This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.
Rethinking the Church Model
In this episode, Jonathan Leeman, author of One Assembly: Rethinking the Multisite and Multiservice Church Models, discusses his argument that multiservice and multisite models run counter to the pattern for the local church we see in the New Testament. He highlights the irony of discussing church gatherings in the midst of a quarantine, lays out his biblical and practical reasons for believing this, explains how we define the Greek word for church ekklēsia is so important in this conversation, and reflects on pushback received from other pastors, such as the objection that it could harm our church's evangelism.
Topics Addressed in This Interview
- Church in the Time of the Coronavirus
- Rethinking Multisite and Multiservice Church Models
- Are Multisite and Multiservice Church the Same Thing?
- What Does the Bible Say About Church?
- Are Church Models Just Different Tools for Evangelism?
- Understanding the Church as One Assembly
- The Importance of Church Polity
- Pushback on the Critique
- Parameters for Church
- Picking a Fight with Jesus
- What Should Lay People Do with Conviction?
- Learning from the Separation of Churches During COVID-19
So it's early April—April 1st today—which means that we're still in the thick of the coronavirus pandemic here in the US. I think that's led a lot of us to really contemplate afresh what it means to be the local church without actually being able to gather together face to face. I think that's just something we've all been wrestling with a lot; so I'm curious, what has it been like for you and your church?
It is an interesting time, isn't it? It's been challenging for our church, like it has been for many churches. At the same time, we're discovering various sweetnesses in our fellowship and our connection together—insofar as we have a thick culture of discipleship and a thick culture of hospitality in our church and we have relationships going on all week—the transition hasn't been that hard. I can imagine if you're in a church where people show up for sixty minutes on Sunday and that's it, I would think this is a harder time. But praise God that amidst the challenges, we're discovering various sweetnesses as well as people look out for one another—lots of phone calls, zoom calls, and stuff like that.
Rethinking Multiservice and Multisite Church
I find it fascinating because this period that we're in is very unusual and in many ways an uncomfortable season as the church—thinking about Christians together. It's really an interesting tie-in to your new book that you're publishing here with Crossway. The title says a lot about what you're really trying to get out with the book. The title is One Assembly: Rethinking the Multisite and Multiservice Church Models. I want to just jump right into the big question, and then I'd love to spend some time digging into your reasoning. Why is it that you think the multisite and multiservice churches need rethinking?
Well, it certainly is an ironically timed release, isn't it? It's like suddenly we can't assemble together by order of the government, or many of our state governments, and here I am making an argument that for a church to be a church it needs to be assembled. Why do I think they need to be rethought? Several decades ago mass churches turned to the multiservice model—that started in the late 1950s and through the 1960s and 1970s—and that became popular. And then by the 1980s, a few churches started experimenting with the multisite model—more prominently in the 1990s and into the 2000s— as a quick solution to growth problems. The thing is they never really stopped—and many of the early advocates will admit this—we we were building our churches in the air. We didn't really do a thoroughgoing biblical study. And so what I'm trying to do in this book is to say the station is out of the station here—we're well down this road—but let's stop and do that biblical study, and understand theologically what the church is. And the main thing I argue is ecclesia in the Bible, especially in the New Testament, is an assembly. It is a gathering. And so far as I'm able to discern, there are no exceptions to that. We could dig through specific passages because people have questions about, What about Corinth? What about Jerusalem? What about Acts 9:31? But the argument of the book is an assembly is an assembly is an assembly; and a church is a church is a church, which means it assembles.
Are Multiservice and Multisite Church the Same Thing?
In your mind is there any difference between multisite and multiservice? I think for many Christians and many pastors we would think of those as very different categories of churches or concepts. But it seems like you're lumping them together.
Good question. For the purpose of this book, I am lumping them together because both of them divide the assembly. One of them divides it geographically—that's the multisite. And one of them divides it chronologically—that's the multiservice. And in both cases the assembly is not assembled. The nine o'clock crowd is not with the eleven o'clock crowd. The North campus is not with the South campus. Now you said, Are there any differences? Well certainly, there's plenty of differences. I think dealing in churches characterized by one or the other have different pastoral challenges, there's a different feel, they evoke different possibilities, have different challenges to them. Nonetheless, from a biblical standpoint and a theological standpoint, which is what I'm principally dealing with in this book, I would say they both divide the assembly and they are not, as it were, churches. In fact, here's what I argue, Matt, is that a multisite church. a multiservice church, doesn't actually exist theologically speaking. What the multisite church is is several churches held together by an administrative mechanism. We call it a church—legally it's a church—I get that; but theologically, biblically they're actually churches—multiple assemblies.
What Does the Bible Say About Church?
That's a very helpful clarification on what you're getting at. As you said, it seems like the crux of your argument is a biblical argument, namely that there's just no evidence in Scripture for the idea of either multiple meetings or multiple locations for a single church—ecclesia. Is that correct?
In the early chapters of Acts, for instance, you have the church meeting from house to house—you have clear examples of that in and through Acts. But are those separate meetings ever called a church? They're not. Three times in the early chapters of Acts—chapter 2, chapter 5, and Chapter 6—you have the whole church of Jerusalem assembling together. So think about Acts 6:2 where it says, “And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples.” So we know they all assembled together and that's what made it a church. Did they also have separate house gatherings? Well, sure. My church does, too. I'm in a small group. We often sometimes meet at my house, sometimes we meet at someone else's house. So there are smaller meetings going on to be sure, but what makes the church in Jerusalem a church and what makes the church in Corinth a church is the fact that they all gather together—they assemble together, whereas what the multisite church is proposing is that you can actually have assemblies of people that never assemble, and still they're an assembly—that is to say, they are a church. I'm arguing in this book that there's just no New Testament precedent for that.
Are Church Models Just Different Tools for Evangelism?
Another question I wonder if people might have: it seems like you're making the case that this idea of a multisite or multiservice church—calling that single entity a single church as opposed to multiple churches—doesn't have any New Testament precedent. I guess I wonder could someone come back and say, What about something like a microphone? It's a tool for extending the voice of a pastor, allowing him to reach more people, and that's not in the Bible. We don't have a concept of that in Scripture, and yet we don't have a problem with that. Can you elaborate a little bit on how that's a different category and it's not just about having a different tool to use to extend the reach of a pastor or church leaders?
Historically, theologians have made a distinction between elements and forms. The elements are the things that the Bible actually instructs that we have to do—you have to have preaching, you have to have Bible reading, you have to have singing, you have elders, you have Lord's Supper—these are your elements. The form those things adopt are going to change from circumstance to circumstance. In the Bible you have to have a meeting—well, do you meet in a house? Do you meet in a field? Do you meet in a dedicated building? Well, that doesn't make a difference. An analogy might be, you have furniture and then you have style of furniture. So I have a kitchen—I've got to have a fridge, I've got to have an oven, I've got to have a kitchen table. Well, what style of oven? Is it gas burning, electric, or a wood burning stove? That just depends on my context. The form of my oven might change from context to context, but the element—oven—is necessary for having a kitchen. Every church everywhere needs to follow these certain biblical elements. We can disagree about what they are or not, but we all agree that to have a church you have to have this. Microphone is clearly a form. How do you preach? Do you use a microphone? Do you do it this way or that way? We can disagree on that and different contexts might determine what is used. But what I'm saying is a basic constituent element of a church is a gathering. That's what the word means and that's what we see uniformly both in the Old Testament when the word assembly is used—ecclesia—in the Greek Old Testament, as well as in the New Testament.
Understanding the Church as One Assembly
Practically speaking, and just experientially speaking, why do you think it's important that we understand the church as this one physical gathering of God's people in one place at one time.
Number one, just experientially, when you walk in on Sunday you can see, hear, touch the church. You can't ever see, hear, touch a multisight or multiservice church. Maybe parts of it, yes; but not actually the church itself. And what I would say is the local church is where the universal church becomes visible. It becomes an outpost of the kingdom so that you can walk into it and feel it. The temperature in the room rises because there are so many bodies. I'm trying to find a seat and I look around and I see my brothers and sisters in Christ. A lot of this has to do with the advantages of the gathering and to connect the church to the gathering. I experience the church as I experience all the physical realities of the gathering. I think that's an essential part. Number two, I think that pressure that we feel when we have a full building—now keep in mind I wrote this book when Capitol Hill Baptist Church, as a member and elder there, was stuffed to the gills. We had people standing in the back. The room maybe seats a thousand, we probably had one 1,050 or 1,100 or so in the room at any given time. It was full. We kept stuffing in more chairs, doing our best to obey the law with fire code. So I felt it. I remember looking around for places to sit for my family and couldn't find any. Or trying to get my little girls into nursery care, when they were still young at this point, and there was no room and so they'd sit the entire two hour service on my lap—that was no fun. But what did that do? That pressure of the full building forced us to work harder to a) raise up more leaders, b) partner with other churches, c) church plant and send people out. So in other words, that pressure of the full room concentrated our attention on working harder, as it were, in fulfilling the Great Commission. And again, a lot of people say, You'll never plant enough churches to solve your growth problems. I think that's true. Capitol Hill Baptist Church is and remains stuffed to the gills. But what it has done simultaneously is it has worked really hard at partnering with other churches and sending people to other churches. In other words, we're not the only restaurant in town. We're trying to solve the hunger problem, not get people to eat at our restaurant. We're happy for you to be eating at any number of restaurants. And so let's get to know some of those other restaurants, send people to them, partner with them, have their pastors come to our church and pray with us and have them explain their prayer requests to us so we as a church can pray for them. And so we're building these relationships and partnerships with other churches and along the way what happens is it just becomes easy and familiar to have people spread out to those other churches. So 1) you can see the church, feel the church and the assembly; 2) you're putting a Great Commission burden on yourself; 3) you're being forced to develop these different church partnerships in the process. So this goes well beyond just, Hey, I'm looking in the Bible and I think ecclesia means this. I think that's most decisive—what the Bible says we should obey. That is most important. Nonetheless, I think there's a lot of practical and pastoral reasons why this would be the case. And these are some of the things that I've discovered in a full church and I think we also see as we work through the New Testament.
The Importance of Church Polity
So all of this relates to what we would call church polity—questions about how a local church is organized, its structure, what leadership looks like, etc. But I think for many Christians that can feel kind of like secondary stuff, stuff that maybe they wish we could skip past to get to maybe “more important issues” like our life together as Christians, our common commitment to Scripture and historic Christian orthodoxy, caring for the poor, evangelism—that kind of stuff. So why would you say that questions of church polity like this are important for Christians to think about and even discuss?
Your first-tier issues, meaning your salvation is dependent on this—first-tier gospel issues—create your second tier issues, meaning your ecclesiology—your view of baptism, your view of the Lord's Supper, your view of church government. All these things that make a church a church—let's call those second tier issues—and if you're familiar with the phrase theological triage, that's what I'm doing here. So your first-tier issues are most important. The gospel, most important. Your doctrine of God, most important. But those first-tier issues, your doctrine of the gospel creates your second tier issues. And then those second tier issues, like your doctrine of the church, what they do in turn is protect and display your first-tier issues. So let's think about the Lord's Supper and baptism. What those do is they put on display who we think has the gospel. As we put them on display, what do we do? We protect that gospel. You get rid of your second tier issues, you get rid of your doctrine of the church, you get rid of your polity—your church government, that is—and that might work for a year or two; but ask yourself, How safe will the gospel be over ten years, over twenty years, over a generation? Well, little by little that water just gets spread out and people don't pay attention to it. So church government, church polity—what is the church?—answers to those kinds of questions are crucial—essential even—for protecting the gospel over time. They're also essential and crucial for the Great Commission because it's in our life together as an assembly—you said there's other more important things people want to think about like our fellowship together. Okay well, who is “us”? Who is “our” that's part of “our fellowship”? Apart from things like church membership and discipline, that just becomes hard to keep track of. And complications arise when you move out of the assembly. Let's say I'm a member of the North Campus. My friend John goes to the South campus, but there's lots of other people at the South campus whom I've never met and never see and the elders don't really know who's at each campus and there's one guy who shows up on a video screen at both campuses but he doesn't really know who's at all of those campuses. So am I saying that it's the pastor's responsibility to know everybody who is a member of his campus? I would say no, but consider a spider web analogy: I know my 10 to 15 people, the guy standing next to me knows his 10 to 15, someone else knows her 10 to 15, and together we, showing up every week in one assembly, just have an easier time keeping track of one another and seeing one another and sitting under the same preaching and under the same elders who are instructing us and shepherding us. So this question of polity and this question of one campus or two, one service or three, it dramatically impacts the Christian life. And as we dramatically impact the Christian life, we—back to my first point—display, protect the gospel over time. So is this the most important thing? No, and I'm happy to affirm brothers and sisters in Christ who disagree with me. One of my best pastor friends is a multisite church pastor. My parents attend a multiservice church. I love my multisided, multiservice church friends. We're one in the gospel and we do the Great Commission together. I'm just saying, Okay, but let's look at the Bible and ask ourselves what is the wisest and what is the most biblical, I dare say, way of doing church? And when I see this uniform practice, when I see the very use of the word, when I want to consider implications for the Great Commission, I would say that this makes the most biblical sense.
Pushback on the Critique
You mentioned that you have many friends, pastor friends, who do shepherd churches that are either multisite or multiservice or both, and I just wonder what's been some of the strongest pushback you've received from them as you've talked with them about this issue, maybe even shared the book with them?
I would say there's two basic pushbacks. Number one is the evangelistic impulse and number two is that I disagree with your view of the text argument. The evangelistic impulse is a great impulse. It is basically, Jonathan, if you have all these people showing up, how do you turn them away? I just can't imagine turning them away. A more sophisticated version of that argument is, Hey Jonathan, as we plant these services and then even all these campuses, we're reaching more people for Christ and we're just having a higher rate of people getting saved and joining the church. To the evangelistic impulse I would say 1) I think there's a little bit of short term thinking there. Yes, if I suddenly have five hundred people showing up on my doorstep, a) I'm going to accommodate them one way or another. The guys cut a hole in the roof and lowered the man in to see Jesus. If you literally have five hundred people showing up, do something. That's not a church though; that's a pretty unique Sunday. After that you're then going to have to look hard for ways to truly churchify those extra five hundred people who apparently want to join. So if you have that problem, awesome! Don't take the short term strategy, the short term solution—add services, add sites—as the best option. I think evangelism is going to be served best over time as we follow the Bible. So I'm convinced that as you work to plant and partner and help other churches around you be healthy and not just worry about your own church—that little church down the street and that other church across town—as you work to help them be healthy and partner with them and grow with them, you actually might see more people getting saved than just happens through your own congregation. So we evangelicals tend to be pretty short term in our thinking and I'm calling for more of a “we're raising children here, this takes years” view. So that's the evangelistic pushback I get. I understand it, but I think it's not taking in the full picture. The biblical pushback is, What about the Jerusalem church? What about the church in Corinth? What about these different examples? Or, I'm just not sure, Jonathan, that ecclesia means exactly what you're saying it means. I've not yet heard somebody read this book and disagree with the biblical arguments, but that's only because it's brand new. I'm sure it's not because everything is perfect and foolproof. I think maybe the biggest challenge, biblically, is where they're eating the Lord's Supper in Acts 2. Are they eating in house to house assemblies? Are they eating it all together in Solomon's Colonnade where the whole church is clearly gathering and, presumably, based on Acts 2:21, baptizing? So they're clearly getting together for preaching. They're clearly getting together for baptism, at least, again, according to Acts 2. What about the Lord's Supper? Where is that happening? The temple in the ancient Near East would have been kind of like a restaurant, frankly, in some ways. That's where all the sacrifices were happening and then people would join together for meals. So I think it's entirely possible they were eating there in the temple. The text just doesn't say that. It does say they're breaking bread from house to house. There's two different ways “breaking of bread” is used in the book of Acts. Sometimes it's clearly referring to a meal. A couple of times it does seem to be referring to the Lord's Supper. So perhaps the biggest biblical challenge I've heard against my argument here is, I interpret the use of “breaking bread from house to house” to be taking place in separate houses; therefore, they are basically functioning like churches. Therefore, your argument doesn't hold. The problem with that, of course, is they're still all getting together in Solomon's Colonnade and that's what I'm arguing makes a church. So even if they are separately taking the Lord's Supper, which I'm not sure of and think probably not because it said they “received their food with glad and generous hearts”— it seems like they're just having meals house to house—even if they're taking the Lord's Supper, I still think the argument holds: the church in Jerusalem was one church because they all get together, and we have repeated examples of that in the early chapters of Acts.
Parameters for Church
I wonder if our current situation with the coronavirus where we're not, for very exceptional reasons, we're just not able to be getting together in person as churches. And so I guess it seems like your argument might be that, Well, then that just means that the church is not actually meeting together as the church even if we are setting up our live streams and setting up our Zoom calls and all that. Is that how far you would take it and essentially say that all the live streaming of sermons that's happening and music that's happening, that's not actually the church—it's just something else?
That's precisely what I would say. I would say there are no churches—there might be a few out there—my church is not gathering. I assume your church is not gathering. A bunch of people might be looking at a computer screen. You might be getting together on a Zoom call, but you are not ecclesia-ing as it's used in classical Greek, as it's used in Old Testament Septuagint Greek, as it's used in the New Testament. It is simply not an assembly. It is not a church.
That's very helpful.
Let me jump in a little bit more. There's lots of good things you can do, but I think we just accept that this is a providentially assigned occasion—tough occasion—for churches. Now the church exists insofar as that you still have members of the church. You still have the people and they are still committed to one another and they can still reach out to one another all of that. But part of what makes them a church, the gathering, is temporarily on hold. We are, as it were, irregular churches. We can still function as the body of Christ in caring for one another, but we just can't gather.
Picking a Fight with Jesus
At one point in the book you say something that's kind of interesting. I think it's somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but I think you have a real weight to it. You say that those who would advocate for a multiservice or multisite model as the norm are unintentionally “picking a fight with Jesus.” I wonder, why do you say that? And maybe the real question is, how important is this issue in your mind, in light of what you've said so far?
What this one mega church multisite pastor friend of mine, who is a very good friend and who read an early draft for me, said in all caps, I do not like this “picking a fight with Jesus” thing! And in fact, he's continued to joke with me. He says, Somebody make a T-shirt: “multisite” on the front, “picking a fight with Jesus” on the back. So yeah, that was me trying to be a little bit provocative saying look, I think Jesus has defined the church this way; and then so far as you are redefining the church, you're calling something a church that is not a church. That is to say, these separate sites—separate churches, yes—but when you call that whole thing a church, you are redefining the church. And that has moral implications. Going back to your question about polity, the way you organize a group has a moral implications to it. There is a moral shape to these things. And so what I say at one point in the book is that insofar as you're redefining the church and you're reshaping it, morally speaking, you are picking a fight with Jesus. Back to the theological triage question—how important is this?—I would put this right here at second tier issues. So think about a Presbyterian church. If you look into a Presbyterian Book of Order they would say the church is believers and their children—their baptized children are part of the church. So that is a definitional stance that Presbyterians will take. The church is the church and her children. From my perspective, as a Baptist, that's redefining the church. And so I would love my Presbyterian brothers and sisters in Christ and just say, I think you're defining the church wrongly. And if I wanted to be provocative I'd say, I think you're picking a fight with Jesus by defining the church wrongly. I don't think your children are a part of the church. So I would put it right there in the same class, same category as my difference with Presbyterians. I'd say they're redefining the church by calling these two separate, three separate, ten separate assemblies an assembly.
What Should Lay People Do with Conviction?
What would you say to the layperson listening right now who feels convinced by what you've said, but is part of a church that does have multiple services,or multiple sites? What should that person do?
Well, not knowing you and not knowing your situation, not knowing your spiritual health, not knowing what other healthy churches you have around you, I'd be reluctant to say you must do this or you must do that. One, I would not suddenly up and leave your church. Presumably, you have relationships there, you have responsibilities there, and you need to be faithful to those. Number two, you might initiate a conversation with a pastor, or pastors, about the topic; but I wouldn't be too pushy. I wouldn't be like, Hey, we have to change! We're awful! Look what Jonathan Leeman, or this book, says here! I think you'd walk into those conversations, if they're worth having—and they aren't always worth having—I think you would walk into those graciously, meekly, not pushy. Say, Hey, Pastor, I've come across this article, or I've come across this book, and I'm fairly convicted by it. What do you think? Then let your pastor make up his own mind. I don't think you need to be a jerk about it or feel like it's your obligation before God to persuade him of your own convictions and of what Scripture is saying. So meekly, humbly. Personally, I think I would move towards eventually trying to make sure that I'm in a church which meets as a church, which is a church—according to the biblical understanding of it—and that is to say there is one assembly. Now whether or not I would make that move right away or over time, I just don't know because I don't know you, the listener, where you're at and what's available to you. I would be reluctant to offer any more specific advice. Obviously, the big picture is good work gets done in multisite or multiservice churches. People get saved, people grow in grace. I think they're doing something irregularly. I think they're doing something unhelpful. I think they have a chain, as it were, around their legs that slows them down. Nonetheless, God uses imperfect churches like my own, and I trust that you can be growing in grace there for a season. Yes, I would encourage people to be a part of one assembly churches.
Learning from the Separation of Churches During COVID-19
So maybe as a final question, I want to return back to where we started where it relates to this coronavirus pandemic that we all find ourselves in right now—this very weird season of not being able to gather together in person as churches, whether we're in a single-site, single-service church or a multisite church. What do you hope that evangelical Christians in the US, and even around the world, learn from this season of separation?
I think the most obvious thing is the value of the assembly. I'm hoping people miss the assembly. And if they don't, I suspect that either reveals something about the church they've chosen to join or reveals something about them. I think the born again, Holy Spirit-indwelled, gospel-believing individual desires to be with the brothers and sisters of God. They desire to be hearing good preaching, they desire to be singing together, they desire—by the Holy Spirit—to be praying together. So I think true believers are going to experience that and feel that absence, almost like I would feel when I'm away from my kids on a trip, or if I'm fasting in the season. I hope it excites deeper affections for our local churches. It's certainly doing that in my heart and mind among the friends I'm not able to gather with in this time and the activities that we're not able to participate in together. I think also, conversely, I hope that this strange season that we're in where we can't gather helps us recognize the sovereignty of God over all the seasons of our life—both the times of feasting and the times when we feel famished. The Lord is sovereign over both of these and we can trust that even in this time when we can't gather as churches, the Lord is doing good things even if we can't always see precisely what his hand is tracing out. To know that his hand is tracing something out that is good, I guess that would be the second thing I'd want people to learn.
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