In my work as an Orthodox Christian missions priest here in North Carolina, I often have encounters with Evangelical pastors and Church planters. I want to understand the religious culture that I find myself in, and I want to learn from others’ experiences starting Churches, even if their context is often quite different than mine. I also hope to raise awareness of the Orthodox Church, and to make new friends.
Through these efforts, I have become aware of a newly-expanding trend in Evangelical Church life, the “Multi-Site Church” (also referred to as “Multi-Campus”). My interlocutors often ask what I, as an Orthodox Christian, might think of such a concept, and I also know that many of my fellow Orthodox Christians would not be familiar with the concept. Hence, I decided to write this brief article to offer an assessment of the phenomenon from an Orthodox viewpoint. Please note that I am designating this article as an Orthodox Christian view, and not necessarily the Orthodox Christian view.
A basic definition of a multi-site Church is “a Church which meets in multiple places.” In effect, it is a type of branding, where a recognized Church community creates satellite locations which use the same name and approach, and exist under the same leadership. A friend of mine who attends one such Church explained that there were people traveling from across town to attend the Church, people who would not be as able to bring their neighbors and friends to Church with them because of the distance. A satellite campus was therefore set up in an area where many were commuting from, so they could have the same Church experience in their own area and minister in their own neighborhood.
Points of Convergence
Hierarchy. The Orthodox Church is a hierarchical Church. There is an episcopate (the office of bishop), there are presbyters (priests) who serve under each bishop in a local Church, and there are deacons who assist the bishops and presbyters. This is not viewed as optional, or merely a point of administrative opinion. It is seen as divinely-inspired and part of the deposit of faith.
Bishops are the successors to the Apostles, and the presbyters are those who are given part of the ministry of bishop, but not that ministry in its entirety. Only the bishop can ordain, for instance. Presbyters serve under a bishop, and their preaching, teaching, and ministry is conducted in the name of the bishop, who cannot be present in all places at all times.
From the time of the early Church, there were bishops in the major cities of the Roman Empire, and presbyters assisted them in outlying gatherings, which were later identified as parishes. Country areas originally had bishops, but these were eventually replaced by simple presbyters under the direction of the bishop of the nearest city. This manifested that in any given area, there may be multiple gatherings, but only one Church under the authority of one bishop. Anything else would have meant a divided loyalty, divided attention, and overlapping jurisdiction and responsibility for the one flock.
Multi-Site Churches, interestingly enough, could be seen as a partial return to this earlier practice, from the extreme congregationalism that emerged during the Protestant Revolution of the 16th century and the subsequent influence of Revivalism. The pattern of local congregations planting other local congregations and then turning them loose soon thereafter could be seen as a visible sign of disunity, insofar as the planted Churches could end up disagreeing with the mother Church in even areas of doctrine, and competing with its mother and sister Churches in the same area for members. It would be hard to argue that this is the will of Christ. A Multi-Site Church could be viewed as the Church in a given area, with the satellite locations being parishes under the authority of the lead pastor, who would be similar to the administrative function of a bishop in the Orthodox Church. I am not speaking of a theological equivalency, since a Protestant lead pastor is not viewed in the same way and does not function in the same way as an Orthodox bishop, but practically speaking, there is a hierarchy of pastors. Having one Church organization in a given area with multiple locations would mean multiple points of impact of one visible body of believers. It means that one message is being communicated across a wide geographical area.
Unity of Purpose. Since Orthodox dioceses consist of parish Churches which are united under one bishop in a geographically-united area, they generally have institutions which promote a sense of unity. “United we stand, divided we fall” is a cliché, but is often a true statement. When we go to a diocesan event, we encounter our brothers and sisters from other parishes who are known to us, and we feel a sense of common purpose, being under the guidance of one Chief Shepherd. When we travel to sister parishes, we are truly at home, knowing that our priest knows the priest at the parish we are visiting. We’ve seen him serve with our priest at times, perhaps. This is in contrast to the strictly Congregationalist model, where each individual community is completely independent, and regional gatherings such as conferences reflect a perceived spiritual affinity rather than a tangible unity. Such gatherings are often conducted to foster unity versus manifesting a true unity which already exists.
Resources. A Multi-Site Church is often able to accomplish more than individually-planted Churches which are fully independent. Through coordination of ministries and resources, overlap and waste can be avoided. The wheel does not need to be reinvented. The ministry of the lead pastor extends further, and provides a united witness. Experience is shared with the local campus pastors, training them in an apprentice relationship instead of forcing them to “learn as you go.” New locations thus have an advantage over more autonomous or independent types of Church plants. Similarly, an Orthodox Diocese has a centralized administration which can determine where best to use resources, and can throw more weight behind problems in one parish by calling in help from other parishes in a more efficient manner. During a natural disaster, even Congregationalist, independent Churches can get resources and assistance because of the natural desire of people to help one another, but in less extreme situations, it may be more difficult to obtain needed resources. Multi-Site Churches and Orthodox Dioceses have an advantage in this area.
Points of Divergence
“The Experience.” As mentioned above, Multi-Site Churches often attempt to replicate a specific experience in different locations. This presupposes a charismatic pastor with a specific “style” to him, and a Church which does things a certain way, such that it would be something that people would want, and which they would choose over the myriad other Churches available to them in an area. As Tom Shefchunas points out in his article Will The Multi-Site Church Survive?, a major test of a Multi-Site Church is its first change in leadership. With the experience changed, will the Church remain the same?
In Orthodoxy, the worship service is standardized, not only in terms of place (all over the Earth) but also in terms of time (throughout history). There are naturally minor variations from place to place, but the structure of the service has remained essentially the same since it was first instituted by the Holy Apostles, and insofar as we can see from the earliest texts which attest to the form of the liturgy. An individual presbyter or bishop might have a style of preaching, or be particularly gifted with one of the charismatic (i.e. personal) spiritual gifts, or the style of chant may differ between Russians and Greeks, but the experience of Orthodoxy is universally the same. When I was looking into Orthodoxy, this was one thing that impressed me. Even when I lived in New York and attended liturgy in a parish comprised of mostly Greek immigrants, where the liturgy was almost entirely in Greek, I still experienced the worship of God in a way that bore Divine Grace. The service was familiar enough to me that I felt comfortable there.
Telecasting Sermons. Preaching is a gift, a calling, a grave responsibility. Preaching the Gospel is a yoke upon the presbyter. The Holy Spirit inspires him and enlightens him, but he must purify himself and be prepared to receive Grace, lest he be a stumbling block to the people. The flock can easily see through hypocrisy. A preacher must know the congregation he serves (unless he is a traveling preacher invited to preach by the bishop or local pastor) and tailor his sermon to their needs.
Many Multi-Site Churches televise the lead pastor’s sermon to the satellite campuses on a regular basis, with local “site pastors” occasionally adding their own mini-sermons, or occasionally replacing the televised sermon with their own. Worship music and prayers are localized and performed live. From an Orthodox perspective, though, the practice of telecasting a sermon to another group of people watching it in a Church setting is problematic. Rather than the Holy Spirit speaking through the preacher to the assembly of the faithful, and experiencing all of the tension and release that accompanies live preaching, as a buildup progresses and then a conclusion reached, the assembly becomes a passive audience detached from the context that produced the sermon. In effect, the sermon was for someone else.
To be clear, Orthodox Christianity is not opposed to recording sermons and using them for those who cannot make it to Church for a legitimate reason, or for review by those who were present at the time of its delivery. However, televising the sermon to satellite locations serves to highlight the uniqueness and charisma of the lead pastor as opposed to the local site pastors. I as an Orthodox priest am nothing without my bishop; I serve the Sunday liturgy on an altar cloth which bears his signature and authorization for me to do so, and I was ordained by him and placed in the parish and missions where I serve. When I preach, I preach the Gospel of Christ, and I do it in the name of the bishop, who is the Chief Shepherd of each parish Church in his diocese. My preaching does not differ from my bishop’s in terms of content, but it can be tailored to the local people whom I know better owing to day-to-day contact. Televising sermons to satellite locations places too much of an emphasis on the preacher’s person and character. Instead, Orthodox would have the site pastors preach their own sermons based on the teaching authority of the lead pastor, who sets the guidelines.
Not Letting Go. While the Orthodox Church is hierarchical and Multi-Site Churches are organized somewhat hierarchically (even if they see it as a matter of administration and not doctrine), there is still a sense in Orthodoxy that at some point, the goal is for the daughter mission to become a full-fledged parish, and operate in a self-sufficient manner, under the guidance of the local bishop. In this sense, Orthodox parishes are half-way between a Multi-Site Church and a completely independent Church. Each parish is autonomous, insofar as the Cathedral Church is not dictating all the details of the individual parishes, but each parish is still connected to the Cathedral, which is the seat of the bishop, who also visits the parishes regularly and teaches and preaches across his entire diocese.
In a practical sense, though, some individual parishes are more able to plant daughter missions than others, and the goal of a mission in an Orthodox context is always to mature to the point that it attains parish status itself, becoming an equal to its mother parish. If a collection of parishes in an area matures to a certain degree of self-sufficiency and is producing clergy at a sufficient rate, then they may be given their own diocese and bishop, who operates autonomously in his own sphere, while being obedient to the Holy Synod (the group of all the bishops together).
In the more commonly-encountered Evangelical practice of planting a mission and then giving it freedom when it reaches maturity, there is a sense that at some point, the local community must “sink or swim.” It cannot rely on having the support from a lead pastor and congregation who might support it financially and thus perpetuate inefficiencies. There is a temptation to complacency in the Multi-Site Church that can prevent spiritual maturity as well. Will a satellite congregation ever feel empowered to plant its own Church and mentor it and its pastor? Or will all initiative be taken from the main campus? Will the satellite location avoid making decisions altogether? Independent congregations will not run into the temptation of letting another community do things for them consistently.
For the sake of fairness, when I asked a Multi-Site Church pastor about this topic, he stated that if he felt led in prayer, he would support one of the satellite pastors either divesting his congregation from the mother Church, or he would help that pastor start his own Church or ministry. I commend my interlocutor on his openness and willingness to not put his conception above God’s will. May all such Churches feel empowered to set someone free to serve the Lord in extraordinary ways.
Multi-Site Protestant Churches and Orthodox Dioceses are probably not considered together too often. Doctrinally, there are huge differences, which are beyond the scope of this article. However, Orthodox Christians and Evangelicals from Multi-Site Churches do encounter one another, and may have reason to consider the similarities and differences between the organizational models of their respective Churches. Orthodox Christianity, which stakes its claim as the historic and original Christian Church, can see some of the developments in the Multi-Site Church movement as positive, insofar as they bring it closer to a model practiced by the Early Church. Some practices of these Churches do not seem consistent with the faith delivered once unto the saints (Jude 1:3), however. We would encourage them to further explore the doctrine and practices of the Early Church, and to follow the evidence where it leads. In the meantime, let us rejoice that Our Lord has appointed and continues to appoint the encounters and friendships which have led to these types of considerations.
Father Anastasios Hudson is an Orthodox Christian priest planting missions in the Triangle and Eastern Carolina. The articles posted on the Triangle Orthodox and Eastern Carolina Orthodox blogs are provided freely for your edification and because Father enjoys writing about his experiences. Father Anastasios is also available for paid writing and speaking engagements. Please contact him at the link above if you are interested in his services.