By Ed Stetzer
Multisite appears to be the new big thing.
Multisite churches have been regarded as the cure for all of the church’s ills, the most evil plague on the body of Christ, and everything in between. Opinions of multisite churches run rampant, but facts are often ignored in evaluating what has undoubtedly become the new normal for large and growing churches—and even for some small churches.
The number of multisite churches is growing rapidly. In the 1950s, there were just a few. In 2012, there were more than 5,000 different churches with two or more geographic campuses. Sixty-two of the 100 fastest-growing churches in America last year were multisite.
We recognize the names of several multisite ministries, including such Restoration Movement churches as Real Life Ministries in Post Falls, Idaho, which has eight sites and is the 71st-largest church in the country. Shepherd of the Hills in Porter Ranch, California, is growing with five sites, while other churches across the country have seen growth after adding a second site.
The most recent research on multisite churches indicates they defy a large number of the stereotypes with which they are associated. The facts are clear. Multisite churches:
• reach more people than single-site churches
• tend to spread healthy churches to more diverse communities
• have a greater percentage of volunteers in service than single-site churches
• baptize more people than single-site churches
• tend to activate people into ministry more than single-site churches
Because we are more concerned with the spiritual health of a church than the numerical success, we should continue to evaluate multisite churches. Are there problematic issues inherent to multisite? What is the most common methodology today, and is there a new approach that can better address some of the more troubling tendencies?
What Are the Potential Problems?
I am not anti-multisite, though I have occasionally been cast that way. (I have found if you are not breathlessly enthusiastic about this or that innovation, some assume you are against it.) I am only critical of multisite done poorly, which does nothing to confront the problems that can arise. Here are the three biggest challenges I see facing multisite today.
Pastoral responsibility—With a new site, the focus can easily shift to the event instead of the community. Despite the best intentions of the original site and the new campus pastor, pastoral duties assigned by Scripture sometimes can get lost. Without diligence, people can come for the show but never connect to the body.
Christian community—Event-driven multisite churches can encourage, even unintentionally, a come-and-get mentality over a come-and-give ethos. Multisite churches are not alone in this pitfall, but when multiple locations are all considered to be one church, members more likely misunderstand their role in the church body. They are not to be merely part of a gathering, but a united people who work together for the glory of God and the good of their neighbors.
Reproducing teachers—My biggest concern with the multisite paradigm might be this: it is much easier to create another extension site than it is to create another faithful pastor who is a great communicator. Our strategy for fulfilling the Great Commission should include the reproduction of biblical communicators, not just big campuses.
What Is the Present and Future of Multisite?
Even though their leaders don’t want to admit it, most multisite churches have a main campus. In fact, it has become a joke at each one I visit. I ask for the names of the campuses when I preach
there, so I can greet them all by name. The leadership always reminds me, “Don’t say this is the main campus.” But, having a “main campus” is the actual, if unspoken, reality. For many multisite churches, the other campuses essentially serve as overflow rooms.
This may be connected with the inability of some multisite churches to develop new teachers. It is much simpler, they have found, to find a new site, put up a screen, and project the sermon of the established pastor, than to train, encourage, and commission other faithful preachers and leaders.
I’m of a different view. I believe the motivation behind adding sites should not be to spread the “brand” of the church or pastor, or to create an overflow room for a full church (try church planting for that). It should be a Great Commission vision to see the gospel, not just one church, spread.
That is one reason I appreciate churches that do multisite well. They work to counteract these temptations and intentionally birth new leaders, pastors, and church planters.
I think churches like Community Christian Church in Naperville, Illinois, and Seacoast Church near Charleston, South Carolina, have developed great methods that point to a better future for multisite—a future that goes beyond mere creation of an overflow room. Instead of spending $20 million on a new 10,000-seat worship center, those churches have strategically placed campuses, primarily across a single region, to say, “This is the area we are going to church, both through campuses and plants.”
That’s the spirit I heard from David Young, preaching minister with North Boulevard Church of Christ in the Nashville, Tennessee, area. When we visited in my office recently, and he shared about his church’s vision to plant another campus, he kept talking about unchurched people, new leaders, and gospel opportunity. He had a heart for multiplying believers, ministries, and leaders—not just his influence, but Christ’s.
Churches with such a focus often use their venues to train new leaders, establish more campuses, and plant more churches. Those who are gifted in areas outside of preaching can serve as effective campus pastors. Others can grow and develop in that role until they feel called to plant their own church. Multisite churches such as these can harness the benefits of multiple venues, while having built-in correctives to the potential problems of other formats.
This is the kind of multisite church that encourages me. This is what I want to be more common. I want to see regional multisites that are leadership development engines, sending out planter pastors and campus pastors (depending on their gifting and calling) to start churches and sites that reach lost people and develop more such leaders.
Should Your Church Do Multisite?
Instead of seeing additional sites as overflow rooms, the future of multisite can and should move to a missional strategy to evangelize a region, raise up new leaders, engage new contexts, and more. I want to see more sites for churches like the ones I mentioned—but I also want more pastors, planters, and leaders multiplied.
In his book Multi-Site Churches: Guidance for the Movement’s Next Generation, Scott McConnell refers to multiple venues as “a tool to accomplish a mission.” He writes, “Some people will find this tool to be their favorite. Others will prefer not to use it.” He’s right. Not everyone will use that tool, but if you do use it, you need to use it well.
For those who do believe the tool of multiple venues can be useful for fulfilling the Great Commission through their church, my hope is they approach it wisely. The question isn’t just, “Should we do multisite?” Whatever methodology you use, your focus should be on fulfilling the Great Commission.
The goal of every church should be reproduction—of believers, ministries, groups, sites, and churches. This can be accomplished when we do things in such a way that it empowers more active participants and creates fewer passive spectators. That can be multisite—and every other type of church format—done right.
Ed Stetzer is an author, speaker, pastor, church planter, and Christian missiologist. He serves as president of LifeWay Research.