January 25, 2017
The multisite church may have been an innovative idea among large, cutting-edge congregations when they first started to appear in the 1980s. Now, though, multisite has become the mainstream model for expansion among healthy, growing churches of all sizes.
Today, more than 5 million people attend one of the 5,000-plus multisite churches across North America. And it doesn’t show signs of slowing down.
More Than Multisite
In the recently released CKN/Barna study, More Than Multisite, co-sponsored by Aspen Group and Fishhook, more than 200 pastors of actively expanding churches from across the country were surveyed and interviewed to learn the pros and pitfalls of implementing a multisite or church planting strategy for church expansion.
“We went into this research with a hypothesis that churches that are launching new congregations are just trying to find more space for more people,” says David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group.
“What we discovered was that the main reason that pastors go multisite or plant churches is around the strategic vision of trying to reach a particular part of a city that they were unable to reach.”
In fact, More Than Multisite revealed one of the important tenets of current effective church models: Nearly every reproducing church is primarily motivated by a desire to live out a specific calling to reach a community (whether a neighborhood or a region) with the gospel.
Building to Multiply
In 2015, Dave Ferguson, lead pastor of Community Christian Church and co-founder of Exponential, invested significantly into a major church renovation and addition at their original campus, referred to as the “Yellow Box.”
Though the auditorium and new lobbies provide a top quality venue for many types of events, it’s the addition of another new space—a second-floor, glass-enclosed training center—that may have the greatest impact on both the church and the community.
“Our heartbeat is to train and equip future leaders,” says Ferguson, who co-founded the NewThing Network, a global church planting movement. “Our new auditorium will help us reach thousands. But the training center will help us reach tens- or hundreds of thousands.”
The Yellow Box training room is used to mentor and train new pastors, church leaders, and leaders of every kind, including local school districts and businesses. “I think we’ll look back and see that our greatest investment will be in the training center,” says Ferguson.
In 2016, Exponential released Becoming a Level 5 Multiplying Church, which introduced a framework to help churches identify where they are on a multiplication scale of Level 1 through Level 5. They also released an Assessment Tool for churches to find their level.
Exponential estimates that 80 percent of churches are Level 1 and Level 2—declining or plateauing. And they suggest about 16 percent of churches would fall at the Level 3 range, and 4 percent are Level 4 reproducing churches. That leaves well less than 1 percent that would qualify as a Level 5 multiplying church.
Leadership is the Key
Level 5 churches may be hard to find for a few reasons, chief among them: the need for a steady flow of leaders to start and lead new faith communities.
In the More Than Multisite research, the second tenet for multisites and plants that reported effective growth is this: Leadership is one of the key determinants of the pace and model of growth.
Patrick O’Connell, director of the church planting organization, NewThing, is passionate about the need for creating new leaders for any church that desires to multiply.
“If you’re dreaming about starting movements to achieve the Jesus Mission, you will need to plant sites and churches that can then plant more sites and churches. This is multiplication,” O’Connell says.
“And, if you’re going to plant more churches and start more campuses, then you must be intentional about developing more leaders at all times. And to do that, you need both a leadership pipeline and a leadership path.”
Reaching Higher Levels
The advent of multisite and church planting strategies in recent decades has introduced unprecedented opportunity for the church as a whole. The multi-ministry approach has become increasingly common—and it has created new challenges and complexities for leaders.
But has it inadvertently created a limitation to the church’s true expansion potential? Can churches leapfrog past Level 3 and move beyond adding and reproducing to true multiplication? Is “Becoming 5” even attainable for the average church pastor and his flock?
“Multisite is now a tool in the church leader’s toolbox,” said Jim Tomberlin, a pioneer in the multisite movement and founder of Multisite Solutions. “It’s a valid, legitimate strategy. But today it’s time to think about how we’ll do multisite and go beyond to true multiplication. We need to learn how to unleash and unlock the reproductive potential in every church.”
“It’s clear that the driver for doing multisite or planting can’t be a simple growth strategy,” says Ed Bahler, CEO of Aspen Group, and a founding member of the Cornerstone Knowledge Network (CKN), which commissioned the Barna More Than Multisite study.
“If it’s going to be healthy, if it’s going to be effective, it’s got to be driven by a deeper-rooted mission. At the core of it has to be building leaders and disciples for future generations. It has to go from simple growth to depth, purpose, and exponential impact.”
For more resources for multisites, check out these excellent resources:
- More Than Multisite—download a free sample chapter from the full research report and explore this growing library of resources for multisite churches
- Exponential’s Multiplication and Multisite channels—articles and other resources for multiplying churches
- Multisite Solutions—resources for best practices for multisite churches by Jim Tomberlin and Wade Burnett
- Leadership Network’s Multisite archives—a collection of articles, videos, and books for multisite leaders