Why Go Multi-Site?

June 11th, 2012

When we started TurningPoint Church, we had a clear vision for what we wanted our church to be. One of the things that drove how we would structure the church centered around the idea that we had to grow. Our city is lost and hurting and with 200,000 people without a church home, we couldn’t sit around feeling all that encouraged about a weekend of 250-300 people. We were moving into a new city to start a church to reach as many people as possible.

One of the tools that we had in our belt was our understanding of how to add multiple campuses to an already growing and healthy body. I believe that lost people matter to God and so they have to matter to us. We were going to be a church from day one that gave God honor for the people that he brought us, but also worked tenaciously to reach the people we hadn’t met yet. This type of drive to reach lost people has meant that we would need to look at new tools to reach our community. Adding people every week to our church won’t ever be enough to reach the lost in our community, so we have had to begin thinking through ways to multiply our efforts across our city. While it is no silver bullet, one of the most exciting tools in the Christian tool belt is this thing known as multi-site: one church, under one organization, under one group of leaders, planting several locations across a city, state or country.

Behind the Multi-Site Model

To understand multi-site if you come from a context where that has not been your experience, you would have to understand what drove it to begin with. Years ago churches that had filled up their auditoriums with as many services as you could have in a weekend needed a release valve. They needed a way to create some space so that new people could come in to the church. We are talking about megachurches that even before they went to an additional location they were already numbering in the thousands. For years multi-site became the answer that won in a lot of instances over building new and bigger auditoriums that would eventually place them back in the same problem.

(Watch a video of multi-site pioneer Greg Surratt talking about this problem and solution at Seacoast Church.)

Over the last decade multi-site has exploded as an idea and the reasons behind it have changed. A concept that only existed in churches of thousands that had maxed out their seating capacity now exists in one year old churches of 200 that raise up another group of people in another city to start an extension of what God is already doing in the young church plant. Multiple campuses have shifted from being a reactive response by a church to fix space problems to a proactive tool for growing the Kingdom and sharing the Gospel.

So it raises the question: if we are called to reach our city, and growth by addition isn’t going to answer the problem, why not try growth by multiplication?

The number one method for reaching the unchurched people in a city is church planting. In healthy multi-site models, a new campus functions in the same way as a church in that city and has the same impact.

The aversion by some denominations and their leaders to multi-site as a method has been confusing at times. Denominations that have colleges and seminaries to reproduce men and women with their same DNA, methodology, ministry philosophy, and theology, somehow seem to have a problem with churches that reproduce men and women with their same DNA, methodology, ministry philosophy, and theology. Cutting away all of the fog we find people that don’t have an aversion to multi-site because of a biblical stance, but more from the all too dangerous school of We have never done it that way before.

Should You Consider Multi-site?

While this is in no way an exhaustive list, here are a few questions to ask yourself:

Is your church healthy? Healthy living things grow. We see this truth in nature, in organizations, and in people. So if your church is healthy, the byproduct of that is growth. If your church isn’t experiencing growth (numerically and spiritually) you probably shouldn’t consider another location, but first examine the health of your church as it is.

How have you done in the area of raising up leaders? In any organization you can either structure for growth or for control, but you can’t structure for both. Are you raising up and releasing leaders who can execute vision and share DNA, or do all roads lead through you? If you aren’t reproducing leaders, then multi-site is not a good choice. If you haven’t released people in your church to make decisions and lead well without your micromanagement, the bottleneck you have created will become even more frustrating as you add other locations.

Are you considering another location because you want to grow your church or because you want to grow the Kingdom? I have seen pastors take hold of this multi-site model and use it as a tool to end up on some fastest growing list. Locations have to be added because you want to see Jesus made famous, not you.

Critics of the multi-site model would do well to remember this as well. Some pastors feel territorial when another church is adding a campus in their area, and might see the initiative as a message that they aren't being effective. No church, regardless of whether it is growing exponentially or dying just as fast, has the ability to reach 100% of the community. Since Christ offered up his life for 100% of the community, we might need to be open to the idea that we need help in reaching them. Some territorial church leaders and members behave as if since they were here first, then they have some kind of rights to a community that they might not even be equipped to reach. 

Should You Plant a Campus or Plant a Church?

Planting a campus is not always the best option. Sometimes, depending on the leader of the plant, it makes the most sense to send out a church planter instead of a campus pastor. The gift mix required to be successful in a new plant v. a campus of an existing church are similar but not identical. Campus pastors need to be able to cast vision for the church, but they don't need to have one. As a campus pastor their role is to be the tangible expression of the vision of the church. A church planter's role is to create that vision. Casting vision and cultivating vision aren't the same things. While they are similar they aren't identical and you would be well advised to do some DISC or Spiritual Gift Assessments to really find out each leader's strengths.

Beyond leadership, this question comes down to stewardship. The total cost involved in starting a new campus is in most cases 15-25% of what it would cost to start and build a church from scratch. I think that for too long the American church has dumped a disproportionate amount of resources into building monuments and not to reaching people.

Admittedly, equipment costs for a new campus v. a new plant are very similar, though they can be much less in a campus plant if the planting church has been around for a while and accumulated some equipment. You really start seeing some cost separation, however, when it comes to administrative costs. A new campus saves the cost of creating a good website, logo and graphic design, advertising and marketing. And you can save $30-50 thousand in salary if the person you are sending out as a pastor for this new campus is already with you (which is the only way you should ever do it. Bringing someone in from the outside is so difficult because it is two years before they even know who you are as an organization.) It isn't an additional expense because you were already paying them.

In addition, because campuses are able to hit critical mass (a healthy number of members) from the very beginning with a launch team from the existing church, it actually costs considerably less to start and maintain the church. So the overall cost difference is pretty huge. 

At the end of the day we can safely say that multi-site is working, but it is certainly not the only answer. I hope that pastors and planters will begin to lead with this option in mind, however. Ultimately, the goal isn’t for the American church to return to where it once was. We need it to be much better than that. If you want things to be better than they have ever been you might have to start doing things that you have never done.

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