The Multi-Site Option Grows

From RNS:

What do you think of multi-site campuses? I say No — plant a new church there with its local leaders and teachers, what say you? 

(RNS) The number of congregations that host worship services at more than one physical location has grown to more than 5,000 in the last decade, according to a new report.

Researchers say these “multisite” churches, which may share worshippers across town or many miles apart, are growing at a much larger pace than traditional megachurches.

Bird, the author of books on the multisite trend, has tracked the number of churches meeting in more than one place for his Dallas-based church think tank; he combined his findings with Faith Communities Today surveys.

Multisite churches have grown from fewer than 200 in 2001 to 1,500 in 2006 to an estimated 3,000 in 2009 to more than 5,000 today. In comparison, U.S. megachurches have grown from about 50 in 1970 to about 1,650 in 2012 in North America.

Multisite comes in all kinds of models: Some congregations speak different languages at different locations; some hear from different “campus pastors” onsite and others are preached to by a senior pastor who speaks live or via video.

“The more campuses you have, the more likely you are to use video teaching,” said Bird.

At Community Christian Church in the Chicago area, Pastor Dave Ferguson has taken a different approach with its dozen sites.

“I can only be at one location at a time,” he said.

Each week he gathers in a room with a team of campus pastors to develop a “big idea” into a sermon. A video featuring one of them is created, but the pastors can choose whether to speak from the original manuscript, a version of it they edited or show the video.

In the end, the general message reaches about 10,000 people worshipping at sites that include a community center, a college theater, reopened churches and office parks.

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  • To me, a multi-site church that focuses on one speaker seems to say that nobody local is qualified to speak or has anything worth hearing. I also wonder if there is some sort of control issue as well.

    Then again, I also think that in a “regular” church, it is nice to hear from a variety of speakers (which I know doesn’t happen a lot).

  • I would agree with Kelly. This new movement, though it has its appeal, puts the focus on the ability of the preacher to draw a crowd. Surely there is someone gifted and called to a community who can preach without there needing to be a message brought in from outside.

  • I attended a struggling church that decided to link up with an area multi-site church. There have been bumps along the way, but the preaching and opportunities they offer are amazing.

  • Marshall

    Think of these as embryonic denominations, getting ready to grow into the space previously occupied by the mainlines. I suppose there’s all sorts of ways for the various “campuses” to relate to each other and the mother church … watch as the successful multiply and others vanish. (Is there a name for this process??)

    Historically, have denominations always formed around a charismatic leader? It’s at least a common way to achieve or create doctrinal consistency.

  • No. While there might be some arguable advantages to multisite, my personal opinion leads me to believe there are far more issues leading to negative impact and spiritual malformation.

  • I know that most of the multi site are video linked. But I know at least some have a live pastor at each site and the pastors sit together and prepare their sermons together. There are slight variations (because of language and/or personality) but it is basically the same sermon.

    The problem with many complaints about ‘isn’t there some one local that could do it’ is that there are tons of half empty local churches.

    Why does it have to be a competition? Some unchurched will be attracted to the multisite, some won’t. But multi site, like mega are reaching unchurched.

  • scotmcknight

    Why are people suggesting multi-site campuses/churches are more like a “denomination”?

  • Debbie

    I attend a church that merged with another, larger church less than a year ago. Frankly I was against the merger. While we have and continue to experience bumps, I have found the process to be much smoother than anticipated. Sermons are delivered in person at each campus, with the main lead pastors rotating on the locations. In my mind the jury is out as to the overall fit however, so far so good in most areas.

    Change is never easy but it is not always a bad thing.

  • From being a teacher in multi-site ministry, I say no. My experience suggests that the ruling philosophy of multi-site is branding and marketing vs. the identity of a local church being local and contextual rather than having a branded, broadcast message. It is possible to be local and connected to other sites and congregations but that that’s different than the multi-site book projections.

    The pro’s are also present – like budget sharing and a variety of staff personalities to spawn creativity. In rural settings where there are circuit riders there’s also benefit, but the DNA of a rural “multi-site” is much different than many multi-cite books I’ve read – which reduce “church” to product and staff to marketing personele.

  • JHM

    Our church has two campuses and the lead pastor basically bounces back-n-forth between the two so we see him live every two weeks. Each campus has it’s own set of worship, congregational, and associate pastors. They also have a lot of guest preachers which, I feel, makes it a pretty workable multi-site.

    We were going to the largest Methodist church in the country for a while, which has 4-5 sites, and it has maybe a more “traditional” multi-site setup where the lead pastor stays put at the main campus and is “beamed” out to all the smaller sites. I didn’t like that setup nearly as well.

  • I’ve been saying for a few years that “multi-site” is the new “seeker sensitive.” In other words, I think it’s a great idea that worked/works well in the context in which it was conceived, but which runs the risk of becoming a disaster when church leaders scramble to copy it and end up trying to jam a square peg into a round hole.

  • Brian

    I am not an evangelical (I’m Orthodox and in a former life was a Lutheran), but I have to say that this seems so very odd to me having been away from Protestantism for a while. Multi-site with video feeds of one main service somewhere else, if I’m understanding this correctly?

  • If done right, each campus or site functions well as its own local church. And realistically the multi site movement helps drive the church into a more localized movement and less of a commuter model.

    Also, they’re like a new form of the lectionary too!

  • I attend a multi site church. Here are what I view as advantages. 1) smaller buildings. Multi site can be any size but in general they tend to be smaller per site. So less commuting and more community focus. 2) fast startup. Our church takes a site that is full and starts another site where it will pull enough people to free space in the full site and have a core in the new site. 3) focus on doing things well. Pastors have basically four responsibilities: preaching, discipleship, pastoral care and administration. The site pastor can concentrate on one or two of the non-preaching roles. Almost no one is really good at all four. 4) focus on unchurched. This is not exclusive to multi site, but in my experience most multi site are primarily focused on unchurched. Many smaller single site are focused internally. Not all by any means. But on the whole I think multi site are focused on people outside more than in 5) failure is built in. No one really says this out loud. But privately I think most assume that multi site is temporary and that eventually it will stop. A church that has five or six sites that seat 2000 is much more flexible than a church that has seating for 10,000.

  • John Mark

    My first thought is, “What’s the difference in going to a local venue to watch John Hagee (I know he has a huge following here at Jesus Creed), or simply sitting home to watch him in my recliner?

    Well, I think that multi-site churches can work, but I suspect they may, like mega churches in general, pull people from already established local congregations. If their presence results in greater evangelistic efforts and results, with new people really brought into the kingdom, maybe they have validity.

    Frankly, ‘big church’ pastors probably are better preachers than the guy behind the pulpit in the church where I go. By this I mean more interesting, or having more resources, including a sermon prep team, a/v tools, etc. There is no question that a church big enough to go multi-site can be way ‘sexier’ than the little church across town. And a man who has built a big church; k level or beyond probably is just more gifted than the average pastor (I am one of the average) . I suspect that Hybels would have risen to the top in any field of endeavor, and this is probably true of any truly entrepreneurial pastor/preacher. And though I’m sure they have their problems, they seem to be able to focus on preaching almost to the exclusion of everything else. By everything else, I refer to the normal demands of pastoral ministry; in the last month I have officiated at 9 funerals…..

    Generally, the new wave that began with Hybels was always focused on the non-churched, and maybe they have brought a lot of people in who were non-churched (or was it ex church?)…..but once a thing becomes successful, people are drawn into it because it is hip, or cool, or whatever, even if they don’t use those terms.
    If it really brings lost people to Jesus, I don’t see how you can ultimately oppose it, but I think it seems artificial, and can be (and in one case I know of, has been) divisive.

    My two cents, anyway….

  • Mike M

    We are working with the Kenosha Assembly of God to establish another site here in Slinger, Wisconsin, 20 minutes NW of Milwaukee and one hour or so away from Kenosha. The start-up will of course include live video feeds of services in Kenosha to our home in Slinger but the goal is to secure a church site locally which will be run by a different pastor who reports to the (very charismatic) pastor in Kenosha. If I remember right, the “Brook” churches around Milwaukee also started out as seed churches from the Willow “Creek” church in South Barrington so this concept is neither new nor unheard of.

  • Michael Krause

    I’m teaching pastor in a multisite context and have my own struggles with the implications, and I would prefer that we had local teachers in each location, which remains my long term goal. That notwithstanding, I think that the question of “multisite” is too broadly formed and is, hence, mostly meaningless. It’s similar to asking people about “liturgy”. Liturgy is such a broad concept, so variously conceived by each person filtering the concept through their own peculiar experience, that it carries no absolute, shared meaning. With the multitude of ways to organize multisite churches, I find that this conversation is similar in that respect.

    Truth be told, most of the time, in my experience, when people ask about multisite, they are really asking about video teaching in particular, suggesting that a local is better equipped to serve the community. At some level, then, we ought to have similar concerns about guest preachers, parishioners watching Charles Stanley at home, or listening to Christian radio preaching in their cars, or even the Colossian church reading the letter Paul sent to the Laodiceans. Since they are not specifically addressed to the local context, they are presumably doing at least as much damage as good.

    I understand that these are “supplemental” experiences, as opposed to the steady diet of preaching in the context of worship, which makes them different. But there is some analogy here.

  • Marshall

    @7 Scot:
    The comparison just seems obvious to me. You have a number of separate congregations operating under a common banner. There’s more centralized control than in a “movement”, such as control of physical structure, common messaging (video feeds: “epistles”, circulars). A central vision or personality.

    Obviously there are a lot of things that go on in a fully-formed demonimation that don’t apply to a multi-site … there are people arguing that many of those things are mere accretions anyway. A Toynbee-ish theory: empires grow until they fall apart of their own weight, then regrow from the ground. (apologies to Toynbee for absurd over-simplification.) So multi-sites are acorns, not oak trees. A chance to experiment with new forms, they won’t grow into specifically what we know as “denominations”, but maybe into what denomination means at the next turn up the spiral.

    I don’t have any particular expertise here, so maybe I’m way off base. I’d like to hear why you think this notion is strange?

  • The church where I am a member is multisite. First, the preaching is blended. Some weeks there is a video, others there is a live preacher. I have noticed that we have been going more live than video as of late. Local pastor does preach with others filling in from time to time. Our Senior Pastor is part of the group of Pastors who cycle through the campuses.

    All of the campuses are within an hour and a quarter of the “main” campus. Having been a part of a few church plants in my lifetime, I have found that this system works well. Facilities can be shared, Pastors can be paid, and generally speaking there is still local identity.

    Although our Senior Pastor is an excellent speaker and scholar, the whole focus does not fall on him. We have several excellent preachers aside from him, so, everything is not on one person.

  • Angel F

    I work at a multi-site church. One of the benefits of a multi-site that uses primarily video (though our “campus” pastor speaks once a month) is that all that time that is traditionally spent on sermon prep can be spent serving the community, developing local leaders, and ministering to individuals.