Cover Story

Out of one, many

"Out of one, many" Continued...

Issue: "NextGen worship," July 26, 2008

Geoff Surratt, co-author of The Multi-Site Church Revolution (Zondervan, 2006), takes issue with Stetzer's criticisms. He says the multi-site model fosters greater pastoral care, deeper community, and more opportunities for young leaders to develop as preachers and teachers. He says that at Seacoast Church, where he serves as pastor of ministries, the congregation's 13 sites in the Carolinas and Georgia have helped section a large church of 10,000 people into smaller, more manageable blocs. Campus pastors direct the individual mission- and community-building at the various satellites.

Surratt relates how Seacoast "opened a campus in an inner city area where other churches were moving out. We moved in and started providing clothes, teaching English as a second language, and trying to meet the needs of the community." He notes that one campus pastor has parlayed such ministry experience into a thriving church plant, the success of which Surratt attributes to lessons learned at a Seacoast site.

Critics of multi-site expansion are apt to interpret the morphing of a campus pastor into a church planter as evidence that starting new churches is a more noble and significant enterprise than starting new campuses. Trouble is, that charge fails to recognize that many of the most committed church-planting churches in the country are also knee deep in multi-site ministry. Seacoast co-founded the Association of Related Churches, which has planted 60 new congregations since its inception in 2001.

According to a recent Outreach magazine report, the top two church-planting churches in the country are Redeemer Presbyterian (part of the Presbyterian Church in America denomination), which holds services at four sites in Manhattan and has planted more than 100 churches, and Mars Hill Church, which operates 16 services at seven locations in and around Seattle.

Stetzer celebrates such examples of internal and external replication: "I'm not a theologically driven critic of multi-site. I'm a critic of it done poorly. If you don't think this through and you don't have the right motives, you end up with a baby that grows up to be pretty ugly."

The speed and agility with which a large church can mobilize into new areas are among the benefits of planting a new campus rather than a new church. People, resources, systems, and values are already in place to make an instant impact. What's more, the church is often a known entity in the region with name recognition and existing appeal.

A desire to leverage that established brand for all it's worth has pressed some multi-site churches to launch online campuses, complete with pastoral leadership, community building chat tools, and even Sunday altar calls. Seacoast, with an online campus that currently generates only sparse participation, is still struggling to determine whether such a virtual venue truly constitutes a church. Baptism, communion, and the laying on of hands are proving difficult.

Other congregations, such as LifeChurch.tv out of Edmond, Okla., have embraced church online without reservation. The 13-campus church attracts several thousand weekly visitors to its five online service times. The interactive "worship experiences" include live chat with other online parishioners in a virtual lobby or seated in the same virtual row. Congregants may push a button to indicate response to the 40-year-old pastor Craig Groeschel's regular sermon-ending call for conversion.

Though cheesy to some, such applications may be useful to prisoners, the handicapped, and the elderly. Online church services offer a higher level of interaction than television preachers-not to mention availability to a wider variety of content and styles.

Stetzer believes such online outreach is a valid tool, provided it serves people who cannot physically attend church or offers an aid for people to connect and move into physical community. "The problem is when people equate it to church with online baptisms and that kind of stuff," he said. "You have to assemble, and that requires feet, not electrons."

Last year, LifeChurch.tv took the online experience a step further, launching a campus within the virtual 3-D world of the popular computer game Second Life. Dubbed "Experience Island," the new campus "sits on sixteen virtual acres on which Second Life 'residents' are able to explore and experience a LifeChurch.tv campus, attend worship experiences, and watch teaching messages on-demand around the clock," according to the church's promotional materials.

Bobby Gruenewald, the LifeChurch.tv pastor of innovation, explains: "Church isn't about asking people to come to us; instead we're called to go where the people are. Second Life represents a new frontier in that effort."

The role of technology in generating frontiers for multi-site ministry is undeniable, but the practice of churches employing multiple venues is not such a new idea. In 18th-century America, Methodist itinerant ministers effectively functioned as multi-site megachurch preaching pastors without the benefit of video. Local pastors assigned to each Methodist venue amounted to modern-day campus pastors, filling the pulpit in the absence of the traveling preachers and handling local ministerial needs.

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