Book Review–Multichurch: Exploring the Future of Multisite

Roughly fifteen years into the modern evangelical marvel of multisite, a new book has come along. The first swath of books on multisite focused on some of the foundational elements of multisite. Those writings helped bring about the commonly-held definition of “one church meeting in multiple locations” (The Multi-Site Church Revolution, 18) and offer some loose theology for the multisite movement as well as pragmatic principles for how to “do” multisite. Of course, anyone who operates within the multisite world knows full well that the standard operating procedures always change.

Now, Brad House and Gregg Allison have recently published MultiChurch: Exploring the Future of Multisite as part of the change in the multisite landscape. House and Allison are both elders at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky. Allison also serves as professor of Christian theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. (It should be noted that House previously served at Mars Hill Church in Seattle, so he got to see some of the growth of multisite—positively and negatively—from the inside.)

MultiChurch is like the more mature older brother of the other works. Where previous works on multisite offered joyful enthusiasm for the potential of the multisite movement, MultiChurch offers a measured approach to multisite ministry—offering both theological and practical examples of how that works out over time (the good and the bad).

And what on earth is “multichurch”? I’m glad you asked. House and Allison define this new concept as “a local community of Christians that matures and multiplies its influence through launching, developing, and resourcing multiple congregations to reach its city with the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is one church with multiple congregations or ‘churches’ in a set geographic area (bounded by an identifiable population that shares proximity and accessibility” (16). So, while previous works on multisite might talk about one church meeting in multiple locations, multichurch tries to put the influence on “churches” and not “sites.”

The book is simple to follow, having three sections: Scouting, Orienteering (fancy word for navigating), and Setting Out. “Scouting” walks through the historical progression of multisite, as well as offering a biblical foundation for the multisite model, a spectrum of multisite—including multichurch, responses to critiques about multisite, and, finally, their conviction that they believe “multichurch is the future of multisite” (96). The rest of the book focuses in on multichurch instead of multisite and how churches can make adjustments toward adopting a multichurch model.

Section Two—”Orienteering”—helps churches “plot a course forward” to make the necessary adjustments in order to become multichurch (117). Each chapter covers a different dynamic of living out a multichurch model.

  • Chapter 6 (“MultiOrg”) works through what Sojourn learned as they transitioned from multiple sites to multiple interdependent churches (119). They lay out three maxims for multichurch—that the model exists for the churches, that the churches need to pick the more necessary aspects of ministry, and that the model demands multiplication.
  • Chapter 7 (“MultiPolity”) addresses differences between governance and management and how to work out polity within a multichurch setting. As a concrete example, the authors talk about how Sojourn Community Church broadened their leadership structure both locally (with local leadership teams and elders) and organizationally (with a restructuring of their elder board) to better develop accountability, strategic planning, governing policies, and contextualized shepherding and leadership development.
  • Chapter 8 (“MultiMinistry”) addresses one of the tension points of multisite—how to implement ministries at each church and how much variance can exist. To do this, House and Allison offer (1) a philosophy spectrum (which demonstrates acceptable range of difference among any contextualized ministry) and (2) a chart of how to think through offered ministries with “graduated expectations”—largely based upon size (165-69).
  • Chapter 9 (“MultiMoney”) works through myths of multisite (largely related to how cost-effective multisite is). House and Allison would contend that going multisite costs more money and more energy (as opposed to it being streamlined and simplified). However, they point out that in a multichurch model, more money goes into the budgets for the churches and less goes toward central operations (as opposed to most multisite models). “A reasonable goal,” they write, “would be to reduce central costs, minimally, to less than a third of the overall budget and, ideally, to under a quarter” (184). The goal in all of this is to help the churches within the system thrive (from Maxim #1—multichurch exists for its churches).
  • The final chapter of this section (Chapter 10, “MultiMembership”) addresses how the multichurch environment sets up a healthy church ecosystem for contextualized engagement within an individual congregation while also feeling part of a larger whole. Members of one local congregation are part of—and celebrate—the work(s) of other congregations.

The final section—”Setting Out”—walks a church through the process of becoming a multichurch. Specifically, House and Allison walk through how Sojourn went “from a federation multisite model church to a cooperative multichurch model church” (200) over the course of several years. They speak with honesty about the struggles and transitions and how to make the appropriate adjustments along the way.

MultiChurch has several strong aspects. One of the clearest one was its maturity of thought. These authors pull no punches about some of the problems of multisite and potential better ways to march forward. There were stronger biblical and theological principles throughout the book than exist on previous works on multisite (which one would expect when one author is a professor of theology). Further, House and Allison address some of the major concerns of their critics—and the concerns are valid. Neither of these guys go full-blown multisite, they don’t support the franchise model, and they would guard against methods that take away from contextualization of their local congregations. All of those show a lot of maturity within a movement that is still rather young.

I also loved the spectrum of multisite that they worked through. While spectrums are open to interpretation, you can see the thought that went into the spectrum. Their three multisite church types are: the gallery (“one church expanded to multiple services and/or venues”), the franchise (“one church cloned to multiple sites”), and the federation (“one church contextualized in multiple locations”).  Their two multichurch types are: the cooperative (“one church made up of multiple interdependent churches”) and the collective (“collection of churches collaborating as one church”) (48-49). This spectrum helps any multisite church leader or member know where his or her church fits.

Further, I loved the precision of language (to quote The Giver). I have long felt that campuses of a multisite church are more church than campus (biblically, there is a strong argument that they are churches). At the same time, I have liked how multisite churches struggle for unity, health, and collaboration. House and Allison bring these worlds together by focusing on both the unity of one church and the differences that exist amongst multiple congregations within that. There is something different between a federation model of multisite and the cooperative model of multichurch, and House and Allison draw that distinction (specifically, the difference has to do with emphasis on centralization/decentralization). Navigating any amount of autonomy/variance is difficult, and I don’t think any model nails it perfectly, but their language articulates the unity and diversity like no multisite book has previously.

There were also aspects of the book that, while not drop-dead amazing, were indeed helpful. Telling the story of Sojourn was one of those parts that I liked. While they note that you cannot reproduce Sojourn’s experience, the interwoven examples of Sojourn’s peaks and valleys help one to see how transitioning to multichurch might go. (One valley that took place earlier this year, but after the book was largely written, was when their founding pastor resigned. Personally, I’d love a “How multichurch helped us during a difficult season” addendum.)

I also liked the coaching on how to do ministry in a multichurch setting, specifically, the way to think through foundational, core, and particular ministries (167-68). This is one of the tension points of trying to be multiple anything and unified at the same time. You could tell that Sojourn has tried to create an environment that gives latitude to their churches while also keeping things within certain boundaries. I believe that chapter will help many churches better address unity and diversity issues in how they do ministry within their unique contexts.

At the same time, I have two nagging questions. These questions are less about the rationale of the model and more about the execution and sustainability of the model.

First, what does it take to pull it off successfully? What I mean by that is this: can multichurch happen anywhere, or does it need a certain type of leadership and a certain type of context? Louisville is a large city. Not only that, but the city holds the largest Southern Baptist seminary in the world and a large public university (also, baseball bats). This leaves it with numerous well-trained, highly-specialized thinkers, authors, practitioners, and members (as well as current and potential elders). One can be left wondering what to do when they read the “MultiPolity” chapter and see that Sojourn has a full council of elders, a leadership council (also made up of men from the full council of elders), and executive elders (who also serve on the leadership council, but do not make up a majority). I can hear pastors saying, “Well, that’s great for you guys, but we can’t pull that off. All of our elders are lay elders, our city is smaller, and we cannot maintain that kind of complexity.” What does multichurch offer those pastors who feel as if they cannot pull it off?

So, can this model be contextualized to a smaller city with less intellectual, financial, and geographical (for lack of better word) resources? (CrossPoint Church, while not multichurch, has brought a multisite experience throughout rural Kansas—demonstrating that different models fit in places you might not expect them). I’m certainly not saying that contextualization to different locales cannot happen, but I do wonder about it. Is the model so developed that very few churches will be able to jump in and be a true multichurch? Will they stop short and get to the federation model? Will they just decide to plant churches? Time will tell.

The second question is this: does the multichurch model just elongate the church planting strategy? House and Allison would say that multisite, multichurch, and church planting are three different expressions of multiplication. As they have defined the terms, I certainly would, too. However, there are several multisite churches that have already decided to use their multisite strategy as a church planting strategy (The Village Church being one of the most prominent). Is multichurch simply one version of this evolution toward autonomous churches. Is the next step past multichurch simply “sister churches that seek to cooperate for the common good of the gospel” (a la Redeemer Presbyterian as of July of this year)? If so, might it be a better use of resources to focus on collaborating with closely-related autonomous churches vs. trying to work out multichurch? That question is simply a hypothetical. I do believe any way it gets answered, it is a net gain for sustaining healthier churches.

My questions/minor critiques aside, MultiChurch is a thoughtful, challenging, helpful book. I believe it shows promise for the multisite movement, and gives hope for healthier, more sustainable models of reaching people for Christ and growing them up. Not only that, but this book offers limitations to the multisite movement that I believe should be heeded by multisite practitioners.

The church is not a toy that leaders get to play with to fit their whims and desires; the church is the blood-bought bride of Christ. We should seriously consider how to lead the church, what the Scriptures demand of us, and how to live that out faithfully. I believe that MultiChurch hits on all of these levels. If you are interested in how to lead multisite better, I think this book would serve you well. If you are a critic of multisite, I think this book would serve you well and give you more helpful perspective on some people who are trying to faithfully lead their church to be more like Jesus—which is what we are all to be about.

I'd love to hear your thoughts . . .