Several months ago, in an article entitled “Multi-Site Churches,” I spoke of a growing phenomenon among religious groups in which a cluster of churches are governed by the same leadership. In that article I pointed out that churches using this model are effectively setting up new denominations. They may be small denominations made up of only a few churches, but they still follow a denominational structure centralized on a leader or a small group of leaders who control everything from the top.
In the article I talked about the breakdown of the Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Washington. At one time, Mars Hill was the poster child for multi-site churches, with a membership of 6,500 spread out over fifteen campuses. But over the years, the Seattle church suffered a number of moral failures, and in November it had to release its congregations from the overall structure, allowing them to become autonomous churches. There was too much power at the top. Mars Hill was destroyed by pride.
In that same article, I mentioned that some of our brethren are trying this model. I did not know how true that was until I received a copy of Carl Royster’s Churches of Christ in the United States (2015 ed.) this week. Royster ranks the largest churches by attendance, and I noticed that in the top ten, seven of these churches were designated with the abbreviation “MC.” Not knowing the meaning of this designation, I turned to the key in the front of the book, which said that the abbreviation “MC” means “part of a multi-campus church which is defined as one church meeting in two or more locations under one overall leadership and budget.” So most of our largest churches follow the multi-site model.
Statistics alone reveal cracks in the multi-site model. For example, the Hills Church of Christ in North Richland Hills, Texas, is ranked as the largest church in our fellowship, with 13,467 “adherents” (members plus children). However, their average Sunday morning worship attendance is only 5,762. On any given Sunday, 7705 people are missing from Sunday morning worship services! All of us are accustomed to absentees, but I have never before seen this large of a discrepancy between church records and the actual attendance. The second-largest church, the Branch Church in Dallas, is having the same problem with 4,845 adherents and an attendance of 2,850.
What are we to make of these statistics? Do they not suggest that a leadership overseeing several congregations is unable to exercise oversight and accountability among its flock?
More to the point, is this the way God wants his people to be organized? In the New Testament, you cannot find the multi-site church paradigm. Instead, you find autonomous congregations governed by a group of qualified elders (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5). This model ensures that the church will not be centered upon one man or one ideology. If one leadership departs from the faith, it does not mean that several churches will also fall away.
It seems to me that the multi-site model may provide numbers, but it certainly does not lend itself to purity in doctrine and faith. The Lord had it right to begin with. Why are we following models provided by the mega churches instead of the pattern of the New Testament?