New research gives a glimpse of the movement today
By Aaron Earls
Multisite can mean many things and can take on dramatically different forms. But for the vast majority of churches, multisite means one thing—growth.
New research for the Leadership Network/Generis Multisite Church Scorecard found 85 percent of multisite churches are growing and doing so at a strong rate of 14 percent per year.
One of those churches, The Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, “backed into multisite,” according to Rick Langston, lead pastor of strategic develop.
Today, Summit is one of the largest and fastest-growing churches in America. In 2005, the church sold their property and was meeting in a high school. As they continued to grow, a new permanent location became necessary. But what would they do in the meantime?
“We owned a small church building near our original location,” says Langston, “and it seemed like a good idea to provide worship services there for the people who had lived in that community for so long.”
It wasn’t until they started meeting in three locations that they really understood what it meant to be a multisite church. Now, with seven campuses and a Spanish-speaking congregation, Langston says they’re still learning.
According to Warren Bird, research director at Leadership Network, that’s not surprising, since the multisite movement has only just begun. “Although we had responses from churches that have been multisite for more than 20 years,” Bird says, “the survey indicated that the typical multisite church is just four years into the process.”
While it’s true the larger the church is the more likely it is to be a multisite church, it’s not only giant megachurches that go multisite. The typical church has an average weekend attendance of about 1,200 when they first decide to launch an additional campus.
Bird says several multisite churches began with only a few hundred attendees, with the smallest having a combined attendance of 80. “The size of church that goes multisite continues to inch downward,” he says.
Multisite means benefits
That’s not the only potentially surprising finding from the study. Some have asserted that launching new campuses is taking the place of starting new churches, but the research seems to contradict this. “Perhaps the greatest personal surprise was that nearly half—48 percent—of multisite churches directly sponsor new churches,” says Bird. “This puts specific numbers to earlier research that shows church planting and campus planting reinforce, rather than hurt, each other.”
That has been the case at Summit, according to Langston. “Over the last few years, we’ve been able to plant more churches than campuses, and each church plant we’ve sent out has had a core group of 20 to 30 people or more who have moved to be a part of that new church,” he says. “We believe our multisite strategy has enhanced our church planting strategy.”
The research was also encouraging in terms of getting more people involved in the work and the leadership of the church. When asked if being multisite has helped increase lay involvement, 88 percent of multisite pastors said yes, compared to 79 percent in 2010. Bird says this was “the most reassuring finding.”
Suzanne Swift, public relations director of NewSpring, a multisite church soon launching their 10th campus in South Carolina, says that makes sense when you are growing. “Any growth in a church encourages and requires growth of new leaders,” she says. “As we are reaching more and more people, the opportunity to serve others increases.”
According to Langston, leadership development is one of the strengths of the multisite model. “Each campus provides new leadership opportunities,” he says. “Also, as leaders move to help start a new campus that creates opportunities at existing campuses for new people.”
Leadership Network’s research found 87 percent of churches with campus pastors developed that leader from within the congregation. At Summit, all eight of their current campus pastors were either members of the staff or congregation prior to becoming a campus pastor.
“It’s important for a campus pastor to understand the vision and mission of the church, so finding these leaders from within the congregation is logical,” Langston says. But he says they did interview candidates from outside the church and would be open to that.
Swift says the role of campus pastor at NewSpring is vital “in shepherding people and carrying out the vision.” They have filled those positions with both internal and external candidates. “It ultimately comes down to the heart of the leader and a calling they have, paired with the opportunities to serve in our church.”
Multisite means challenges
The multisite method does come with its own unique set of challenges. For NewSpring, one of the top challenges is the varied types of facilities used by the separate campuses.
“Since several of our campuses meet in different types of rented facilities, we are often having to adapt and improvise when it comes to how we set up our different locations and what to do if there is a week the facility or part of the facility isn’t available,” says Swift.
There are technological difficulties as well. According to Swift, there are weekly challenges with delivering a live feed of the sermon to all the campuses. “Even though we have a good network infrastructure and have figured out the right technology, the Internet can be finicky at times,” she says.
For Summit, the distance between campuses requires additional work “to keep everyone on the same page,” Langston says.
“There is a temptation to look at one campus, whether it’s the largest or where the pastor teaches live, as the ‘main campus,’” he says. But at Summit, Langston says, “every campus is the Summit Church; the Summit Church is one church made up of several campuses.”
Langston believes these challenges have made them “focus more on what unites us as a church, and I believe because of that we have enjoyed an even greater experience of the unity Christ intended for us.”
Unfortunately, for some churches the difficulties faced by some of the campuses are too great to continue. In Leadership Network’s 2010 study, 10 percent of multisite churches had closed a congregation.
The most recent study looked at the reasons churches gave for closing, asking those who have done so the three primary reasons. Most closures (54 percent) resulted from the campus not becoming financially self-sustaining. The next most frequent responses were the site not growing (41 percent), it wasn’t reaching people who couldn’t be reached by another site (32 percent), and declining attendance (27 percent).
Multisite means momentum
Even for those, like Oklahoma-based LifeChurch.tv, which has been doing multisite for more than a decade, the methodology requires constant innovation and change. In 1999, LifeChurch met in two locations and staggered starting times so pastor Craig Groeschel could preach at both venues, according to Bobby Gruenewald, pastor and innovation leader.
Like a surprising one in three multisite churches (37 percent), LifeChurch also added a campus due to a merger. “In January 2001, MetroChurch, a 25-year-old non-denominational church, joined us and became the LifeChurch.tv Edmond Campus,” says Gruenewald. “Out of this partnership, LifeChurch officially became one church in multiple locations.” Beginning with those three, the church has since expanded to 18 campuses across the nation.
Despite being one of the largest and most influential churches in America, Gruenewald says there’s more to come at LifeChurch. “Because of recent significant growth, we’ve been looking at areas in our community we’ve wanted to reach, but haven’t been able to from our current locations,” he says. “Then, we leverage the momentum of our existing campuses to grow a core group.”
This momentum might be one of the only unifying factors of the multisite movement. “We find multisite churches across a wide variety of denominational and non-denominational churches,” says Bird. “Multisite isn’t limited to a particular geography. Nor are just a handful of personalities providing primary momentum.”
Bird, one of the leading experts on multisite methodology, sees the growth in a perhaps unusual way—from the vantage point of his anonymity. “I always smile with delight when I meet a pastor who tells me with great enthusiasm something I know originated in my multisite reports or books, but he’s never heard of me or them,” he says. “Situations like that affirm to me that multisite is a true movement.”
Aaron Earls (@WardrobeDoor) is online editor of FactsAndTrends.net.