Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The VodPastor: Multiple Services, Multiple Sites, Multiple Congregations?

While I was already in the midst of compiling a post on the rising trend of multiple congregations, I heard about Mark Driscoll's recent blog post in which he writes,
One thing I am certain of following my recent travels is that the multiple-site church phenomenon and video services are here to stay. Dead churches will be revitalized more and more by larger churches establishing services in them through the use of video. An entirely new form of church planting seems to be emerging that, along with traditional church planting, will help to add healthy new churches.
Driscoll described how his own church will reflect part of this trend when he said in a recent sermon that Mars Hill Church plans to expand over the next six months from seven services in three locations to thirteen services in four locations. Because of a technological limitation, one of those services will take place earlier in the week so that the sermon can be recorded for rebroadcast at one or more locations on Sunday. "You're going to need to accept video as our inevitable future," Driscoll said.

Mars Hill Church is certainly not the only example of this trend. The Leadership Network recently sponsored a conference to educate churches on the concept. USA Today reports on the "godcast" developed by North Point Church, which is pastored by Andy Stanley. North Point has developed a network of eleven church "strategic partners," which agree to use recorded sermons from Stanley for at least 50% of their Sunday services.

To some readers, this whole concept of pre-recorded messages piped to daughter churches from the mother ship probably sounds like the stuff of squishy evangelicalism. Even Joel Osteen hasn't gone this far yet! Some might even argue that the multiple-site approach John Piper's Bethlehem Baptist Church has developed is similarly unhealthy.

But before we start throwing stones, maybe we should ask what is qualitatively different between multiple sites and multiple services. I suspect that some of the same fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals who would decry multiple locations and video sermons might very willingly employ multiple services when their buildings reach capacity. But if it's unhealthy for multiple churches to share a pastor, and similarly unhealthy for one church to meet on several campuses, how is it more healthy for distinct groups of people to meet at different times on the same location?

In other words, the New Testament is full of admonitions for our churches to admonish, build up, encourage, and serve one another. Churches and individuals are gifted for the building up of the body. The body is about the congregation, not the building. So to what degree can we say that one body exists when it persistently and willingly never meets in the same place at the same time? It seems like a stretch to suggest one body exists simply because two groups of people meet at different times in the same building to hear similar preaching and contribute to the same bank accounts. How can our celebration of the ordinances display unity and the mutual affirmation of spiritual realities when the ordinances are observed by only part of a congregation?

I certainly don't have all these things figured out, and I'm not dogmatically condemning anyone who employs any of these methods—from multiple services all the way to multiple campuses and recorded video. I simply think we would be wise to consider the implications of the strategies we use to get everyone into our buildings. Sometimes the unintended consequences might be more severe than we would expect. What do our strategies for accommodating growth imply about our ecclesiology? And more fundamentally, what do they imply about our understanding of the gospel? Have we even thought deeply enough to ask these questions?


Ryan DeBarr said...

what's qualitatively different about watching the Super Bowl on TV and actually being at the Super Bowl?

Ben said...

You mean besides the fact that you can't see the commercials at the game?

Jim Peet said...

Will the VodPastor shake my hand after the service? Maybe a roboPastor will!

Larry said...

One of my concerns with these things is that they tend to be personality driven. While there is no doubt that GCC is large eecause of MacArthur, and Mars Hill is large because of Driscoll, I wonder about the propriety of canned church.

You can watch Driscoll on his website and see the feed that is going to churches. It is not the same as having live preaching.

So I would be cautious ... which is convenient since we don't need another service or location... unfortunately.

Dave said...

It seems that there a few different issues floating around here:
(1) Virtual preaching/worship vs. real preaching/worship (real is perhaps not the best word, but will do). Technology has made it possible, but that does not answer the more important question about propriety. Since evangelicalism is prone to use whatever pop culture offers, it shouldn't surprise us that it will be popular before it is evaluated.
(2) The definition of a church seems flexible in the scenarios outlined above--some use it for church planting, others for separate congregations with their own pastors, some are "branch" congregations. I am not sure an evaluation can be done without narrowing the option being examined.
(3) I personally have not found arguments against multiple services convincing. Where did all those believers in Ephesus meet together? Should we eliminate SS classes since it fragments the church? In a congregation of 500, must the "one another" commands be understood as with "every other one" in the congregation?

Ben said...


You raise a tough issue, and it certainly has implications for church planting out of megachurches. I think it can be unclear whether congregations are personality-centered, church leadership cultivates that personality obsession, or maybe people are just willing to drive a long way and fight crowds to hear what they consider to be substantially superior teaching.

Coach C said...

I don't know exactly where I come down on this yet, either. However, having two services where the pastor is physically present seems substantially different than attending a church where the pastor is a video image. The job of the pastor does not begin and end at the pulpit. Interaction, personal edification, discipleship, etc. Is a pastor really "shepherding" if his only contact with members is while he is standing int he pulpit?

Ben said...


(1) No doubt true.

(2) And that's where I'm simply raising questions. I don't at all feel equipped to evaluate authoritatively. I agree that narrowing the discussion could be helpful, but I also wonder to what degree these concepts are fundamentally distinct.

(3) I wouldn't see SS classes as problematic provided that there is at least one regular service when the congregation is expected to assemble. I'm not among those who argue against any and all division of the congregation for specific pedagogical purposes. I understand "one another" not to mean "each and every without exception," but that the entire congregation is working together to build up the body as a whole. I do think it's reasonable to consider whether the construction of deliberate and permanent (though not completely inflexible) divisions within the congregation has a harmful impact on that biblical imperative.

Do we really know how many believers there were in Ephesus? I don't see any specifics in Acts 18-20, although was clearly a significant number of believers. In any case, Acts 20 clearly refers to the church (singular) in Ephesus. So if we follow the argument from silence that they must have met in small groups, I think the implications for congregational polity in general are a bit disconcerting.

Bruce McKanna said...

So, Ben, I'm curious. It is my understanding that Capitol Hill has only one service because of a commitment to keeping the congregation a true congregation, but do they also have a position/conviction about total church size? Will they limit the size of the church by planting others? To me, this seems like a necessary step to continue growth while maintaining a size that allows for true life as a body.

Ben said...


I'm really not trying to defend or advance anyone's convictions about single services. I'm raising questions about the implications of not applying that practice and whether it's fair to criticize the extreme of the continuum if we gladly tolerate or even practice the other end. If anyone's really talking much about this, I haven't heard it.

I really don't know of any convictions about total church size. I guess it would be hard to argue against anything under several thousand in light of the church in Jerusalem in Acts.


I think you're raising a good question about a significant part of the issue, but there is more to it. The capacity for pastoral ministry over multiple locations needs to be examined, but so does the reality that the church is about the unity of the congregation, not merely the ministry of the pastor.

Bruce McKanna said...

Our church has held two identical morning worship services each Sunday for the past seven years. This was implemented for the purpose of allowing for continued growth beyond the capacity of our sanctuary, as well as easing other pressures such as parking, etc.

Here are some negative side effects, as I see them, to the multiple-service model. They also seem likely to come up with the multi-venue model as well (one for each different worship style on the same campus), and to a lesser degree, the multi-site model.

In this arrangement, the worship service tends to become less about congregating for worship as the church, and more about receiving the product of the leadership (pastor, worship leader, choir/worship team, orchestra/band). In more Word-centered churches, the product is biblical content (i.e., a good sermon), while in more musically driven churches the product is a worship experience. In either case, the emphasis is on getting the goods over participating with a particular group of people. This seems taken to a further degree when a "church" can just download a sermon from a celebrity pastor. This has been made possible by a culture that has abstracted its cultural life (story-telling, athletics, music, news) into commodities that we receive via a screen or headphones.

We must recognize that "church" is far more than content, no matter how substantive, powerful, or well-executed it is. It is about a group of believers getting together for the sake of mutual encouragement and edification as they celebrate the Gospel together through prayer, singing, giving, serving, proclamation-- as a family of believers.

Offering multiple services or venues tells people, even if only implicitly, that we want them to have options. I would have less concern if people would commit to one service or venue and make significant ties with that group of believers, but then we are back to the issue of "Is this really one church, or is it two?" Giving people options creates a climate of choice. This communicates that worship is a matter of preference and convenience, which really boils down to each individual's preference and convenience. Does this fit our culture? Oh, yes! Is it prudent? Is it fitting? I'm not so sure.

We have occasionally tried to have one big service on a Sunday morning to promote unity, identity, common vision, etc., but we end up having to worry about alienating those who prefer the other service time. [Picking a different time altogether is another nightmare.] We also have seen a rise in attendance at our early service, which was the one added several years ago to go along with the more traditional late morning service. The only explanation for the migration to the earlier service is that more people seem to want to get to church early to get it over and done with for the day (though we do have small groups in the evening). Yikes!

Another disadvantage to multiple services is that it taxes those who are already serving the most. Pastors, worship teams, ushers, childcare personnel, etc. are all called upon to do more. This often means that they have the hardest time in mustering the energy for any Sunday evening ministry. Why do we do this to ourselves?

Ideally, I'd see a place for multiple services/venues only as a means for launching a church plant that would eventually be fully independent. Convincing our congregation that church planting is a better idea than multiple services isn't so easy.

Dave said...

If I can offer two more comments:

(1) Ben, doesn't one of your concerns presume that the "one anothers" are obeyed during the congregational meeting (vs. in the relational interaction of believers). I am not suggesting that none of them are, but seeking to point out that you are making an assumption about obedience that probably needs to be proved in order for your critique to stand. If the definition of the church can be limited to its congregational meeting, then you are correct. But if the church is defined more broadly as people who have covenanted together, then I believe your critique loses significant force.

(2) My point about Ephesus is similar, that is, that the church there seems to be defined as those who congregate together all at once vs. those believers in Christ who have covenanted together. If the latter, then it is possible that they were doing something similar to what some of these congregations are doing, i.e., sharing the same covenant and leadership, yet meeting in different places.

Now, to be clear regarding the second point, I am not making the case that this is what was happening at Ephesus or that I am in favor of it happening today. I am simply pointing out that you may be excluding an option. I will grant that we don't know the size of the church at Ephesus, but, as you pointed out, we do have some idea of the one in Jerusalem. In fact, given the size there, it seems more probable that something like I have suggested may have been the case.

Josh said...

Near the end of the most recent 9Marks audio interview, Dever and Piper discuss size, multiple services, multiple sites, etc. Piper says each church needs to be ready to accommodate a large number of converts should the Lord send a new Great Awakening. Dever says he thinks those new converts should organize themselves into new churches. It's a fascinating exchange. I'm sympathetic to Dever's position.

Ben said...


Thanks, that's extremely insightful and helpful.


I'm not restricting the "one anothers" to the congregational meeting, but I am suggesting that we need to ask ourselves how any departure from the norm of weekly assemblies of the full congregation might affect, subtly but substantially, how the church thinks about itself as a body and how it lives out that theology. In other words, my theory is that how we do church reflects what we believe about church. Theology drives methodology. If an assembly can be a body without ever really assembling or even intending to assemble, then what does that say about our ecclesiology? Does it not at least speak to priorities? Could it not cultivate the personality-driven ministry as Larry suggests?

So in what you call a critique (though I intend to raise questions, not critique), I don't mean that the church is what assembles in opposition to what covenants together. I think there is good reason to consider whether it is wise and what we communicate when we permit a disjunct between what assembles and what covenants together.

Concerning the size of the church in Jerusalem and its ability to assemble, I tend to agree with W.B. Johnson's "The Gospel Developed" and reprinted in Polity edited by Dever, in which Johnson argues that the church both could and did assemble in its full number in the city (170-172). The most convincing biblical evidence to me is that the "full number of the disciples" in Jerusalem was assembled to select deacons (Acts 6:2)

Anonymous said...

is this much different than the circuit preachers of years gone by?

Bruce said...

I'll interact with "anonymous" since I know Ben won't. ;)

I think there is a certain parallel here, but also a distinct difference. The circuit riders were working in frontier and/or rural areas where there was a shortage of ministers. The multi-site phenomenon seems to arise out of the suburban American standard of living: it's just easier to get people to come to your new church if you start right out of the blocks with at least a couple hundred people, a kickin' band, and a well-known communicator. What does it say about our idea of the church when people won't bother with a group of 50 earnest believers who are trying to reach their neighborhood for Christ? Again, I believe it is because Americans (both believers and non-believers, sadly) are looking for the quality of what the church offers (its product) and it doesn't much matter then if "church" amounts to a information download or a multi-sensory experience.

Is this kind of Christianity prepared to undergo persecution when it comes?

Is this kind of Christianity capable of handling a revival, if it comes?

Fundamentally Reformed said...

Very interesting exchange here.

I am a member at John Piper's church: Bethlehem Baptist Church. We have multiple sites, and I thought it might help the exchange to share what really goes on here.

First of all, our church did not just get swept up in the latest Evangelical fad and conclude that multiple sites was the way to go. Serious thought was put into the issue over a span of more than a year by our elder board. The fruit of their thoughts can be found in the following two online articles: Treasuring Christ Together: "A Multiplying Movement of Congregations, Campuses, and Churches -- A Working Vision" and "Multi-Site Vision Assessment & Recommendations".

Basically, Bethlehem was faced with a growth challenge. They had already been encouraging members to leave and go out to help church plants. Several plants of churches in the Twin Cities were started as a result. Alos, they have a high number of people who have left to be involved in missions. But the growth kept coming.

So they added a Saturday night service and two or three Sunday services, and they were still maxed out. They had already decided that they were not going to leave the downtown. Now they were faced with possibly building a 5-10,000 seat auditorium or some other option. After weighing the options and spending several months waiting on God for direction (that's how things happen around here), they felt that multiple sites was the best option.

So in 2003, I believe, they started renting the auditorium of Northwestern College, and asked people to leave and become a part of the North Campus. In fall of 2005, a building was finished (not fully finished, but mostly) and we moved in. (I go to the North campus). Then in the fall of 2006 they started the South Campus, which meets in Burnsville High School.

What we found with the first split off, was that within a few months time, the downtown campus was full of so many new people it was as if we had never left. People who didn't feel comfortable attending when we were totally packed out, started attending. And then also new people started attending in the neighborhood of the north campus.

I'm sure the same thing is happening with the south campus. We have around 700 or so that attend there, and probably 1200 or more at North. Then 2200 to 2800 or more downtown, now.

We are one church with one vision, one mission, one eldership, one budget, but three campuses. We encourage everyone to be involved in small groups, too. Pastor John is live every 3rd week at the campus, but there is a team of pastors that are pretty much anchored in to each campus. Their are separate worhsip teams led by worship pastors. While the songs we all sing any given Sunday are not necessarily the same, the songs we choose from are very similar. Also there are prayer teams and pastors at the front after each service to minister to those who need help or prayer.

We still suppport chuch planting, and sent a church plant out in spring of 2006 and will do so sometime this year again.

If ministry is one pastor do it all, then yes I would say multi sites or even services should be out. But ministry is a coorporate affair. And especially so when the polity you affirm is a multi elder polity, as at Bethlehem.

At least once a year we have a big all church gathering. We also have several events held that are only at one site, and people from all sites attend.

Most people do attend one service and plug in to that group of people. But there is a covenanting together with others that you meeet who go to other services and are with you in small groups or extra Bible classes, etc.

The way we do it at Bethlehem, allows growth to become a facilitator of even more growth. We are reaching into other areas of the metro we wouldn't have otherwise. Each site builds relationships with its community and helps serve and partner with mercy ministries.

Well enough of my long post here. Interesting discussion. Hope this adds to it.

Larry said...

To me, I wonder if the multiple services/sites vs. video casting a service is not comparing two different issues in a way.

What keeps a video cast from being three families gathered in a home on a Sunday morning watching John Piper on their computer screen and calling it Bethlehem Baptist Church?

Furthermore, if it were not for John Piper at BBC, would multiple services/sites be necessary? Would the same number of people come to hear someone else?

I am not saying that is bad ... I am just thinking out loud here, particularly about the personality aspect of it. What would happen to Bethlehem, or Mars Hill (two prominent multi-site churches) if their respective pastors suddenly kicked the proverbial bucket? Would the church continue to grow as it has? Or would it stop? And what relevance does that have to the issue of what it means to be a church? I am not sure what I think about that. I would be curious to see what the smart people think about it.

I am not troubled by multiple services, though I think the idea of coming to receive the product of the leadership is intriguing. I have never thought of it that way before. The necessity of multiple services is, at least to some degree, evidence of something going on. Why it is going on is another issue perhaps.

Larry said...

I guess I didn't finish the thought of my curiosity. How troubling should it be that a church is gathered around Dr. So and So is preaching the word vs. the word is being preached? In the one, the personality preaching almost overwhelms the fact that the word is being preached.

Ben said...


I appreciate the time you took to share the background on BBC's multi-campus decision. I'm sticking by my conviction that we need to consider carefully the unintended consequences, but it's certainly helpful to hear that side. I do still think that we should not assume that the immediate benefits of more people hearing the gospel (assuming that the new attendees were not hearing the gospel before they started coming to Bethlehem--I do wonder who these people are) in the short term outweigh the long term implications for our ecclesiology.

Ben said...


I'm not sure I'm following the thrust of your argument. I don't think multiple services to multiple sites to vodpastoring is apples to oranges to bananas. I think it's little apples to medium apples to big apples.

But I do agree with you that the individual who is the primary filler of the pulpit has significant impact on the size of the congregation. Notice, I'm not saying personality, because it may not be the personality but the quality of the teaching that is attractive.

Choosing a church for that reason is certainly not innately bad, but I tend to think it can reach a point where it is unhelpful for the cause of the gospel when people are driving such distances to attend church that it's a real stretch for them to be considered a part of a "local" church. At some point, they surely start to think of the church merely as a place to hear preaching rather than a community of individuals with whom they regularly fellowship, not only on Sunday, but throughout the week, for the purpose of mutual edification.

Clearly this isn't a black/white issue. It's a continuum that requires wisdom. And I wonder whether even the smallest step of two services is wise to take without carefully measuring the consequences, as Bruce has described them above.

Larry said...

My point of comparison Ben, is that in a multiple service church, you still have the church gathered some place. In a multiple site format, you may not gather, or at least open the door to not actually gathering because it is available in other formats. Even in Dave's example of the possibility of the "church at Ephesus," you still have the church gathered with leadership and teaching at each location, rather than piping it out to other locations. So again, I am not sure. I don't intend to sound as if I am. I am just curious as to the ramifications.

I don't think the full orb of church life is found in meeting together. But I don't think it is found without it either.

And the video experience is so different than the live experience, that has to be something of a concern, I would think.

On personalities, I too would say that the quality of teaching is a big factor, and not a wrong one. So again, I am not sure what the import of that is, if anything. The only danger I see is that the church becomes about the man teaching rather than the other things that go on, such as fellowship. It highlights only one of several important features of a church.

I think your point about the danger of not being a community of believers hits at what I was trying to get at there. For instance, someone could be going for the good teaching, but not fellowshipping, and not serving. They are not really involved in the church, it seems to me. I think a church and an individual needs to consider all these aspects. And a church can do much to foster that.

Large churches certainly bring challenges, and I appreciate your bringing it up. I have been thinking about it lately and wondering what all the ins and outs of it are.

Ben said...


I'm not sure I see a major difference between multiple services and multiple sites. In a church that has multiple services, even though the church is gathering at the same place, they're not gathering at the same time. So they're not gathering together Additionally, although the leadership may all be on the same campus at the same time, they're typically not all in the main service together. I think this approach reinforces the bad thinking that the church is about the building rather than the people. And I'm not sure that's the only bad thinking it reinforces.

I agree with everything else you say, particularly this:

"I don't think the full orb of church life is found in meeting together. But I don't think it is found without it either."

and this:

"The only danger I see is that the church becomes about the man teaching rather than the other things that go on, such as fellowship. It highlights only one of several important features of a church."

Fundamentally Reformed said...

Ben said: "(assuming that the new attendees were not hearing the gospel before they started coming to Bethlehem--I do wonder who these people are)"

Interestingly, I once heard our executive pastor say that the primary reason people leave other churches to come to ours is for the preaching. The Word was not being preached where they were. I thought that was pretty good, and he is in a position to know.

Also, we don't actively seek to get other people out of other churches, either. With the south campust, we approached a local Baptist church there to see if they were okay with our coming in the neighborhood, they definitely encouraged us to come.

Larry said: "And the video experience is so different than the live experience, that has to be something of a concern, I would think."

It's funny, Larry, but at first I would have thought like you do. But even when Piper is live, we use the side video screens so it is easier to see him. I find myself looking at the screens almost as much when he is live than when he isn't. Rather than having Piper give the welcome and pray here and there before the service and give the benediction afterward, the local campus pastor or worship pastor does. So it really is not all that different.

Again I'm just speaking up to help the conversation. I totally understand there are lots of issues to think through about this. I'm just going to the church and not directly responsible for the polity and decisions at this level. I just have found that it works well when done in the conscientious and prayerful way it is here. Also, many of the new comers, come from quite shallow New Evangelical-ish churches. Others come from Lutheran or other such places, and many come in who don't know much about Christianity. This kind of growth is really good, as these people (and I have seen numerous examples), start to grow in their faith (or else they come to faith), and they become lovers of Jesus and servants in His field.

Praise the Lord for that.

As for personality, I agree that Piper is a personality. But in the Twin Cities, there are many who haven't heard of him. They come to try us out, and they love the preaching. He is a great preacher, and he turns the attention on the Word and does not seek fame and attention for himself. He is quite a godly and humble man, and it shows. Oft-times his messages are forceful and firm and our era doesn't appreciate that. Yet the fact that they are Scriptural causes many to stay and grow.

Well, enough said, I must be off now.

Blessings in Christ to you all,

Bob Hayton

Tom said...

LifeChurch.tv became multi-site when another church asked to merge with it. LC was already using image enhancement at that time. Craig Groeschel said, "Many of you are watching me on the screen rather than watching me on stage." One weekend he had a carefully made video clip of part of the message. When he came to that part of the message he sat down on a stool as the tech team ran the clip. Most people never noticed because they were watching the screen. They thought that it was just a switch to another camera.

Every LifeChurch.tv campus has its own staff including its own worship band. Every campus pastor does the same things as any senior pastor--except preach. Those of you who preach regularly know how long it takes to prepare a message. Wouldn't it be nice to have that time for other ministry?

Video campuses don't have to be substantially different. At a megachurch the pastor probably doesn't shake every hand anyway so you don't miss what you didn't have.

At one point Craig addressed the issue of church planting vs. campus additions. He said we do both. At that time we had planted six--three had failed and no longer existed. Adding campuses has a much higher success rate.