One church in different sites - is it biblical?

18th November 2016
Pete Nicholas
Mark Jackson

Inspire London Church is planning to plant a second congregation, God-willing launching in September 2017. The plan is that this congregation will be in a different location in London but will be part of Inspire church sharing its vision, values, pastoral leadership and governance, as well as being under one financial, strategic, and staff structure.

There are important reasons why we are considering doing a second congregation within the same church and not as a second separate church:

We believe our vision to be ‘a united and diverse community inspiring London with the good news of Jesus Christ’ is important and we want to see another congregation in a different location living out this vision

A second congregation does not have to set up its own church governance, finances, staff structure, charitable status etc. which all takes considerable effort and expertise

People move location within London and so with more locations they have more chance of continuing to be part of the Inspire church family when they move

There are economies of scale relating particularly to staffing and operations that the church can benefit from in having another congregation

Having congregations in different locations enables us to have ministry structures that can start to be more city-wide and therefore help fulfil our vision to ‘inspire London’ and better reflect the fluid nature of some aspects of London life.

There are different models for ministry and different ways to structure a church and they each have their pros and cons. It is important to realise that the model we are undertaking does not drive the vision of the church nor is it a change in vision. The vision drives our strategy and model.

All that being said whilst there is considerable flexibility in the bible on how a church is to structure its ministry, this blog is to make clear that having one church across different locations is not unbiblical (against the teaching or implications of Scripture) or sub-biblical (operating at a lower standard than Scripture calls the church to).
 

1. What is a ‘church’?


First it is important to understand what a church actually is. The word translated church in the New Testament (NT) is ekklesia which means ‘gathering’ or ‘assembly’ and in the NT there is both the universal ekklesia (the body of believers across time and space) that all who trust in Christ are part of (Hebrews 12:22-23), and the particular local ekklesia we are part of e.g. Paul writes to the ekklesia in Rome or Corinth etc.
 

2. What are the marks of the local church?


Clearly there must be a gathering (Matthew 18:20) because that is what the word church means, but that does not mean that every gathering of Christian believers becomes or is a church.
The Reformers’ thinking and writing in the 16th century talked about the ‘marks’ of the church. These varied amongst the Reformers from seven marks listed by Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon (in contrast to the Catholic Church’s 15 marks!): the Word, baptism, Lord’s Supper, the keys of the kingdom, the lawful choice of ministers, public prayer and education. Others listed only two e.g. Calvin, Bullinger: the administration of the Word and sacraments. Some focused only on one mark (Beza, Sohn): the administration of the Word.

This is a difficult and nuanced discussion, and one beyond the scope of this blog, particularly because if it is hard to say precisely which things should be marks of the church, it is even harder to deny that a gathering is in fact a church because it lacks certain marks.

However, to help in our discussion about having congregations under one church in different locations, let us take a reasonably minimalist line on the marks of the church and say that a gathering of Christian believers with the following marks is a church:

    - The Word is taught (Eph 2:20, Acts 2:42)
    - The sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s supper are administered (Matthew 28:19, Acts 2:42)
    - There is appropriate governance and oversight (Titus 1:5, Acts 20:28)

 

3. What about one church across different locations?


Urban life is complex and the fluidity of some demographics within urban life who associate themselves as much in non-geographical ‘networks’ as in specific locations challenges the traditional local church model. Churches have adapted to these and other demands over the years and so have gone from one service in one location to multiple services in one location, and more recently from one service in one location to multiple services in multiple locations.

Often in questions of whether such models are biblical we feel challenged by the new and comfortable with the old but we need to be careful of not having double standards. For example many of the challenges that a church in different locations faces equally apply to a church with different congregations in one location. Both models need to be given careful thought and reflection on what Scripture says.

First, there is clear biblical warrant to have different gatherings within one church, 1 Corinthians 11:20 says ‘When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat’. Many commentators have noted that the Corinthian church would gather in small-groups in people’s houses and then come together as a whole church. Paul identified that there was one church in Corinth (1 Cor 1:1) despite various smaller gatherings. In a similar way many churches today do small groups which are regular and intentional gatherings but aren’t claiming to be ‘the church’.

The critique could come that the problem with multisite is that the whole church rarely or never ‘comes together’. Indeed Andrew Wilson raises this question in a blog he writes about multisite churches as does Grant Gaines.

First, it is worth noting that if this is a valid challenge then it is something that equally applies to churches in one location but with multiple service times. Secondly, many multisite churches as well as multiple congregation churches do in fact at various points come together - whether for a central prayer gathering, a larger termly ‘celebration’, or annual meetings.  

A narrower position argued by a few (e.g. Grant Gaines) is that the defining issue of a church must be that it gather ‘in the same place’. Consequently a church that has different service times but meets in the same building is fine but one that has services held in different buildings is not (presumably even if the buildings are only a hundred yards from each other). This seems a strange reading of the biblical texts - and a very narrow reading of ‘place’. Elsewhere in the NT ‘place’ can mean ‘in the same town’ or ‘in the same city’ and not the narrow reading Gaines takes of only ‘in the same building’.

To be clear a church locality does matter. Despite all our virtual world technologies and talk of living in networks we will always be geographically situated beings who form communities in space, time and history. Consequently working out the appropriate boundaries of the space a church occupies is important. But people across a city often see their ‘place’ as the city as a whole as much as the particular neighbourhood they live within (hence why many people will move house in London but keep being part of the same church).

The point is that place is not just about precise physical location but is also about the cultural norms, values, geography, architecture and people that are embodied within that location. The local church must always be authentically situated in a place because ministry has to take into account this context, which is why virtual churches or churches seeking to exist across different towns or cities seem to be departing from biblical norms. However, churches with different congregations across the same town or city can still legitimately seek to be ‘local’ churches, they are just reflecting one aspect of the modern changing urban landscape.  
 

Conclusion

 

If the above logic is correct then what we are saying is that there is nothing that is necessarily unbiblical or sub-biblical about Inspire having congregations meeting in different locations within the city of London when those congregations are under one pastoral governance and leadership structure, under the teaching of God’s word and the administration of the sacraments. Of course, this model needs to be carefully thought through and applied as any relatively new ministry structure does, but if implemented properly it can have particular benefits for local church ministry in an urban context like London. Our hope at Inspire is that the second congregation will further our vision in a new location as well as strengthening the implementation of that vision across London more widely.  


Common objections


‘But multisite churches aren’t in the New Testament.’

This is true (it does not seem that Corinth was a multisite church - it was a church with small group meetings in people’s homes that probably came together weekly). But we must distinguish between description and prescription. Just because something is not described in the NT does not mean that it is prescribed against e.g. Every believer having their own bible is not described in the NT but clearly it is a good thing to encourage today! Culture and contexts change. The question is whether multisite churches fit with NT principles on church and we have argued above that they do.  

‘But the pastor can’t possibly oversee and pastorally care for more than one site - so they should become different churches.’

To be honest one pastor cannot effectively pastorally care for a church of 100 on his own. That is why many churches wisely split themselves up into small groups - for effective pastoral care, community and growth as well as having more than one person on staff in pastoral roles. If this is necessary in a church of 100 then surely it’s just a question of careful organisation and numbers to ensure proper pastoral care when one moves to more sites and more people?


‘But when you preach at different sites they will have different issues you need to preach into, so aren’t you going to be ineffective and generic if you preach the same sermon at different sites?’

The concern here is a good one but again many pastors have no problems preaching the same sermon to different service times and surely one could equally make this argument to that context. To be anecdotal, when I am preaching at Inspire at the moment to the people in front of me there are individually represented amongst the people sitting there very different issues. From the single mum who is struggling to have any time to herself and keep her job going as well as bringing up her son, to the student who is feeling the pressure of exams, to the banker who has made their career an idol. How I preach to these three people (and everyone else) at the same time is:
    a. By trusting the work of the Spirit to apply God’s truth personally to people
    b. By understanding there is enough commonality of the culture that they all live within that makes my preaching and application relevant to them and their specific context - even if I cannot in every sermon hit on their own specific issues (though I will use various example issues to help sketch out the application).
    c. Recognising the limits of context - so when I preach the same sermon at different services in a church I will often change illustrations, applications, length, style etc. for the particular congregation and its particular context

If this is true in one church surely it can also be true in different congregations and different sites? This is not to say that there may not be a time for a specific sermon to one site or service (if a specific issue came up in that site or service) but it is to say that this won’t be needed every Sunday (or indeed most Sundays) to effectively pastor and preach to the sites and congregations throughout the year. And just as most pastors rely on personal conversations, the feedback of the small group leaders and lay representatives to sharpen the application and focus of their preaching, so in a multisite model the congregation leaders’ feedback will be vital to stay connected with the issues across the church.

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For Further Reading (selected)

Andrew Wilson - I Still Have Some Concerns About Multisite Church (And I Lead One) http://thinktheology.co.uk/blog/article/some-concerns-about-multisite
Tim Jones - Concerns about Multisite: A Response http://thinktheology.co.uk/blog/article/concerns-about-multisite-a-response
Gregg R. Alison - Theological Defense of Multi-Site https://9marks.org/article/theological-defense-multi-site/
Grant Gaines - Exegetical Critique of Multi-Site: Disassembling the Church? https://9marks.org/article/exegetical-critique-multi-site-disassembling-...
Thabiti Anyabwile - Mutli-site churches are from the devil https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/thabitianyabwile/2011/09/27/multi-s...