Categories
Visiting Churches

The Multisite Church

An Innovative Approach

Removing The Mystery Church from our schedule leaves us with a last-minute quandary of where to go this Sunday. Candy recalls that one of our neighbors and her husband attend a multisite church in the community east of us.

My bride contacts her online, and we soon have the details we need.

Shopping for Church: Searching for Christian Community, a Memoir

The initial information about this church surprises me. They have three Sunday morning services: 8:00, 9:30, and 11:15.

Though some of the area’s larger churches have two morning services, this is the first we’ve heard of with three. How big is this church, anyway?

We pick the middle service, and our neighbors confirm that’s the one they attend. I wonder if we’ll be able to find them in what is likely to be a large crowd.

Intrigued, I go online. I find an easy-to-use website, with all the needed information, including a helpful FAQ section under the “I’m New” tab.

A Multisite Church

They’re part of a multisite network of churches started by one of the area’s larger denominational churches, whose main site alone borders on being a megachurch. We visited it several years ago with our son and daughter-in-law when they first moved to the area.

Though the service was neither traditional nor formal, it carried the vibe of both, feeling constrained within a contemporary setting.

The founding church began their pursuit of multisite church a few years ago, now having five congregations. How to handle a multisite church varies, from essentially independent to watching a video feed from the main location and everything in between.

One option for a multisite church is to have the music and other aspects of the service local, with the message piped in. I wonder which flavor we’ll experience, hoping we won’t be watching the entire thing on a giant screen.

As we leave our subdivision, we meet another set of neighbors headed north, while we head south. “I wonder where they’re going to church?” As we continue driving, we cross paths with many people, dressed for church but all headed in different directions.

“Look at that,” I tell Candy. “Everyone heads someplace different for church. Why can’t we all attend church in our own community?” The whole thing is absurd, but she feels the same way about my comment.

Parking Lot Attendants

Soon we’re at church. I turn into the drive where we’re greeted by a flag-wielding parking lot attendant who motions me right.

To see if he’s paying attention, I smile and wave as I drive by. He reciprocates. Another man signals us onward to where a third directs us to our parking spot.

Although they guide us to a parking space with exacting precision, we don’t know which door to enter. A quick glance reveals three options, with people streaming toward two of them.

The closest door is more logical, both in terms of proximity and building position, yet the one further away is grander. That’s where we head.

A Mass of People

Inside is the din of people as they mill about. There are no greeters to welcome us. No one says “Hi” or acknowledges our presence. We blend into the mass of people, so I don’t expect anyone to approach us as visitors—or to even know we’re visiting.

We float anonymous in a surging sea of humanity, albeit one exuding excitement over spending time together and worshiping God. Today is Palm Sunday. I wonder if the day carries heightened excitement or if this is normal.

Though the lobby space is not small, the throng of people navigating it make it crowded. A couple small tables offer an assortment of baked goods. I’m not sure if these are for the first-service crowd, who has by now mostly departed, or for new arrivals.

Candy checks out the goodies but takes nothing, while I scan for a coatrack. Not seeing one, or even the hint of where to look, I resign to keep my winter coat with me even though few others have.

We snake our way through the crowd toward the sanctuary that looms in front of us.

The Auditorium

The facility has a typical large-church auditorium: pleasant, yet utilitarian, smartly finished with no hint of ostentatious fluff. It reminds me of last week’s meeting space, only on a newer, larger scale. It seats about 650. I find it quite comfortable.

I walk halfway up the aisle and slide in four seats. Candy sits next to me with a questioning look. “I left two seats for our neighbors,” I explain, “just in case we see them.” Out of hundreds of people, we know we won’t.

She smiles at my hopefulness but then moments later spots them a couple rows forward across the aisle. The wife beckons us to join them, and we do. We exchange introductions and chat as we wait for the service to start.

Sitting with people we know, even though just a bit, is comforting—and comfortable. This only heightens my expectations for the morning. However, I’m also mindful that at nine miles away, there are scores of churches closer to us.

After criticizing others for driving past some churches to attend another one, part of me will feel guilty if I like this church better than the options in our community.

I don’t have long to contemplate this, however, as the service begins. The sanctuary is mostly full, and the clang of folding chairs being set up in the back suggests more people arriving and in need of a seat.

The Welcome

Tim, the lead pastor for this site, welcomes us to this service. He gives a brief teaching about Palm Sunday, weaving seeker-sensitive language into more typical church jargon. I wonder, however, if an uninitiated visitor would find his explanation accessible or confusing.

To me it’s a bit jarring as he switches between fresh wording for familiar concepts and common Christianese verbiage. He also specifically addresses visitors, giving a brief overview of the church before the worship team takes over for the next part of the service.

Seven people, with guitars, drums, and keyboard, lead us in worship, singing a modern song and then a hymn for their first set. I don’t know either song and find them hard to sing. My wife feels they drag on for too long, with too much repetition.

The worship leader is skilled and the instrumentation mixes nicely for a contemporary sound with the hint of an edge, but the vocals don’t flow, calling attention to certain individuals when they should be blending.

Tim pops up again, this time for announcements, including reeling off a packed schedule for Holy Week, culminating in the Easter celebration next Sunday. I can’t keep track of all the options and soon stop listening.

Greeting

Somewhere in the mix, we greet one another. Though everyone is polite and tries to welcome all those around them, just as instructed, they do so with a honed brevity: a smile, a handshake, and a “Hello” before peeling off to repeat the ritual with the next person.

I throw off the cadence of several folks when I interject a “How are you?” into their routine. Though they politely reciprocate, no one takes this as a hint for more conversation. No one shares their name or asks mine.

They’re friendly without reaching out. Even though I’m disappointed, I realize that, despite their shortcomings, they greet better than most of the churches we visit.

With barely enough time to spin around to address the seven people within reach, the time for friendliness ends.

Offering

Tim introduces the offering, telling visitors not to “feel obligated,” while imploring regulars, almost to the point of begging, to “give generously.” I wonder how visitors feel about his instructions.

The ushers pass deep baskets to receive the donations, while the worship team leads us in another song. It’s unfamiliar to me, but most people here seem to know it well.

Afterward, another man stands to give the message. We learn he isn’t their regular speaker, just an occasional one. I wonder if he might rotate among the different congregations in their network. He’s a gifted communicator, easy to listen to, and engaging.

The Good Life

He’ll wrap up the sermon series, “The Good Life,” based on Psalm 23. Today he focuses on the second half of verse 5, with the title, “He Anoints My Head.”

“Have you ever done something you don’t normally do,” he asks, “just so you can be accepted?” God exists in community, and he made us to want the same thing. “Belonging is good.”

He weaves stories from the Bible into his teaching as he moves the idea of acceptance forward. He ends his message with the reminder that we don’t need to do anything for God to accept us. It’s all about his grace, not our efforts.

He concludes with some thought-provoking questions and closes with prayer. The worship team leads us in a final song, a contemporary number that we know well. The service ends.

Post Service Connections

I stand and put on my coat, slowly turning to look at those I greeted earlier in the service. I seek someone to interact with, but no one notices. Candy talks with our neighbor.

As I try to listen in on their conversation, a woman approaches me with intention. I don’t recognize her but think I should. She introduces herself and tells me where they live.

It all clicks. I met her and her family last fall. I smile. “We passed each other on the way to church. You headed north as we headed south.” She looks confused, but her husband nods. We had waved to each other.

We have a joyful time connecting. They make me feel like I belong, as part of the community. Besides them and the neighbors we sat with, they say our next-door neighbors also go here, but to the third service.

I marvel at what I’ve just learned. Although in a different community, three of our neighbors attend this multisite church. This is more than any of the other churches we’ve visited.

A Possible Local Site

As I contemplate this, they say that their parent church wants to open another location and is in discussion for a partnership with The Closest Church, the option nearest to our home.

This explains the vague information I received when we visited there, about the possibility of them joining forces with another church that would bring hundreds more people to their location and result in multiple services.

I now understand what might happen and see how it could function. If this transpires, I wonder if our neighbors who go to this location of the multisite church would switch to the one closer to our homes.

Despite me desiring a smaller church community and not wanting to be part of a large gathering, if several of our neighbors went here, it would make a significant difference.

This multisite church has much to offer. I’m interested in returning, though I suspect Candy isn’t. When I ask about her thoughts, she complains over a comment the minister made about a social issue.

I missed it. My wife didn’t.

Though she wants to go to a church not afraid to address social issues, what they say about the issues is just as important. This pastor’s view doesn’t align with hers. This one comment is her chief memory of the service.

Takeaway

Consider how your church addresses social issues. Should you ignore them or stand up for what you believe?

[Read about the next church, or start at the beginning of Shopping for Church.]


Read the full story in Peter DeHaan’s new book Shopping for Church.

Travel along with Peter and his wife as they search for a new Christian community in his latest book, Shopping for Church, part of the Visiting Churches Series.

This book picks up the mantle from 52 Churches, their year-long sabbatical of visiting churches.

Here’s what happens:

My wife and I move. Now we need to find a new church. It’s not as easy as it sounds. She wants two things; I seek three others.

But this time the stakes are higher. I’ll write about the churches we visit, and my wife will pick which one we’ll call home. It sounds simple. What could possibly go wrong?

Peter DeHaan writes about biblical Christianity to confront status quo religion and live a life that matters. He seeks a fresh approach to following Jesus through the lens of Scripture, without the baggage of made-up traditions and meaningless practices.

Read more in his books, blog, and weekly email updates.