August 28, 2019 Tony Morgan

Is Multisite on the Downslope? Episode 108 | The Unstuck Church Podcast

A Conversation with Geoff Surratt on the Evolution of Multisite Strategy


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Recently, some high profile multisite churches made the decision to un-multisite. For a variety of reasons, their ministry strategy has shifted from “one church in many locations” to “multiple independent churches,” some even boldly downsizing to one location.

As I’ve been thinking about those announcements, my fear is that other churches will assume multisite strategy is becoming dated without pausing long enough to answer some critical questions:

  1. Why did they do it? Do we have the same why that needs to be addressed?
  2. What were the results? Will we see the same results that they experienced?

Frankly, when it comes to the high profile churches I alluded to, most of us don’t really know the underlying answer to their why question, and we certainly don’t know the answer to the results question yet.

And I am aware of some data that’s pretty encouraging when it comes to the effectiveness of multisite strategy. For instance,

  • Of the 100 largest churches in the country, 50 of them are using multisite strategy.
  • Of the 10 fastest growing churches in the country, nine of them are using multisite strategy.
  • Leadership Network and Portable Church released a research report last year that indicated multisite churches are growing faster and seeing more faith conversions than even church plants.

So in this episode I connected with Geoff Surratt, pastor and author of The Multisite Revolution, to discuss all of this. Geoff was one of the pioneers of multisite strategy, along with his brother and teammates, at Sea Coast Church in South Carolina.

In this episode, we covered:

  • An honest perspective on the state of multisite strategy today, it’s effectiveness, what’s working and what’s not, and where the movement is headed
  • 3 questions to ask yourself if you’re considering “un-multisiting”
  • Why too many people have been copying other churches to get into multisite, and why it’s dangerous to just copy them to get out of multisite
  • Also… Geoff shared a rant about a common ministry strategy he said he hasn’t shared publicly anywhere to-date
I don't think this is a harbinger of the end of multisite. I think it is a sign of maturity of this idea & what it looks like to be one church in multiple locations. #unstuckchurch #podcast [episode 108]Click to Tweet We have a tendency to watch what a handful of high profile churches are doing & follow their lead in and out of fads. I've seen pastors chase multisite for the wrong reasons, but I'm concerned pastors will chase un-multisiting… Click To Tweet

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Transcript 

Sean:                            00:02                Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we’re exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. Recently, a couple of high profile multisite churches have made the decision to un-multisite. For differing reasons, their ministry strategy has shifted from one church in many locations to multiple independent churches or, downsizing to boldly one location. Some could see these public shifts in strategy as the beginning of the end of the multisite era. On today’s podcast, Tony sits down with Geoff Surratt, pastor and author of The Multisite Revolution for a conversation on the future of multisite church, and whether it’s still an effective strategy in today’s culture. Make sure before you listen to subscribe to get the show notes in your inbox. Each week, you’ll get one email with the leader conversation guide, all of the resources we mentioned and bonus resources to go along with the content. You’ll also get access to the archive of all of our podcast resources from past episodes. You can sign up by going to the unstuckgroup.com/podcast. Now, here’s this week’s conversation on the future of the multisite church with Tony and Geoff Surratt.

Tony:                            01:06                Geoff, it’s good to have you on the podcast today. I’ve invited you to join us for this episode to talk about why churches should stop using multisite strategy to reach people for Jesus. The basis for this, in fact, you highlighted this in a recent article as an example, you suggested that of the 100 largest churches in the country, 50 of them are using multisite strategy. And of the 10 fastest growing churches in the country, nine of them are using multisite strategy. So certainly this would suggest multisite is not working for churches. But in addition to that, The Leadership Network and Portable Church released some research last year that indicated multisite churches are growing faster and seeing more faith conversions than even church plants. So again, clearly there is a warning sign that multisite strategy is broken. So here’s, here’s the basis for the conversation today—like door to door evangelism, bus ministry, cassette tape messages of pastors messages, in the days of your, we need to get the word out that multisite strategy is tired. It’s a worn out approach for churches, and I’ve invited you to the show today to try to encourage all those large fast growing churches to go back to being independent single location churches. Are you up for that?

Geoff:                           02:38                Yeah, I am. And Tony, I’m amazed at how well you can—for one thanks for having me on. I really appreciate it—I’m amazed at how well you can talk with your tongue firmly planted in your cheeks.

Tony:                            02:49                Did you notice the sarcasm in that Geoff?

Geoff:                           02:52                A little bit came through. Yeah, absolutely.

Tony:                            02:54                Alright, well before we dive fully into today’s topic, you were actually one of the pioneers of multisite strategy along with your brother and your teammates at Seacoast Church in South Carolina. But, like I said before we move forward on today’s topic, would you mind sharing a little bit of your backstory, especially when it comes to multisite strategy?

Geoff:                           03:17                Oh yeah, no, I’d love to. Yeah, like you said, Tony, I was with my brother at Seacoast Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and came as family ministry guy, teaching pastor guy, and then we just outgrew our building and we went down the road that every church did back then that we need to build a bigger building. Our town told us, no, we couldn’t do it. We didn’t know what else to do. There weren’t a lot of examples of multisite churches at that time, and so we looked at a few other churches and decided, well, let’s go for it. So, in 2002, we launched our first offsite campus. That seemed, in our context, to go pretty well. And so at that point, at Seacoast, they took all of my other responsibilities off my plate except for teaching pastor, and then oversee, finding locations, finding campus pastors, launching new sites. And so we saw over about a six year period—six to eight year period—we went from one site and I think we had about 3000 people to 14 sites, and there are like 12,000 people coming. During that time it was kind of fun. You mentioned Leadership Network—was able to do some work with Leadership Network. Eventually, myself, Warren Bird and Greg Ligon and wrote a book about what was going on with multisite, a book called Multisite Church Revolution. That opened up other doors to work with churches. Eventually, I went out to Saddleback Church with Rick Warren and oversaw their campuses and their multisite strategy. For the last few years, what I’ve loved doing is, both in the U.S. and in England, being able to connect with growing churches that are just trying to figure out capacity issues and helping them, you know, discover would multisite be a fit for them. And if it is, what would that look like?

Tony:                            05:01                Yeah, it really—you’re probably not supposed to do this as a business owner—but, Geoff I guess, in essence, is kind of the competition when it comes to coaching churches around multisite strategy. But Geoff, I think you can probably appreciate this too–we’re seeing so many churches are dealing with questions around multisite strategy. I know our team could—we certainly couldn’t help every church that needs help, and I just highly respect Geoff’s experience around multisite, but also the coaching he provides churches as well.

Geoff:                           05:31                Just on that note, Tony just to insert there—what you guys do to me is so effective and that you bring some systematic approach to it. You bring some step by step stuff that honestly is a little different than what I bring. And I know Jim Tomberlin is working with you now and Jim has been a friend since the Willow Creek days. And so, yeah. I just think what you guys are doing at Unstuck with multisite is incredibly valuable for churches.

Tony:                            06:05                Well, thank you. Thank you so much. So, let’s dive in. You know, Geoff, I think one of the reasons why leaders are revisiting the validity of multisite strategy is because a few high profile churches have decided to return to being single location churches. The Village Church in Dallas comes to mind. You actually wrote an article recently specifically referencing the decision that Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte made to go back to being a single location church. For the sake of today’s conversation, let’s assume those decisions were the right decisions for those individual churches. Is it your sense, though, that these handful of churches are seeing something that the other 5,000 multisite churches need to be concerned about? And maybe more importantly, should it prevent single location churches from considering a multisite strategy in the future?

Geoff:                           07:00                I think there is something to look at. I really do. I think as you see really, really smart people like Dr. White and Matt Chandler, the pastors of those churches and other churches around the country, really examining their strategy and saying, “Is this the right thing for us to go forward?” I actually think we should pay attention to that. And what I would say in their environments, I am sure they’ve made the right decision for the right reasons. What I see ,Tony, is there are churches that have pursued a multisite strategy that either that strategy is no longer effective for them or in other cases it wasn’t the right strategy to begin with. And so I spend as much time really trying to help churches, and I know you guys do an awesome job with this, of evaluating is multisite the next step for us. And so when you talk about single site churches going multisite, I think to look at and to understand the decisions that other churches have made, both to go multisite, to not go multisite and to pull back is incredibly helpful because a multisite strategy (and I’ll get to the, is it over? Should they all stop?) But multisite strategy, I mean, you know, Tony, both in your role now and in your role in the local church before, it’s more expensive and it’s more complicated than you think it’s going to be, but I also think that there are many instances where it is has explosive potential that you’re never going to see with another strategy. So, I feel like in many ways we’re just on the, it’s kinda like—multisite is not a brand new thing—I mean it’s been around for a long time, but we’re seeing in this particular iteration of multisite, it’s kind of like from your freshman year to sophomore year of college, you just, a lot of things change, your viewpoint changes.

Geoff:                           08:54                I think what we’re seeing overall in the multisite scene is yeah, it’s morphing, it’s changing. We can’t all just copy one model anymore, which is what a lot of us did early on. We’re having to figure out in our context what it looks like and in the two high profile instances you mentioned, in their context, they have decided that’s not the right strategy for them anymore. So, I don’t think this is a harbinger of the end of multisite. I think it is a sign of maturity of this idea of what does it look like to be one church in multiple locations.

Tony:                            09:29                So you’ve kind of addressed my next question there. And I was going to refer back to my very compelling intro to this topic—talking about all of the churches, and by the way, the latest data I saw was over 5,000 multisite churches now across the country.

Geoff:                           09:48                I’ve seen data that says over 10% of all Protestants in the U.S. attend a campus of a multisite church.

Tony:                            09:55                Yeah. So, the question is here, do you agree that multisite is a dated approach? You’ve already addressed that, but maybe more specifically why would a church not consider multisite? Because as you hinted and we would agree, multisite is not right for every church, what are some of those factors churches need to consider, maybe, to get to that determination that multi-site isn’t an approach they should pursue?

Geoff:                           10:23                Right, yeah. So, some of the things I always want to look at is, one, is your church growing? If it’s not growing, let’s figure that out. And honestly, I’m not here to pump up The Unstuck Group, but you guys do an incredible job to sit with churches, both growing churches and churches who are stuck to figure that out. And before we launch a new location, let’s figure out what’s holding back our growth now? It’s kinda like when a couple in their marriage, maybe they’re having some problems—that’s not the time to have a baby. That’s time to figure out what’s going on. And not that all churches who aren’t growing, that doesn’t mean they’re all unhealthy, but we do have to figure that out. Another thing I always look at, Tony, and I’m sure you do too, is are people coming back to Christ for your church? I mean, is there some kind of evangelism going on? If there’s not, I’m not excited about seeing that reproduce. And I know it’s not just about lost people becoming found, but it is about discipleship. But if we’re not reaching lost people, I asked a church one time—they wanted to go multisite, and I said, “Okay, tell me about baptisms or evangelism, however you count that. They said, “Well, we really don’t have that happening.” And so when you start this new site, where are those people coming from? Because, you know. And so I think that’s a piece of it. Then, you know, not to get, I don’t want to just sit here and spit content at you, but the other thing I always want to look at is the why. At the end of the day we have to ask the why, and if you look at a lot of the very high profile churches, some that I know you’ve been connected to, some I’ve been connected to, their why was they ran out of space. We can hold’t the people—so I think that’s a compelling why. I think another compelling why is there is a community that we honestly believed that we could bring something to that community that maybe is not there right now and we know that community’s not going to come to us. And so, at the end of the day, if you don’t have a why that you just, you go to sleep thinking about every night, I don’t think multisite is your next step.

Tony:                            12:20                Yeah. Well, actually, let’s jump on that point here because some would argue that churches actually need to focus less on physical locations and more on their digital presence now. And if you think about it, it kind of makes sense. We used to all go to Blockbuster to rent DVDs. I actually saw still a video store open in a community though this past week. I didn’t know that they still existed, but now of course we can rent movies from the comfort of our own living room from our account is a lovely thing by the way. So, it kind of doesn’t make sense that we would be considering, still for the church, a strategy that focuses on physical locations rather than a strategy that is really trying to engage people digitally. How do you react to that, Geoff?

Geoff:                           13:16                Yeah, so I’m probably going to unleash a rant that I’ve not said in public yet, so this is probably unveiling. But, I was there at the at the beginning of this whole idea of a digital online campus. We were in a cohort with the guys at Life Church out of Oklahoma, Craig Groeschel ‘s church, and they came to a meeting and they said, “Hey guys, we’re gonna try to do a campus online.” On the way home, our pastor said, “Well, if they’re doing it, we should do it.” I said, “Okay.” And he said, “When can we launch?” So, we launched and then at Saddleback, when I was out there, I helped them launch their online campus. So I’ve been around this a lot and I’ve been thinking a lot about this really over the last few months, Tony, and I’m not anti digital presence, I’m not anti-online campus, but what we reproduce online is for the most part music and speaking, and I like music and speaking. And we say, “Oh, we have community.” Well, we have a little chat room that a few people talk in and we may have some online groups and I’m not poo-pooing any of that, but I’m really wrestling with are we, are we replicating church? There was a lot of pieces of just, when I speak at a church, I was speaking at church couple of weeks ago and afterwards some people came up to me and honestly, Tony, they were the odd people. They were the people that no one else wanted to talk to, but I was the preacher. So they came and talked to me. And I mean, you know from pastoral ministry that’s just a part of the deal. You can’t do that online. You can’t just go in the lobby and find that person and all that, and there’s so much body. So, not to go off on that rant that’s not an anti-digital church rant. It is a, I just can’t get my arms around the digital replaces physical presence. I can’t. That may be because I’m old, I don’t know. But, I think the need for physical presence in a community is actually greater the more digital our society becomes. I just have a bias toward that. And, I have a bias toward multiplication—that may be church planting, it may be campuses, but I don’t see in any way where digital is reducing the need for actually physically being in a community.

Tony:                            15:26                Yeah. I’ll just share for The Unstuck Group, we’re a completely remote team. There are 10 of us that are employees on staff and another probably 15 to 20 teammates that work with us kind of on a contract basis, as needed. And I know, especially for our leadership team, even though we’re meeting weekly in a video conference, and keeping up to speed not only on what’s happening in our ministries, but also what’s happening in each other’s lives, at least quarterly, we’re meeting face to face at some location around the country. And it’s an investment to make up to be honest. I spend quite a bit of money to make sure that we have those face to face connections still, Geoff. But, I think there’s something to what you’re suggesting. And again, maybe it has to do with my age, but even though I’m an introvert, when I’m in relationship with people, especially my teammates, it feels like we need to have some actual face to face time rather than just engaging on video like we do each week. But, just an extension of that then, at The Unstuck Group, when we’re coaching multisite churches to locate future campuses, we actually encourage them ideally to look at locations that are 20 to 30 minutes from their existing locations because we believe normal people, people that currently aren’t connected to church but just living their life, they’re not going to drive more than 20 minutes to both attend and then fully engage at a church, which is what we want. We want churches to have folks that are fully engaged in their ministry. But doesn’t the digital platform eliminate the need for churches to open new locations that are actually closer to where people live? What do you suggest?

Geoff:                           17:17                I just, I don’t, I don’t think so. I mean, I have just seen such health, and I don’t think you absolutely have to have a site in every neighborhood or anything like that; however, I’ve just seen this community aspect of church, the body aspect of church, that physical presence go up tremendously when we have put a campus in a community. So, I’ll just give you an example. So, when we were in Charleston, we had a community that was about 45 minutes away called Summerville and we had a lot of people who drove from the Summerville, the town of Summerville, to Mount Pleasant to go to church—and a lot of people. But when we opened a site in Summerville, the community between those people and the outreach into that local community beyond the walls of our church skyrocketed. It was, night and day doesn’t even described the difference in the outreach piece, the connecting with families piece, and it’s just what you said. I mean, we’ve seen it. You guys have seen it. I’ve seen it over and over and over again. If I fall in love with the church, I’ll drive 40 minutes to go to that church. When I’m standing next to a dad on the sidelines of a soccer game, I’m never ever going to say, “Dude, would you like Sunday morning to drive 45 minutes and then we’ll go have lunch and you can give me your entire Sunday?” That ask is never coming.

Tony:                            18:51                Yeah, I lived that. When I was on the team at Granger Community Church in South Bend, we lived more than 20 minutes away actually across the state border into Michigan. We were willing to do that because we loved our church, but with the people we were actually living life with in our neighborhood, on our kids teams and things like that, there was no way we could convince them to drive to another state, just over 20 minutes away, to not only attend a church, but be fully engaged.

Geoff:                           19:20                That’s the other thing too, there’s those invisible barriers, right? So you want me to drive into Indiana? What? You want me to cross I-45? We never go across I-45.

Tony:                            19:32                That’s right. That’s right. Alright, so another reason I’ve heard that we should stop engaging in multisite church strategy is that it will lead to the sinful behavior of senior pastors. For example, they’ll name a church, which we won’t do today, and then they’ll say, “Look, they were multisite. They used video teaching at all their locations. The platform for that pastor got too big. He became a celebrity pastor. Pride became an issue that led to sinful behavior. Now that pastor is out of ministry, and in some cases the church doesn’t even exist.” That’s why multisite strategy is bad. What’s your reaction to that argument?

Geoff:                           20:17                Well, I thought, Tony, it would be fun—let’s just name all the single site pastors that have failed more morally.

Tony:                            20:24                Yeah, it doesn’t seem—it’s not just a multisite issue, is it?

Geoff:                           20:30                Yeah. And here’s what I’ve seen, and I don’t think it’s a multisite issue. I don’t even know that it’s a church size issue. It’s a health issue. Unhealthy pastors are going to do unhealthy things. I heard Andy Stanley say years ago talking about this very issue and, he was talking to a small group of us and, he said, you know what, I know some of the people that you guys are thinking or mentioning or whatever, and he didn’t mention names, obviously, but he said, I know those guys, and there was unhealth before they became famous. There was unhealth before their church got big. And then, that unhealth just became apparent to everybody. And so, again, Tony, it sounds like I’m an apologist for multisite. I’m not. I don’t think it’s for most churches. I think it’s for some. I do think that a larger stage can take a sick ego and make it worse. I absolutely do, but I don’t think the problem is the larger stage, I don’t think the problem is the video teaching. The problem is the help of our pastors. That is not what that this podcast is about, but my passion is more around how do we help pastors get healthy than it is how do we stop putting pastors in environments where their unhealth can, you know, make headlines.

Tony:                            21:49                That’s right. So earlier in the conversation you mentioned, and I think this really happened earlier around multisite strategy, but it happens in many instances when the church grabs ahold of a strategy and churches find success from it. We just have a tendency in the church world, and I’m suspecting this is the case in other types of businesses and nonprofits, but we watch what a handful of high profile churches are doing, and I think it’s genuinely for Christ centered reasons, we want our churches to have that same kingdom impact those churches are having. So, we decide we need to follow their lead both in and out of some fads in ministry approaches and I’ve seen pastors chase multisite, as an example, for the wrong reasons. And I’m concerned pastors will chase un-multisiting for those very same wrong reasons.

Tony:                            22:45                And my fear is that we won’t pause to ask two critical questions, and you referenced this earlier, Why? Why did they do it? And do we have the same why that needs to be addressed? And then the second question, is what were the results? And will we see the same results that they experienced? And frankly, with the two high profile churches we mentioned earlier, many of us don’t really know the underlying answer to their why question, and we certainly don’t know the answer to the result’s question yet. I’m hoping and praying that The Village Church and Mecklenburg Community Churches and other churches that have ended their multisite strategies that, through their shift, they are going to end up being healthier churches with a stronger kingdom impact and both end up reaching more people for Jesus than they do today. But honestly, I’m not convinced it’s going to work. I’m just a little bit skeptical. I’m praying them to have health and success, but I’ve also seen how when healthy churches embrace a multisite strategy, it actually helps them reach more people for Jesus faster. But my encouragement, if you’re considering, “Should we embrace multisite?” Or, “Should we consider un-multisiting?,” wherever you land in that conversation today, that you go back to those two questions—why? Why are we considering this? And two, are we concerned about the results? Are we thinking about the results of those decisions? So Geoff, any reaction to that?

Geoff:                           24:21                Yeah, absolutely. And on the un-multisiting side of it, my fear, it’s from years of—I’m a terrible marriage counselor, so God put me in situations where I’ve done lots of marriage counseling, but I’ve seen couples, I guess the way I’d say it, a friend once said, “How long are you going to work on what’s not the problem until you work on what is the problem?” And so, as you look at multisite and you’re saying it’s not working, okay, well one solution is let’s not do it anymore. A better solution is what’s not working. Why isn’t it working? What have we done? Let’s really dig in. And again, this isn’t a promotional thing, but I think sometimes it’s just like, I need to go to the doctor to help me look at some stuff. Many times we just think somebody from the outside to look at it and go, you know what guys? It’s called a blind spot because you can’t see it. And so that’s my fear, Tony, is that—kind of what you said—we maybe copied other people to get into multisite and now we’re copying people to get out of multisite, and at no point did we really sit down and wrestle with just what you said, some of those whys and some of those things. Yeah.

Tony:                            25:29                Well, Geoff, again, I really appreciate you helping to raise this conversation because I think it’s an important conversation for churches to be having, whether they’re multisite today or considering multisite for the future. But, any other closing thoughts you want to share related to multisite strategy before we wrap up today?

Geoff:                           25:48                Yeah., the only thing I would say is I’m excited about what’s going to be next because I think we have, I think we’re running to the end of the line of let’s just do what X church did. And, I think we’re beginning to see, especially on among younger leaders, to be honest with you, some pretty fun, new iterations that I think over the next five years we’re going to see stuff that I haven’t even, I didn’t even think was out there or possible and I think it’s going to be fun.

Tony:                            26:13                I hope so because old guys like us, we need the young guys to keep pushing us. Right, Geoff?

Geoff:                           26:18                Right.

Tony:                            26:19                I just put you in my age category, though, so I’m sorry for that.

Geoff:                           26:25                I have a pretty good feel I’m older than you are, Tony, so that’s okay.

Tony:                            26:27                All right. Thanks again, Geoff for joining us for today’s conversation.

Geoff:                           26:32                Thanks, Tony.

Sean:                            26:33                Well thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast. If you have questions about any of the content in our podcast, join the conversation by using the hashtag unstuck church and posting on your favorite social media platform. If you like what you’re hearing on this podcast, help us get the content out by subscribing on your favorite podcast and platform, giving us a review and telling your friends. At The Unstuck Group we’re working everyday with church leaders to help them build healthy churches by guiding them through specifically designed experiences that focus them on vision, strategy, and action. If that’s a need at your church, we should talk. You can start a conversation by visiting us theunstuckgroup.com. Next week, we’re back with another brand new episode. Have a great week.

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Tony Morgan

Tony Morgan

Tony is the Chief Strategic Officer and founder of The Unstuck Group. For 14 years, Tony served on the senior leadership teams at West Ridge Church (Dallas, GA), NewSpring Church (Anderson, SC) and Granger Community Church (Granger, IN). He's written several books and articles that have been featured with the Willow Creek Association, Catalyst and Pastors.com.
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