care would be the same arguments which those espousing a “single service only” model would make to plant churches as a response to church growth (especially under Presbyterian governance). First, congregations of 500 or less can more effectively keep track of and care for the sheep. Second, not everyone needs to be connected to the “senior-pastor” (an office that is problematic in my estimation as well, but that is for another post) but can be shepherded by elders who worship with them in the same place, so smaller congregations are better than huge congregations regarding pastoral care. Third, we want people to stay, serve, and live where they are and be the church in their community. Fourth, we should constantly develop new leaders by providing other pastors opportunities to preach and carry out other pastoral responsibilities. If these arguments justify planting sites, aren’t they even better reasons to plant a church?

Greear explains that The Summit’s philosophy of church planting and site planting runs like this: they plant churches in areas where there are currently no Summit members commuting and sites where many Summit members commute 20+ minutes. But Greear never explains why the sites themselves cannot simply be planted as churches. He cannot bring himself to acknowledge that they do so because they believe their “brand” and the appeal of Greear himself prevents them from giving sites autonomy. Despite the claim that Greear desires to send people rather than build an empire, that is exactly what he is doing by planting sites rather than campuses. The MSM model tells people to stay where they live and be the church there, but it allows them to hold on to hearing from Greear each Sunday.

The only time Greear appears to be aware of the model’s dependence upon a celebrity-pastor comes in his third post, but he quickly dismisses this concern by arguing that the problem was worse when The Summit did not yet have any sites. Besides, he says, the problem isn’t unique to multi-site churches. But this response hardly addresses the concern. Just because something is a problem in many churches doesn’t mean that it cannot be held against the MSM. Furthermore, I find it hard to believe that his celebrity-pastor appeal was more prominent when The Summit gathered as 500 people in one location than when they gather near 10,000 in 9 locations. If that was true, then what advantage is there to planting sites instead of churches? The real reason for the MSM is that people come to The Summit to hear J.D. Greear, and The Summit is leveraging that reality to “reach more people for Christ.”

Now Greear can deny this, and if you listen to other multi-site lead pastors, they will deny it too. But the events of this past few week over at Mars Hill in Seattle regarding Mark Driscoll ought to help us see through the denials. Driscoll’s resignation and the decision by the elders there to dismantle the multi-site model in favor of particularization demonstrate that the whole corporate conglomeration depended upon the leadership and appeal of the top leader. If there is one thing the events at Mars Hill ought to make clear, it’s that, despite all the objections to the contrary, the multi-site model is all about the celebrity pastor. If the celebrity pastor goes down in shame or leaves, there is no reason to keep all the sites together under one central hierarchy anymore (unless an equally appealing celebrity-pastor can replace the former).

Those espousing the multi-site model need to acknowledge the real reasons why they have adopted the model. It isn’t because they cannot train up elders/pastors fast enough. Greear says that each campus has local elders that shepherd the people there. It isn’t because of finances. These sites usually start with enough congregants/members to operate, or they can receive support from the planting church. Churches like The Summit adopt the multi-site model because they want to leverage their “brand” and famous preacher to attract more people in the hopes of reaching more people.[1]

Building a church model on a personality, a brand, or a mother church’s DNA is a serious mistake. It runs counter to Paul’s arguments in the beginning of 1 Corinthians about the danger of appealing to people on the basis of anything other than the preaching of Christ crucified. Paul goes to great lengths to denounce adopting ministry practices or models that utilize the draw of a personality or the flashy methods of the world. The model stands and falls with the one pastor. As Mars Hill and plenty of other mega-church collapses demonstrate, when you build a church on a man other than Christ, that church will decline (usually rapidly) and the witness of the church is damaged when the man leaves or fails in any dramatic and public way.

The Biblical Fidelity of the Model

My larger concern with the model rests on biblical arguments regarding the essence or identity of the church. Simply put, Greear is guilty of reductionism. He argues that the essence of the church is covenant not assembly. He says that assembly is a function of the covenant community but that there is no biblical support for the idea that churches must gather in one place at the same time each week. Before I discuss the reductionism of this argument, I need to briefly comment on the last part of that assertion.

Greear is correct about how, where, and when a church is to gather only if he only has to demonstrate that no passage explicitly commands gathering all together at the same time weekly in those terms. But interpreting Scripture requires a much broader theological approach than that. Only until very very recently, the church has universally believed that local churches should gather together on the Lord’s Day because of the fourth commandment and the pattern of the New Testament church.

The case many make attempting to defend the MSM by appealing to the supposed prevalence of “house church networks in one city” in the first century is weak at best. Appealing to the initial formation of the church in Jerusalem to justify a church model is to appeal to the context before the Apostles began organizing the church into what would emerge as the healthy and universal gathering pattern and governing structure. Just because a church in one city is referred to as one entity, much like the way we would talk about the church in any geographic area (e.g. “the church in the United States”), does not mean that the church had adopted a MSM. I would argue that the early church had something more akin to what we would call a Presbyterian system. But even if one disputes that, those who seem to root the MSM model in the New Testament ignore the case made time and time again that the early church looked to the synagogue as its model. Synagogues were led by a council of men from several families that lived in the community where they gathered weekly to hear the Law read and to pray.

The more substantial concern I have with Greear’s biblical case is the reductionism of his ecclesiology. If the church is essentially a covenant community, then all we need is a covenant in order to have a church. Everything else that marks the church can be done to the degree that we find them practical, effective, or convenient. If Greear considered all the church models that could follow from this argument, he might take pause.

Now, he acknowledges that churches must gather together, but he essentially accuses Leeman of being too uptight about that since there is not explicit command as to how often, where, and when. The Summit finds it most effective to gather all together once a year. But this line of reasoning is about as ridiculous as saying that a family is essentially a covenant community (entered into through marriage, birth, or adoption), and so a family need not live, eat, work, play, worship, or serve together since being together is not the essence of a family. Certainly, we can grant that families still exists when being together is not possible. But wouldn’t we all agree that a rich, healthy, and ideal family life is one where members share in life together in these ways? Wouldn’t we agree that the formation of children demands a rich shared life where parents can instruct, model, and work along side of the children? And when a child grows older and marries, leaving his family to hold fast to his wife and form family of his own, wouldn’t we consider this to be a new family with its own government and life even if the two families come together often to share in fellowship and mission? Given the language of the New Testament describing the church as the family of God, and given that the pattern of governance throughout the New Testament sees mature heads of households as the leaders of the local church, shouldn’t we conclude that a local church should look a lot like a collection of families who share life together? By reducing the church’s essence to covenant, Greear relegates other church identities to relative unimportance and thereby undercuts the force of what it means to be a covenant community in the first place. Rather than reducing the church to one defining feature and then coming up with arrangements we deem to be effective, we should pursue a church structure and pattern of gathered worship that best conforms to all that the New Testament teaches about what it means to be the people of God.

At the heart of my concern with the MSM is the observation that multi-site churches have adopted a corporate structure and abandoned the family identity described and commanded in the New Testament. And we are fools to think that this doesn’t impact the formation of disciples. Greear claims that his church is highly effective evangelistically. I am just not so sure. Drawing crowds of people and baptizing huge numbers does not convince me that many real disciples are being formed. The Great Commission is as concerned with the maturation of disciples learning to obey all that Jesus has commanded as it is with the initial response of faith and baptism. If we take any cues from Jesus’ suspicion of the crowds in his own ministry due to their desire to see miraculous things and be a part of something significant given the tumultuous cultural situation of Roman occupation, we will be suspicious of large crowds that gather in contexts where spectacle and celebrity appeal is high and commitment is low. If we win people by appealing to their desire for a low commitment experience of inspiring teaching and powerful musical worship, then we shouldn’t be surprised that they are hesitant to engage in high commitment endeavors like planting new churches.

The corporate structure of The Summit and other MSM churches is marked by a corporate hierarchy aimed at efficiency (something unsurprisingly absent from the concerns driving Jesus’ ministry). Despite The Summit’s attempt to ground their governance in biblical arguments, anyone thinking carefully will quickly see that their practice doesn’t conform to the very arguments they make about church officers/leaders. If the NT uses the terms elder, pastor, and overseer interchangeably (as they argue and with which I agree), then why aren’t all the pastors and elders “directional” elders (the ones who actually rule the church)? The answer is that there would be too many elders to make decisions efficiently. But in order to be able to say that each campus is led by elders, people who do not have any ruling authority are given the title of pastor/elder. So instead of localizing the elders and planting churches, The Summit adopts a corporate board (the directional elders) subject to the votes of the shareholders (the members), executed by the CEO (J.D. Greear), and carried out by the CEO’s staff (pastors excluded from participation in the directional elder board). It’s plainly misguided to argue that one is adopting a biblical model of church governance under these conditions.

The corporate structure of The Summit and other MSM churches depends upon the DNA or brand first established by the original campus. Because of its “success,” The Summit has chosen to plant sites that can carry The Summit’s DNA into other parts of the city. I don’t have space here to develop an argument as to why this is problematic, but it rests in the conviction that churches should contextualize the gospel to the particular context in which it gathers and scatters. Churches should seek to live incarnationally with the actual people, problems, social injustices, groups, institutions, and challenges each geographic area presents. The incarnational philosophy will push against all attempts to replicate the DNA, brand, or culture of a congregation in a different place.

The church is a sign, a foretaste, and a herald of the kingdom of Jesus Christ, and the MSM fails to faithfully embody this identity. The shape or form of a local church must conform to the gospel message. In other words, if the gospel is true (which it is), it will produce a people who take on a certain life together that exposes the idols of the culture in which it lives. The church itself, its fellowship, worship, and message, will be a taste of what God’s kingdom will be like when Christ returns. Rather than being a taste of the kingdom, the MSM is a form adopted from our consumeristic culture. The very reason Greear has to defend himself against the critique of consumerism is because the MSM is based on consumerism. He is right that other churches fail to witness against consumerism. Even churches that adopt a faithful model and structure will be tempted by consumerism. It is the water in which we live and breathe in the U.S. But this is exactly why we must maintain a church form and hold fast to a gospel message that resists approaching all of life as consumers. We cannot form disciples who are learning to die to self while at the same time attracting them to our church with a celebrity.

What to make of it all?

No one doubts that multi-site churches can boast tremendous growth numbers. I don’t intend to dispute the large number of churches that have been planted by multi-site churches (almost always in different cities). I also don’t mean to suggest that nothing good has come from these endeavors. But we simply cannot accept the argument that because multi-site churches can boast such huge growth numbers, they must be considered faithful to God’s biblical vision for the church. On the contrary, humility demands that we be all the more diligent to watch ourselves and listen to others. The more “successful” and exalted these celebrity-pastors become, the more danger exists that the pastors themselves and those who share in their importance and impact will be foolishly blinded in pride. Many voices have been raising concerns about the MSM, and recent events at Mars Hill once again demand reconsideration of a dangerous church model. The fidelity of the church’s witness is at stake.

[1] I recognize that a minority of multi-site churches do not broadcast or drive the lead pastor to preach at every site but have campus pastors preach each week. In these cases, the mother church is leveraging its brand and prominence rather than the senior pastor.