Cover Story

Out of one, many

Multi-site churches are growing, spreading across cultures, and redefining the concept of gathered worship, for better and for worse. From high-tech to low-frills, unanswered questions and unproven strategies of NextGen churches have yet to slow the mania

Issue: "NextGen worship," July 26, 2008

SEATTLE- On sleepy Fairhaven Avenue in rural Burlington, Wash., more than an hour north of Seattle's bustle, several dozen casually dressed local residents trickle inside a storefront church on a recent Sunday morning. Some parishioners pick up drinks from the coffee bar and linger in the foyer. Others make their way to a small sanctuary in the building's rear.

John Aguilar, a longtime minister who joined the congregation in January, finds a seat near the front and makes final preparations for the sermon he will deliver in place of vacationing pastor Dave Browning. When he takes the stage, Aguilar, 45, props his notes on a music stand, perches himself on a stool, and engages the crowd in a half-hour message on the value of community.

The scene smacks of small-town simplicity, an unremarkable slice of nondenominational evangelicalism. Nothing about the service or congregation betrays any connection to a massive international church body. Nothing, that is, but the name, to those paying attention to ecclesiastical innovation: Christ the King Community Church.

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Over the past decade, CTK has built one of the largest multi-site churches in the world. Originating in a small community in the North Puget Sound region, the congregation has launched 18 worship centers in Washington, seven more in states across the country, and 18 more internationally, including sites in Canada, Argentina, India, Israel, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa. In 2007 alone, the church created close to 1,000 small groups throughout Africa.

At the middle of it all stands Browning, 43, his vision for an organic, relational network driving the rapid expansion. But the former Baptist minister is no mere organizational puppeteer. He tried wearing the CEO hat exclusively two years ago-didn't stick.

"After eight or nine months, it felt like I was wearing Saul's armor, like I was out there trying to do this battle the way others might think it should be done. But it just didn't fit me," said Browning, who went back to being a local pastor of a small body within his movement. "We've made a decision to go with a player-coach model: Anybody in our organization that's got some administrative role is also going to be in the game with us pastoring and being in a small group and doing the same things we're asking everybody else to do."

That decentralized approach pushes administration to the edges, empowering local bodies and ministers. Other churches have taken notice. Browning is a regular on the church conference speaking circuit, where his conversational tone and attitude as a humble reformer make him a favorite among innovative pastors and church planters.

Yet CTK's particular multi-site strategy remains a minority endeavor within the much broader multi-site surge. Many churches have moved toward adding satellite campuses in an effort to open more seats. Others have adopted the new approach to expand the influence of a particular preacher, or to reach new neighborhoods or subcultures.

Among those varied motivations and the expressions they birth, Browning's simple, no-frills methodology pales in glamor or cultural traction. Most prominent multi-site churches employ television technology to pipe in videos of preaching pastors or worship bands. Such practices raise many pragmatic issues and important theological questions as to the definition of a church. CTK's model raises questions, too, mostly about the qualifications for church leadership.

But unanswered questions and unproven strategies have yet to slow multi-site mania. Nationally prominent pastors from a variety of evangelical circles, such as John Piper, Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, and Timothy Keller, have become pioneers. A LifeWay Research survey last year found that 16 percent of Protestant churches in the United States are considering adding at least one campus within the next two years. Other LifeWay findings are due out next spring with the publishing of Scott McConnell's Multi-Site Churches: Guidance for the Movement's Next Generation.

Ed Stetzer, an experienced church planter and president of LifeWay Research, hopes its data will help protect against what he sees as common pitfalls of the movement: "Here's my main concern: Now that multi-site has become the next big thing, will people take the time to do it well or will they simply set up theaters with videos? Often what multi-site becomes is one prominent pastor projecting his image into another town without a missiological or evangelistic strategy accompanying it."

As interim pastor of the multi-site First Baptist Church in Hendersonville, Tenn., Stetzer does not oppose using multiple venues. But in "Questions for McChurch," a recent magazine column for Outreach, he outlines several potential negatives of the model: diminished pastoral care, the discouraging of church community, and fewer pulpits to develop young leaders.

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