I have recently been having several conversations with people about multi-site churches and it reminded me of a paper I wrote in seminary about this topic. I hope it is useful in getting us thinking about what is a church.
I grew up outside of Washington D.C and until recently my old neighborhood was the home of some serious tobacco farming. For several years of my childhood our house was literally surrounded by a tobacco farm. I remember walking home from school and seeing farmers tilling the soil, planting the seeds, and gathering the tobacco leaves. It was clear to me that my neighbors knew what they were doing. If I asked them anything about tobacco farming they could have told me more than I ever wanted to know. Imagine if one day while I was walking home I asked each of the different farmers what they were planting in the ground. What do you think are the chances that I would have got a different answer from each of them? Each farmer may have different farming methods, but they would never even slightly disagree about what they are planting, right?
Yet, I wonder if I could say the same thing about most pastors and church planters. If I went and asked a large group of pastors and church planters what they are planting, would I get different answers from each one of them? Now, I know that defining and identifying a church is much more complicated and subjective than defining and identifying a tobacco plant. However, I am concerned that many pastors and church planters today are redefining what is a church. All you need to do is begin listening to those pastors and planters who have been advocating the recent multi-site church planting model. If you listen closely to what they are saying about the church and then compare it to what the bible says about the church the differences will be clear.
What I hope communicate in this post is twofold:
1) Provide a biblical and historical definition of the church.
2) Compare that definition with a definition of a multi-site church by quoting the men who are advocating the practice.
Why Does This Matter?
Before I go any further I want to make it clear from the beginning that I am NOT terribly burdened by these things. I do not believe this is the worst thing that is happening in the church today and I am fully convinced that God is working mightily through churches who would describe themselves as multi-site. I will happily pray for, partner with and encourage pastors from multi-site churches who are preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ and who are being faithful to God’s word in many others ways. God is always working in spite of our shortcomings, especially mine!
However, just because this is not the worst thing in the church does not mean it is a good thing. One reason why I am concerned about this issue is because of how prevalent multi-site church planting has become. There is “a movement of multi-site churches that is emerging around the globe. In 1999, Lyle Schaller…estimated that there were about 100 multi-site churches in North America. In 2003, just four years later, Leadership Network estimated there are now over 1,200 multi-site churches in North America, and that number is increasing every week.” This means that hundreds and thousands of church members are not being taught a biblical definition of a church. This is not a tragedy, but I do think what many church leaders are saying about the church is confusing. My hope is to try and point us to the scriptures and with God’s help it may clear up some confusion.
What Is A Church?
I remember the first time I was taught that the New Testament definition of a church is entirely about the people who gather and not the building we use to gather in. I was just over 5 years old and my dad was playing a song on the car radio called “You Can’t Go To Church.” I still have the opening lines of that song memorized:
“You can’t go to church as some people say / The common terminology we use every day / You can go to a building, that is something you can do / But you can’t go to church because the church is YOU!”
Over twenty years later and I am learning yet again that “church” means so much more than what most people mean in the common terminology we use every day. The word we have for church in the Bible comes from the Greek word ekklesia (ἐκκλησία). In the New Testament this word is used 114 times and if you want to go through and read each of these passages then see THIS POST I put together a while ago. When you read all of these passages in their context you find that of these 114 uses of ekklesia there are only 5 times when it does not refer to a New Testament church. On three occasions it refers to a secular assembly and twice it refers to an Old Testament congregation. Of the remaining 109 occurrences, 13 are clearly referring to the church in a universal sense and speaking about anyone who has ever been saved (9 of these 13 are found in Ephesians). If you want to see all of these verses in a list by category then go see THIS POST.
The Bare Irreducible Minimum
What all of this means is that 84% of time when you read the word “church” in the New Testament it is talking about a local assembly of Christian people. Now, all of this information is helpful, but it still leaves a lot of unanswered questions. How do we know which assemblies are a church? Are there a certain number of people that must meet in order for it to be a church? Is there a “church” anytime two or three Christian people meet together? Are there certain things that must happen when these people do assemble? I will answer these questions momentarily, but I want to first point out that the bare, irreducible, minimum of the New Testament refers to the church as a single gathering of people.
By implication we should conclude that if we do not see any gatherings of people in a village, town, or city, then there is no possible way that there can be a church there. Additionally, we should notice that the New Testament consistently refers to the church in the singular tense as one local gathering and not a collection of gathering in a region. For example, you will see Paul open his first letter to the Corinthians this way, “To the church of God that is in Corinth” (1 Cor. 1:2). He uses the singular form when he is referring to a single group of people who were gathering together in Corinth, but if there are multiple gatherings he uses the plural form. So we see this later on in the same letter to the Corinthians, “now concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia…the churches of Asia send you greetings.” (1 Cor. 16:1, 19)
A Few Historical Definitions of Church
It is because of passages like these that the former president of the South Carolina Baptist Convention, J.L. Reynolds, wrote an entire chapter called “A Church Is A Single Local Society” in Church Polity or the Kingdom of Christ. He begins that chapter by saying,
“This is clear: From the meaning and use of the term. We read in the New Testament of “the Church” in a particular city, village, and even house, and of “the Churches” of certain regions; but never of a Church involving a plurality of congregations.”
One of the most common objections I have heard about this definition of the church is that there is no way the early church could have all meet in one place at one time. However, what we see in the book of Acts is not only that they could all meet together in one place, but that is what they did. In Acts 6:2 we see “the twelve gathered all the disciples together” and in Acts 15:22, “the apostles and elders, with the whole church” chose men among them to be sent out for ministry to the Gentiles.
One of the founding professors of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, William Williams, makes this clear in one of his popular essays on church polity. He wrote:
Since the term “church” in all other similar connections is confessedly applied to a single church, the inference is, that in the case supposed it means one single church, and not several confederated. This inference is strengthened by our not being obliged to suppose that the number of disciples was so large that they could never all meet together, and becomes assurance by our being expressly told that the “whole church” did come together. It is doubtless true, that, in a large city like Jerusalem, and it may be Antioch, Ephesus, and Corinth, the number of Christians was too large to meet as one body ordinarily.
What we need to understand is that the New Testament uses “ekklesia” to describe a single gathering of Christian people. It does not describe multiple gatherings in a single building. It does not describe several assemblies in a single region.
Identifying A Church By What They Do
Lets take it a step further. Mark Dever explains that the word ekklesia “was the word often used in Greek cities to refer to assemblies called to perform specific tasks.” With this clarification we are now getting to the heart of the biblical definition of the church. Once we know why these people are assembling together and what specific tasks they are performing, then we will be able to identify a church gathering from any other gathering. As Michael Horton puts it, “the ministry entrusted to the church is also the source of the church’s own existence and identity.” I think Horton gets it right. The tasks and ministry of the church is what sets it apart from any other gathering and gives it the identity of a church.
What Are the Tasks of the Church?
What we must do now is look to the Scriptures to see what tasks the church was given to do. If we turn to Acts 2:42-47 we get a wonderful description of the ministry tasks performed in the very first church.
“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42).
When we keep reading the rest of the New Testament we see that these are the tasks of every Christian church. The church is to be devoted to preaching and teaching God’s word. They are to be devoted to deep and meaningful community. They are to be devoted to the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Lastly, they are to be devoted to prayer and worship. Whether it is through their songs, hymns, or spiritual songs or whether it is simply through time in corporate prayer, the early church was devoted to worship. All of these ministry elements can take different forms. They can happen in a variety of circumstances, but when we strip them down to their most raw and basic form we see the same things. Namely, we see preaching of the gospel, a community covenanted together to love and care for one another, administration of the sacraments, and worship through singing and prayer.
This is exactly the way pastors and theologians have defined the church. For example, John Calvin was one of the clearest and best theologians during the time of the reformation. He, like many others, spoke of the marks of the church. In his classic the Institutes of the Christian Religion he explains, “the form of the church appears and stands forth conspicuous to our view. Wherever we see the word of God sincerely preached and heard, wherever we see the sacraments administered to according to the institution of Christ, there we cannot have any doubt that the church of God has some existence.”
A Biblical Church
In sum, we know that a biblical church exists because of what the people do when they gather together. Anytime you see these activities happening among a group of Christians who are consistently gathering together, then the first thing you should be thinking is that looks like a church. This is why it would be strange for us to call gatherings that look like a church a “campus” or a “site.” If we see these activities then we should use the term the Bible uses to describe them and the term the bible uses is a church.
If I were to say the same argument another way it would go like this…If we never see preaching or the sacraments or fellowship or worship, then we should conclude that there is not a church. There can be all kinds of different Christian gatherings in the world and they could be doing all kinds of great things when they get together, but unless you see a devotion to these fundamental activities being performed you should not call it a church. For example, the Salvation Army does all kinds of great Christian things and they often times have gatherings for preaching and singing, but they do not administer the sacraments. Yet many people still refer to those gatherings as a church, but if we aim to speak the way the Bible does about the church, we would have to say it is an irregular or dysfunctional church at best. The word “church” refers to assemblies of people who perform these specific tasks.
One More Step: Who Is In The Church?
We are almost done with our definition of the church, but we need to take one more step with this definition. We know the church is a gathering of people. We know that this is not just any gathering of people, but this gathering has been called together to perform specific tasks. We know that it is these tasks that they perform that set them apart from any other gathering. The last thing we need to know is who exactly is apart of the church? If anyone walks up into a church gathering are they considered apart of the church even if they do not believe in anything that is being done or said?
The short answer is no.
Inside each of these gatherings there could be several non-Christians, but if we are going to be consistent with the way the New Testament uses the word “church” then when we use the word we should only refer to those in the gathering who are Christians. This is seen the most clearly by the way the authors of the New Testament use a variety of metaphors to describe the church (the people of God, the new creation, the fellowship in faith, the body of Christ, etc…). These metaphors describe only those who have turned from their sin, trusted fully in Jesus Christ for their salvation, been baptized, and committed themselves to a particular local assembly. With all this in mind, I think Jonathan Leeman’s definition of the church is helpful:
“What is the church? It is the new-covenant people of Christ. It’s the people of his holy love. It’s the people who are united to him and share his identity, because he identified himself with them in his incarnation, baptism, death, and resurrection.”
We Are The Church
This is what I remember being taught at an early age. The church is not a building. The church is defined by the people, but not just any people. The people of God who have professed faith in Christ, been baptized, and are in some way committed to one another in deep fellowship and community. It is these people who are devoted to the preaching, fellowship, the breaking of the bread, and the prayers. It is these people who church planters are trying to gather together. Once a church planter has gathered a group of Christians together who are devoted to the marks of the church, then we can rightly say he has planted a church.
A few hundred years ago the Baptist Association in Charleston, South Carolina summed it up well:
“A particular gospel church consists of a company of saints incorporated by a special covenant into one distinct body, and meeting together in one place, for the enjoyment of fellowship with each other and with Christ their head, in all his institutions, to their mutual edification and the glory of God through the Spirit.”
What Is A Multi-Site Church?
According to multi-site church leaders, what constitutes a church? Listen to the way the authors of the book Multi-Site Church Revolution define it.
“A multi-site church is one church meeting in multiple locations different rooms on the same campus, different locations in the same region, or in some instances, different cities, states, or nations. A multi-site church shares a common vision, budget, leadership, and board.”
These pastors believe they can have one church in multiple locations even though they never actually gather together. As Jonathan Leeman once said, “the multi-site argument actually requires…one to say that a church can be a church even if the sites never gather. So it is an assembly that never actually assembles.” But doesn’t this contradict the very definition of what a church is?
Why do pastors use the word “campus” or “site” to describe what the bible calls a church? I do not know why each of these leaders has gone this route, nor do I want to even guess. However, I cannot possibly imagine it is because these men went to the scriptures and searched through the 2,000 years of church history in order to come up with these terms and definitions.
The Basketball Team Illustration
Let’s take a basketball team and use it as an example for how we use our words. Let’s say there was one coach who had a clear vision for how the game of basketball should be played and he got all his assistant coaches to agree with him about plays and strategies were best. Now what if this basketball coach did not have just one team but he coached 3 different teams. In this scenario, would you ever say that he is coaching one basketball team that has three different squads? Even though each team shares the same coaching staff, the same vision, and has all the same plays and strategies I wouldn’t think you would ever call them one team with different squads. This is because we define a basketball team by what they do when they all come together. Each player is only a member of the team in which he or she plays basketball games with. So if a player never played basketball together with these other two squads, then why would we ever say he is on their team?
In conclusion, the church is defined by who they are and what they do when they come together. This is why the multi-site definition of a church will not stand. It is inconsistent with the way the New Testament speaks about the church. If church leaders want to practice some of the principles of the multi-site model that do not contradict Scripture (sharing vision, sharing finances, etc…), then they should feel free to do so. However, a pastor should never feel the freedom to make up new terms and new definitions of the church. Oh, that God’s word would be our guide for all that we do and say about the church.
Akin, Daniel L., ed. A Theology for the Church. Nashville , Tenn: B & H Academic, 2007.
Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Revised. Hendrickson Publishers, 2008.
Dever, Mark E., ed. Polity: Biblical Arguments on How to Conduct Church Life. Washington, DC: Center for Church Reform, 2000.
Hammett, John S. Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology. Kregel Publications, 2005.
Horton, Michael Scott. The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2011.
Jones, Tom, ed. Church Planting from the Ground Up. 1st ed. College Pr Pub Co, 2004.
Leeman, Jonathan. The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love: Reintroducing the Doctrines of Church Membership and Discipline. Crossway Books, 2010.
______. http://www.9marks.org/blog/non-assembled-assembly Accessed on May 20, 2011.
Minear, Paul Sevier. Images of the Church in the New Testament. New Testament library. Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.
Surratt, Geoff, Greg Ligon, and Warren Bird. The Multi-Site Church Revolution: Being One Church in Many Locations. Annotated edition. Zondervan, 2006.