The 4 Most Common Multisite Concerns & Top 5 Multisite Challenges Churches Face
We’re kicking off a 3-part podcast series on multisite and merger strategies. This is a conversation we’re having more and more with large churches looking to grow in a post-COVID world.
20 years ago, there were only 200 multisite churches across the country. By 2019, that number grew to more than 5,000 multisite churches. 70% of megachurches are multisite. So for larger churches, there is a strong trend moving forward. Going multisite is a way for churches to extend their ministry impact in a way that is actually financially sustainable. Now, the question is of course, post-COVID, what does this mean for churches?
And given what we’ve experienced over the last year, I don’t think any large, growing churches are going to invest in building bigger and bigger buildings. Large churches with multiple smaller venues – that are closer to where people live and that offer multiple options for service times – will be better positioned for a post-COVID world than trying to gather larger crowds in the same space at the same time. Multisite strategies could actually be a huge opportunity for an increase in kingdom impact.
But there are some core challenges that come with being multisite and some common concerns. In this week’s episode, Amy Anderson and I unpack:
- Current trends in multisite churches
- The most common concerns church leaders have about going multisite
- The top multisite challenges churches face
- Keys to a multisite strategy
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Links & Resources from the Episode
- ECFA Mega Church Survey Report 2020
- Take a look at the Multisite Unstuck Process
- The Strategic Alignment Pyramid
- Unstuck Resources: Multisite Best Practices
- Podcast Episode 100 Managing Multisite Tensions
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Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we’re exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. You’ve probably heard it said that there are a lot of ways to do multi-site. Well, the truth is there aren’t a lot of ways to do multi-site well, and that’ll be increasingly true in 2021 and beyond. If you lead in a multi-site church or you’re thinking of going multi-site in the future, you won’t want to miss this conversation in this series as Tony and Amy discuss the best practices for post pandemic multi-site churches. If you want to get the best out of your podcast experience today, make sure you stop and subscribe to get the show notes. Each week, you’re going to get one email with resources to go along with that week’s content, bonus resources that you may not find anywhere else, as well as access to our podcast resource archive. Just go to theunstuckgroup.com/podcast and subscribe. Now let’s join Tony and Amy for this week’s conversation.
Well, Tony, I was glad to see this podcast series pop up on our planning calendar. But frankly, I was a little surprised, but over the next few weeks, we’re going to be talking about multi-site strategy and mergers. But Tony, why did you choose to talk about this conversation now?
Yeah, the topics, of course, that we talk about on the podcast are reflecting the conversations that I’m having, you’re having with pastors and with church leaders. And last year when it came to multi-site and mergers and things like that, there just wasn’t a lot of conversation around that. We were all trying together to figure out how to survive COVID, but in recent months, it’s actually one of the more common conversations I’m having with pastors in larger churches. I think pastors are beginning to think about and process with their teams around how COVID might impact multi-site and mergers going forward. And so I thought, well, let’s spend a few weeks talking about this.
Sure. It’s timely. I worked with two churches this past week and, we actually spent a good half hour on merger discussions in both of those settings. So I think it is timely. Well, let’s just start there. What’s your take on what we should expect going forward?
Yeah. So first let’s go back to pre-COVID days. I know that feels like forever ago, but there were certainly some trends that we were seeing. Leadership Network, as an example, for many years did a lot of research around multi-site, and 20 years ago there were only 200 multi-site churches that they found across the country. By 2006, that had increased to 1500 multi-site churches. And as recently as 2019, the last time they did research on multi-site, there were over 5,000 multi-site churches. And so, I mean, it’s very evident that there was a strong trend toward multi-site before COVID and then, ECFA did some research on mega churches. Last year this research came out, and they found that 70% of mega churches, and by the way, these, in church world, we talk about that term as being churches with more than 2000 people in attendance. And they found that 70% of mega churches are multi-site. So certainly for larger churches, this is a strong trend moving forward. Also ECFA found out that 50% of those churches have opened a new location just within the last five years. And so it’s not that, you know, this is something that was happening a decade ago, but it’s not happening as frequently now. The frequency has increased through the years, and multi-site churches really are finding, too, that this is a way for them to extend their ministry impact and to do that in a way that is actually financially sustainable so that they’re able to reach more people rather than continuing to invest more and more money in a single location. So, Amy, I mean, you look at all of that information pre-COVID, there was definitely a rapid increase in the number of multi-site churches. Now, the question is, of course, post-COVID, what does this mean? And honestly, I don’t think there’s anything that we’ve experienced in the last year that’s going to push large growing churches that want to have a regional impact to shift their strategy and to just begin building bigger buildings to accommodate more people. In other words, I think what we’re going to see is, if anything, what we’ve experienced in the last year is going to continue to push that trend of opening more smaller locations, smaller gatherings, in order to reach more people in the region. And I’ve admitted, I don’t claim to be a great prognosticator of the future, but my gut tells me that large churches with multiple smaller venues that are closer to where people live and that offer multiple options for service times will be better positioned for a post-COVID world than trying to gather larger crowds in the same space at the same time. So if anything, I think we’re going to see larger churches take advantage of things like the challenging commercial real estate market right now. Larger churches are going to take advantage of merger opportunities. And we’re going to talk more about that in next week’s episode. And I think we’re going to see growth in the number of campuses per church. For healthy thriving churches, this could actually be a huge opportunity for increasing kingdom impact on the other side of the pandemic.
Tony, a moment ago, you mentioned a number of trends regarding multi-site, but you and I have both been a part of a growing multi-site church in our past or churches in our past, and we’ve seen the benefit of the strategy, but it also does have challenges. And and we’ll get to those in a moment, but I’m always surprised at the multi-site myths that seem to keep great churches from considering multi-site. Can you just talk through some of the concerns that you think church leaders need to overcome?
Yeah, so one of the myths is that we’d rather focus on planting churches than multiplying through multi-site. And by the way, part of that, gosh, if God has put it into your heart and has put that passion in you to plant churches, then certainly you should pursue that. I think every healthy thriving church should be a multiplying church. And church planting is one certainly viable way that you need to consider that. Again, though, earlier I referenced the ECFA reporting that they did around mega churches back in 2020, and they actually found that multi-site churches plant more churches than single location churches. And so I think one of the myths that’s out there is that if we go multi-site that we can’t church plant as well. And the reality is multi-site churches are actually planting more churches than single location churches. So that’s one myth that I think we need to overcome. Another is that we think we can reach more people for Jesus through church planting rather than multi-site. And again, every healthy, thriving church should be a multiplying church. And certainly church planting is one viable way to reach more people for Jesus. There’s no doubt about that. But I would argue you should consider doing both. Leadership Network and Portable Church did some research back in 2018, and they found that multi-site churches are actually seeing more faith conversions than church plants. And so this is one of the reasons why I don’t think this is an either/or. If you’re going to multiply your impact, you should be considering both multi-site and church planting options. And by the way, we advocate for a church planting strategy over multi-site, depending on the situation. And so as an example, if a church is going into a unique community and it’s going to take a unique strategy to reach that community, we advocate for church planting over multi-site. But the bottom line here is we need to get beyond this myth and look at multi-site being a viable option for multiplying our impact.
Tony, you know, we’ve heard about a lot of churches trying some new strategies, even the church we worked with yesterday with kind of a home church model or, you know, building some smaller groups of people meeting in new communities. Any thoughts on that?
Yeah, I think, Amy, it’s just, it’s too early to tell. So there’ve been several churches in recent months, recent years, that have started to dabble in what church at home could look like. You know, I just, I think it’s still too soon to tell whether or not that’s going to be a viable option for multiplication, at least here in the US. Certainly in other parts of the world, we’ve seen that type of a model thrive. I’ll be honest. Some of my early conversations with churches that have approached this is they have found it to be challenging that here in the US there still is a gravitational pull for people to want to gather with larger groups of people in the church building rather than in their home. And so time will tell whether or not that really is a viable option.
Sure. All right. Well, are there other myths?
Yeah. This is one of my favorite myths to try to push against, and it’s that multi-site won’t allow us to develop more Bible teachers. You know, and honestly, I think a lot of this just comes from this aversion that pastors have to teaching on video and using video message delivery. And I get it. As teachers, even in this Zoom world, this has been so challenging for me because I can’t feel the vibe in the room as I’m teaching. And I need some of that feedback from the folks that I’m teaching to be able to really hone my message and it impacts the delivery of our message, so there’s just no doubt about it, but that’s why we really work with churches to think about how you can overcome some of those challenges related to video message delivery. And that may, as an example, include when you’re recording your message, having a group of people in the room so that you can get that feedback. And as it relates to developing more Bible teachers, we’ve always been strong advocates at The Unstuck Group for team teaching, and that can still happen even if you’re using video delivery to your multi-site locations. And so as you’re developing more multi-sites, I think what you’re going to find is it’s still going to increase the number of ministry environments at all of those locations. And because of that, it’s going to increase the demand for more teachers in those ministry environments as well. Now, let me say this. I don’t think giving practice opportunities on Sunday mornings is the best place to train up new Bible teachers. And so take advantage of those other ministry environments that will be increasing as you increase multi-site locations. And then what that will do is help you identify those folks that over time really can move towards Sunday mornings to compliment your teaching team on Sundays as well. Amy, anything you would add to that?
Yeah. Maybe I can add one of my own myths, Tony. I think they, a lot of people, when they go into multi-site, they think they can have it all. So we can do live teaching and we can do video teaching and we can do X and Y and kind of this hybrid blend of things that are identical and things that are autonomous. But, you know, we’ve said this before, when we created our multi-site offering, we did it, we thought we’d reached these large mono-sites that were ready to replicate, right? And go multi-site. But I think it’s probably like 90% of the churches that we’ve engaged in our multi-site process have three locations, and they’re multi-stuck. And the reason for that is that they tried to create the best of every world, you know, kind of cherry pick all the best things that they wanted to do, but there really is a method, and this teaching thing is a big part of it. Churches that have started with a lot of live teaching in their multi-sites are the ones that have to reinvent more than others. Do you agree with that?
Yeah. And it’s, if again, let’s put it into terms of if we were opening up a restaurant chain, and we moved from three to four to five locations, but we allowed every location to have a completely different menu, right? That’s kind of the equivalent of what happens in churches when you allow different teachers to be teaching different messages across different locations or engaging in different discipleship strategies in different locations. And it’s really an indication, again, rather than multi-site, you should be considering church planting if you think you need a completely different message and discipleship strategy and so on to reach a different group of people in a different community.
Yeah. By nature, people attach to the person who is teaching regularly.
They certainly do.
So they just kind of take on their own personality. All right. Any other myths?
Yeah. So the last myth that I might talk about here is just related to that fear of creating, kind of that cult of personality around a pastor. And, you know, the reality is that’s a risk for anybody with the pastor title. I mean, it’s a very small percentage of people in our world who claim to hear from God and then get up in front of a group of people every Sunday to deliver that message from God. So do you think there’s a chance that you might have a bit of a challenge if you’re a pastor? I think that concern around that cult of personality is typically based on someone’s familiarity with a handful of the largest multi-site churches in the country. But the reality is, again, there are thousands of pastors of multi-site churches, who you’ve never heard of. And so the concern that, you know, if I do this, people might view me as being like this. I think you need to push that back. Our goal here, of course, is to spread the gospel. And this is a method, a strategy, that thousands of churches have leveraged to continue to carry out that mission. But let me just say again, when it comes to this challenge around ego and pride, I mean, this really is an issue for every pastor, not just the pastors of multi-site churches. Without the right boundaries in place, every pastor could find themselves battling pride issues. In fact, I know several of the pastors in those largest multi-site churches personally, and I know many more pastors of churches that are pastoring, their churches are, you know, fewer than 200 people, but in both instances, there are many, many healthy, well-grounded, humble leaders. But I can assure you that the issues of pride, ego and that risk of fostering a cult of personality, they’re not solely a potential issue for pastors of large multi-site churches. There are plenty of pastors in small, single-location churches that wrestle with those same demons. So we just can’t assume this is just for large multi-site churches. I think every pastor needs to be concerned that they have the right boundaries in place when it comes to pride, ego and this challenge around creating a cult of personality.
And if you go back a few minutes ago, it’s another reason that we really promote the creation of a teaching team so that we don’t create this view that there’s only like one person who hears from the Lord and teaches his word. But having, you know, three really talented teachers tends to extend our reach broader into different demographics. And, you know, if every teacher is of high quality, that team will work against that personality issue. Well, let’s turn the corner on this conversation a bit. Earlier, I mentioned that we see some common challenges that churches face when they decide to go multi-site. So will you unpack some of those most common multi-site challenges that we see, Tony?
Well, I’ll say this in a couple of weeks, we’re going to talk about staffing and structure for multi-site churches. And because of that, I’m going to set those challenges aside for now. And we’ll come back to those and talk more about those in the third episode of thks series. It was actually the staffing and structure challenges, though, that rose to the top in my mind. So you’re going to want some back for that conversation. Amy, I can see it in your eyes. You recognize that. Yeah, we’ll get there. But also just, I want to jump into here thinking about the multi-site model itself, because this certainly is a key challenge. And here, it might be good to think about, we’ve had several in the last number of months about what we call our strategic alignment pyramid at The Unstuck Group, but it’s just making sure that in the foundation of who we are, the direction we’re heading and the actions that we’re prioritizing, that we are unified and that we are aligned. And so for a piece of getting clarity on that ministry model is making sure that in every one of those areas, think about mission, think about vision, think about our ministry strategies, that we have alignment. And I would say one of the challenges that we see around multi-site strategy is that the church really has never clarified some of those key areas of what we would consider to be foundational health in a church and directional clarity. So, Amy, and any thoughts related to that? I mean, you are constantly helping churches get alignment in those areas, but I mean, do you agree that there’s a basis for health there that needs to be in place before churches consider a multi-site strategy on top of that?
Absolutely. And you know, when we do staffing structure reviews, we use a tool called Leading From Your Strengths. And one of the areas is how we process information, and it breaks people into one of two categories. Either they’re a realistic person, which are kind of, those are the people who like to figure out the steps and the process and the details. And then there’s people on the, what they call the optimistic side, but that’s really the vision side. And the example I often use is people on the vision side, when they think about multi-site, they’re like, let’s go multi-site, it’s reaching people and they can see it. And the realistics are the ones who are going well, what’s our model going to be? How are we going to pay for it? You know, what’s the location? And so when I think about that, that’s why we misstep sometimes because our visionary leaders are the ones who are saying, let’s go. But they also, when you talk about this unified mission, vision and strategy is we have to do some pruning and we have to do some simplification because if you are a large mono-site church, my guess is there has been some complexity creep in over time. And it’s important before you start launching multi-sites that you bring simplicity and clarity to those key ministries that are going to go with you.
Yes, so again, the challenge here is churches. One of the challenges is they tend to jump into multi-site before they clarify their ministry model. And again, it’s kind of like opening a restaurant chain before determining what what’s going to be on the menu. So making sure that we know for sure this is who we are as a church, this is our ministry model, and now we’re in a much better place to start to replicate that in multiple locations. Another challenge and it’s kind of related is churches haven’t wrestled through the questions around being identical or being independent at their various locations. And this is really all about decision rights, which I know, Amy, is one of your favorite topics. And just to give some practical examples of what we’re talking about. It is. It’s determining is the message going to be identical or is it going to be independent? Is it going to be different at every location? Is our approach to worship going to be identical or is it going to be different? Are we going to do different songs, different styles of music? That’s an important conversation to have. I mean, even down to areas like kids ministry curriculum decisions, things like that. Are we going to allow children’s ministries at the different locations to decide what curriculum they’re going to use or create, or are we going to use the same curriculum at all of our locations. And those types of decisions just go on and on and on. But many churches just haven’t wrestled with those conversations about is this going to be a campus call or is this going to be a central ministry decision that we make?
Yeah. And by the way, just to add again, those are so important even before you go multi-site to understand how your organization makes decisions. We we’ve did a podcast months ago on decision rights that I challenged people to listen to. But what happens is I think we assume that we’re all on the same page with what those questions you just ask. How identical, how independent. I think we assume a lot. And one of the things we talk about with multi-site is you have to move from an oral tradition to a written tradition, and it’s so key to document those things so that everybody involved in leading and launching a multi-site has the same perspective going in.
Yeah. Quickly, a couple more challenges that are pretty common that we see. Churches trying to launch new multi-site locations that are really just too small. And then their staffing model is too big. And so it ends up not being a financially sustainable model. And I could go into a lot of detail about what you should be considering there, but launching too small is a common challenge, and then not launching in the right location is also a challenge. And we’ve seen many examples of campuses that were too close to the original sending location. We’ve seen campuses that were too far. I mean, both can be problems. And it’s just not recognizing there are some common success factors that we know to be true for churches that are trying to find the optimal location for a new campus location. And it’s just one of those examples of you don’t need to guess. There’s been, again, thousands of churches have done this and have learned what worked and what hasn’t worked. And so you don’t have to make those same mistakes over and over again.
Well, that’s why we created our offering. I still remember in Atlanta, what? Six years ago. There was a group of us. We had over 45 years of multi-site experience. And we were frustrated because you could internet search anything on multi-site and get 20 different answers. But after 20, 30 years now, with this multi-site movement, there are predictable outcomes to the choices you make. Tony, what do you think is the biggest mistake you see churches making related to multi-site?
Actually, you just alluded to it a little bit ago, but it’s falling in love with the idea of being a multi-site church before you actually invest the time and the hard work of developing a long-term, multi-site strategy. And you need to have that if you’re ultimately going to become a healthy thriving church, that happens to have multiple locations. And that is, it’s why we designed our Unstuck Multi-Site Process. We want to help you build that long-term strategy. And here, let me just, I mean, this is a sample of what we do. We help you confirm your discipleship strategy that you intend to replicate. We help you establish a ministry model for each location. We’ll facilitate that conversation around determining your teaching model. Is it going to be video or are we going to use live teachers? We’ll help you think about the decision rights. Is this a campus decision or a central decision? We’ll talk about central support ministries for all of your locations, identifying future locations, developing a launch plan, setting an optimal schedule for launching the new location. Helping you think about your campus pastor. And again, it’s a unique profile. We’ll talk more about that in a couple of weeks, but it’s a unique person with a unique wiring that makes a successful campus pastor. We’ll help you think about success. What does success look like for the new campuses that we’re launching? We help you outline your staffing and your volunteer team model to make sure it is financially sustainable and related to that, we’ll help you think about financial targets that you need to have in mind for the new campuses that you’re launching. And then finally, we’ll work with you to build an action plan, to move from where you are to where God wants you to be as it relates to your multi-site strategy. And we’re just getting started with all that. So I feel like I’m selling Ginsu knives, and it does this, and it does this. But you need this help. Again, there are thousands of churches that have walked down this path before, and not every one of them have been successful, but we’ve learned a lot working with multi-site churches through the years that can help you avoid making some common mistakes.
That’s great. All right. Well, Tony, any final thoughts before we wrap up today’s conversation?
Yeah. I’m always, obviously I have a bias for the support that we can offer for churches around coaching and multi-site strategies, no different, by the way, there are other organizations out there. If you don’t like me, at least find somebody that can help you walk through this. Don’t do this on your own. Again, just because you’ve fallen in love with the idea of multisite church doesn’t mean you’re an expert at multi-site strategy. And so if you would, though, prefer for us to come in and help give you some coaching through this, you can learn more at theunstuckgroup.com/multisite.
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