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Answers to Emerging Questions from Multisite Church Leaders 

At the beginning of the COVID-19 era in March of 2020, local churches learned to pivot to online church and online giving, then doubled down on connecting and shepherding their flocks. 

Many served their local communities in highly tangible and visible ways. Some churches leveraged the evangelistic opportunity and reached a lot of new people. 

It’s nearly a year later and churches are still navigating the challenges of how to have an effective ministry strategy (digital and in-person) as we battle COVID-19.

I’ve been asked a lot about multisite over the last year. But here are some key questions that I think are important to consider as we settle into our new ministry landscape—

1. Is multisite still a viable option in the COVID-19 era? 

The concept of one church meeting in multiple locations is not new. It began in Acts 2 with the church of Jerusalem meeting in many locations. The one church-multiple locations concept has seen many expressions throughout church history as church leaders adapted to changing cultural realities and leveraged technological advances. 

Churches that dabbled in multisite who got into it for the wrong reasons or have campuses that are not self-sustaining financially will abandon their multisite strategy in this era. 

However, churches who truly made the paradigm shift pre-COVID from a mono-site, main campus-centric mindset to a mission-driven, community-centric mindset are well-positioned what’s next. They will survive and thrive in this era.

2. If multisite is still a viable strategy, what is the multisite new normal?

COVID-19 did not change the multisite trends we were already seeing pre-pandemic, but rather, it accelerated them…

  • Small Is the New Big.

The financially sustainable model for multisite churches is launching big in smaller facilities with multiple services. COVID finally cured us of our addiction to unsustainable mega-campuses and demonstrated that buildings don’t reach people, people reach people.

buildings don’t reach people, people reach people. Click To Tweet

We also learned that buildings don’t generate income, life-changing ministry does. Online giving demonstrated you don’t have to come to a building to give your tithes and offerings. Going forward new church buildings will be smaller, simpler, multipurpose, multi-venue and community-centric.

Many multisite churches are discovering this is a good time to lease or even purchase a facility because the prices are low, the loans are cheap and many landlords are desperate. 

  • Church Mergers.

The Barna Group projects that 1 out of 5 churches will close over the next 18 months. The Unstuck Group identifies 25% of North American churches are vulnerable. That is over 60,000 Protestant churches.

Church mergers were increasing pre-COVID with 40% of multisite campuses being acquired through a church merger. Merging is better than closing and is a win-win for stuck or struggling churches merge with a strong, healthy church.

The online church will also attract more mergers occurring beyond local communities across the nation and globally.  

  • Phy-gital Church.

The debate is over. The pandemic has legitimized church online. If you haven’t incorporated digital ministry into your strategy at this point, you’re behind the curve and need to do so for your church to continue to reach new people.

Online church goes beyond merely presenting a live-streaming video of a church service for the church family. People can log on through their computers, tablets or smartphones anytime from anywhere. They can engage in worship, watch the sermon, interact with others, pray together, take communion, get baptized, respond to invitations, give offerings and are cared for by an online campus pastor—in real time or on-demand.

Online church has become the point of the spear of outward-focused churches reaching people in the digital neighborhood locally and globally and moving them into biblical community online and onsite.

Online church attendees anywhere in the world can become watch-parties that gather into small groups locally, expand into house churches and eventually result in a local campus.

Online church has become the front door for people seeking spiritually or looking for a church as well as a side door for people wanting to stay engaged in their church. The effective multisite churches in the COVID-era will not just measure attendance at a physical campus, but engagement in many environments physically and digitally. Phy-gital!

3. How does a multisite church reopen its campuses?

The various restrictive guidelines nationwide made it difficult, unappealing or financially challenging for many churches with large auditoriums and multiple campuses to reopen quickly or easily. The smaller the church and campuses, the easier and sooner the reopening. 

In this unchartered season of reopening there are no proven and clear best practices for reopening multisite churches… yet.

As I have observed multisite church re-openings around the country, here are my takeaways…

  • Attendance. Lower your expectations. Most church leaders accept that it will be a long time, if ever, before we will return to pre-COVID attendance. Most churches are starting with a 20-30% return rate and are slowly growing to 50%.  
  • Over-Communicate. Provide phases and FAQs with some general time frames to plan your return to campuses. Even if attendees don’t like your timeline (too soon, too long) it helps them to have confidence in your leadership and rebuilds some stability in their uncertain world. 
  • Engagement. Focus on offering opportunities for community with the church family rather than just on re-opening. Watching online as a family, small group watch parties, home gatherings and re-openings of campuses give options for people to regather at their level of comfort and on their timeline. 
  • Social Distancing.  Uphold and model the local guidelines concerning face masks, social distancing and sanitizing. Most churches affirm the biblical mandate to honor their civil authorities, set aside personal rights for the most vulnerable in their midst and to be a good neighbor and witness to their local communities. The church mantra for the COVID-era is safe, sanitized, spacious and SPECTACULAR!
  • Hybrid Ministry.  There are audiences onsite and online to be engaged in equally strong, but in different ways. The challenge going forward will be to deliver incredible onsite church experiences while maintaining a high-quality online church experience. Many pastors are pre-recording their message for an online audience sitting at home and preaching a live weekend message for their campuses. Other pastors are taking a “live before a studio audience” approach on the weekend broadcast service. 
  • FOMO Worship Services.  Offer more, shorter and smaller worship services with longer turn-around times and FOMO moments. What will bring people to physical campuses? The Fear of Missing Out on an experience they can’t get online. Invite people to pre-register their attendance online to determine location and time. With social distancing limiting space this may be a good time to add additional services and times. 
  • Next Gen. If you haven’t moved the junior and senior high student gatherings off the Sunday morning schedule and integrated them into the adult weekend services, now is the perfect time to pivot. The biggest challenge of regathering is in the children’s area. This is one of primary reasons some churches are just now reopening. Many churches began reopening with family-friendly worship services only, then phased in elementary and preschool re-gatherings. 

Welcome to the New Normal!

Trying to navigate the future of your multisite church?

Our team has 100+ years of combined experience leading in effective multisite churches. We can guide you through the process of clarifying your organization-wide ministry strategy, and how it can be replicated effectively across campuses—even in the midst of defining your new normal.

Through this process, we help you:

  • get perspective on the health and replicability of your multisite model and operations through assessments
  • develop a clear action plan to launch or strengthen your multisite strategy
  • position your ministry team to execute at its highest potential
  • develop the rhythms to execute the plan and start taking the steps that will lead your church to experience sustained health as your ministry footprint grows

Interested in learning more about how we can partner with your church? Let’s talk.

Interested in church mergers? We help with that, too.

Jim Tomberlin

Jim began his multisite journey in the mid 1990s when he was the senior pastor of Woodmen Valley Chapel in Colorado Springs. In 2000, he went on to pioneer the multisite model at Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago. He founded Multisite Solutions in 2005 to help churches develop and implement the emerging model of location expansion. Jim gained over 20+ years of multisite experience before joining The Unstuck Group in February of 2019.

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