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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.