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The Future of Multisite (Part 1)

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Many multisite churches are struggling with the negative outcomes of the model they’ve chosen and asking the question: should we continue forward or un-multisite? Recent public multisite collapses also have some church leaders questioning the viability of the model as a whole. 

After decades spent in ministry, I’ve come to believe that when multisite is done correctly, it can be an effective strategy for carrying out the mission of the Church. But there are some common misconceptions that are worth addressing.

(Part 2, The Core Issues of Multisite, and Part 3, The Best Practices of Multisite, are now available!)

UNPACKING THE LIES AND TRUTH ABOUT MULTISITE

In Part 1 of our new series on The Future of Multisite, Amy and I are unpacking some of the common questions, truths, and lies about multisite, including:

  • Is multisite in decline?
  • Is the multisite model broken?
  • What are the differences between church planting and multisite?
  • Is multisite a growth strategy?
  • Are all multisite models equally effective?
Is multisite still an effective strategy–or is the model broken? Tony Morgan addresses this question and more. [episode 236] #unstuckchurch Click To Tweet It’s true that multisite helps healthy churches grow faster. But on the flip side, multisite also helps unhealthy churches decline faster with every location added. [episode 236] #unstuckchurch Click To Tweet Is multisite an effective ministry strategy? Leadership Network found that multisite churches are actually growing faster and reporting more faith conversions than new church plants. [episode 236] #unstuckchurch Click To Tweet Think multisite is in decline? If multisite churches were a denomination, they would be the largest Protestant denomination in North America by worship attendance. [episode 236] #unstuckchurch Click To Tweet

To Multisite or Un-Multisite: Clarify a Path Forward

There are some predictable outcomes of every multisite strategy. Does your current strategy produce the results you hoped it would?

Access the video replay from our March 31 "To Multisite or Un-Multisite?" webinar event and leave with the tools you need to evaluate and fix your multisite strategy.

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Transcript

Sean (00:02):

Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we are exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. Recently, there have been some rumblings about the demise of the multi-site church. From some churches un-multi-siting to others rethinking opening campuses on this side of the pandemic, some have begun to question the future of multisite. On today’s podcast, Tony and Amy start a three-part series covering the truth, issues and models that impact the future of the multisite church. Before today’s episode, 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 each week, you’ll get resources to go along with that week’s episode, including our leader conversation guide and bonus resources, as well as access to our podcast resource archive. That’s theunstuckgroup.com/podcast to subscribe. Now let’s join Tony and Amy for today’s conversation.

Amy (01:02):

We’re launching a new podcast series today, Tony, and this series is all about multi-site models and strategy, but the title of today’s episode caught my attention because I see we’re calling this “The Truth About Multi-site,” and something tells me that you had your hands in naming this because it implies that someone on this recording believes there might be some lies floating out there about multisite.

Tony (01:23):

Ah, Amy, you are very intuitive. This episode is called “The Truth About Multisite.” And I did have something to do with that title, but I didn’t get my way, because if I did get my way, today’s episode would most certainly be called “The Lies About Multisite.” However, the marketing team at The Unstuck Group thinks that I need to portray a more positive image on behalf of our team. And they don’t think it’s wise for me to come across as sounding, you know, maybe crotchety or negative. And apparently they think potentially calling fellow ministry leaders liars may not be good for business, which there’s probably some wisdom in that, but I’m betting more people would listen to this episode if we did call it “The Lies About Multisite.” What do you think?

Amy (02:11):

I think that actually might be true.

Tony (02:12):

And here’s the good news. The fact that we’re talking about it at the front of this conversation makes me feel, in a way, like I got my way.

Amy (02:21):

I see what you did there.

Tony (02:21):

So that’s how this worked out. So yes, it’s called, “The Truth About Multisite,” Amy.

Amy (02:26):

So let’s get to the truth about multisite. I’ve heard about churches, Tony, un-multi-siting in recent years. The Village Church comes to mind, in Dallas. Christianity Today recently did a podcast on “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill.”

Tony (02:40):

Wait. Wait. There was a podcast on Mars Hill?

Amy (02:46):

I can still hear the music for that in my head. Mars Hill was, of course, a multi-site church that collapsed. But because there’s stories like this, I’m assuming that the truth is multi-site is in decline and churches are learning that the model is broken. Is that correct? Is that the truth?

Tony (03:03):

No, Amy, that is not the truth. And by the way, I think you’re gonna see this trend as we go through today’s podcast conversation. Let’s do a little bit of a history lesson. So just how is multi-site trending? So going back, it was about 1990. Initial kind of take on looking at multi-site across the US, anyways, there were about 10 multi-site churches at that point. And eight years later, had grown from 10 to about 100 churches that were using multi-site. And then I guess it was 2018 was the last time Leadership Network did a report on multi-site, and by then, they had found there were more than 5,000 multi-site churches. I can tell you in 2021 last year, we, through our Unstuck Church Report, found that one in four churches were multi-site.

Tony (03:59):

So all the churches that provided us some data about who they are, their ministry, one in four of those churches were multi-site. And by the way, that was the highest percentage of multi-site churches we’ve ever seen in the data we’ve collected. If you’re curious, on average, those multi-site churches had 2.8 locations, and that included the original location. And here’s the good news, though certainly it seems that even through last year, through COVID, multi-site was continuing to trend with an increasing number of churches using that strategy. In 2022, The Unstuck Group is actually partnering with several other organizations, and Amy’s gonna be very involved in that, to update the picture that we have of church multiplication. And so we’ll learn a lot more about multisite churches, but here’s my assumption. If the trend holds as it has, at least through last year, it’s not gonna be fewer multisite churches. We’re actually going to see more multi-site churches. And then let me talk specifically about large churches and multiplication. In 2020, so this was about a year into the pandemic, cause it was at the end of the year, EFCA, which is an organization that works with nonprofits in churches, did a report specifically on megachurches, and what they found was this, as it relates to church multiplication. Church planting is actually become a significant part of how larger churches are multiplying ministry. And they found that over half of megachurches have helped start or plant a new church in the last five years. And that’s pretty significant. But then they also asked about multi-site because certainly that’s another form of church multiplication. And what’s interesting. They found that 70% of the megachurches are multi-site today. And so yes, many more churches are involved in church planting, large churches, but even more large churches are now engaging a multi-site strategy. So larger churches are continuing to multiply. For the most part, the way they’re doing that is leveraging multi-site strategy. And then you might ask the question, well, okay, so a lot of churches are doing this. What are the results that they’re seeing? Is multi-site actually working? And again, in the most recent multi-site report that Leadership Network did with Portable Church, they found that if multi-site churches were actually a denomination, they would be the largest Protestant denomination in North America for worship attendance. And that would be ahead of all the Southern Baptist churches and all the United Methodist churches, as an example, which currently those are the first and second largest denominations, as far as attendance is concerned, in the US. And then, if you were to compare multi-site with church planting, when it comes to results, both again are critical to our mission reach new people for Jesus, but they found that multi-site churches are actually growing faster and reporting more faith conversions than new church plants. So I would argue if you’re sold on church planting being an effective strategy for reaching people for Jesus, and I think it is, then you should also be a proponent of multisite strategy because when churches have the right multisite strategy, they’re actually experiencing incredible kingdom results.

Amy (07:48):

Well speaking, Tony, of church planting, let’s compare the two models. They’re both strategies for multiplication. And I’m assuming the truth is, is that the same strategies that lead to a healthy church plant can also be used to launch a healthy multi-site campus? Is that the truth?

Tony (08:03):

No, Amy, that is not the truth. See they should have gone with my name for this episode, but that is not the truth. Indeed both church planting and multi-site are models for multiplication. And yes, there are some similarities in the strategies that you might use to launch a new church as you would, for an example, launching a new multi-site campus. But there really are some key differences. So let me give you some examples, beginning with the most obvious. Multi-site strategy is all about being one church. And I need to emphasize that. One church, one fully aligned church in multiple geographic locations. Church planting, on the other hand, it’s about being multiple churches in multiple geographic locations. And that sounds very obvious, but it’s interesting as we go further in our conversation in these next few episodes about multi-site, how churches are trying to be one church in multiple locations, but they’re actually multiple churches in multiple locations. Here’s another difference. Multi-site is asking the question, “What do the people who we are trying to reach have in common in every community that we want to have a campus?” Church planting, though, is asking the question, “What’s distinctive about the people trying to reach in different communities?” Another one, multi-site has one mission, one vision, and here’s the key thing, one ministry strategy. In church planting, we may share the same mission, but oftentimes they’re completely different visions for where the churches are going in the future, and specifically, the ministry strategies themselves to reach people in different communities are very different. In multi-site, we try to launch campuses and locations where people are already connected to the church, where there’s a core of people that can help bring leadership, volunteer, invite their friends, their neighbors, their coworkers, to be a part at campus. Church planting though, they take a completely different approach. They launch churches and locations where people are not yet connected to the church. Let me give you another example. Multi-site, it’s really about how can we simplify our systems and focus our effort to leverage economies that scale across multiple locations? In other words, how can we maximize our kingdom investment so that we’re reaching as many people as possible? Church planting, on the other hand, they’re kind of asking the opposite questions. They’re asking, how can we customize our systems and expand our efforts to reach more people in more than one location? And then here’s the key difference. Multi-site involves a strong team builder, a galvanizer, a missionary who is the campus pastor. And that’s very distinctive from a church planter who tends to be a strong preacher, a strong visionary, a starter, an evangelist. That person makes a great church planter. And so the person that we’re hiring to lead these two different approaches to multiplication, they’re both strong leaders, but they actually have very different strengths.

Amy (11:36):

And to put someone who’s wired to be a campus pastor in a church plant role, it’s a disaster. And likewise, put a great church planter in a campus pastor role, and maybe that’s even a bigger disaster. I’m not sure.

Tony (11:48):

Maybe so. And I know that’s a big topic. And so Amy, we’re gonna unpack that topic around the role of the campus pastor a little bit more in next week’s episode.

Amy (11:59):

That’s great. Well, you mentioned that 70% of megachurches are multi-site churches, and you said that multi-site churches are growing. So I’m assuming that the truth is churches in decline should try multi-site to turn around the decline and experience growth again. Is that the truth, Tony?

Tony (12:15):

No, Amy, that is not the truth.

Amy (12:19):

Just so you know, guys, he’s feeding me these questions. Okay?

Tony (12:23):

No, that’s not true. Let me use this marriage analogy. You know, if you have a healthy marriage and then you decide to have a child, there’s no doubt about it. I’ve had four kids. Bringing that child into our family, it adds stress to the marriage dynamic, but in the long run, it really does make the family stronger. And Emily and I would actually argue, in the long run, it’s made our marriage stronger as well. Unhealthy marriages though, picture a couple fighting with each other. They’re not speaking to each other. Maybe they’re in counseling. I can’t imagine the counselor recommending, oh, you should have a baby. More stress will help your marriage. That’ll fix everything. And multi-site, what we’ve learned is it really does help healthy churches grow faster, but multi-site honestly also helps unhealthy churches decline faster, especially the more locations that that multi-site church adds. So let me share a story. And, Amy, you know, when we talk about churches that maybe have some challenges, we never call them out by name. And honestly, I’m gonna share a story that there are probably three dozen churches that are gonna hear this and think, oh no, Tony and Amy are talking about us today. Trust me. We’ve seen this story play out many times, but a number of years ago, we were working a church, several locations. It was more than just two or three, several locations. Each one of those campuses had a different name, different branding, different philosophy of ministry, different visions for the future. This multi-site church, and I say that in air quotes here, had different teachers at every location teaching different messages. And lo and behold, there was lots of tension between the campuses and the central staff, including the senior pastor. And though these challenges and tensions were manageable when it was two locations, the more campuses that this church added without dealing with that dysfunction, the faster the tension and then the decline began to accelerate at this church.

Amy (14:47):

And Tony, we often say in multi-site, those cracks, those little cracks, become huge gaps as you try to expand something that’s broken.

Tony (14:55):

Absolutely. So it’s another example, adding another campus, or, you know, again, having another baby, wasn’t going to help that church get healthy and grow again. There was only one possibility. They had to redeem that situation. And that would have been for everyone to give up control, personal control, and agree together that they were going to be one church again, aligned around one mission, one vision and one and only one ministry strategy. Instead they chose to remain four independent churches pretending to be one church in multiple locations. And needless to say, Amy, that didn’t end well.

Amy (15:37):

Yeah. I was just talking with the church this morning, honestly, and just pointed out again, when we try to live right in the middle of church planting and multi-site strategies, I often just think of the scripture that says you’re not hot or cold, you’re lukewarm and there’s a predictable play out, right? When that’s what you’re saying. When we say three dozen churches, those are the ones we’ve talked to. So that actually leads me to the final truth I wanna hit today, Tony, and that has to do with the various approaches we see churches taking with their multisite strategy. I’m assuming the truth is, is that there’s many ways to do multisite while still achieving health, growth and the kingdom impact we desire. Is that the truth?

Tony (16:17):

All right, well, this time that’s partially true, Amy. There are definitely many ways we’ve seen churches try to implement and customize their multi-site strategy, but what’s not true is that every multi-site strategy produces the same results. Some multi-site strategies we’ve seen churches try to implement, they create more complexity because they’ve released too much autonomy over time to the campuses. Some strategies cost more money and over time they learn that the strategy that they started with is not financially sustained. Some strategies foster division rather than unity within the church. And this is commonly related to ministry strategy alignment issues. So it’s campuses taking different ministry strategy approaches and that starts to create division within the team. Some multi-site strategies lead to over staffing, so churches are choosing staffing models that aren’t right-sized for the size of campuses that they’re launching. Some strategies overburden central staff teams. So they’re these central teams are trying to serve and support multiple campuses. But they’re also, you know, they have their heads down at their original location, and their strategies and their systems weren’t designed for multiple locations. And it becomes difficult if every location is doing church differently, to support all those different locations. And then, the wrong strategy, let me say it this way. It creates brand confusion in the community. In other words, people walk into different campuses, different locations, and it’s as if they’re experiencing different churches. It’s a different style of worship. It’s a different kid’s environment. It’s a different type of facility. It’s a different guest experience, and it doesn’t really match the original sending location. And Amy, I could go on and on here, but that’s why we’re going to talk specifically about multi-site models in the next two episodes. But let me tease where we’re heading with one specific example. You’ve probably heard multi-site experts say there are many strategies that we’ve seen multi-site churches use to deliver teaching to different locations on Sunday mornings. And that’s true. We’ve worked with multi-site churches that have used video delivery of all messages that have originated from the same location every week. We’ve seen churches use video delivery of the senior pastor’s messages, but then the campus pastors teach at their locations when the senior pastor isn’t teaching. We’ve seen rotating teachers and their messages rotate as well. So there’s a live teacher in every location, but they’re all actually teaching different messages on any given Sunday in the current series. And that makes life interesting for your communications team, by the way, if you ever do try that.

Amy (19:25):

Yes, it does.

Tony (19:26):

We’ve seen churches rotate the senior pastor between campuses and then they use video delivery to the locations where he or she is not physically present. In other words, it becomes a big guessing game for the congregation to figure out where is the senior pastor going next? We’ve seen multi-site churches let the campus pastors teach every Sunday using the same messages across all the locations. And we’ve seen multi-site churches let the campus pastors teach distinctly distinctly different messages from their locations every Sunday. And honestly, we’ve probably seen every combination in between, right? And here’s the truth. There are many strategies for multisite churches to deliver teaching to multiple campuses on Sunday morning. But here’s what’s not the truth. Note, I didn’t say lie. It’s not the truth, Amy, all those strategies for delivering teaching to multiple occasions, they don’t work. And so, our team has worked for years with hundreds of multi-site churches, and there may be a variety of strategies to deliver teaching on Sunday mornings, but they’re not all producing the same results. And that was the tease. We’re gonna talk about this specific topic much more in the next couple of episodes.

Amy (20:50):

Well, that is gonna be fun. And I can tell you are gonna be fun talking about this. Well, any final thoughts, Tony, before we wrap up today’s conversation?

Tony (20:59):

Yeah, we’re ready to dive even deeper into going multi-site, or for some churches, maybe about un-multi-siting and letting you know what that could look like for your church. And because of that, I want to invite you to join our team on March 31st for a free webinar, it’s called “To Multisite or Un-multisite: four keys to a clear path forward,” and we’ll be sharing best practices and practical tools to help you discern the best strategy for your church and answer some of the most common questions we’re hearing, like are we healthy enough to become or remain a multi-site church? Should our campuses be identical or independent? Does the location of our campuses matter? And so you can find out more information and register for this free event through the link in our show notes.

Sean (21:51):

Well, thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast. We’d also love to have you join us for this free webinar on March 31st. And you can find out more by visiting theunstuckgroup.com/webinar. At The Unstuck Group, our goal is to help pastors grow healthy churches by guiding them to align vision, strategy, team and action. And in everything we do, our priority is to help churches help people meet and follow Jesus. If we can serve your church in any way, please 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.

Tony Morgan

Tony is the Founder and Lead Strategist of The Unstuck Group. Started in 2009, The Unstuck Group has served 500 churches throughout the United States and several countries around the world. Previously, Tony served on the senior leadership teams of three rapidly growing churches including NewSpring Church in South Carolina. He has five published books including, The Unstuck Church, and, with Amy Anderson, he hosts The Unstuck Church Podcast which has thousands of listeners each month.

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