Multisite churches: a sign of hope for the Western Church?

Multisite churches: a sign of hope for the Western Church? March 10, 2014

I have been allowed early access to the The Leadership Network/Generis Multisite Church Scorecard which releases to the public on Tuesday, March 11th. With the report author’s permission I can share some of the highlights in this article. To be alerted when the full report is available, sign up here.

The subject of multisite churches continues to be a controversial one in some circles.  I have previously written on some of the advantages I see in this model, as well as arguing that a large church gives a great environment for many leaders to flourish, some of whom would have floundered if sent off on their own to start a church.  It is all about knowing who you are.

Unfortunately much criticism of multisite stems from jealousy, and an assumption that if a church is growing it must be fatally comprised in some way or “lightweight.”

Today many churches are plateauing, or shrinking, and due to their ageing congregations are basically sleep-walking to a demographic death. If multisite is a hopeful sign we should embrace it fully.  There is no reason why multisite and church planting can’t co-exist peacefully, and be seen as two different strategies that can be used depending on local situations.

The National Congregations Study, a separate report to this one suggests that in the United States alone, 5 million people worship at one of 8,000 multisite churches, which accounts for 1 in 10 of all Protestant churchgoers.  This burgeoning movement is here to stay.

The current survey is of course limited by all the usual potential responder biases of any similar work. However, it is the largest of its kind to date with 535 response from 12 countries (though 91% were USA based).

Key headlines from the report include:

  • 85% of multisite churches are growing
  • The mean growth rate is  14% a year
  • 60% of these churches are less than 5 years into the process.
  • 88% of multisite churches believe planting a new site led to an increase in volunteer involvement in church ministry
  • Multi-site churches report that there is greater growth and greater evangelistic impact being seen in new sites than either the original church or other more traditional church planting models they have also used.
  • 1 out of 3 multisite campuses came about because of a church merger, meaning that a church that was in danger of ultimately closing is often rescued and recycled into a new role as a multisite venue.
  • Multisite churches largely raise up their own leadership, with 87% of campus pastors being found internally
  • Most multi-site churches are committed to planting both independent churches and multi sites, and a significant number of multisite churches have already spun off a campus as an independent church or are considering that as a longer term goal.
  • Most believe that 15-30 minutes apart is the ideal distance between campuses. But interestingly it was common that the actual distance was around 15 mins.

This does seem like good news. There are some key principles regarding multisite churches.  Success seems to depend on a “One church, One vision” approach. Also the leadership gifts of both the overall leader and the campus pastor are critical, and mutual respect and trust are going to be critical here.< Multisite is not something that should be tried to revive a plateaued or shrinking church.  Multisite simply makes you more of what you already are. If you are in maintenance you are going to reproduce that, if your church is already growing numerically and spiritually, your sites are going to reproduce that. Multisite  is meant to be an answer to the twin problems of lack of space at the first campus, and the desire to mobilise church members who travel increasing distances to church to make an impact on their own communities. I would challenge a young leader who is considering planting an independent church to consider instead whether they might like to be a part of this multisite revolution.  If nothing else, getting involved in a church where an expectation of growth is part of the culture and reflects the weekly reality may help to ensure that when you do plant, that DNA is contained in the new church.  If you have never served in a burgeoning church, it is perhaps unlikely that you will be able to found one.  Not every church needs to grow large, but every church needs to grow spiritually and by salvation.
Too many churches today are satisfied with a situation where they have not seen a single person become a Christian in years.  If you are in that situation, this survey and others about the reality of the multisite situation suggests that one possible way to revitalise your congregation is to find another church to merge with. There are challenges to that process, not least the humility required.  But if we are about building the Kingdom of God, we should be prepared to consider any strategy that is not against the Bible to do so. I am hopeful that the growth of multisite churches is a sign of hope for the Western Church, and a sign that God is not finished with us yet.

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  • Alan Molineaux

    ‘Unfortunately much criticism of multisite stems from jealousy’

    That’s quite a sweeping statement Adrian. It sounds like the kind that is trying to stop the conversation – that is: if I know offer a critique of multi site then I am more than likely doing so because I am jealous.

    • I said “much” not “all” and not even necessarily “most.” But when I see churches that are growing by salvation and baptisms and which are preaching the gospel, to me I would rather not criticise but praise God.

      • Alan Molineaux

        Thanks Adrian. Always appreciate that you try to answer. I do recognise that you said ‘much’ and not all. Still as soon as you say this without showing how you have come to this conclusion then the result is the same – other voices are seemingly silenced by possibly being labelled as having wrong motives.

        I think there is a fair critique of the possibility that multi site can lead to a macdonaldisation rather than an incarnation in church planting.

        I am not calling the motives here rather than speaking about the methods I have seen.

        I just don’t want you to silence voices that might have something to say by suggesting that much is done out of jealousy.

        Hope you are well. Al

        • I guess I am just weary of some of the criticism that we hear that often doesn’t even really try and investigate the phenomena. MacDonaldisation is a problem really only if ONE multisite church becomes dominant. At the moment there is little sign of that happening. Multisite works well when it is an attempt to help people who have been driving to church to incarnate the Body closer to their homes.

          • Alan Molineaux

            Yes Adrian. I am sure that is happening well for some. I have seen a few instances where ‘the fries have to be the same’ in every campus so to speak

            I understand your weariness. I hope that you don’t every dissenting voice with the same tone. Some of us are passionate about the church but feel the need to offer a critique.

            Take care. Al

  • Agni Ashwin

    Are you related to the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, in Atlanta?

    • Not closely. All my blood relatives live in the UK or New Zealand as far back as my grandparents

  • ortcutt

    Also, a single-site church limits how much money the lead pastor can make. Expanding to a multi-site church means that the lead pastor’s income is nearly limitless.

  • John Norman

    Do you know if the report analyses growth? For example, how much is through conversions as apposed to movement between churches.

    • No, that is harder than it first seems. They just asked for an opinion about evangelistic impact. Defining this is harder than it first seems. What of someone for example who is on the papers of a church but havent attended for years, and have been living totally backslidden, who comes to the new church and gloriously encounters God. Is that transfer growth or gospel growth? Of course transfer happens. But, it seems to me that these churches couldn’t grow at the rate they are if evangelism wasn’t happening also.

      • John Norman

        Thanks. It’s an interesting concept.

        • Alan Molineaux

          I think it is worthy of more thought. Whereas you Adrian seem to view these things positively I have a certain amount of suspicion (and I don’t mean cynicism).

          A church may impact an individual’s life in a positive way but not necesarily impact the total number of people in an area who go to church (transfer growth). Not necesarily a bad thing.

          Another church might see a new person come to church who has never been to one before.

          When measurement is quantitative rather than qualitative then it can look like a larger (multi site) church is having a greater impact – it just depends what we mean by the word.

          • I think that the 1 in 10 protestants in the USA now attending a multisite church when 60% of them became multisite less than 5 years ago is a statistic that says a lot. This is a rapidly growing movement, and I don’t think it would be growing so fast if it wasn’t basically working. Now, does this mean every multisite church has got it right? Of course not. Does this mean that we should give up church planting? Of course not. But if a large church is struggling to know where to put people who are coming to them, and realises that some of them come from a place 15-30 minutes away by car, this can be a fantastic solution that is a win-win. Much cheaper than either starting a new church from scratch or building a bigger facility centrally. Much less risky than church planting. And surely more incarnational than church members driving that distance to church. If I sound like an enthusiastic convert, it is because I am one!

          • Alan Molineaux

            I take your point and broadly welcome it when people find both faith and a community in which to become safe.

            Let me add another thought to the discussion that I hope you won’t see as objectionable – I certainly don’t offer it that way.

            As we are both aware, in business stats can be made to say anything. Given that could it be possible for a church to grow in the way that you have described but lose people on the journey.

            That is to say a church could grow by 50 people per year but need to gain 100 people to do so – with fifty of its usually congregation also leaving in that year it still looks like a 50 person growth.

            I would want to ask whether a multi site church is more likely to have stats like that above than a more incarnational model. I think it is a question worth asking.