One of my criteria for discerning a truly good book is whether it forces me to think deeply about a topic I’ve long taken for granted—and in particular, whether it outlines a challenging argument that forces me to revise some of my unquestioned assumptions. Jonathan Leeman’s new book One Assembly: Rethinking the Multisite ad Multiservice Church Models is such a book.
This isn’t the sort of volume that’d usually show up on my radar—perhaps to my detriment, I don’t really keep abreast of ecclesiology books emerging from the broadly Reformed Baptist tradition—but thanks to a friend who works at Capitol Hill Baptist Church, I was lucky enough to land an invite to the livestreamed 2020 “Together for the Gospel” (T4G) conference, where Leeman’s book was compellingly blurbed. I couldn’t resist buying a copy—and I’m glad I did, because I must admit that Leeman successfully changed my views.
Leeman’s central argument, undoubtedly, will land in American Christianity with all the force of a hand grenade: churches offering multiple service times, or conducting services across multiple physical campuses, are substantially deviating from the Church’s proper model. The supporting premise is as elegantly simple as it is provocative: the Greek word ekklesia, or assembly, consistently refers to a unitary physical gathering within which communion, discipleship, and discipline must necessarily occur. Splitting a single church into multiple separate services—or, more egregiously, multiple physical sites—prevents that kind of community from developing. Simply put, on a multisite/multiservice model, the members of Christ’s Body no longer know the members of the instance of the Body to which they are supposedly united, and that situation will be unlikely to change for the foreseeable future. And so accordingly, when questions of pastoral practice emerge that require the action of the whole ekklesia, a large percentage of the church will simply have no frame of reference.
The heart of One Assembly, naturally, is a word study of the New Testament’s use of ekklesia. Having little expertise in Greek, I am largely unqualified to critique the details of Leeman’s reasoning—though, speaking as a layperson, his case seems to me convincing. Most of the rest of the book traces out the implications of a revised concept of ekklesia, in particular the insight that overflowing churches, on Leeman’s account, have a responsibility to either (1) promptly plant new churches, or (2) send out contingents of members to revitalize dwindling congregations.
All of this strikes me as essentially sound, both exegetically and pragmatically. Indeed, I couldn’t help thinking that Leeman might’ve pressed his case even more aggressively. With all due respect to my friends who think differently, the multisite model in particular strikes me as almost unavoidably bound up with a tendency towards a “celebrity pastor” mentality. I find it difficult to imagine that the leaders of such churches can truly avoid a sort of imperial sensibility, a persistent temptation toward cultivating a micro-denomination rather than a unified community capable of worshiping as one. And that, of course, is not really consonant with the New Testament’s vision of ekklesia.
Leeman is well aware that his proposals, if taken seriously, will require dramatic changes in countless congregations across the nation. And to his credit, he never shies away from the consequences of his vision: otherwise-comfortable congregations will have to formulate plans for orderly reconstitution, church planting, or something else entirely. As a non-pastor, I assuredly have the luxury of not having to face these hard choices—but that’s not to say that they’re not worth making., especially given the importance of building a genuinely cohesive church community—that is, an ekklesia in the fullest sense.
When all’s said and done, this is a book that all Christians—whether Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant—should read and seriously contemplate. Those not persuaded by Leeman’s exegesis have, at the very least, an obligation to rebut his case. For my part, I can’t help thinking his book has the ring of truth to it, and that is something that should leave all of us—those Americans who’ve enjoyed church services scheduled according to our personal convenience—suitably chastened.