Why We Decided to Plant Churches Instead of Create Multisites

By Jim Putman

Our facilities were jammed. Our leaders were overextended. Our growth was stymied. We had three choices: Build larger. Create multisites. Or plant new churches. This is why we chose the third option.

Jim Putman
Jim Putman

Eight years ago the church I lead, Real Life Ministries, was averaging 8,500 people in five weekend services. We were far past the 80 percent rule in our main services (i.e., our auditorium was beyond 80 percent full; we wouldn’t grow any larger in those services). And the times of the other services were not convenient enough to be attractive to newcomers. Our staff and volunteers were getting tired, so adding additional services was not an option.

We considered building again, but we were concerned about increasing our debt in a struggling economy.

We also began to consider, how big is big enough, in one place? Many of our people were traveling a long distance to attend our services, and our values told us maybe we should start something where they lived so they could reach their community, rather than unnecessarily traveling to ours.

Another factor was most residents of sparsely populated North Idaho come here to get away from people, so their limits were being pushed with our seating and parking problems.

We were at a crossroads: go ahead and build in spite of our issues, or decentralize through new churches or new locations. It was more than just a decision about space and debt, though.

Other Factors

We were also coming to conclude it was hard to live out what we believe a church should be with the kind of numbers we were drawing. As we grew, the gift of organizational leadership and administration was needed in ways we could not have foreseen. The problem was, the number of guys who could organize a small city was limited, and my team (including myself) did not have the gifts required to do it well. Relational balls were being dropped, and values were being lost in the chaos.

As the ministry became more complex, we began to drop the ball in areas I felt God had clearly called us not to let go of. We were becoming what I hated about large churches: personality-driven machines that usually focus too much on ministry done only in large groups instead of in relationship.

In my estimation, this was not only dangerous for me, but for our people. Left unchecked, our people would become less mature, damaging how they see Jesus. I believe organized, intentional relationship is required in a church if spiritual maturity is to grow in those who have been saved. I also believe in reproducibility and multiplication at every level, so when only a few gifted people can make a ministry happen, the situation is counterproductive. In fact, it moves us away from Jesus’ plan that enables ordinary unschooled individuals to accomplish his mission.

Because of all this, we weren’t eager to build a bigger building that would attract even more people to one location and cause an even higher level of complexity.

Plants Instead of Campuses

With God’s help, I believe, we chose to move toward plants instead of campuses. Let me explain why. If I understand the concept of a campus correctly, it means one church is setting up an offsite location as a worship and ministry hub. However, the new hub is still under the control of the leadership at the “mother” campus. The mother church also continues to provide the preaching via video venue, or in a few cases, through a teaching team.

I think this solution is viable in some cases (we have a campus that fits our values), but I think it can be dangerous, unproductive, and unsustainable in others, for several reasons.

Relationship

I believe relationship is the major missing ingredient in the discipleship process for the church in America. Relationship, as a source of encouragement and stability, is also missing for many leaders and Christians in their day-to-day life. Rather than being the church, people have settled for going to one.

A video or a traveling preaching team does not promote ongoing relationship. Admittedly, the preaching pastor cannot be the only, or even primary, relationship link within the church, but to promote no relationship with the one who teaches is going too far.

In other words, it is possible for the pastor/teacher to create an environment of relationship by the way he greets and hugs people as they come into the weekend services. He promotes relationship by praying with people, listening to people, and laughing with them. Obviously he cannot be the main relationship for very many, but he can help create an environment of relationship during the times he sees people.

I believe when we rely on a video or a team that constantly travels in and out, we move further away from promoting what people need most: relationship with God and one another. In my opinion, anything that pushes relationship further from the church is to be avoided.

Personality

I believe the video venue creates too much dependence on a personality. In fact I believe churches in general can become too dependent on an all-star teacher and his personality. Not only does this leave the preacher vulnerable to pride, it also leaves the church susceptible to collapse if something happens to the primary preacher/personality. When this happens—and it does—it is hard to watch.

Most campuses built around the personality at the main campus do have staff capable of managing the campuses’ functions the rest of the week, but they typically (not always) lack the gifts of leadership and preaching, so the campus is often unsustainable if a crisis occurs.

Discipleship

The video venue steals from someone else’s ability to develop and use the preaching and teaching gifts God has given them. Pastors are not supposed to be entertainers who gather a crowd of adoring fans, but rather they are to be people who equip others to use their gifts. We can find preachers or would-be preachers gifted enough to learn to speak effectively if they are coached and allowed to develop. When you teach them to love well and help them create systems where people are in intentional relational environments for spiritual growth, the church grows in depth and width.

This relates to our whole philosophy of ministry. We believe every Christian leader (paid or unpaid) ought to grow into one who is identifying, recruiting, developing, and releasing someone who has been trained to do what they do. This is called disciple making. It seems hypocritical to me to have everyone living this out except me as the senior pastor. Abandoning the video venue gives me the chance to mentor, nurture, and develop others to preach and lead.

Eldership

I also believe churches ought to be developing future elders (plural) in every town. More often than not, churches driven by the campus approach tend to lean toward a denominational style of leadership. The “mother” church leads with its elders, so new possible elders are not considered at the campus.

When churches do try to create elders at their various campuses to become a part of the overall eldership team, they also create a whole new complexity to deal with. How do we get the elders together to make decisions, let alone to be in relationship with one another, when they live miles apart? Leaders at the mother church cannot understand the specific culture of the campus, so they are unable to help in a timely manner. The main campus takes so much time to lead that the new campus often gets only the leftovers. Without relationship, there is no trust, and an “us and them” culture is created.

Stability

In the video venue approach, if the main church has issues, it eventually affects the campus. If the campus were actually a church plant that had a solid elder/staff leadership team loved and respected by the people they serve, then no matter what happened to the mother church, there would be stability and even reproducibility.

When all of these things are put together, it becomes clear to me that church planting is preferable to campuses in most situations.

The Results

As I reflect on the decision we made years ago, I am so glad God led us to the path we took. Since then we have planted six churches near us that reach another 5,000-plus in weekly attendance. Each church has developed the same mission to make disciples, and though they vary in some ways, they are all moving people into intentional, relational environments so that disciples are being made. People are being baptized and discipled into maturity. New leaders are being developed and sent.

Our attendance has dropped by several thousand per weekend at Post Falls, which has allowed us to go deeper with the people we have, and our church has become less complicated.

These fellow leaders of the new churches are my friends and co-laborers, and we even work together to develop new leaders and plant new churches. Most of us still meet monthly to encourage one another, and they inspire and teach me as well. These men have their own elderships and are reaching their unique communities in amazing ways.

God has taught us that multiplication of leaders leads to a movement.

Jim Putman serves as senior pastor with Real Life Ministries in Post Falls, Idaho.

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We asked three church leaders to respond this article. Read what Brent Storms of The Orchard Group, Philip Claycomb of Nexus: church planting leadership, and Jon Ferguson of Community Christian Church, Naperville, IL, have to say in response . . . click here.

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4 Comments

  1. Matt Shears
    June 15, 2015 at 11:36 am

    Great article! I appreciate the level of critical thought given to this decision. I agree with your concerns about multi-site campuses. One of my greatest concerns is a loss of the relational aspect of preaching. In a society of ever increasing screens (cell phones, televisions, computers), I fear that sermons can become just another avenue of “screen time” for Americans–which promotes consumeristic mentalities about faith. And this is a Millennial saying that! Preaching should be an intensely relational means of communication; it certainly was for Christ. That can’t be accomplished via another screen in our lives.

  2. June 15, 2015 at 3:58 pm

    Wise, carefully-crafted, Biblical words. Thank you very much.
    Francis Chan left (on very good terms) a church he built in CA because he was frustrated that, after years of explosive growth, they couldn’t get much above 4000. Now he’s starting again “from scratch” in SF, & he’s planting like crazy…& God is growing the work like crazy.
    The only texts in Scripture that come to my mind as I ponder this issue is when the Church in Jerusalem grew to several thousand, But They Refused To Reach Out To The Gentiles until God allowed persecution to scatter them.
    In a world where thousands of people-groups have not one healthy church within them, we need to do a lot more church-planting & perhaps a lot less church-city-building.

  3. June 17, 2015 at 5:21 pm

    Thanks Jim, could not agree more. While I wholeheartedly agree that people are getting connected to Christ in the campus strategy, which is a GREAT thing, I believe that ultimately planting with the right spiritual DNA can be much more productive. It may be that campuses actually put a lid on exponential possibilities as the outreach and vision can only go as far as the control of the central leadership. But on the other hand, in simple church planting, when a mother church recognizes the calling of leaders, trains them, empowers them, blesses them, and releases them, then there is no end to the expansion.

  4. June 29, 2015 at 9:25 pm

    Amazing article. As a church planter, I give three cheers for the raising of the value of church planting. I affirm multisites as God leads a church.

    We have considered multisiting, and have come to similar conclusions (for us as a church) to continue to point our energies and resources toward “independent” planting. Another reason is that the planter from our midst may sense a calling beyond our immediate area.

    Our associate pastor sensed such a calling to the Seattle area far from us. Had our strategy been exclusively in our immediate area, we may have been reticent or he may have felt hesitant to ask for our blessing and support — that would not be in our DNA to do.

    This is a well articulated article and a much needed addition to the strategic discussion we as churches need to have as we pursue expanding the kingdom.

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