Have you seen Mark Dever’s chat with Mark Driscoll and James McDonald about multi-site churches? It’s excited plenty of interweb comment, not least because of the rather vigorous way Dever is set upon by the other two in a kind of jokey, jovial but still half-serious way.
(‘Multi-site’ means planting a new congregation or church service at a new location, but having the lead pastor from the mother church still do the bulk of the preaching, usually by means of a video feed. It’s a growing and controversial practice in US churches. Is it healthy? Useful? Biblical?)
For my money, Mark Dever came out of the conversation looking wise, gracious and godly, merely by virtue of asking thoughtful questions and not speaking over the other two. But if he had been given the chance, I would have liked him to have asked one more question: what’s your theology of preaching?
Mark attempted to start the conversation on a theological note by talking about the nature of the church as an assembly. Again, if he had been given half a chance to put his own view, I think he would have argued that his objection to the multi-site approach is not pragmatic (although he would list certain disadvantages), but biblical.
However, I suspect that even if the conversation had continued in that vein, Mark might have found it hard to knock down the multi-site approach on ecclesiological grounds alone. Mark Driscoll would argue that his multi-site church plants function as perfectly legitimate independent congregations. They have a pastor who is responsible for them, they have elders and deacons, they practice church discipline, they have membership, the word is faithfully proclaimed and the sacraments administered. According to a full and traditional Reformed ecclesiology, they would seem to have all the standard marks of a legitimate Christian congregation. They just happen to get 75% of their Bible teaching via a video feed from Pastor Mark in Seattle. But where in the Bible’s ecclesiology is that ruled out?
I would have liked the conversation to turn more to the nature and theology of preaching. What is preaching? Is it the kind of communication that can happen just as easily from a video screen as in person?
In terms of the regular preaching that leads and shapes and feeds a Christian congregation, I would say most certainly not. Because preaching is not just information delivery, nor even contextually-shaped information delivery based on the preacher’s knowledge of his people. It is an ongoing relationship, in which the pastor demonstrates the truth of his message by his own changed life, and in which the people not only listen to the pastor’s words but follow his example. The preacher’s knowledge of his people is of some importance, but it not nearly as significant as the people’s knowledge of him.
As Paul says to Timothy: “You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions and sufferings that happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra—which persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me” (2 Tim 3:10-11). The teaching and the life go together. That is why Paul urges Timothy in his first letter not only to hold fast to sound doctrine, but to “set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Tim 4:12). Timothy is to keep a close watch not only the teaching but on his own life and godliness, and to let the people see his progress. “Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (2 Tim 4:16).
It seems to me that it is the nature of biblical preaching that makes the multi-site model ultimately untenable.