A new article released by Leadership Network claims that there are now over 5,000 multisite churches in North America, and that the rate of their growth now outpaces the growth of the numbers of mega-churches. There are all kinds of other important findings too. For example, multisite churches reach more people than large single site churches, have a greater percentage of volunteers, include more of their members in ministry, and baptize more people. Multi-site congregations reach whole new communities of people who share different regional identities.
Studies also indicate that not only large churches, but also communities of all sizes are starting second and third congregations in new locations, even for different people than those that attend their sending churches. When a church has multiple congregations in the same building, they do so to either accommodate more of the same kind of people they are already reaching, reach people whose worship style preferences are different (as in a traditional church adding a contemporary worship service) or to welcome people of a different language or culture, such as a Chinese church that starts and English speaking Chinese congregation.
In that starting new congregations in other locations is still a relatively new development, some denominations have not yet decided how to relate to multi-site churches. Do they fall into the category of church growth or church health, are they church starts, or are they something in between? Or are they “half-breeds” with no real place to belong instead of real daughter churches. Here are some of the problems I see:
Older, existing congregations that decide to become multisite often have no recent background in church planting. They need support systems that help them understand church planting principles, innovations, and details, but they discover that their support systems are not structured to offer them coaches, assessment centers, or basic training. Multisite as a concept is not really even in our common evangelistic strategy. Additionally, multisite campus pastors often do not realize the real extent to which they need to know be trained in church planting to successfully start a new congregation. Denominations need to position themselves to offer training to multisite leaders, which would undoubtedly help them to experience a greater rate of success.
Second, some denominations are generally not set up to fund new multisite congregations. If there were a common funding mechanism in place, perhaps more existing churches would be able to take the plunge. “Our church planting dollars are meant for new churches” we say. As a church planting strategist, certainly I understand the prioritization. However, if the goal is evangelization and discipleship, and those things are accomplished well by multisite congregations, is there a place in our collective imagination for the possibility that dollar for dollar, proliferating multi-site churches can be a good investment?
Finally, we sometimes neglect to celebrate the multisite church. Stories about growing churches, and new churches show up in our newsletters, blogs, and denominational gatherings, but the multisite church is more rarely applauded. One thing for certain is that multisite churches are not nothing. They are a growing something, 5000 strong that God seems to be using in North America.