Answering your frequently asked questions
Our recent research found that about 60% of churches that have an in-person attendance of a thousand or more people are using a multisite strategy. Most of these churches tend to have questions around multisite strategy or their structure.
For the 40% of churches that are not multisite, though, many of their questions are around the validity of the strategy:
“Is multisite something that we should be considering? Why are churches considering it? For the churches that have considered it, is it really working or not?”
MULTISITE Q&A WITH WARREN BIRD
In this episode, I sat down for a conversation with Warren Bird, Senior Vice President of Research for the ECFA and author of several books on multisite and mergers, to discuss these questions and explore some of the recently released data on multisite. Join us as we discuss:
- How the pandemic impacted multisite trends
- The correlation between multiplication and conversions
- Multisite, church planting, or both?
- Encouragement for church leaders today
This Episode is Sponsored by ServeHQ:
Every church leader knows that having trained and engaged volunteers is essential to successfully accomplishing your mission. But if you’re like most leaders, you also know how tricky it can be to onboard and equip people for your team.
What if there were a resource that made it easier? ServeHQ is simple video training courses that help you equip volunteers and develop leaders. You can create your own training or use their video library. You can even automate next steps to onboard new people. Check it out at ServeHQ.church.
Other Episodes in this Series:
- Is This The New Normal for Giving and Attendance? – Episode 261
- Do We Really Need to Keep (or Start) Doing Digital Ministry? – Episode 262
- Are People Coming Back to Weekend Services? – Episode 263
Leader Conversation Guide
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Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we are exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. For the last few weeks, Tony and Amy have been answering your most frequently asked questions in our, “Ask Us Anything” podcast series. In this week’s episode, Tony answers your questions about multi-site church health and data in a conversation with author and researcher Warren Bird. Before we go there, though, if you’re new to the podcast, head over to theunstuckgroup.com/podcast and subscribe to get the show notes in your email. When you do, you’ll get resources to go along with each week’s episode, including our leader conversation guide and bonus resources, as well as access to our podcast resource archive. Again, that’s theunstuckgroup.com/podcast to subscribe. Now, before we dive into the content, here’s a word from Tony.
Onboarding new people to volunteer is tough. A confusing or complicated process can lead to people slipping through the cracks, and you don’t want that. A clear and simple onboarding process will make sure new people are prepared and motivated to serve. To do that, you’ll need a good reliable system. Well, let me recommend Serve HQ. Serve HQ offers simple video training courses that help you equip volunteers and develop leaders. You can create your own training or use their video library. You can even automate next steps to onboard new people. Check it out at servehq.church.
Well, this has been a fun series, Tony, answering questions that pastors and church leaders have been asking in recent weeks. And we’ve answered the most frequently asked questions about attendance, giving, online ministry and weekend services. But Tony, what’s the question that we’ll be addressing today?
Yeah, it’s interesting, Amy, but the questions I most frequently receive from pastors tend to be related to multi-site. And as you’ll find out in the interview were about ready to share, our recent research found that about 60% of churches that have in-person attendance of a thousand or more people are using a multi-site strategy. And so it stands to reason then, I guess, because of the churches that we’re engaging with that many of them have multi-site questions. In fact, I would guess that for that 60% of churches that are currently involved in multi-site, most of their questions tend to be about the actual multi-site strategy or their structure. And we’re not gonna address those questions today, but you could go back and listen to episodes 236 through 238. Back in March, we did a series that addressed many of those questions. However, for the 40% of churches that are not multi-site, many of their questions are around the validity of that strategy. Is this something that we should be considering? Why are churches considering it? For the churches that have considered it, is it really working or not? And it’s those questions that we’re going to be talking about in today’s conversation. And related to that, I had the opportunity, just recently, to interview Warren Bird, and Warren, he’s kinda like one of those guys that one day I want to grow up to be like Warren Bird because he’s a data guru when it comes to churches, and he’s been researching churches for many years. Right now, he’s the senior vice president of research for ECFA, which stands for the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. But he’s also authored or co-authored 33 books through the years, which Amy, you do the math. There are 66 books in the Bible. So if Warren just works a little bit harder, you know, he’s halfway there today, but eventually he may also write 66 books. So with that introduction though, we’re gonna be talking about multisite today in my conversation with Warren Bird. So let’s listen into that conversation.
Warren, this is probably the first comprehensive study I’ve seen since the pandemic that takes a look at church multiplication. So based on what you see in the data, here’s the key question I want to ask you today. Do you expect a number of multi-site churches and the launch of new locations to decline on this side of COVID? And the reason I ask that is because when we were in the heart of COVID, in the heart of the pandemic, I was hearing some concern that, well, maybe this is gonna be a challenge for multisite going forward. So what are you seeing in the data?
Okay. So my overall answer is no. We are not slowing down multisite or church plants, but let me unpack that a little bit. Yes, indeed. During the pandemic, all of a sudden, everyone had to adjust. Schools were the most popular places for both new churches and multi-sites to meet, and location changed for a whole lot of people. So that scramble did take a dent. It caused a lot of churches that had multi-sites in schools to say, well, you know, maybe that campus, if we were gonna have a time to reconfigure, as long as we needed to shut down Sunday services, let’s rebuild in another way. So yes, there have been a lot of adjustments, and yes, this is the most comprehensive survey that, I mean, like almost 3000 people gave input, which is wonderful, but it’s not a truly universal survey in that I can’t say the survey perfectly represents reality that’s happening out there, but I have lots of evidences that came from the survey. First we had hundreds of responses from people during the pandemic 2020, ’21 and ’22 who had either launched a new church or launched a new campus and we’ll get to some statistics about it, you know, did the attendance dip and all, but that happened. Plus during the pandemic, anyone who wasn’t already online, went online. Those who were online, sophisticated it even further. So you have the equivalent of watch parties happening all over where, well, why don’t you just, you know, make that into a campus? Or watch from this home there? There’s far more variety now, which, you know, the joke was at one point in the pandemic. Well, every church is a multi-site church because we’re all broadcasting into home, but even so today, the variety and the momentum, I don’t see it slow down, even though the expressions of it are new and different in many ways.
Yeah. And I would concur just in our experience with the churches that we’ve engaged with these last few years. We’re just continuing to see more interest in multisite and the churches that were effective using multi-site strategy pre-COVID are continuing to take a look at new locations, and several churches we serve we’re opening new locations in the last few years. So just our on the ground experience supports what you are seeing in the data as well, Warren. Again, related to the pandemic, when it comes to new churches or new location launches, how did that impact the size of those new churches?
Yeah, that’s fascinating. Because I had, you know, so many hundreds of responses, I was able to say, okay, in 2022, what was their launch size? What’s their attendance today? In 2021, launch size? Attendance today? 2020 launch? Weekend attendance? And attendance today? And really the only dip was in 2020. And depending on how you look at it, it was not that much. So example: the average size in 2018 was 45. In 2019 was 50. In 2020 dipped down to 30. In 2021, it was back up to 50. Now you may say, well, that’s only a dip of 20 people. Well, that’s a 40% dip, but it still is workable, is launchable, is growable. So I don’t see that the pandemic impacted launch size in a way that’s gonna be long term. Temporary? Yes.
And we’re already seeing on this side of the pandemic that it sounds like there’s been a recovery as far as the launch size of new locations. Is that right?
Yes. In 2021 and 2022, both up from 2020.
So Warren, when we’re working with churches that are considering launching a new location, one of the words of encouragement that we give them is they should shoot for a minimum of 200 people at launch to increase the likelihood of long term health and success. And honestly, if they can start with even more people, that’s better. Do you agree with that philosophy and coaching and why or why not?
Well, the data affirms it, but let me come a backdoor into that because the vast majority of churches do not launch that big. And let me say that this little study that I talked about a minute ago, where I took every single year of launch and asked, well, what did you launch with? And what is your attendance today? You can imagine a church that’s two or three or four years old is on average, the median size is going to be bigger and bigger over time. Well, it turns out that it inches up today at 73, 78, 98, 133. Back to 2004 launches on average cross 200. And the 2003 launches and the 2002. So in essence, at year 18, those churches that launch small/started small, on average, give it 18 years of persistence in trying to reach people for Jesus and make disciples. And on median average, year two will cross 200. Now back to your question of the, if you will, the launch large and the start. Yes, for several reasons. First there’s a momentum factor, a visibility factor, a volunteer factor. All pastors are more tired than they realize today, still, coming outta the pandemic. Church planters who are wearing every single hat because they launched out of a hip pocket are more tired than others, are more challenged. And having that momentum, if you can at all launch large, having financial sustainability. One of our charts says at what average size does the church become self-supporting? And 76 is the magic number there. On average, you’re able to be self supporting if you have 76 people or more. So for many different reasons, the larger launch, the more momentum, the faster growth. And we’re assuming in all this that it’s not sheep reshuffling, but it’s a sizeable percentage of new life in Jesus Christ, reaching people who are looking for answers today, as so many are. Google has those answers. The government has a lot of those answers, but the church has the best and most eternal version of those answers.
That’s right. All right. Well, your new research looked at differences between single location churches with no intentions of multiplying and churches that have a big multiplication vision, whether that’s through multi-site or church planting. And it looks like multiplying churches, if I’m reading your data correctly, multiplying churches are seeing more faith conversions, more people saying yes to Jesus. Did I read that correctly?
You absolutely did. It’s the size of faith expressed at this moment that in a lot of ways influences your trajectory now. I’m gonna argue for them. Did those people for whom they’re seeing spiritual fruitfulness already? Are they the ones who say, Great. God, please multiply this. Yes, I’m sure that’s a part of it. But when you say I took the two extremes on that question, I said, the question was, Do you see yourself multiplying in the next five years? Now, I know the first church I planted, if I could just get to the next Sunday, you know, that was success. And I think that impacted our conversion growth because I thought so small. I thought too much survival and too little deploying of God’s people and doing wild and crazy more things to keep relaunching the church to keep impacting our community. But, the question asked, okay, do you see yourself multiplying? And of those who wrote in the number zero, not just left at blank, but wrote no, we’re not gonna reproduce ourself at all in the next five years versus those who wrote in the number 10 or more, it was an open ended question to fill in. And I compared them and yes, they both have spiritual fruit. That’s wonderful, but by far more reported conversions in those that have the bigger dream and faith for what they believe God is doing and is going to do.
Yeah. So, a side question here, Warren, when it comes to multi-site and church planting, have you seen any difference as far as the number of people saying yes to Jesus and following Jesus based on either of those two strategies, or is it kind of like as long as you have that multiplication as part of your mission and vision, you’re gonna see the fruit of people coming to Christ?
I have a thesis, but I haven’t played with the data, and Tony, we’re gonna churn out five different reports. One on how are new churches and multisites funded? One on what happened during the pandemic? One on comparing multisite versus church planting. You know, what does each cost? What’s the spiritual fruit? So our reports will have those responses. And maybe by the time the broadcast is out, one or more of those reports will be out. All free downloads at ecfa.org/surveys. And ECFA is the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability .org/surveys. Plural.
Very good. Well, I’ll be looking for that then. All right. So let’s get back to the information that I’ve already seen in the data that you’ve released. It looks like multiplying churches, again, either multisite or church planting, are also growing faster than single location churches. Is that correct?
Multi-sites launch larger. The average in our survey of new churches was 50 people, median. And the average multi-site campus was 90 people, median, on launch day. Okay. Of course the multi-site church has the larger church’s help, support, momentum at a way that a church plant may or may not have, but probably doesn’t have that level. So that said, do we have more growth on the multisite side? Yes. I’m gonna try to make the apples to apples comparison of saying, okay, so let’s not take the norm. Let’s take the average new church at 50 versus the average new campus at 50, or at 100 or at 200 or at 400, and try to compare what do we see happen? So that will be coming, but those are my suspicions.
Okay. So, churches with multiple locations, if they’re experiencing that growth, do you think that’s because churches that are growing tend to expand in multiple locations or is that because there’s something about multi-site strategy that helps drive growth?
I have wonderful news, have the answer to that. And I’ve done that in several studies because way back when multisite, you know, first started mushrooming, for any movement, rightly so, people ask questions of unintended consequences, and will by starting multi-sites, you know, is that gonna dampen church planting? And as someone who’s been on staff and helped start both multi-site and church plants, I have a passion for both, and I wanted to see what’s the answer. The answer is if you do one that fuels the other, and if you do the other that fuels the one. So in other words, if you are a church planting church, you are far more likely to become multisite. If you are a multisite church, you are far more likely to church plant new churches than if you were just a single site church. So they fuel each other in a wonderful way. There isn’t competition.
Yeah. And I think that’s probably, we see it play out. There are many great churches that we know as multi-site churches, but some of those churches are the churches that are also most invested in church planting networks and otherwise. So, we certainly see that play out in, I mean, a few churches that come to mind, Community Christian in Chicago-land.
Well, Community Christian in essence says we have two tracks. If God has wired you in a way that you like to color in the lines, if you will, and use our model, then we have the campus track for you. If God is calling you to reach a kind of person that we just can’t reach and you wanna do it in a different way, then we have a church planting track, the new thing. So, either way, whatever God is calling you to, if it’s to reach people for Jesus, we’ve got the tools to help you. Wow.
Yeah. And Church of the Highlands also comes to mind. I mean, they have locations throughout the state of Alabama, but they are also heavily invested in church planting, too, around the world. So there are multiple stories like that. And I think it’s just a reflection of what your data is showing, Warren, that they fuel each other. It’s not an either/or, it’s a both/and. So, in our research, this was fascinating. This is the first time I found this in the data that we were looking at. We found that about 60% of churches that have in-person attendance of 1000 people or more are using a multi-site strategy. And that, it surprised me. I knew there were a lot of larger churches that were now multi-site. I guess I didn’t think the adoption rate was that high. Does that surprise you as well, Warren?
Not at all. Now, again, I’m leaving the ECFA survey data, and I’m going back into all the multisite work in the books that, Jeff Surratt, Greg Ligon and I did, and the research behind that which I’ve tried to track over the years. And here’s what I see. The high visibility churches, which have planted a lot of campuses, are the ones that get the press and they set the patterns, but it’s kinda like a pyramid. You know, those with 20 or more campuses are very few. They’re at the top of the pyramid. Those with 10 to 19 campuses are in the next rung. Those that have eight to 10 campuses on the next, and the base keeps getting bigger and bigger. Well, the number of churches that have two campuses. You know, we moved from downtown to the suburbs, but we didn’t wanna give up either location, or we have a college ministry and so we want the campus near the college. It needs us. We need it. But you know, that’s as far as we’re gonna go. There are a lot of churches that are a two-campus multi-site, and they’re very happy with it. Now, could their dreams be stretched to imagine more and to change their system so that they keep starting new campuses? Absolutely. But that bottom of the pyramid has so many churches represented. And with the passing of time, more and more churches are saying, we can be multi-site and don’t have to be really sizable. I’m part of a church plant right now. I’m meeting with my pastor this afternoon after our recording, and it’s 200 people, but through a merger and the Better Together book, they have a second campus, and now they’re growing in two places. Well, way back at the start of multi-site, I don’t know of many churches of 200 that would say, well, we could do that too, but today you can, or maybe you always could, but just didn’t have enough role models and encouragement to do so.
Yeah, you were talking about church mergers, and I was gonna mention to you, I know this guy that wrote a good book on church mergers, so…
Yeah. I’ll tell you something interesting about it. That’s the Jim Tomberlin, Warren Bird, Better Together book. And Jim Tomberlin is now officially affiliated with The Unstuck Group, but in doing the expanded and updated edition, which was to come out in August of 2020, the publisher said, Jim and Warren, we are canceling our entire line except for one book. Yours will be the only one we release because we’re convinced that during the pandemic, and the aftermath of the pandemic, the need and opportunity for healthy mergers is going to be on the rise. And it absolutely has been. And it was on the rise before the pandemic in fact.
Well, Warren, I know a lot of pastors who listen to this podcast that want to continue to improve how they’re engaging their mission in multiple locations. Is there anything else from your research that might help us improve the outcomes that we’re experiencing with our multisite strategies?
I want to affirm that this is the best time in our lifetime to dream creatively. During the pandemic, you know, before the pandemic, it may take years to be able to make a change or to conduct an experiment in a type of outreach. And when the pandemic happened was like, well, we just can’t do that anymore. We need to consolidate this. We need to reorganize that. We need to try this, and the openness to experiment and say, okay, we tried that for six months, and it just didn’t prove fruitful. And for the congregation to go, So glad we tried is wonderful…so if nothing else came…I have a whole…I keep interrupting myself. I have a whole open-ended survey question where I ask besides the models we’ve set up of being entirely online or launching large or meeting in this way, are there other things you’ve done? And the fill-ins to that were just so exciting. I’m gonna do a special chart just out of that. A lot of people are experimenting ways to make more and better disciples of Jesus. This is the time to do it. Dream big. And you have a spiritually receptive world as never before. Even though there are many other places they’re looking for answers, but we can be that place if we bump into them in a relational way.
Tony, Warren always has such a wealth of information on topics like this. What stood out to you from that conversation?
Yeah. So it’s been fascinating. And, Amy, you’ve seen this as well. There are just many, many churches that continue to launch additional locations using a multi-site strategy on this side of the pandemic. And it just doesn’t seem to be slowing down. I can’t tell you the number of conversations I’ve been having with pastors around potential mergers. I’m talking with pastors about launching more sites, too, brand new sites, and conversations I’m having with pastors, they’re both churches that are already multi-site and those that are currently single location but there’s an interest in going multi-site. And that just doesn’t seem to be waning. And I love that because the research confirms that churches that embrace multiplication not only grow faster, but they’re also seeing more salvations. And, Amy, I think you know me well enough now to know that’s really the whole thing for me is I want to help churches get healthier. And I know that the strategies, the structures, that we engage support church health, but at the end of the day, I do all that because I wanna see more people meeting and following Jesus.
I see that all the time, Tony. That is really the heart behind everything that you do with The Unstuck Group. Well, any final thoughts, Tony, before we wrap up today’s conversation?
Yeah. I mean, this is not to brag, but we have. We’ve had the opportunity through the years to work with many of the largest multi-site churches in the country. And I think a lot of that work is because of the robust process that we’ve developed to help churches with multi-site strategy and structure, and because we’ve helped so many larger multi-site churches, we have learned we also need to bring some intentional conversation around mergers that are popping up. And so if you have questions either about multi-site or merging with another church, I do. I hope you’ll reach out to us so that we can help you maybe avoid some of the mistakes that we’ve seen other multi-site churches make through the years. And you can learn more at theunstuckgroup.com.
Well, thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast. Here at The Unstuck Group, our goal is to help pastors grow healthy churches by guiding them to align vision, strategy, team and action. In everything we do, our priority is to help churches help people meet and follow Jesus. If there’s a way we can serve you in your church, reach out to us today at theunstuckgroup.com. Next week, we’re back with another brand new episode. So until then, have a great week.