As the American church struggles to maintain its place in contemporary society, some observers point with optimism to the rise of the multi-site church.
“It’s one very encouraging bright spot,” they say. “This is what will save the church in America.”
I’m not so sure.
Borrowing from the American business franchise model, the multi-site concept begins with an ambitious pastor who attracts a weekly crowd in one location. Then he (almost always a guy) starts new locations, copying the essence of the first location. McChurch.
Though each congregation may have its own unique members, demographics, pastoral staff, musicians, and architectural feel, there’s one thing this franchise model insists must be uniform across the system. The guy.
Each location may be free to handle its own greetings, music, sacraments, announcements, and so on. But when it comes to the sermon time, that’s reserved for only one individual–the guy. Since he can’t physically run around to all the locations simultaneously, he uses technology to beam his image and personality to high-definition screens all over the territory.
Currently, the model seems to be working in many places. People are gathering in various locations, worshiping with friends, and watching the televised image of a guy they’ll never meet.
The model is so attractive that I often now hear young church planters include ambitious multi-site plans in their strategy–before they ever enlist their first member in their first church.
So is this the organizational iteration that will save the church? In 20 years will we all be sitting in large halls watching one of a handful of famous guys deliver a televised speech, beamed from the headquarters somewhere behind the curtain?
SCALABILITY AND SUSTAINABILITY
Since we’re looking at the franchise model, experts note that a growing organization needs a couple of key things: scalability and sustainability. The multi-site church strategy arose out of a perceived need and desire to expand–to be scalable. Initially, growing churches attempted to be scalable by adding worship service times, and then by building ever-larger auditoriums. Ultimately, those strategies could not provide endless scalability. Thus, multiple sites. That part of the equation makes sense. It’s the same strategy that denominations used successfully to grow their overall membership.
But it’s the other thing–sustainability–that poses some eventual problems for the church multi-site model. It’s because the model relies on an unsustainable product–the guy.
The televised guy is unsustainable for several reasons. Firstly, the public has already demonstrated its unsustained interest in the medium itself–a perpetual diet of 30 minutes of televised talking head. That static format (long-form televised lecture) has not been sustainable in entertainment, news, or business. It also lost its luster the last time it was tried in the religious realm–with the televangelists.
Multi-site church strategies starring the guy on the screen are simply another variant of televangelism. With all of the attached unsustainable encumberances. What happens when the guy dies? Or decides to move away? Or changes careers? Or relinquishes his faith? He–and thus his personality-driven network of multi-sites–is not sustainable.
And the multi-site pastor shares another, more unseemly, danger with the old televangelists–pride. As adoring flocks grow, those in the spotlight often become more removed, isolated, protected, unaccountable, and susceptible to temptation. The multi-site guy may become convinced that the most compelling factor that has attracted the crowds across the locations is the face of the franchise–his. Pride and fame do not mix well with sustainable ministry.
Preacher fame and ubiquity can also be toxic to those who view the guy on the big screen. They can become star-struck and attach more adulation to the guy on the screen than the Guy in the Book.
Fame corrodes even the most well-intentioned. Some have said, “Well, that’s not going to happen to me. I know how to keep myself in check.” But even that statement is evidence of a certain hubris.
The dangers of ministerial pride are not new. The disciples argued about who was the greatest among them. Jesus cautioned them about their pride: “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” That doesn’t sound much like aspiring to be the screen star of a chain of churches.
So, will the multi-site model overcome these pitfalls and become the new norm for the long haul?
DO WHAT WORKS
The basic thinking behind the model has promise: Find what works and duplicate it in many locations. And, it’s wise to be good stewards of creative development. It does make sense to develop message content centrally and distribute it widely. But not through a guy’s televised lectures.
Instead, tell stories and move people through wise use of media. For example, a friend recently predicted that in the coming years we’ll see big-budget half-hour movies produced for weekly distribution through churches. These compelling productions could replace the televised or live lecture-style sermon.
This type of multi-church expansion will require different kinds of leaders–those whose genuine humility doesn’t crave the spotlight. Instead, these leaders will be relational architects, artfully bringing people together, encouraging relationships, and planting people for service in the Kingdom.
That kind of multi-site strategy might intrigue me.
(Like to imagine the future of the church? Join me and a bunch of insightful thinkers at the Future of the Church summit event in Colorado in October. More details here.)
Can I just say I love this blog? Thanks for this post–I’ve got a friend who is attempting this sort of thing and it makes me uncomfortable for exactly all the reasons you cite. I’m just not sure how to tell him . . .
Doug commented: “I’ve noticed locally that when “the guy” is not here, the substitutes are inept. I sense that someone is not comfortable with strong folks working under him.
On a positive note, there is a growing network of churches here with the model of starting another church when they reach 150 regular attendees. They simply find a place to meet where where most of the people where drawing from, and the asst pastor heads up the new work.”
You positive note sounds just like Sunday school growth: train up a talented substitute, grow to a certain size, then move on and start a new class with some missionaries! Sounds good!
Don’t you feel that if the local church was doing its job, then the “multi-site church” wouldn’t be necessary?
As a one time pastor in a 7 point parish, I can say that the video link connection is not the answer. My parishioners, all in North Central Montana, wanted face to face, personal contact with “the guy.” The parish ultimately broke apart because each individual congregation wanted a bigger piece of “the guy.”
Logistically speaking, there were two other pastors, and a certified lay pastoral associate, covering the parish, in order to assure that everyone except the nursing home and assisted living facility got a Sunday morning service.
I, too, am a but intrigued by the 30 minute vignette type video, but not as a replacement for “the guy.” As you pointed out, they don’t want a talking head. It’s all about relationship.
Well, at the church we have been attending, and tithing to, “the pastor” is as unattainable as “the guy”. You click on the pastor’s name (from the church website) to email him, and it takes you to a yahoo login, and I don’t have yahoo. You can’t find his actual email anywhere on the site. You call the church phone number, and you get a voice mail that says, “This is Barbara, please leave a message.” We have a pastor, an executive pastor, 3 secretaries, administrative pastors and assistants to the pastors, and others on the payroll…yet I can’t get anyone to answer the phone. I, for one, think there are too many people on the church payroll.
In software development, we have “software patterns” or simply common solutions to common problems. You use software patterns to quickly come up with good design that after being tweaked meets most of your needs. Patterns apply to business as well, and you have started describing a ‘pattern’ in churches for sure I think.
The other side of the equation though in software is what we call and ‘anti-pattern’. It is a common practice that is full of trouble in some way that in not obvious on the surface. I though of all this, as I think you have mixed the two here and may have a good anti-pattern within the useful pattern of multi-site churches. I have worked and attended occasionally for years a multi-site church that is massively successful. Ironically enough, I don’t like the “now let’s go to the screen for the core content” side of it all, but I understand it. It filters out the need for every site to have a pastor that comes up with magic each week. But that is just it, they stay away from “the guy” anti-pattern. They started with two guys, and seem to have a strong emphasis on making a team and rotating who is leading each series.
So to that end, I am humbly suggesting that any church, from small to mega church is unsustainable when the church foundation is built on a single personality. Our regular church for a long time faltered when the pastor of 35 years left. But then it forced the congregation to start forming its own culture around the people, and by then it was a couple score at best.
As to the multi-site, I doubt the service paradigm itself is the motivation. The patterns they may be looking for is to have the relationships and local chances to be on the worship team, and youth group and what not, while leveraging the shared resources to do bigger things. I know the local church is highly focused on small groups as well. I am betting these micro-patterns (if you will) are more vital and portable and work as well in any ‘larger model’.. as you have mentioned in many other blog posts!
Love these and look forward to more!
Thom, I love your blog so very much. Thank you for your great writing and communication, and your commitment to advocating for creative, sustainable approaches to church which are appropriate to this time and culture. I look forward to the future of the church, because I’m quite sure it’s going to be diverse and colourful, and adopt many of the ideas you suggest in these posts.
Blessings to you and your family,
Another related problem with this model is that a huge number of people are robbed of the opportunity to use their spiritual gifts–only “the guy” gets to teach. I also see this in women’s Bible studies where there are only about 4 women in the whole world who are “approved” to teach Bible study via their DVDs. When churches only choose to watch the woman on the DVD they don’t allow any women in their own churches to use their spiritual gifts related to teaching. Those lucky women who have the gift of hospitality get to serve as much as they want while others are shut out.
I disagree with your comments. I do believe that humility is central to any type of ministry. Churches cannot become what God intended when a pastor puts himself in front of God. But you are lumping a large number of highly successful incredibly humble pastors in the pool with the boastful few. And you are negatively portraying a large powerful movement for the church. I won’t name our church to avoid detrimental comments, but we are members of a large multisite church. We are also undergoing a new growth campaign to implement 7 new campuses in addition to the 5 we had. We are 4 campuses in and going strong. In fact, our most recent opening garnered 1,400 people (not including members from our other campuses, all attendance in our campuses and surrounding churches were above average that week). That’s 1,400 people who most likely had no church or no care for Jesus that came and heard the message of Christ because of this expansion. It is not promoting the face on screen, but leveraging technology and going where the church physically cannot go. Multisite church paradigms are church planting strategies with the backing and organization of a thriving church. To criticize this movement is short-sightedness. Jesus said to go and make disciples. This is what multisite churches are doing. They are going where the people are, and setting up new churches to be successful and sustained.
Bwashy, thanks for your comment. It sounds like your expanding ministry is touching a lot of people. As I stated in the post, the multi-site model seems to be working in a lot of places. Also as I stated, the basic model has merits. My questions have to do with the long-term sustainability of the part of the model that is riveted exclusively to one personality, using a televised lecture format.
Absolutely. Our church has been going around 20 years and has continually grown. We’ve only just became a part of the work here in the last 2 years, but it’s obvious the impact Jesus is allowing. The sustainability comes from acknowledging all the success comes from God, and being open to that growth. Maintaining that mindset is the only way to prosper. And the floating head really isn’t as awkward as many think. After a week or two you don’t even really notice because there are so many other staff and volunteers creating the environment.
I can appreciate the pessimism and skepticism for long term. But it’s all the more reason to trust that God will make his purposes happen. Enjoyed the discussion
I believe multi-site can work and is working more often than not. Christians often like to be down on ourselves and expect the worst – it’s part of our theology on sin so I understand that. But most Christian ministers are genuinely trying to reach their community. I think the article woudl have been better suited on how to protect yourself if going multi-site than discouraging it. Much love!
Thanks, Justin, for your comment. I certainly agree that most–practically all–ministers wish to reach their communities. And I agree the multi-site model can work. I’m simply asking if it can work better–for the long run–if we’d consider letting go of the requirement that it must headline one particular guy lecturing on a screen.
I have no issue with those folks that like smaller, 150 person churches. I attend one myself.
But what makes you think they are less dependent on “the guy?” as you say. And I am all for church planting movements.But you describe the multisite movement as a video driven movement. It’s not.
Based on our research at Leadership Network, only 20% of the multisite churches in America use almost all video for teaching. For 46% of the churches almost always use a live teaching, with the balance of them having some combination.
And the research shows that multisite churches have higher rates of volunteers, participation and baptisms. Almost 80% report increased lay leadership development.
And as an added bonus, multisite churches tend to plant more churches as well. One in four have a service in another language, again, much higher than single site churches.
Your statements above tend to equate multisite with large ego. But ego driven pastors are present at all size levels, multisite or not.
You can read the research for yourself over at leadnet.org
Multisite is not for every church or every person. But lumping all the multisite churches (probably close to 5000 in North America) as prideful televangelists…..give me a break.
Thanks, Dave, for your thoughts. Yes, my observations about video-driven multi-site venues apply just to video-driven multi-site venues. In this post I’m not referring to those congregations that launch “daughter” congregations with their own live preachers, which has been practiced–with good results–for a very long time.
Hey my brother! Isn’t this question of sustainability the same regardless if its a single site or multi site if the focus is too much on the man in front and not on our awesome God? I believe we are living in a time we worship celebrity, and need to be on our guard against that in the church, regardless of size.
Thanks, Dave. You make a very valid point.
Church as business – blech. Church as televised event – why don’t I stay home and watch it at my convenience? At least there I can listen without the shrill cry of the baby interrupting what “the guy” is saying that I might need to hear, and have a drink along with my popcorn before the big game that I’m sure “the guy” will want to watch as well…”The guy” has a Praetorian guard around him, does not take correction, whether it is something as simple as a typo or a mis-statement (calling a state a city speaks to nervousness – once – but when the error is pointed out and the person offering the correction is told “If you’re not from there, what does it matter to you?”)
OK, rant mode off. It may work in some areas, with some folks. It leaves me cold. I serve at one of those type of churches, and at another, smaller (800 or so souls). Guess which one I’ll be staying with?
Why don’t we just take this to the end. The pastor just records himself on his home pc and posts it on a church web site. Then everyone can watch and listen to the sermon when ever, where ever, get rid of the expensive buildings and having to be at some place at a particular time. If enough of “the guy’s” are out there, you find one you like and listen to them, maybe two or three. Being I don’t go to church, for a while, I was listening to MP3 sermons from 3 different churches at work, one a former pastor who was pastoring in another state. Sunday mornings, I regularly listen to Charles Stanley because he seems to really understand everything revolving around a relationship with God, which is all I have for the time being. It’s interesting because he backs up everything I’ve learned with God alone, that God has taught me through His word. As far as the multi-sight thing. I really see it as a fad that people will tire of in a short time.
I know that what I say is not going to be accepted by many because my ministry is prophetic, but you get used to that and it does not deter one from saying what is needed.
Jesus said “I will build MY church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.Jesus is not interested in building your church, no matter how relevant it is or faddish. The fact that the gates of hell are prevailing against much of the church in Western society with its compromise and false doctrine it is obvious it is not HIS church no matter how defensive we get about it.
We have made it OUR church and we are competing with each other to produce the next best thing to try and give our church the respectability and populism we crave and the reason we crave it is the fact that we will not step out of the boat and do things God’s way.
If we do do this it will mean that OUR structures, OUR systems, OUR authority mountains will have to be dismantled and we will have to embrace simplicity… Christ crucified and the Word of God and prayer the centre of everything that we do.
Of course, those most opposed to doing things God’s way are going to be those who stand to lose the most. Those with position, power, popularity and pay.
God will have his way. We can listen to him or he can use the world to bring us in subjection to his will. At the moment he is using the world and all this “new method” will do is invite the pride of life into the church.
Always love your perspective on the church. I agree with your concern for what happens to the multi site church when The Guy gets hit by a bus. Recently heard a stat that there are ONLY 130-140 people groups left in the world who have not heard the Good News of Christ. Wouldn’t it be just like God to go multi site expansive with the best of the best preachers to meet that end time deadline 🙂 and aggressively reach the last generation. QUESTION: I am tired of seeing age 50+ pastors trying to dress like the 20 somethings. And like style of dress, is there another FAD to eliminate church staff over a certain age? I keep bumping into this and it looks like the church is success and demographic driven. I get succession planning but this looks like brutal disposal of those called to teach the younger. Would love your thoughts. God bless you! Susan Park
We have found that a multi-site church is better at developing leaders than a single-location large church. My wife remarked to me the other day, “Have you ever noticed that some of your favorite staff members are the ones you no longer see each Sunday?” They are serving at one of 3 campuses I don’t usually get to on Sunday. These were guys I raised up, trained, and depended on. Now, as campus pastors, they have the opportunity to lead in ways they didn’t when we were all at one place. And, in their wake, new leaders have emerged at the original campus.
Ive been invited and have friends that are very involved in large multi-sited churches nearby. The big “red-flag” that goes off in my spirit and veres me and my husband away is the question of “If the church is as large as it is, with hundreds of members, why is it that they cannot produce multiple head pastors for each of these sites?” If dicipleship is happening and the principle of multiplication as instructed in the bible is being done than this should be happening. If not, the only answer that comes to mind is why the ” the only guy” preaching as head pastor via television is pride. Other people I’ve spoke with have come to the same conclusion. Unfortunately, as all the good these churches are doing for the community its not sending the right message on the grand scheme of things. Why are they holding back potential head pastors from answering the call? Are they
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