Should We Reconsider the Multi-Site Approach?

3. A Better Pastoral Alternative to Building “Six Flags Over Jesus”

At one point, we considered building one central building for all of the people of the Summit to attend for worship. Fortunately, logistical reasons kept us from making this decision, because we now see that no central building could possibly be expanded fast enough to account for the growth at our church. Building megachurch buildings is time-consuming and resource-exhausting. We’d rather use our time and resources to multiply campuses throughout the Triangle than erecting some kind of mammoth “Six Flags Over Jesus” facility.

The longer we’ve done this, the more we’ve found that multiplying people into smaller campuses is more effective at pastoring and shepherding than having them all together in one large gathering. The multi-site strategy has provided us a way to effectively pastor a congregation of 11,000. It takes a problem (too many people for “the pastor” to shepherd) and makes the solution more obvious (diversify and expand your pastoral team).

The hardest ecclesiological shift for me happened when we grew to a size where I realized I couldn’t know every member in a meaningful way. I think that happened when we went to about 500 weekly. Most research shows that pastors can’t personally pastor a congregation of more than about 150. If you are willing to grow above 150, you’re going to have to adopt a “multiple elder” model, where everyone is known and pastored by an elder, though not necessarily the “lead” elder.

Because our venues and services are smaller, campus pastors and elders can more effectively stay connected with those that come. Smaller venues reduce anonymity. It’s easier for a campus pastor to keep up with his elders, who keep up with their small group leaders, who keep up with their people, who all (mostly) see each other every week. If you are going to reduce anonymity in a large church, smaller services/campuses are the way to do it.

4. We Won’t Turn People Away

Without a multi-site approach, the last few years would have seen us repeatedly turning people away. When I consider Jesus’ parable about the importance of prioritizing the one over the 99, I simply can’t rest content with the idea that we have no more room for people to hear the gospel. Without the multi-site approach, we would be reaching fewer people, a trend that we believe will continue in the future as well.

5. Unique Ministry Opportunities

We didn’t get into the multi-site approach in order to reach prisoners with the gospel. But that’s one of the surprising things God did with this strategy in the past few years. Had we maintained a single-site approach, we never would have launched campuses in two area prisons, where members of our church are able to gather every week. These prisoners consider the Summit their church. And when they are released, they have the rare experience of transitioning into something they already know. Seeing God work in our area prisons has been—and continues to be—a beautiful and encouraging blessing.

6. Empowering Others and Developing Leaders

One of the biggest critiques of the multi-site strategy is that it necessarily creates a cult of personality. I’ve written elsewhere that this isn’t nearly as automatic as people seem to think. In fact—and we were surprised by this at first, too—we have found that the multi-site strategy actually serves to develop and empower local leadership.

Are there people who still go to the broadcast campus (and past three other campuses on the way) to see “live” preaching? Yes. But that is a small minority, and we continue to disciple these people to attend and serve where they live.

Generally speaking, though, we have found that most people at our church are more interested in being in their community and reaching their neighbors than they are being part of “the main” campus. Many people will never meet me. That’s actually not a problem, because they are being well pastored at their local campus. Our multi-site strategy depends on new leaders and new pastors being raised up.

7. Planting Campuses Means Planting More Churches

Again, too often people assume that planting campuses competes with planting churches. In our experience, the opposite has been the case. The more we plant campuses, the more our people catch our vision for planting churches, too. This is why I wasn’t surprised to learn that multi-site churches are actually 29 percent more likely to plant new churches than other churches of similar size. (That statistic, as well as numerous other helpful stats and stories, comes from Leadership Network’s comprehensive survey of American churches, the “Multisite Church Scorecard.”)

So, let me be clear: Planting campuses doesn’t replace planting churches. It replaces the building of a behemoth church building. Planting campuses—instead of building a huge building—lends itself to an outward-facing posture for the church. A large building says, “Come,” but a multitude of campuses say, “Go.” By planting campuses, we communicate that it is more important for us to reach people than it is to build an empire. Our people have responded by going, both to new campuses and to new churches.

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J.D. Greear
J.D. Greear, Ph.D., is the President of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastors the Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, NC. Tagged by Outreach magazine as one of the fastest growing churches in America, the Summit has grown in the past 8 years from 400 to over 5,000 each weekend. The Summit Church is deeply involved in global church planting, having undertaken the mission to plant 1000 churches in the next 40 years. J.D. has authored Breaking the Islam Code and the upcoming Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary.

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