Is It REALLY One Church in Multiple Locations?
I should start by saying that I believe in multisite strategy. When multisite is done right, it’s helping healthy churches reproduce more disciples of Jesus. But most of the time when I hear the phrase one church in many locations my initial reaction is, “Prove it.”
My experiences at multisite churches are rarely one unified church meeting in multiple locations. Instead, what I find is that many multisite churches are connected through one leadership structure, but beyond that, they are splintered in their ministry strategy.
They are really multiple churches trying to operate as one church. And it shows, if you know what you’re looking for.
In this episode, Amy and I discussed the warning signs that we commonly see when a multisite church, well, isn’t. Here are a few things we covered:
- Predictable outcomes for different multisite models (There may be many ways to do multisite, but they don’t all lead to healthy, multiplying churches)
- What it means when you consistently notice people communicating a preference for hearing the campus pastor preach over the lead pastor
- Why multisite is not a growth, change, succession or diversity strategy
- How to plant a new church by accident
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Sean: 00:02 Welcome to the Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we’re exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. We’ve all heard the multisite mantra: one church in multiple locations. Too many times though, what we’ve experienced is far from a unified ministry strategy. This week on the podcast, Tony and Amy dive into some key warning signs that a multisite church is not really one church. As you listen to this week’s podcast, you can join the conversation by using the #unstuckchurch and posting your question or comments or your favorite social media channel. Connect with Tony, Amy, myself in our Unstuck team and get your ministry specific questions answered. And if you haven’t yet, make sure you grab the show notes as you listen today. You can find at theunstuckgroup.com/episode 99. Also, you can now subscribe to get the show notes in your inbox each week. You’ll get one email with all of the info, including the leader guide, the resources we mentioned, and bonus resources. You can sign up by going to the unstuckgroup.com/podcast. Now, here’s the conversation on the key warning signs for multisite churches with Tony and Amy.
Amy: 01:04 Tony, many multisite churches describe themselves as one church in multiple locations. What’s your reaction when you hear that phrase?
Tony: 01:12 I want to say, “I don’t believe you – prove it.” I’ve been here before and it’s not true. That’s my initial reaction. And the reason why is because my experiences at multisite churches are rarely one unified church meeting in multiple locations. Instead, what I find is that it’s really a multisite church and they’re connected through one leadership structure. But beyond that, many of the multisite churches I’ve encountered are really just splintered in their ministry strategy. In other words, they’re really multiple churches trying to operate as one church. So here, let me give you a couple of examples without naming names, and the funny thing is I’m going to share these examples and we probably have dozens of churches that are going to say, “Hey, Tony’s talking about our church”, but no, really, these are common examples. So one church that we were working with they were in four different locations at one time.
Tony: 02:11 One of those campuses has already become an independent church; a second location is about ready to close its doors because they’ve never gotten momentum as a campus; and then the third location has determined that once their current pastor retires, their current senior pastor, they too are going to become an independent church. So this is a multisite church. I’m using air quotes as if the podcast listeners can see those Amy, but this was a multisite church in four locations that eventually is going to be a single location church. Another example, a church we were working with had several locations. One of them became an independent church after several years. And really because they had a completely different mission, vision, the people they were trying to reach was completely different. So they became an independent church and then one of the other campuses said, we like their vision better, so we’re going to go join that church. Then the remaining locations over the more than a year have been struggling with, “are we going to still be one church?”, because there wasn’t any alignment around mission, vision and ministry strategy. All of that was unclear and because of that, all of the locations were wondering are we really one church in multiple locations? So these are, again, Amy and I think you can confirm this because you’ve had similar experiences working with multisite churches, but these are churches, they’re multisite, but they’re really not one church in multiple locations.
Amy: 03:52 Well now that we got you a little agitated; a little amped up, let’s actually unpack some of the warning signs that a multisite church is not one church in multiple locations. So where do you want to start with that, Tony?
Tony: 04:05 Before we jump into these though, let me just share. I always get a little nervous when I start to really unpack some of the negatives around multisite or the warning signs around multisite because my fear is they’re going to be listeners that say, “Okay, see, here it is again, multisite strategy isn’t working, it’s not working.” What I want to affirm upfront is multisite strategy is actually a great strategy for the local church, but you have to approach multisite the right way. And I think the examples for that I just shared, these are churches that we’re trying to do multisite, but they were doing multisite wrong. They really weren’t one church in multiple locations. And just as an example that the strategy is still working, I recently heard that Craig Rochelle and the team at Life Church have more than 30 different locations now.
Tony: 05:07 They had over 150,000 people gather for their Easter services. The number, it’s just mind-boggling to me. But that’s just one example. I mean, there are hundreds of examples that we could point to as well where churches are doing multisite, right, and when they do multisite right, it’s having a big impact. In fact, Leadership Network and Portable Church released some research recently about multisite churches and what they found is that multisite churches are actually more likely to grow faster and to see more faith conversions than even church plants. And so, our objective in this conversation today, Amy, is really to point out some warning signs, but it really is to point churches in the right direction when it comes to multisite strategy.
Amy: 05:59 Tony, you know, I think maybe what you’re saying in so many words is when I, when we were starting a multisite at our church, the general communication out there was, there are so many ways to do multisite – pick your own version; here’s the buffet. And I think what you’re saying, and I agree with, is that not every strategy doesn’t work. You can’t do multisite effectively in a healthy way and reach people. We’re saying there are ways that have different outcomes than one church, multiple locations, right?
Tony: 06:29 That’s exactly right. I mean if we were just single location churches, you and I would agree, and I’m sure many others, that there are many different ministry strategies that single location churches are using. Some of those strategies work and some of them are not leading to healthy churches right now. And the same is true for multisite churches.
Amy: 06:48 That’s right. That’s right. All right, well let’s jump into those warning signs that maybe they’re not one church in multiple locations.
Tony: 06:57 So the first one is, I want to start with the question, “Why?” One reason why multisite churches are not one church in multiple locations is because they got the why wrong. Let me give you some examples. In other words, multisite is not a growth strategy. So if your current location is not reaching new people, a new location is not going to fix that. Multisite is not a change strategy. If your current location is stuck in the past and you aren’t reaching younger adults as an example, a new location isn’t going to fix that. Multisite is not a succession strategy. If you’re trying to give younger pastors leadership and preaching experience at a new location to prepare them to succeed, the current pastor, you’re trying to address succession the wrong way. Let me give you one more.
Tony: 07:52 Multisite is not a diversity strategy. If your current location doesn’t reflect the community you’re hoping to reach, launching a new location will not fix that. You likely need a completely different ministry strategy and likely that means you need to be a completely different church. In other words, church planting is really the best way to reach a completely different demographic. So those are the wrong answers to the why question. The right answer to why the question is this: Multisite is an evangelism strategy. The multisite movement was the response of healthy growing churches that ran out of space but wanted to continue to reach more people. Churches went multisite because they’re existing ministry strategy was working well. They didn’t go multisite because their strategy was broken, they went multisite because it was a healthy, thriving growing church. And they realized if we opened another location with the same ministry strategy as our current location, then we’re going to have the opportunity to reach more people faster with the gospel message. In other words, they were truly one church in multiple locations.
Amy: 09:10 All right, so we first need to get that why question right. What’s another warning sign that a multisite church isn’t one church in multiple locations?
Tony: 09:19 Amy, this one’s not going to surprise you. Another warning sign is related to the teaching and preaching. And if you start to hear people in one of your campuses beginning to share things like we actually prefer hearing from the campus pastor when they teach live rather than hearing from the senior pastor, you are not one church in multiple locations. You are actually more than one church. And what we’ve learned is it’s very challenging for churches to maintain unity over time if each congregation, if each campus is hearing from distinctly different teachers on a regular basis, Amy, you can concur with that, correct?
Amy: 10:07 Yes! And I think sometimes they justify it by saying, “Well, we’re all teaching on the same things, therefore we’re one church, multiple locations.” But I mean, you see it too, every teacher leader has a little different style, maybe a little bit different take on how they would lead the church if they were leading the church and you just can’t mask that. It eventually seeps out.
Tony: 10:29 That’s right. That’s why we really do at The Unstuck Group have a strong bias toward multisite churches using team-based teaching through video. So, we still believe in team-based teaching, but we think the best way to deliver that teaching so that all the campuses stay aligned and unified is to do that through a video delivery system of some sort. It’s the best way of keeping all the locations aligned, keeping them unified and yes, periodically it is appropriate to allow the campus pastors to teach. But one unified church begins with all the locations hearing one unified message.
Amy: 11:09 I would describe that as live teaching with the campus pastor is like the seasoning, but it’s not the main course.
Tony: 11:15 That’s right. That’s good. Amy, man, we should keep you around! All right. So, I’m gonna say this in a different way specifically for the senior pastors. So if you are a senior pastor, I want you to lean in. What I’m about ready to share is going to save you a lot of headaches in the future. So do I have your attention? Are you listening? Here we go. If you have a young pastor that wants to become a campus pastor because they want the freedom to teach their own messages, you don’t have a campus pastor. Instead, what you have is a future senior pastor or church planter, and if you let them teach on a regular basis at your new campus, you should assume that that location will eventually become an independent church. Then, in fact, what you’ve done is you’ve just appointed that new church’s future senior pastor. Did I say that, jauntily enough?
Amy: 12:20 Really well said. I don’t think they missed that point at all.
Speaker 3: 12:23 Okay. All right. That’s good. Now, you thought you were starting a multisite campus, but instead, you’ve planted a new church. You gave that new church a building to meet in; You hired their first senior pastor; You’ve helped them build a congregation of people who were, who will serve and financially support that new church. Is there anything wrong with planting a new church? Absolutely not. But in most cases, churches don’t start their multisite strategy thinking they’re going to be planting a new independent church. They assume we’re going to be one church in multiple locations. So, that’s why you have to wrestle with this issue of teaching, and whether or not you’re going to be open to using video so that all of the locations can stay independent as far as they’re engaged in their community, but unified as one church in multiple locations.
Amy: 13:20 Tony, what’s your perspective on rural churches? We often hear that kind of, “Yeah, but our church is in a rural area and video teaching just won’t work there.”
Tony: 13:30 Yeah. Well, first, let me challenge that assumption because we are seeing video teaching actually does work in rural communities. So, that thinking that video doesn’t work in smaller communities or rural communities, I think that’s just a false assumption. In fact, I can give you a couple of great examples. Prairie Lakes Church, one of the churches we’ve worked with in Iowa has six different locations. Have you ever been, Amy, to Iowa?
Amy: 13:59 I have been to Iowa. That’s my neighbor; they’re just south of me.
Tony: 14:02 Back when I was in city management, I was a city manager in Iowa. It’s not a metropolitan state. But Prairie Lakes is using video teaching and they’ve grown in those six locations to several thousand people in attendance. So it’s working for them. Another example is Rock Bridge Community Church, again, they’re in six locations, but they’re located in smaller communities in north Georgia. Amy, have you ever been to north Georgia?
Amy: 14:35 I have not been to north Georgia.
Tony: 14:37 It is beautiful, actually. Lots of hills and mountains; very rural. And again, Rockbridge is using video delivery for their teaching team as well. And again, they’re reaching thousands of people. So, just because you’re rural and just because you’re in a smaller community doesn’t mean that video teaching will not work. The second thing I want you to consider here is even if you still disagree with me and you say we’re going to launch different locations, but we’re going to use different teaching pastors, just cut out the middle step: plant churches. Yeah. Just plant churches in these new locations. Make that teaching pastor the senior pastor. You can still resource that new church. You can give them leadership, you can give them financial support, you can encourage them in the ministry strategy that they’re using, but go into it knowing we’re church planting, and then it’s a win when we have a healthy, thriving new church in that new location.
Amy: 15:42 That’s really good advice. You avoid a lot of headaches of trying to all move in the same direction. And even like the financial aspects, you know, I think we think we’re going to find efficiencies in multisite, but you really only find those financial efficiencies if you do it in a wise way, right? So that was the warning sign about teaching. Are there others? Do you have another warning sign?
Tony: 16:05 Let me unpack another one here. The next warning sign is that a multisite church is not really one church in multiple locations when they feel they have to have different worship styles in every location. In other words, there’s a sense that a different style of worship is needed to reach people in a different community or in a different ministry context. And again, this may be a legitimate issue. You may really need a different style of music to reach a different group of people and you can extend that to the feel of the service as well as the entire service experience has to be different to reach a different community. My encouragement to you again is that you would consider church planting in that case because indeed, sometimes you do need a completely different style of worship or different worship experience in order to reach a different community.
Tony: 16:59 However, let me explain why if you’re going to be multisite, you really do need to stick with that same feel: that same worship experience at every location. So for a moment, let’s pretend we’re not talking about church, Amy. Let’s consider it this way – Let’s assume that you and I own a hamburger restaurant. We’ve been selling hamburgers for decades at our current location, but in recent years we’ve noticed that not as many people are buying our hamburgers. So rather than changing our burger recipe or updating the looks of our stores or trying to improve our customer service, especially so that we can reach a younger audience and sell more burgers to younger adults. We decide we’re going to open another location, only at that new location, we’re not going to sell hamburgers, we’re going to sell tacos.
Amy: 17:58 Hmm.
Tony: 17:59 So it’s going to be a completely different menu at the new location. In other words, we’re going to try to be one restaurant and multiple locations, but with completely different menus. When you take it outside the church context and you talk about it in that term and those kind of terms, do you think, “Oh, that’ll never work.” But for whatever reason, when in the context of the church, we just assume we can do a completely different menu and different locations and stay one unified church. As you just pointed out, Amy, actually the opposite occurs. Not only are we not unified as a church because we’re completely different churches in different locations, but it’s really the most expensive way to do church. I mean, that’s what you’ve seen, is that correct?
Amy: 18:50 Definitely. You have to create a lot of different systems to make two different versions to be delivered in an excellent way. And of course, when you think about music in and of itself, there’s a lot of moving parts that cause a music experience to go from song time to actual worship time. So to try to do that in two different ways, it’s just an energy and resource drain and I don’t see churches with multiple styles doing all of them with excellence very often.
Tony: 19:23 Well that you couch that in great terms, Amy. I’ve seen too many churches now waste lots of time and lots of financial resources and lots of ministry focus and energy and because they’re going about multisite the wrong way there. It’s causing great tension and just a lot of resource and energy depletion because of that.
Amy: 19:59 And I should just say, when I talk about, you know, when we talk about the financial side of it, it’s not that as a church, we’re trying to make money, it’s as a church, we’re trying to be really good stewards of what we’ve been given. We’ve got a little bit of time and a few resources to reach our communities and we need to find the best way to do that. So do you have more to say on this?
Tony: 20:19 We don’t have time to, I have a litany of other warning signs here, but let me just highlight a few of them. I’m not going to unpack any of them. More warning signs that you’re not one church in multiple locations. Tensions exist between the original campus and the staff teams at new locations and usually, this is because the larger, original campus doesn’t understand the limitations of the smaller, newer campuses and Amy, maybe we can even unpack that further in an upcoming conversation. Another warning sign, each location senses that they need their own lay leadership oversight to speak into the unique needs of their campus or another version that we see of this is that each campus feels like they have to have a representative from their location on the board. That’s another sign that you’re not one church in multiple locations.
Tony: 21:13 Another warning sign, the discipleship strategy differs from campus to campus. In one location, we have Sunday school or onsite small groups. In another location we have home groups, some locations have classes, others don’t. Some locations have robust, thriving men’s and women’s ministry gatherings while other locations engage men’s and women’s ministry through a small group strategy. I mean, I could go on and on when it comes to discipleship strategy, but many times we see churches trying to use two different discipleship strategies at their different campuses. So, again, I could continue to list other warning signs, but all of these are a reflection of multisite. They’re trying to, churches are trying to engage the strategy, but they’re not really one church in multiple locations
Amy: 22:09 Right now you gave, I think you gave pastors a lot to think about today, especially if they’re already in it they probably related to some of those tensions. And if you’re thinking about going multisite to the leaders out there, just know there are best practices now that have been identified. Like as you said, Tony can save you a lot of headaches along the way. So anything else Tony you’d like to share as we wrap up today’s conversation?
Tony: 22:29 Unfortunately we don’t have time to unpack all of those warning signs, but we do go into these topics and a lot more in the new Multisite Unstuck course. In fact, we’ve created 11 different modules to help multisite churches not only increase their impact but reach more people and more places. And just as examples, the online course hits topics like clarifying decision rights, choosing locations, building volunteers, strength for the campus launches. We talked about developing a plan to reduce the tension that tends to develop between central ministry teams and campus teams. We offer a process to right size the staff and the volunteer teams based on the size of the multisite campuses, and Amy, again, we see that to be a common issue in multisite strategy. Then we also provide tools for evaluating campus pastors and their roles and really setting up campus pastors for success. You can learn more about the course and actually test drive the sample module for free by visiting the unstuckgroup.com and clicking the link to online courses.
Sean: 23:46 Well, thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast. If you like what you’re hearing on the podcast, help us get the content out by subscribing, giving us a review and telling your friends. At the Unstuck Group, we’re working every day with church leaders to help them build healthy churches by guiding them through specifically designed experiences that focus them on division, strategy, and action. If that’s a need in your church, let’s talk. You can start a conversation by visiting us at theunstuckgroup.com. Next week, we’re back with another brand new episode. We’ll see you then.