By Kent E. Fillinger
Multisites are being created and church mergers are happening everywhere. Are they a certain path to church growth? Can they help a church evangelize better than it could from a single campus? What must a church do to successfully launch a second site?
Multisites now outnumber megachurches, and the number of multisite churches is growing faster than the number of megachurches, according to a Leadership Network survey.1 One factor driving the increase is church mergers. The same Leadership Network survey found that one in three multisite campuses is the result of a church merger.
One notable merger occurred last April in the Phoenix, Arizona, area, when emerging megachurch Parkway Christian Church merged with megachurch Christ’s Church of the Valley. CCV senior pastor Don Wilson said, “Church mergers may be the catalyst to launch the next revival in the American church.”2
The number of multisite churches in this survey has grown steadily over the last several years. Overall, 49 churches (21 percent) in this survey used a multisite model in 2011, which is an increase of three churches. Multisites are most prevalent among the megachurches (44 percent), while all of the medium-size churches surveyed were monosites. These 49 churches consist of 138 campuses, and 21 new sites were added last year. Just over half of the multisite churches have added at least one site through a merger.
The growth rate of multisite megachurches and monosite megachurches was the same last year, while large multisite churches grew at twice the rate as large monosite churches. Multisite churches had a better baptism ratio in each of the church size categories last year. Among the churches surveyed, 10 indicated plans to launch a multisite sometime this year.
To gain an inside look at the multisite and merger process, I interviewed four senior ministers about their experiences: Brett Kays, Southpoint Community Christian Church (Trenton, Michigan); Greg Lee, Suncrest Christian Church (St. John, Indiana); Greg Pittman, Cedar Ridge Christian Church (Broken Arrow, Oklahoma); and Brian Walton, Calvary Christian Church (Winchester, Kentucky).
What is the connection between your approach to multisites and your strategy for church growth?
Kays: We want to take the church to where people are, and we knew we couldn’t reach our region by just having one location.
Lee: Being multisite helps us to expand our geographic reach, to be more embedded community by community. The multisite approach allows us to express the gospel message and to put resources to better use.
Walton: We are quickly running out of space at the main campus. We intend to continue to address this issue, but view multisite as a means to continue to grow and impact the kingdom.
Pittman: We had been stagnant in our growth for a couple of years. We were investigating multisite as a growth engine for our church as well as a way to help some struggling area churches that ultimately were going to close their doors. Half of the attendees at our first multisite campus were not attending any church three years ago. Multisite has helped us to refocus on evangelism.
Describe the overall impact of being a multisite church on you as the senior minister, on your staff, and on your church.
Kays: It’s been a stretch for us. It has spread our human and financial resources thinner, without the kind of attendance growth impact we had hoped for.
Walton: It forced us to implement an equipping model of ministry. We have to be reproducing leaders at all levels.
Pittman: Launching a campus is a lot of work for church leaders. It has caused us to be more strategic. For an established church, it has certainly provided additional opportunities for people to step up and volunteer or lead, where they might not have seen the need before. There has been a renewed sense of purpose and mission because of it.
Lee: It has forced me to increase my trust of staff leaders. I have also had to recast the vision for our church more frequently. The impact for our staff has been substantially higher complexity and a much higher emphasis on developing and reproducing leaders. It has rallied our church for a mission-driven goal, and required new depths of sacrifice.
What must transfer from campus to campus, and what level of autonomy is acceptable in a new location?
Walton: We implement something called a “vision frame,” adapted from Church Unique. The four sides of the frame are the nonnegotiables: mission, strategy statement (to fulfill the mission), marks of maturity (traits we hope to reproduce in Christians), and organizational values. If these four sides are in place, then what develops inside the frame will be a contextually appropriate picture of the future.
Pittman: There has to be some DNA transfer. We are specific about vision, values, discipleship process, etc., while at the same time leaving plenty of room for a campus to have its own identity, and relate to the culture and needs of the surrounding community.
How was the church merger process similar and/or different from adding a multisite location?
Pittman: Both of our campus additions have been acquisition-type mergers, mainly because they were opportunities that fell in our lap. We have found that there is tremendous financial savings in already having the facility issue resolved.
Lee: There was a church that had closed its doors that correlated with one of our campus launches. It was small and did not own a facility, but it did have financial resources of about $100,000 that it gave to help start the campus. We did not “merge.”
Compare the length of time it takes to work through the merger process compared with launching a new multisite.
Pittman: We are deliberately slow in our acquisition/merger of campuses to ensure all parties are fully aware of the decisions and implications. We have required that churches we are partnering with close the doors for a minimum of several months to allow for a distinct “new start-up” feel. The process for us has taken 12 to 24 months.
For a church that is considering a multisite or a merger, what considerations and cautions would you share?
Kays: It may not result in the kind of growth you’re hoping for, and may dilute the leadership and resources of your single congregation if you don’t build enough momentum and multiply leaders.
Pittman: Get as much counsel and coaching as possible. What I love about multisite is that a church of any size can do it. A church considering it does need to be reasonably healthy and have unified leadership.
Lee: First, don’t go it alone! Ask for help. Second, know who you are . . . really. You won’t be able to multiply effectively until you know what you are multiplying (and what you aren’t). Third, stay away if you can’t handle “messy.” Fourth, only do it out of mission. Multisite is one of the trends right now, but don’t do it as your “next idea.” There must be a conviction that multisite will be a difference maker for your mission in order to work through all the complexities and challenges. Fifth, go for it.
1Warren Bird and Kristin Walters, “Multisite is Multiplying: Survey Identifies Leading Practices and Confirms New Developments in the Movement’s Expansion,” Leadership Network, 2010, 2
2Jennifer Taylor, “Large, Healthy Churches Merge in Phoenix Area,” https://christianstandard.com/2011/06/large-healthy-churches-merge-in-phoenix-area/.
Kent E. Fillinger is president of 3:STRANDS Consulting, Indianapolis, Indiana, and associate director of projects and partnerships with CMF International.