What Are Multisite Churches?
A growing phenomenon among American Churches is the multisite movement. Generally, multisite churches are Christian gatherings where a single church organization holds services at two or more geographical locations.
Although you have probably seen a multisite (or two) pop up in your neighbor, few Christians know about the history, forms, and purposes of multisite churches. In fact, few church statisticians have truly begun to examine the multisite movement.1 In this article, I briefly outline the history of multisites, begin to categorize the differing organizational structures that get lumped into the “multisite” category, and reflect on some of the pros and cons of multisite churches.
History of Multisite Churches
The concept of multisite churches is relatively new. While the first multisite churches appeared in the late 1980s, the movement fully took off with the technological revolution of the 1990s. Although he does not claim to have originated the idea, Larry Osborne of North Coast Church (Vista, CA) first used a video venue2 to expand to multiple locations and pioneered many aspects of multisite churches, . The proliferation of inexpensive video broadcasting and streaming technology has led to an explosion in the number and size of multisite churches since the late 1990s.
By the late 1990s, there were some 100 multisite churches in the United States. Today, church statistician Warren Bird estimates that there are between 5,000 and 8,000 multisite churches in the US, totaling some 16,000 congregations. Although estimates vary somewhat, this would mean nearly 5% of the congregations meeting on Sunday mornings are part of a multisite church.3 Unsurprisingly, over 80% of the 100 largest U.S. churches are multisites. In recent years, however, the multisite trend has increased in smaller churches (~100-400 in weekly attendance). While statisticians scramble to figure out what counts as a multisite church and institutions attempt to make sense of the new realities they bring, multisites continue to increase in number.
Modern technology made geographic space and chronological time less limiting for churches. Whereas in the past a church building could only accommodate a certain number of people from a general area, broadcast technology allowed multiple congregational gatherings to hear the same message from the same preacher at the same time, even if they were not in the same building or even the same state. Recording technology enabled preachers to center seven or eight services around a single message, while only having to deliver that message two or three times live. Unsurprisingly, the desire to grow churches even more has led to some churches trying different multisite approaches, resulting in a variety of models.
No clear boundaries exist for defining what counts as a multisite church, at least not yet. While early multisites would often broadcast an entire service at one location to one (or more) other locations, contemporary multisites share varying levels of content, staff, and structure. This shift—along with locally diverse factors—has made categorizing multisite churches exceedingly difficult. Generally speaking, though, multisite refers to several church-congregation models, including the following.4
The Franchise Model: This is the most closely connected multisite model. With the help of streaming technology, people at each location receive the same preaching content. Worship expression, programming, and (increasingly) venue style are highly similar across all locations and are determined by a common leadership team. Each location typically has its own campus pastor, who handles on-site matters but does not preach or make church-wide decisions. One of the best examples of the franchise model is Willow Creek Community Church, with its slogan “One Church. Multiple Locations.” Preaching is uniform across Willow Creek’s eight Chicago-land campuses. All aspects of a worship service are modelled after the South Barrington Central Campus and follow the leadership of that location.
The Modified Franchise Model: In this model, each location uses the same messages, but worship expression, programming, and venue style vary from location to location. A common leadership extends over every location, but each location has its own campus pastor who handles on-site matters and may occasionally provide content of their own. North Point Community Church (Alpharetta, GA) champions the modified franchise model. North Point makes its teaching available at all six of its locations, but each location may choose whether to use that teaching or build its own content around common themes. Worship expression, programming, and venue style are distinct to each location.
The Campus Model: Considerably more decentralized than the franchise model, the campus model is often effectively a coalition of churches rather than one church meeting in multiple spaces. Each campus has its own pastor (or pastoral team) who regularly provides live preaching. These churches are connected via branding, resources, and oversight. Content, worship expression, programming, and venue style are distinct for each location. An example of the campus model is Hillsong Church, which is composed of some 20 regional campuses across the world (some of whom have their own franchise-style multisites). These campuses share resources, branding, and some oversight within one another. Each church functions as its own organizational entity, with campus-specific pastoral and worship teams.
The Reproducing Model: This model is often used by churches that are planting other churches. Typically, locations are planted by one church, receive ongoing support from the mother-church, and gradually become self-sustaining and self-run (often over a predetermined period of time). This is the “temporary multisite” model, with the goal of producing multiple independent churches. Harvest Bible Fellowship follows the reproducing model, where one mother-church intentionally plants and invests in a nearby church, supports it for a time, and then allows it to attain independence.
Why Do Churches Go Multisite?
Churches adopt a multisite strategy for a variety of reasons. The original impetus for multisites—and still a reason that many churches go multisite today—is as a space solution. It’s often easier and faster (and sometimes less expensive) to add seats via a new venue than it is to build a bigger sanctuary. I once attended a church that decided to use its gymnasium as a video venue rather than adding a third service or building a new building—it was simply the quickest way to be able to get everyone to services each week.
Multisites are increasingly employed as a growth strategy to plant churches in a sustainable, scalable way.5 In general, newly planted churches tend to do a better job of reaching unchurched people groups in their first five years of existence than established churches do in the same five years. The same is true of multisite churches: they result in better outreach and church growth among the unchurched and—because they are connected to an existing organization—are typically better funded and staffed than independently planted churches.6
Multisite churches have also become a popular way of revitalizing sick or dying churches. Rather than closing the doors of a church (or letting the same 12 people attend it until they all pass away), existing churches will add an additional site. This keeps the sick church in existence (in a way) and allows the multisite to easily add new people and resources. Similarly, multisite churches allow for shared support among local congregations, especially things like pulpit supply, financial support, and staff. Multisites integrate the financial and staff power of a big church with the flexibility and family-feel of a small church.
Multisites are not without their detractors, however. Some Christians are concerned about a lack of local teaching and preaching, especially the corporatization of church. Others note that pastoral care and ministry are received differently when a pastor is not leading and preaching in person. An increased number of multisite (and former multisite churches) have recognized the difficulties of maintaining a “one church, multiple campuses” uniformity as the number of campuses grow. That is, more and more multisites are actually coalitions or networks. Finally, the mixed nature of many multisites (mergers, replants, campuses) results in organizational complexity and confusion that can limit ministry and cause deep wounds for those confused or pushed out by a multisite. As with all churches and church models, sin abounds—it remains to be seen if grace and organizational leadership may abound all the more when it comes to such concerns.
Here to Stay?
Whatever one thinks of multisite churches, in some form, they seem likely to remain on the landscape of American Christianity for the foreseeable future. As was the case with the megachurch movement twenty years ago (and evangelistic crusades before that, and denominational splits before that, and revivalism before that, and so on), there is much to learn about in the multisite movement and, no doubt, much to refine. My hope and prayer for the American church is that this movement becomes not an end in itself, but an effective means of spreading the Gospel of Christ to our country and communities.
Image courtesy of Andrew Conard.