John Hammett: What Makes a Multi-Site Church One Church?

[Mondays at Between the Times are devoted to posts from the faculty of Southeastern. Today’s post is by John Hammett, Senior Professor and John L. Dagg Chair of Systematic Theology. Dr. Hammett winsomely and gracefully engages the growing trend of multi-site churches. What do you think?] 

One of the most important movements in the contemporary church is the development of what are called multi-site churches, which describe themselves as “one church in many locations.”[1] Under this model, what makes a church one is not that the members gather at one location. What, then, do they offer as justification for seeing them as one church? Most often, they point to organizational or missional elements. As one book says, “A multi-site church shares a common vision, budget, leadership, and board.”[2] But such a definition of oneness could fit restaurant chains, hotel franchises, or banks with multiple branches, or an association or convention of churches. Surely the unity of a local church involves more.

One additional element of unity would be theological. Members of one church should be united in believing the “one faith” Paul describes in Ephesians 4:3–6.[3] Indeed, many of Paul’s letters to churches included theological instruction and correction so that the churches could be one in faith, both internally and in relationship to other churches.

But most often, the oneness of a local congregation in the New Testament seems to be relational, rooted in the relationships among the members. So, in Acts 2:44, we read that “All the believers were together and had everything in common.” Acts 4:32 continues, “All the believers were one in heart and mind.” The image of the one body with many members in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12 emphasizes equality in value and honor despite diversity in gifts, and is given as an incentive to mutual care. In fact, one of the major themes of 1 Corinthians is Paul’s appeal to all the members there “to agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought” (1 Cor. 1:10). Similarly, the Philippian church is exhorted to make Paul’s joy complete “by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose” (Phil. 2:2). Unity seems more much a matter of the quality of face-to-face, shared relationships among members than with organizational matters among budgets and boards.

The challenge facing multi-site churches is how to foster such relational unity among believers scattered over a geographical area meeting at different times in many locations. Even churches that meet in one location face a similar challenge, for as they grow larger they will soon have too many members for any one member to know all the others. This makes the development of genuine fellowship across all the membership a matter of concern, not just to multi-site churches, but to all churches that grow beyond a very small size. Somehow the New Testament churches, even the very large church in Jerusalem, managed to live out relational oneness. Their example calls us to deeper commitment to the brothers and sisters with whom we covenant in local church membership.

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This article is adapted from John S. Hammett, “What Makes a Multi-Site Church One Church?” Great Commission Research Journal 4, no. 1 (Summer 2012): 95-107. Bruce Ashford let readers know about this article in 2012. See the post here.

[1] Geoff Surratt, Greg Ligon, and Warren Bird, The Multi-Site Church Revolution (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006). The sub-title of this book is “Being One Church in Many Locations.”

[2] Ibid., 18.

[3] Theological unity is given both primacy and greatest prominence in the list of five areas of church unity advocated by Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears in Vintage Church: Timeless Truths and Timely Methods (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), 137-140. In addition to theological unity, they highlight relational, philosophical, missional, and organizational unity.

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  4Comments

  1. Kevin   •  

    Dr. Hammett,

    How would multi-site churches maintain a 1-church functionality when it comes to church discipline and electing elders? I can give an example if needed, but it seems like many split hairs when it comes to these crucial functions of the church and end up either making campuses churches or a church where people are brought to be judged by people they have never ever interacted with (because they are at different sites).

  2. John Hammett   •  

    Hi Kevin,

    This is where I like the multi-site models that have meetings of the whole church periodically (once a quarter would be ideal, in my opinion). Those meetings could include business that pertains to the whole church (like receiving members into the whole church, disciplining members of the one church, electing elders for the whole church). These are actions that I think should be taken by a church. If a multi-site claims to be one church, then they need to do these things as a church.

    Of course, this does mean that church members will be voting about people they do not personally know, but that will be the case in any church that gets beyond a few hundred people. They will have to rely to a large degree on the recommendations of those they do know, but I still think there is value in the whole church acting together.

  3. Ian McGinty   •  

    I couldn’t help but notice that conspicuosly absent in this piece is any mention of technology & its role in facilitating the phenomenon of multi-site churches itself as well as its use in fostering the relational unity held out as the crucial defining quality of this organizational structure. Perhaps this was adressed in the full article from which this was adapted. Would you comment on it here?

    Thank you for making me think about this issue.

  4. John Hammett   •  

    Hi Ian,

    I omitted mention of technology because not all multi-sites use it. Some provide a preaching pastor at each site. So it’s not a necessary element of a multi-site church, though of course many do utilize it.

    In terms of the potential for technology to foster relational unity (via social media I assume was your thinking), I think it helps some, but cannot fully replace face to face fellowship, especially for accountability and mentoring.

    My full article was itself not that long and could not address all aspects of multi-sites, such as technology. I have a PhD student here at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary who will be doing an entire dissertation on the impact of technology, including multi-site churches. If you want to follow up, email me and I can refer you to him.

    Hope this helps.

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