Multisite Trends That Will Impact Your Church
Four developments and what they mean for your ministry
One afternoon in 2001, my brother Greg and I were playing our normal poor level of golf while we discussed the weekend crowding problems at Seacoast Church, where he was (and is) the lead pastor, and I was an associate pastor. At that time, Seacoast did five identical weekend services, but we were out of room. Parking was a nightmare, the children were stacked like cordwood, and the main Sunday morning services were standing room only.
We’d tried to build a larger building, but the town council had turned us down. We were stuck and out of ideas.
Somewhere around the ninth hole, one of us had an idea. (Greg says it was his idea; I say it was mine. We’ll sort it out in heaven.) What if we turned the retail space down the street we were renting for classrooms into a small auditorium? We could form an additional worship band and hold simultaneous services. We had heard about a few churches using video teaching in multiple locations. What if we tried it in Charleston, South Carolina? We didn’t think it would work, but we were out of other ideas.
So, on Easter Sunday 2002, we opened the annex (the name was lowercase because we were just that cool). To our surprise, the place was packed. The people connected with the music and the message, even though it was a low-quality video recorded at a service the night before. That fall, we opened a second offsite location 100 miles away.
We thought, If this works here, it might work anywhere. We were stunned when that site filled up as well. We realized that God was up to something big, but we had no idea how big the idea of one church in multiple locations would become.
Within a few years, Seacoast had 12 locations spread across three states, and weekend attendance tripled. As we connected with other multisite churches through Leadership Network (leadnet.org), we began to feel we were at the beginning of a groundswell well beyond what we were seeing in South Carolina.
By the time Greg Ligon, Warren Bird and I wrote The Multi-Site Church Revolution in 2006, our feelings were confirmed as we heard about churches around the world using our book as a template to open multiple locations.
Now, with multisite churches popping up everywhere, the question is no longer, “Is multisite effective?” The question is, “What does multisite mean for my church?” Multiple locations certainly aren’t for every church, but every church needs to consider the implications for its community and congregation.
So, what does multisite mean for your church? To answer that question, let’s look at four developing trends in multisite churches across the country.
From Niche to Mainstream
When Seacoast Church opened its first offsite campus in 2002, multisite was almost unheard of. Although the idea of a church meeting in multiple locations goes back hundreds of years, there were very few examples in America. Many leaders told us that it couldn’t work, that it was a bad idea; some even said it was unbiblical.
Fifteen years later, multisite has become one of the biggest developments in the Western church. According to Leadership Network, there are more than 8,000 churches in America that consider themselves multisite. Over five million people, 9 percent of all Protestants, attend a multisite church every weekend.
It is rare to see a large or fast-growing church in America that isn’t multisite or considering opening additional campuses.
The Assemblies of God has also seen an explosion of churches with more than one location. At the 2009 General Council in Orlando, Florida, the Fellowship adopted a resolution to empower churches to expand their ministries by establishing new local churches, known as Parent Affiliated Churches (PACs). Less than 10 years later, 450,000 people — 22.5 percent of all AG church attenders in America — go either to a parent church or a parent affiliated church every weekend.
Last year, 60 percent of new Assemblies of God churches were PACs. With the advent of PACs, multisite is no longer just a vehicle for a few megachurches. It is an opportunity for almost any church to consider.
From Necessity to Opportunity
Early in the multisite movement, high-profile churches like North Point Community Church near Atlanta opened additional campuses simply to relieve crowding at their primary sites. It became impractical to build a larger auditorium, so they launched new sites in areas where the church already had large pockets of attenders. Each time North Point launched a new site in the Atlanta area, the original location again filled to capacity. This began a cycle of growth and expansion based on necessity.
Soon, however, churches moved from opening sites to relieve crowding to looking for opportunities to fulfill vision. One of the pioneers in pursuing a multisite vision was Mark Batterson, pastor of National Community Church (NCC), an Assemblies of God church located in and around Washington D.C. Several years ago, Batterson shared a vision of opening a campus near major train stations throughout the D.C. area. Today, NCC has eight locations scattered throughout the region, most of them strategically located near Metro stops.
Other churches began to see communities without enough healthy churches as potential locations for additional sites. Church leaders also felt the call to open locations in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods, where a decade earlier churches left for the more affluent suburbs. Rather than simply a strategy for growth, multisite has become an opportunity for evangelism.
Rather than simply a strategy for growth, multisite has become an opportunity for evangelism.
From City to Rural
In the beginning, multisite seemed limited to fast-growing churches located in the suburbs of large cities, but in the past few years, we’ve seen multisite spread out from the suburbs into rural America.
According to the 2016 All Church Ministries Report, more than half of the parent and PAC churches in the Assemblies of God are in medium-size or smaller towns. Church leaders are discovering multisite as an opportunity to reach populations few consider — people living in small towns. One of those leaders is Pastor Cody Cochran.
Several years ago, Cochran was surprised to receive a request from the pastor of Bethel Assembly of God in Anson, Texas (population 2,329): Would he fill in for a couple of weeks while the pastor went to visit his family in San Antonio? Cochran agreed to lead the church of 13 while the pastor was out of town. During those two weeks, the pastor had a stroke, and the local congregation asked Cochran to take over. Seventeen years later, he’s still there.
Little by little, the church began to grow as it focused on authenticity and serving its community. People started driving to Bethel from as far away as 90 miles. Nearly 50 people were making the 45-minute commute from Sweetwater, Texas, every weekend to be a part of the church.
In September 2014, Carter Edmondson, an associate pastor who lived halfway between Anson and Sweetwater, launched Bethel’s first offsite campus in Sweetwater. Six months later, another church donated a $750,000 facility for the new campus. In 2015, Bethel launched its third location in Albany, 45 minutes east of the original site in Anson. Today, more than 800 people, spread across three small West Texas towns, attend Bethel.
“I believe multisite is the greatest hope for rural America,” Cochran says. “We are not graduating many kids out of our colleges who have a desire to pastor in rural America where the economy is horrible, the towns are drying up, the worship team consists of a stand-up piano, and the pay is slim to none. Plus, culture is huge in rural America. If a pastor shows up in Anson, Texas, driving a Prius, drinking a double skinny latte, and wearing a pair of skinny jeans with no socks, he isn’t going to make it long in rural America.
“Many rural towns with a population under 2,000 already have an AG church, but eventually those churches are going to need a pastor. One of our goals at Bethel is to raise up and disciple young men and women who can go into those churches with a mind to progress, but also with a mind to care for the existing sheep.”
From Mega to Micro
While multisite church often seems synonymous with megachurch, the reality is smaller churches are opening additional campuses as well. Churches with as few as 150 attenders have successfully launched new locations, or merged with existing churches.
The key isn’t the size of the church; it’s the health of the congregation. A growing church with an abundance of leaders and a strong budget is a good candidate for multisite, regardless of weekend attendance.
Not only are smaller churches going multisite, but the ideal size of a site is shrinking as well. One of the fastest-growing trends in multisite churches is the move to microsites. Rather than a church building, theater or school, microsites gather in smaller locations, like homes, coffee shops or clubhouses. Often, they view content from the parent church that is either live-streamed or prerecorded.
The leaders in microsites are almost always volunteers, and they focus on connection and discipleship rather than creating a large weekend experience. Typically, a microsite will gather 10 to 50 people for a weekend service. There is little expectation that these sites will ever have a building, multiple ministries or a paid local pastor.
Another development making multisite an option for smaller churches is the inexpensive availability of technology to stream church services live to the internet. If a church has a camera and an internet connection, it can now stream its services online.
Many churches have a dedicated host for their internet “campus” to moderate chat during the service and to provide care for those watching online. Some churches focus primarily on bringing the Sunday service to those who can’t attend a physical campus that weekend because of health or travel, while other churches see the online experience as a valid expression of a local congregation.
What About Your Church?
Multisite is no longer just a niche strategy for rapidly growing suburban megachurches. God is using multiple locations to enable churches of every size and demographic to spread the gospel to their communities and beyond. While multisite certainly isn’t a solution for every church, there are several questions that might be applicable in your situation:
- Would it be more effective and efficient to open an additional location rather than building a new facility?
- Is there a demographic or community without a healthy church where you could start a site?
- Is there an AG church in your area that might benefit from a PAC relationship with your church?
- Is there a healthy AG church you might approach about becoming a parent church to your congregation?
As I stood in that rented storefront on Easter Sunday 2002, I never dreamed that the little experiment we were trying in Charleston, South Carolina, would become part of a template used to reach millions of people around the world.
All I knew was that God was using our difficult circumstances, limited resources, and barely qualified leaders to tell His story in a new way. I wonder how He will use those same elements in your church to revolutionize your world?
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2018 edition of Influence magazine.