Warren Bird: The joy of multi-sites

Churches large and small are discovering that “going multi-site” -- expanding to more than one location -- is a new way to “take the church to the people,” says researcher Warren Bird.

Over the past 10 years, churches in the United States have seen an explosion of multi-site congregations -- churches that hold services in more than one location. With more than 3,000 such churches in 47 states and every major U.S. city, multi-site congregations have become as normal a way to do church as multiple services, says Warren Bird, a sociologist of religion and director of research for Leadership Network.

Congregations primarily “go multi-site” to evangelize, but they often find that “the joy of multi-site” is that it creates new leadership opportunities for the many gifted laity who lack such opportunities in their existing congregations, Bird said.

“Multi-sites require churches to not just speak of the importance of leadership development but to do it in a way that actually produces leaders,” he said.

“When you replicate your ministry on another campus or in another service, suddenly you need more musicians, more greeters, more strategic planners, more disciplers, more of everything. And when there is visionary leadership from the senior pastor, people will rise to the challenge and want to be developed.”

Bird is director of research at Leadership Network, a Dallas-based nonprofit that fosters church innovation and growth. The co-author of 22 books, he has written frequently about church growth, megachurches and the multi-site church movement.

He has a Ph.D. from Fordham University in sociology of religion. He has a B.A. from Wheaton College, an M.A. from Wheaton Graduate School and an M.Div. from Alliance Theological Seminary in Nyack, N.Y.

He spoke with Faith & Leadership about the growing multi-site movement. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: You’ve studied and written about both megachurches and the more recent trend of multi-site congregations. Tell us about these congregations.

There have been churches that have been one church in multiple locations for hundreds of years, but they’ve been more isolated examples. Only in the last 10 to 20 years has a transformation begun where multi-site churches are now found in every major city. It’s become as normal a way of thinking about church as the idea of having multiple services, which you can imagine 100-plus years ago was itself a novel idea: “Have two services? Should we just make two churches? How is this going to work?”

Among megachurches it’s clear that the larger you are, the more likely you are to be multi-site. In the largest churches, of 8,000 or more in attendance, 86 percent are multi-site, compared to 35 percent of those with weekly attendance of 2,000 to 2,999. The reasons for that are perhaps obvious -- that the larger you are, the more challenging it is to come up with adequate space to serve a growing congregation. But there’s also the attitude that says, “We don’t want to build a big, cavernous facility that gets used or filled only once a week. We’d much rather find smaller settings that can have multiple uses and multiple locations.”

And having multiple locations helps make it easier to take the church to the people. One church did a study and found that about a 30-minute commute was the point where people’s involvement dropped off. They were maybe willing to come once on Sunday, and maybe some to schlep their kids to youth group during the week, but in terms of being active in small groups and other service opportunities, they weren’t. More important, in terms of inviting their non-Christian friends, it’s one thing for me as a committed believer to load up the family and make a long commute every Sunday, but it’s another to get my next-door neighbor who doesn’t yet know the Lord to do that.

So the idea is, then, if we have a cluster of people in this community, or if we have a receptive community, why not just take the church to them? There are some financial savings, an economy of scale and other benefits. There is a church’s good reputation, so why not build on that in reaching the new community?

There is a whole new vocabulary, such as the “campus pastor,” the person whose job each morning is to wake up and think specifically about that location and the spiritual development, the outreach, the sense of Christian community that’s being developed there.

Q: I gather that while many multi-site churches are megachurches -- as you say, the bigger they are, the more likely they are to be multi-site -- a surprising number are not.

Right. When we did a study in 2010, “ Multisite Is Multiplying ,” we found that whereas 10 years ago multi-sites tended to be almost exclusively the domain of megachurches, now we’re finding it’s quite common to have churches of 500, 600, 700 in attendance that are doing some kind of multi-site.

Q: Why is that happening?

Several influences. One is that more people are saying, “Let’s try it,” and finding that, “Hey! We can do this!” So there begins to be the precedent and the role model. Second, the technology is increasingly friendly, available and affordable for those that want to use video teaching or other high-tech transfers of lesson material, children’s curriculum or anything else. So you have some churches that say, “Well, if we can do this electronically 20 miles away, we could do it 200 miles away.”

Q: In “Viral Churches,” your 2010 book with Ed Stetzer on the church planting movement, you make the point that multi-sites can be an extraordinary way to plant churches. How so?

The jury is still out as to what will happen with the multiple sites. Just last year the largest church in the world, Yoido Full Gospel in Seoul, South Korea, which was one of the earliest pioneers with multi-site, took 20 of their long-established sites and released them to become stand-alone churches, with the campus pastor now becoming the full pastor. You have some churches that do that intentionally from the start. Wayne Cordeiro, the pastor at New Hope, Honolulu, from day one of any plant, says, “All right, now, this may be an extension site of ours for years and years, or it may be that we will release you in a few years and we’re just giving you a jump-start by having you begin as a campus of the larger New Hope body.”

If you go to the Exponential Conference or any gathering of church planters, the buzz is that multi-site is a great launch tool for becoming a stand-alone church, because you have all the advantages of momentum, connection, mentoring and coaching, support, prayer and other resources from the body that’s sending you, and goodwill in the community due to the reputation of the sending church. All these pieces help jump-start a new campus.

Then there’s also the teaching piece. Church planters, as do many pastors, spend a huge portion of their week on message preparation. If they can get help from the church that sends them, either through video teaching or by sending some of their teaching staff in person, that enables the church planter to spend more time during those crucial opening months in developing the new contacts and relationships that are so essential for a new church.

Q: Put this in the context you discuss in “Viral Churches,” in which churches plant churches that plant churches that plant churches.

Lyle Schaller, a good United Methodist, has long championed the idea that if a denomination isn’t planting at least 3 percent equivalence of new churches, then it will die, because that’s just the replacement threshold. And so many denominations have worked hard just to increase their church planting to the point of a basic sustainability, that 3 percent or beyond. But that’s just a survival level. That’s nowhere near the impact that needs to happen if you consider how many unchurched and potentially spiritually receptive people there are in just the United States alone.

So people with vision are saying, “Well, if in ministry we teach people to apprentice themselves, small group leaders are always training the next small group leader, musicians are always raising up the next generation of musicians, the pastoral preaching team is always cultivating the next generation of teaching pastors, then why wouldn’t we extend that beyond just one generation, so to speak?” Second Timothy 2:2 has four generations -- train others who train others who train others who train others. Wouldn’t that be part of the DNA of everything a Christian does, including on the structural level, saying, “If we’re going to launch a new church, why not launch it with the same heart of evangelism that we have that will cause them to launch others who have that same heart that will cause them to launch others?” -- and ultimately it becomes a multiplicative model rather than an additive model? That approach is essential, we argue in “Viral Churches,” to truly leverage the number of people being reached to help to significantly change the percentage of the population that’s being reached by the gospel today.

Q: What about churches that become multi-site by merging with existing congregations? You found in some of your research that a third of multi-sites happen that way.

For many dying or declining churches, the pattern now is rather than the district leadership jumping in and saying, “OK, let’s contact this seminary and find someone and try to bring new life to this church,” the district goes instead to a stronger church in the area, or perhaps the stronger church in the area initiates the conversation, or perhaps the dying church goes not to the district office but to the stronger church in this area, and says, “Can you help us? Can you infuse us with the momentum, the vision, the energy, the people, the finances, the prayer support that we can again become a viable church in our community?”

Grace Church in Cape Coral has done that with two campuses. Ginghamsburg Church in Tipp City, Ohio, is a good example, with two declining and dying Methodist churches where the district leadership came to Ginghamsburg pastor Mike Slaughter and said, “Look, we’re probably going to close these. We’ve tried for years. Can you do anything with it?” And they were like, “Sure.”

So that became a ministry of Ginghamsburg, and both are now thriving, with several hundred in attendance, drawing from their local communities once more. In all likelihood those churches down the road will be released from Ginghamsburg and go back to being self-standing, self-supporting, self-replicating churches rather than sites of Ginghamsburg.

In fact, even the most common terminology, “satellite campus,” is somewhat ambiguous, because it leaves the jury out as to, “Is this just a temporary thing? Is this a merger? What exactly is it?” Ten, 20 years down the road, no telling what may happen. There is a fluidity in the model that is healthy and appealing for all parties involved.

Q: In “Viral Churches” you quote a pastor who said his goal in going multi-site wasn’t more locations but leadership development. Explain that.

My bias is that in all churches leadership is crucial, and I don’t mean just the senior leader but the process of developing other leaders both on staff and especially among the membership. Multi-sites require churches to not just speak of the importance of leadership development but to do it in a way that actually produces leaders.

The joy of multi-site is that there are many warehoused Christians who have huge capability but there is not a leadership slot for them in their existing congregation or the creativity to create a ministry that matches them. As a result, they sit underutilized and underdeveloped. But when you replicate your ministry on another campus or in another service, suddenly you need more musicians, more greeters, more strategic planners, more disciplers, more of everything. And when there is visionary leadership from the senior pastor, people will rise to the challenge and want to be developed.

In fact, so much of biblical discipleship occurs in the context of taking on personal ministry responsibilities. We often ask in our interviews, “Tell me about when you grew the most spiritually or when you experienced a great period of spiritual growth,” and consistently people say, “Well, when I was challenged to take responsibility or leadership in the following area. I never prayed as much, I never was as hungry to understand and follow God’s Word, I never wanted training and instruction as much as during that era, and as a result, I never grew as much.”

Q: In your research with sociologist Scott Thumma, you found that a significant number of megachurches have denominational ties, and you’ve found the same with multi-sites. Do denominational multi-sites, particularly those in mainline denominations, have any unique challenges or issues?

There are more hoops to go through, but none are insurmountable. For example, within Methodism you often hear large-church pastors say that the Book of Discipline, that the structure that it outlines, is designed to fit best a church of 100 or so people. When I’ve got a church of 1,000-plus people in attendance, or several thousand people, then how do I make those prescribed structures work? You can make it work, but it does take creativity and a degree of grace and therefore cooperation from your denominational leadership, such as your district superintendent.

Many megachurch pastors will say that their district superintendent is supportive of them. A few will say that their district superintendent is suspicious or antagonistic. Often that may be because of a theological difference -- that perhaps the large, growing church is more evangelical or evangelistic, and that’s not happy for some district leaders, who, studies suggest, tend to be less evangelical than local church pastors.

In some places the district superintendent is simply out of his or her league, not knowing how to help. If the DS has pastored a church of 100 or 200 or even 300 and now here’s a church of 2,000-plus, they really don’t know what they can do to support this church. Many of the programs that they’re initiating or championing might better fit the church of 100 or less, whereas the megachurch can often be a quasi-denomination or mini-denomination in and of itself. Rather than contributing one person to a district-wide mission team that’s going to go on short-term mission service overseas, the megachurch can field the whole team.

In some ways, the mainliners are still catching up, but in some ways they are simply returning to their roots. Take John Wesley with his band of circuit riders. If he were in the 21st century, I think he would be very comfortable with this new kind of circuit.