Survey finds growth & vitality in multisite church model

Rick Warren preaching via video feed to one the campuses of Saddleback Community Church in Lake Forest, Calif.

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WASHINGTON (RNS)—The vast majority of multisite churches are growing, according to a new study, and they are seeing more involvement from lay people and newcomers after they open an additional location.

multisite service425A church service at one of the campuses of Community Christian Church in the Chicago area. (RNS photo courtesy Pastor Dave Ferguson)Nearly one in 10 American Protestants attends a congregation with multiple campuses, according to findings in the “Leadership Network/Generis Multisite Church Scorecard.”

The report cites new data from the National Congregations Study, which found 8,000 multisite churches in the United States in 2012—up from 5,000 in 2010—including churches with more than one gathering on the same campus. Churches that have created worship space in a separate setting now exist in almost every state, several Canadian provinces and dozens of other countries.

Multisite churches typically operate with a main campus headed by the senior minister and one or more satellite locations. In some settings, worshippers at the satellite location watch the same sermon that’s beamed in from the central location but have their own dedicated on-site pastor, music or small group meetings.

multisite larger chart425The scorecard examined 535 responses to a survey of multisite churches that had created worship space in a separate setting.

Among the findings:

• By the end of 2013, the average church grew 14 percent since it went multisite.

• The vast majority (88 percent) report increased lay participation after having multiple locations.

• It’s still a relatively new phenomenon; 60 percent had opted for the multisite model in the last five years.

• Almost half (47 percent) have a location in a rural area or a small town.

• One in three (37 percent) started being multisite through a merger of congregations.

Although megachurches—congregations with 2,000 or more in attendance each week—pioneered the multisite concept, churches with as few as 50 people and as many as 15,000 have tried this approach, said Warren Bird, director of research at Leadership Network, a Dallas-based church think tank.

multisite planning chart425Multisite also is an international phenomenon. One-third of the congregations on Bird’s list of international megachurches are multisite.

The report points out some of the challenges of juggling more than one campus for worship. Researchers found in 2010 that one in 10 multisite churches they surveyed had closed a location.

In this new survey, some said rented space in public schools—popular options for multisite churches—are “one of the toughest places to launch” an additional site.

“I can only guess that the climate of churches renting public facilities is getting more and more difficult with the number of school boards that are declining to rent either on Sundays or to religious groups on the increase,” Bird said.

jim sheppard130Jim SheppardJim warren bird130Warren BirdSheppard, CEO of Generis, an Atlanta-based consulting firm that sponsored the report, warned it is important to have a “good, sound contract” in whatever location a church picks to set up a temporary worship space.

“If your initial location is a public school, don’t over estimate the relationship,” he wrote. “People can change, politics can get involved, and you might be forced out sooner than expected.”

Multisite church leaders report they are finding a greater percentage of “unchurched” people in their new locations than at the original location.

“Historically, a church’s greatest impact on the community is in its early years, and so the same thing is happening with a new campus,” Bird said.

Both independent congregations and those affiliated with denominations are embracing the multisite concept. Some regional denominational groups, including the United Methodists, consider mergers and other multisite options as part of their revitalization strategies.

“One of them is vibrant but needs facilities,” Sheppard said of some merging congregations in a webinar about the report. “The other one lacks vibrancy but has facilities.”

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