When Does The Multi-Site Pastor Get to Confess His Sins?

Rockwell worshipOne of the advantages of being a Country Parson that Tim Keller and I both failed to mention is the ability of rural ministers to worship with their congregations while leading in worship. This thought came to mind when reading the recent USA Today piece on the Rev. Keller and multi-site churches.

According to the story, the reporter, one church member

heard [Keller] preach at 10:30 a.m. on the Upper East Side. Now she has brought friends to hear him at the West Side 5 p.m. service. He briefly greets her, then slips into the service just before his sermon.

In 45 minutes, before the final hymn, Keller’s gone — off to deliver the same sermon, “The Gospel Changes Everything,” on the East Side.

Then, again, Keller, founder and senior pastor of Manhattan’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church, will dash back to West 79th Street for his fourth service of the day at three leased locations.

It’s not the traditional American mom-and-pop church, where the same pastor counsels parishioners, visits when they’re ill or marries or buries them.

Keller’s service-hopping — he usually preaches to three-fourths of the 5,500 people who attend Redeemer services — reflects a new model for worship spreading rapidly across the U.S. church landscape: multisite churches.

I know what follows may sound like criticism, and I know Keller has recently written on how to respond to criticism in a way that has attracted praise, but this story does raise a number of troubling questions.

The first, what does this multi-site performance say about worship and the sermon? I know one pastor in the Redeemer network who regularly complains about Presbyterian worship being logocentric. But what could be more logocentric than a pastor showing up to give his sermon, not having participated in the rest of the service? And isn’t a tad logocentric for those attending these multi-site services to go mainly to hear the Big Kahuna preacher? Reformed worship regards the service as an organic whole, with prayer (in various forms), the word (in various forms), the offering (in one form), and the sacraments constituting the means why which God communes with his people. The sermon may be the main course in the meal of worship, but it is not the only one.

The second question goes to the point of this post’s title: isn’t a pastor worshiping with the congregation during a service? I know he is leading, and I also know – having led worship, reluctantly (as a four office Presbyterian elder) – that a person is thinking about leading worship in ways that are different from thinking about honoring and glorifying God. Still, doesn’t a pastor need to confess sins, sing praise, hear the word as he reads it, and maybe even tithe (usually his wife has that covered)? But if the pastor only shows up for the “main event,” doesn’t this communicate that he is not part of the congregation, not part of the worshiping assembly, not in need of the same means by which the rest of the believers are receiving God’s grace and blessing? Or does urban ministry require a different kind of church?

Which means that the advantage of a mom-and-pop church, whether in the city, suburbs, or country, is that a pastor can worship God too along with the rest of the congregation.


15 thoughts on “When Does The Multi-Site Pastor Get to Confess His Sins?

  1. Hi Darryl,

    Interesting point. From the timeline you give above, though, does Dr. Keller preach in the AM and then three times in the PM? If this were the case, at least he’d be able to be with one congregation in the AM.

    Anyways, your point is helpful. From time to time we’ve had associates and sem students lead the liturgy while I just preached and it wasn’t the same. I love leading as much as preaching. I lead from behind the Table, which is on the floor level with the people to signify my oneness with them before the throne of grace. To read the law, confess with them, and to declare absolution as I scan the congregation, looking into the eyes of as many as possible—many which are filled with tears—is an experience every pastor needs to have!


  2. It seems like there are 4 churches here. Does he not have assistants who can preach the other services? Should they have their own pastors? The words of Moses’ father in law about being spread too thin would seem to apply here.


  3. Richard, I fear that is part of the issue. Tim Keller is hopping from church to church likely because not as many people would attend the services if they had their own pastors. It is, however, a step up from simul-casting the sermons.


  4. The image of one pastor scurrying from church to church on Sunday at least risks sending the message that the listeners’ faith rests in the talents of Mr. Keller and not in the power of God. (1 Cor 2:4).


  5. I recently met someone who told me that they have “church” every Sunday morning in their living room by singing a couple of songs, praying and then listening to a Keller sermon online. This is much more convenient than getting up, going to a service and developing relationships with the Body of Christ and a particular pastor. My concern is what Keller’s actions are teaching the people – or probably reaffirming what they already believe – that it is about the ‘wow’ the pastor can deliver in preaching rather than the faithfulness of one pastor who cares for your life.


  6. Hi, All –

    Just below is a link to a blogpost by a Free Church (of Scotland) pastor about his recent visit to Redeemer. It might clear up some (very understandable) misconceptions about the purposes of our multi-site model.


    By the way, Darryl, I do often miss either the last or the first hymn of a service, but because our sites are only about 1-2 miles apart, I always get to confess my sins with the congregation. And that’s good, because I need it.


  7. As opposed to two-office (deacons and elders), or three-office (deacons, elders, and ministers), I follow Calvin (as does the OPC BCO) by affirming for offices (deacons, elders, ministers, and doctors — as in teachers of the ministers).


  8. Tim, Thanks for the clarification. I guess the USA Today story was wrong when it said: “Keller isn’t ready to ride that high-tech horse [of video streaming]. He relies on the subway or a staff-driven SUV to orbit among four of the five Redeemer services every week.”

    But it still strikes me as odd for a preacher not to be present for the entire serive — from apostolic salutation to benediction — in which he is preaching. Calvin did, of course, rotate the Lord’s Supper weekly among the churches in Geneva, but not his own body on the same Sunday.


  9. Thanks for this clarification Dr. Hart. I was familiar with the Genevan leadership structure but had never heard of it stated this way. So do you mean you’ve held/hold all four of these offices?

    I’ve been trying to contact you directly via the contact page and it’s not working for me. Are other having problems?


  10. Hi Darryl

    I enjoy your blog!

    Could you direct me to the section of the OPC BCO that suggests the office of doctor? The closest I can see is FoG IX which refers to “Teachers”, with seminary faculty, among others, certainly being included in the description.


  11. Chris, that’s the place. It may not be as explicit as Calvin’s church order was but it one example of the four-office view at work. Plus, the OPC has had ministers called and ordained as teachers of the word (i.e. doctors).


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