By Stephen Bond
Multisite ministry is sweeping the nation. More and more churches are experimenting with this creative method of church extension. In church leadership gatherings, pastors increasingly speak about being “one church in two locations” (or three or four locations). It is always thrilling when the church is on the march! Multisite ministry is proving to be an effective way to advance the kingdom of God in many areas.
The church I serve jumped on the multisite bandwagon two years ago. Summit Christian Church had previously helped plant two independent congregations, but we wanted to pursue church extension through the multisite model.
We listened to the multisite experts. Their reasoning made sense to us. Multisite ministry offers a “big-church punch with a small-church feel.” It can be more cost-effective than traditional church planting, and multisite ministry allows the healthy DNA of the mother church to be reproduced in other locations. There are many wonderful benefits to multisite ministry!
However, our experience was not entirely positive. In fact, we closed our second campus after one year. Several issues surfaced I wish we had known before we started. I call these the “fine print of multisite ministry.”
It was harder than we expected
I should have known better. I’ve been around long enough to know that any kind of kingdom advancement is hard-fought. Yet, because of the rosy multisite reports surfacing around the nation, I was lulled into thinking this model might be easier than traditional church planting. I was wrong.
Sustaining ministry on a second campus was harder than we expected on many levels. For example, we launched our new campus using video teaching. Everything else was live except the teaching. We recorded the message at our Saturday evening service to use the following Sunday morning at our second campus. But creating a quality video recording was a much bigger challenge than we anticipated! Whenever I said “tonight” as I preached on Saturday evening, I cringed, realizing it would sound out of place when the recording was broadcast the following morning. This was only one of a myriad of challenges that surfaced in our attempt to create a quality teaching video for use at our second site.
Volunteer staffing at the new campus was also harder than expected. Our artists were not always thrilled to minister in a school cafeteria while our main campus enjoyed a state-of-the-art worship environment. It was harder than expected to sustain meaningful connections between the two campuses. It was also difficult to establish weekday ministries at the new campus. Youth and women’s ministry never developed at the satellite campus with the speed and energy they had developed at Summit’s initial campus.
All in all, sustaining ministry at two campuses proved to be much harder than expected.
It cost more than we expected
Summit partnered with Stadia: New Church Strategies to launch our second campus. By the time we closed the campus, more than $160,000 had been invested. Half of this money came from Summit and half came from Stadia. In retrospect, the financial plan for our multisite effort was far too optimistic. We assumed the new campus would win new people who would then provide new dollars to underwrite the costs of sustaining the campus. This simply did not happen.
Virtually all the giving at the new campus was from transplant contributors who had previously given at our main campus. We tracked these giving patterns closely. Because negligible new monies were given at the second campus, we calculated a second year would cost another $80,000 to sustain the site. Having already invested $80,000 in the first 12 months, we did not believe the kingdom return on our investment was sufficient to justify continuing the effort for another year. It boiled down to one question: Where could $80,000 be leveraged for the greatest kingdom impact? Our leadership felt investing it at our main campus would translate into reaching considerably more lives for Christ.
One additional factor elevated the cost of our multisite. We had been told that once a new campus was launched it would not require a full-time paid pastor to sustain it. After launching our new campus, therefore, we assumed the campus pastor would soon begin to shoulder significant ministry responsibilities as a staff member at our main campus. This, of course, would reduce the cost of sustaining the campus because the campus pastor would also provide strategic ministry value at the main campus. Unfortunately, in our case this did not happen.
It did not produce the results we expected
Our vision for the new campus was to reach the North Valleys area more effectively for Christ. We had a core of about 70 people from the North Valleys who drove 20 minutes to attend Summit every week. Our goal was to increase our impact by “taking Summit’s ministry to the valley” rather than expecting people in the North Valleys to come to us. I believe our vision was godly. I believe our motivations were biblical.
But the new campus did not produce the results we expected. Our campus failed to reach new North Valleys residents for Christ. Despite copious prayer, sizable investments to provide first-class port-a-church infrastructure, and extensive marketing, the new campus never developed a significant following among new North Valleys residents.
What it did produce was a more convenient worship location for those who previously had driven to our main campus. But this was never our vision. Our purpose was to reach new North Valley residents, and, for the most part, we did not accomplish this.
The “die on the hill” factor was not evident
I helped plant several churches as a missionary in South America. We planted Summit in 1999 and, since then, we helped plant two independent daughter churches. In every church plant I’ve been associated with there has been a “die on the hill” sense of passion. The leaders of the new church know that unless they are willing to “die on the hill” to plant the church, it will not succeed. This desperate sense of urgency among the leaders elicits an extraordinary level of sacrifice among those who buy into the vision for the new church. People are overwhelmed with a sense of divinely inspired mission.
After observing our North Valleys campus for several months, I realized this passion to “die on the hill” was not present. Our second campus relied on “the mother campus” in ways an independent church plant never has the luxury of doing. This undermined the site’s effectiveness most noticeably in the area of finances.
When we planted Summit, we had two years until our external support ended. We had two years to get the church financially self-sufficient. Since I like to eat, this was highly motivating! But this kind of desperate urgency was never evident at our second campus.
Of all the challenges facing the multisite model, this is of greatest concern. I was not able to uncover a solution, so we decided to cut our losses and close the campus. For the time being, we plan to return to church extension by means of traditional church-planting models.
Nothing I have written is meant to disparage multisite church extension. I enthusiastically support all means to advance the kingdom of God! However, I wish I would have known “the fine print of multisite ministry” before we tried it. Knowing “the fine print” would have allowed us to move ahead with greater wisdom and effectiveness.
Steve Bond is pastor with Summit Christian Church, Sparks, Nevada.