The church’s main hall is full. People in the back scan the crowd, looking for an empty seat. You cannot see any. I am assisting a flustered usher. She is assisting a flustered mother with young children. Where can we put them?
Four young, single men sit comfortably in the back row. They’re oblivious. I want to say something. Hello, guys?
These days you have to show up early if you want seats. It’s the same upstairs on the children’s ministry floor. Want to check your toddler into childcare during the service? Better get there fifteen minutes early. Even then, you’ll find a crowd of parents hovering, waiting for check-in to begin. Back downstairs with the big people, the usher runs out of bulletins. She panics. There’s nothing else I can do. I sit down with my family. Oh well.
Another Sunday morning in a full church.
Multisite or Multiservice—An Easy and Wise Solution?
I’m not exaggerating, by the way. The very Sunday after I wrote the words above, I arrived twenty minutes early at the children’s ministry check-in desk with my three-year-old. Her class was already full. I walked away quietly chuckling at the irony. “Are you sure you want to argue against multiple services or sites?” I asked myself. My daughter spent the entire service on my lap.
For moments like these, starting a second site or service does seem like the obvious solution. It seems like good financial stewardship because it’s more cost-effective than building a bigger building. It seems like good time stewardship because it’s less logistically taxing than planting a whole new church and can happen more quickly. It offers predictability and familiarity for church members and pastoral safety for leaders. You avoid sending forty vulnerable sheep off to start a new church with a young, untested planter.
Most crucially, it makes Great Commission sense. We want as many people as possible to hear the gospel. We don’t want them leaving because they cannot find seats. Therefore, let’s not be too persnickety over the structures of a church. Right? A number of good friends, whom I respect and who are better evangelists than I am, have chosen multisite or multiservice for just this reason.
Of course, not all reasons for adding sites or services commend themselves. One multisite pastor told his staff that becoming a multisite church made them appear “legitimate.” It was a status symbol for him. But never mind the bad reasons. What do we make of the good reasons, like the Great Commission?
That’s what motivated my pastor friend Mark to adopt the multisite model. He challenged me over dinner, “If a non-Christian walks into our church, and it’s full, I cannot tell him to go elsewhere.” He continued, “Suppose you have a revival, and an extra few hundred people show up one Sunday. Would you turn them away?” I hope not.
Another multisite pastor friend, J. D. Greear, wrote that the elders of his church chose to pursue a multisite strategy because they “believed it was the most efficient way to reach the maximum number of people in our city . . . as quickly as possible.” J. D. well understands that a concern for evangelism does not negate everything else the Bible says about the church. He, too, values “accountability, community, and faithful polity.” Yet, he maintains that “a church that does not have [evangelism] near the top of its priorities cannot be closely aligned with our Savior’s purposes, regardless of what else they get right. In heaven, there is more joy over one sinner that repents than how we organize the 99 who are already his.”1 Insisting on the single-assembly church, J. D. contends, is “evangelistically harmful.”
Both of these conversations illustrate the strength of Great Commission instincts among evangelicals. We recognize that salvation is most crucial. This is both a doctrinal conviction and an automatic reflex. Salvation is more important than goods and kindred, more important than the kingdoms of this world, and certainly more important than church order. As Martin Luther taught us to sing,
Let goods and kindred go,
this mortal life also;
the body they may kill.
So, in one sense, I agree with Pastors Mark and J. D. entirely. We should prize conversion and spiritual growth over church structure. And the Great Commission should be uppermost in our minds as churches.
Might We Be Shortsighted?
But hold on. Should we pit church structure and conversion against one another? I care about my children more than my house, but my house keeps my children alive and healthy. Likewise, evangelicals rightly prioritize salvation, but we cannot abandon the house of salvation, which is the church. Doing so will hurt our ability to fulfill the Great Commission. It’s true there is more joy over one sinner who repents than a rightly organized ninety-nine. Yet, let’s not grab an either–or where the Bible provides a both–and. Jesus in fact uses this very illustration about the ninety-nine and the one just so: rightly organizing the ninety-nine is crucial for reaching the one (Matt. 18:10–20). Read the parable about the lost sheep in context.
Biblical church order serves disciple-making. Biblical polity aids evangelism. Don’t separate them.
As evangelicals, we can be shortsighted, like eating candy before a marathon for the burst of sugar energy we expect it to give. We fixate on the number of people in the pews this Sunday, but lose sight of how a healthy biblical church is the best way to fulfill the Great Commission over time—to run the whole marathon with endurance. Biblical church order serves disciple-making. Biblical polity aids evangelism. Don’t separate them.
Too often, we are tempted to change the rules to get more of a good thing. Yet, in the process we undermine ourselves. Think of a university that addresses a downward trend in student grades by making tests easier. They might fix the grade problem in the short term, but they won’t produce better engineers, nurses, or math teachers over time. Or think of a clothing company that increases profits by producing cheaper clothes. They’ll do better in the short run, but they’ll hurt their reputation in the long run. I stopped shopping at one of my favorite stores because holes in the sweaters and unstitched seams in the shirts showed up after one season of wearing them.
In the same way, the good desire for conversions shouldn’t lead us to compromise other biblical principles. It will hurt those numbers and the church’s mission in the long run. “A growing number of people is not a number of growing people,” Mark Dever has said. Unbiblical methods and strategies for fulfilling the Great Commission might look good for a moment, like grade inflation ballooning the number of As. But they produce false positives, inaccurate readings, anemic churches, a weakened mission. They hinder the Great Commission. Healthy, biblical churches, on the other hand, advance it.
- J. D. Greear, “Multi-Site or ‘One-Service-Only?’ A Question of Evangelistic Faithfulness,” J. D. Greear Ministries, October 22, 2014, https://jdgreear .com/blog/multi-site-an-evangelistically-effective-model/
This article is adapted from One Assembly: Rethinking the Multisite and Multiservice Church Models by Jonathan Leeman.
Our zeal for theology must never exceed our zeal for our actual brothers and sisters in Christ. We must be marked by love.
Jesus explicitly identifies himself with the gathering because the gathering makes his kingdom visible and active through their mutual agreement and testimony.
What problems with our lives, priorities, and even theology do we not recognize? What would it look like to wake up to our own blind spots and to lovingly engage with those with whom we disagree?
You don’t join a church in order to be saved, but you may want to join the church to help you in making certain that you are saved.