The Coming Multi-Site Church Revolution

On Sunday morning at Seacoast Church in Charleston, S.C. (seacoastchurch.org), a worship band launches into a hard-driving chorus while a video projects lyrics and background images on screens and TV monitors throughout the auditorium. The congregation stands to sing along with the worship leader.

The experience describes a typical contemporary church’s worship service on any given weekend in America. However, in South Carolina, this scene happens 17 different times over the same weekend in nine locations around the state. All sites are known as Seacoast Church. Using numerous bands and worship leaders, Seacoast’s 17 near-identical weekend services represent the new look of a church that chose not to fight city hall to construct a bigger building. Instead, the church has continued to reach new people by developing additional campuses.

At another church across the country, a congregation just north of San Diego sings, “How Great Thou Art“ in Traditions, one of five venues on the same church campus. North Coast Church in Vista, Calif. (northcoastchurch.com), has developed five different worship atmospheres all within a few feet of each other: Traditions is more intimate and nostalgic, while other venues range from country gospel to a coffeehouse feel to coffee-vibrating, big subwoofer attitude.

The unifying factors to these five on-site venues are the message (one venue features in-person preaching, and the rest use a videocast) and weekly adult “growth“ groups whose discussion questions center on the sermon everyone heard. North Coast has now developed multiple venues on additional campuses, so that on a typical weekend this month, worshippers chose between 19 different services spread across four campuses.

At Community Christian Church (communitychristian.org) in Naperville, Ill., five different drama teams perform the same sketch at five different suburban locations. Then up to three different teachers deliver a message either live or by video they’ve all worked on together.

Across the country, these churches, and hundreds more like them, are discovering a new model for doing church. Going beyond additional service times and larger buildings, churches are expanding into multiple venues and locations—and as a result, are reaching people they’d never meet otherwise, including diverse ethnicities and age groups.

According to Dallas-based Leadership Network’s (leadnet.org) research, at least 1,000 churches across North America could currently be described as multi-site—churches (one vision, one staff, one board, one budget) that extend themselves to more than one location across town, the state or around the world. And according to church researcher Thom Rainer, more than 30% of the churches he has surveyed indicate that they are considering a multi-site model. Moreover, early indicators show that these multi-site models are more evangelistic than single-site campuses, Rainer says. In the July/August issue of Outreach magazine, he called this move to multiple services a “new American Church trend.“

 

WHAT‘S FUELING THE TREND?

When North Coast Church launched its first video venue, it was “out of space, out of good time slots, out of energy and out of options,“ Senior Pastor Larry Osborne says. He echoes the comments of church leaders across the country struggling to keep up with their growth by looking for creative ways to expand.

On several Leadership Network surveys, the lack-of-space issue was the most cited trigger reason for launching multiple campuses or venues. Churches have discovered or are beginning to discover that the multi-site model can be the solution to meeting space and parking issues for congregations that don’t want to launch a massive building campaign or find themselves landlocked. The space issue was the primary reason North Coast launched its first venue.

“We wanted to create an overflow room that would be a reward rather than a punishment,“ Osborne explains. “We hoped that a few (5%) of our current attendees would prefer it over the sanctuary environment. By the second week, we realized we had a tiger by the tail, and our church would never be the same.“

In addition to space, lack of human resources is also fueling the trend. Growing churches that must add services to make room for people soon discover they don’t have the manpower to accommodate numerous services. Weekends start to spell burnout for pastors, worship teams, children’s ministry volunteers, tech crews, etc. Launching simultaneous services, such as video venues, or building leadership teams at other sites, can give overloaded staff and volunteers a much-needed break through new talent that emerges.

And, the multi-site revolution continues to be motivated by an increasing number of churches desiring to reach the unchurched around them. Results from Leadership Network’s 2003 survey of 1,000 multi-site churches showed that “evangelistic outreach“ is the dominant motivator for employing a multi-site or multi-venue approach.

For Community Christian Church, its first site launch was motivated by a desire to reach more of its community after a new Christian in the congregation asked the leadership, “How can we get the kind of community we have here in church into the real estate developments I’m building?“ The answer? Take the church to the people.

In Lynden, Wash., just three miles from the Canadian border and in a retirement area, Grace Baptist Fellowship (gbf-online.org) first launched its video venue to reach a younger age group—a segment of the population other area churches weren’t reaching, says Dave Dunkin, pastor of ministry development. After three years of services, the idea is working. Each Sunday, the Upper Room’s relaxed, small-church feel draws nearly 100 20- to 30-somethings, making the church multigenerational, Dunkin says.

“People who have never visited the main service are coming to the Upper Room, and they’re meeting Christ there,“ he says. “We see new young faces each week.“

 

NOT JUST A MEGACHURCH THING

True to historic movements, this new paradigm is finding expression across geographies, denominations, church sizes and structures. Churches with as few as 200 attendees or as many as 20,000 are experimenting with the “one church in many locations” idea, while denominations are testing multi-site as a viable enhancement to customary church-planting models.

The multi-site movement isn’t confined to the suburbs or to the opening of new locations for growing churches. From rural to urban settings, churches facing the prospect of closure due to dwindling membership are being revitalized as they become a satellite campus of a growing congregation elsewhere in their city.

“There is no one type,” says Community Christian’s Lead Pastor Dave Ferguson. “They are large and small churches, established and new, denominational and non-denominational, urban, suburban and rural. The common denominator is a missional mindset and a reproducing apostolic ethos.”

Osborne adds that North Coast has worked with hundreds of congregations of all sizes and denominations at the church’s annual video venues conference.

“We’ve seen all types of churches using this model,” he says. “The only necessary ingredient is a ministry that’s growing and vibrant enough to reach out beyond a single service or a localized neighborhood.”

 

MULTI-SITE CHALLENGES

While multi-site ministry does offer creative solutions to space issues and more importantly, provides an opportunity to reach more people, this model also presents its share of significant challenges.

In their book, Beyond the Box (Group), church growth researchers Bill Easum and Dave Travis identify some of the most common and critical obstacles, but staffing issues, they say, top the list.

“In every case we’ve seen, staffing the multi-site church is a significant challenge,” they write. “Multi-sites also require a higher competency level among all staff than is found in most single-site congregations. … The core staff must be more like ‘athletic directors.’ They aren’t just coaches or great athletes. They know how to oversee coaches who run teams.”

Church leaders agree with the authors’ assessment. Bobby Gruenewald, pastor/new campus development leader for Oklahoma City’s LifeChurch.tv., which runs 23 services on five campuses throughout the state, is fairly typical in this observation.

“The leadership aspect has been by far the most challenging for us, and we initially thought that other dimensions would be more difficult,” he says.

In Orlando, Fla., the second site for Discovery Church (discoverychurch.org), Discovery Southwest, struggles with volunteer recruitment, says Jay Mander, artistic operations director.

“Here, it’s really hard to find technical volunteers; they’re usually working for one of the theme parks in the area,” Mander explains. “And our children’s ministry happens during the service, which means that volunteers miss the service completely.”

For Fellowship Missionary Church in Fort Wayne, Ind. (fmcfw.org), early technical problems were the greatest challenge, and those glitches resulted in low turnout for the church’s video venue initially designed to reach an emerging generation. “We weren’t really technically there before we launched,” says Kirk McKinley, the church’s technical director. “People said they felt disconnected from the rest of the congregation, but I think it was the technical glitches we had.”

Some churches have discovered that a multi-site approach just doesn’t work for their church’s culture.

That was the story for NorthWood Church (northwoodchurch.org). In September 2003, the Keller, Texas, church tried a video service in another building on campus. A year later, it pulled the plug.

NorthWood Senior Pastor Bob Roberts’s teaching style is extremely interactive, explains Jordan Fowler, pastor of worship arts. “He’ll ask someone in the crowd a question. Part of the problem was that we couldn’t afford to light the whole sanctuary as a stage, so the people in the video service were not catching the same vision as those in the main service where he was teaching live. But the biggest thing we realized—and this isn’t accusatory—was that we were exporting only what we have rather than seeing God raise up people in our church to plant another church.”

Since 1992, NorthWood has daughtered 87 autonomous churches throughout the Fort Worth, Texas, area. Roberts often reminds his leadership and congregation: “Our goal is to church the area—not be the biggest church in the area.”

“That revolutionizes everything we do,” Fowler says. “Instead of additional sites, we plant churches.”

 

THE POWER OF MULTIPLICATION

Church growth experts Easum and Travis have observed that the genius of multi-site is not that it grows your church, but that it keeps it growing. In Beyond the Box, they comment, “The key to understanding the multi-site movement is to remember that fulfilling the Great Commission drives these congregations, not a growth strategy.”

From all early indications, the “one church, multiple locations” model is, as a whole, evangelistic in nature. Reports of conversion growth from numerous multi-site churches indicate that some-thing is working well. The story is the same from people who have been wary of “established religion” and large, polished services, but who are willing to come back to these same churches in one of their multi-site expressions.

As they begin to grow beyond the four walls of the box they built, churches are discovering the power of multiplication. “Previously, we had two options for accomplishing the mission of Jesus—church growth or church planting. Multi-site is now a third option,” says Ferguson. Community Christian is seeing many people come to Christ as it extends its arm farther into communities, including the church’s third site at an active senior adult community.

“Last year at our Carillon site, we celebrated the baptisms of more than a dozen people—all of them more than 70 years old,” Ferguson says.

Water of Life Community Church in Fontana, Calif. (wateroflifecc.org), has also looked for ways to serve its community, says Zac Coaston, director of media technology. When a police officer in the church was killed on duty, Water of Life opened its doors to the entire community to accommodate the many memorial services and funerals in the venues. The church has also hosted graduation ceremonies for two of the city’s state colleges. “Once people realized they didn’t have to stand and could get a better view, they went to a video venue,” Coaston says, adding that some of those attendees have returned to Water of Life.

This fall, the church plans to use its video capabilities to produce a video venue for its growing Hispanic ministry. In November, the group of 50 will have its own venue; currently, they share it with the junior high department and aren’t able to transform the space into their own cultural environment.

“By offering our video capabilities to our community, we think we’re serving people well with what God has given us,” Coaston says. “We’re introducing them to our church—more importantly, we’re showing them Christ.”   

by Greg Ligon and Warren Bird

Copyright © by Outreach magazine.  All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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