Posted on : Tuesday October 7, 2008

COLUMBIA, Md.—The concept isn’t new. Starbucks and McDonald’s have been doing it for years. So has Holiday Inn, one of the first hotels to create a trusted network of family-friendly hotels across the country, all with the same name.

Each of these entities developed a singular identity and translated it across multiple areas, extending its services beyond one location.

“People liked the idea of a hotel chain where you could always count on experiencing the same quality level and finding a core of common features,” shared Geoff Surratt, Greg Ligon, and Warren Bird. They are the authorsof “The Multi-Site Church Revolution,” a book that describes a growing movement of churches who expand their ministry effort through multiple locations.

“Churches are learning new ways to multiply and extend their ministry without having to pour millions of dollars into new buildings,” the authors observed, contending that the roots of multi-site churches go back to the church of Acts, which had to scatter due to persecution. Likewise, they quoted Aubrey Malphurs’ observation: “Corinth and other first-century churches were multi-site, as a number of multi-site house churches were considered to be part of one citywide church.”

Accordingly, the authors define a multi-site church as one church meeting in multiple locations—different rooms on the same campus, different locations in the same region, or in some instances, different cities, states, or nations. In addition, these churches typically share a common vision, budget, leadership and board.

“The way that churches are employing the multi-site strategy vary as much as churches do,” the authors wrote. “The approaches are not easy to categorize because most multi-site churches, especially larger congregations, are a blend of several models.”

The authors identify the following five models that best define the emerging concept, including the Video-Venue model, in which one or more on-campus environments that use video-cast sermons (live or recorded), often varying the worship style; the Regional Campus model, which replicates the experience of the original campus at additional campuses in order to make church more accessible to other geographic communities; the Teaching-Team model, which leverages a strong teaching team across multiple locations at the original campus or an off-site campus; the Partnership Model, in which churches partner with a local business or non-profit organization to use it facility beyond a mere “renter” arrangement; and the Low Risk model, which experiments with new locations that have a low level of risk because of the simplicity of programming and low financial investment involved  but that have the potential for high returns in terms of evangelism and growth.

Roger Kim of Grace Life Church in Baltimore says he follows a hybrid-type model of the multi-site church concept. He explains, “Each church has its own particular vision, focus and style, but what is same is the essence of core values and overall vision for reaching the city for Christ.”

The Grace Life network also shares staff members: a graphic designer and Roger himself, who serves as coaching and teaching pastor on all of the individual church staffs.

To date, the Grace Life network has three churches: the original Stepping Stone ministry which ministers to Johns Hopkins University students; Grace Life-Baltimore, which ministers to professionals in downtown Baltimore at the World Relief building; and The Light, which ministers to students and artists in trendy Bolton Hill.

Also, Grace Life recently helped plant The Village Church, in Hampden, which launched its first service on Sept. 14.

Presently, Kim envisions having churches in other states become part of the Grace Life network and is even in the development stage of the first international Grace Life Church in South America’s Peru.

Kim agrees with the authors, who say that developing a network of churches has many benefits. In addition to a sharing of resources and DNA (vision and core values), there is greater prayer support and accountability. The authors also point to the advantage of having an infusion of trained workers and a pre-established network for problem solving.

James Pope from North Arundel Church in Glen Burnie, Md., sees the potential of more people being reached and more churches being grown through the multi-site church concept. For the past year, he and his staff have been studying how others churches have employed the varying models.

One thing he’s learned so far: “There is no standard other than the desire for evangelism,” he said. “It’s about Kingdom building, not personal kingdom or church kingdom building, but about God’s Kingdom building.”

Recently, Pope and his staff have explored a second site in Dundalk, Md., where they’ll apply the same lessons that they learned in planting and growing North Arundel Church.

Kevin Marsico, founder and pastor of NorthStar Community Church in Monrovia, Md., puts it this way: “The bottom line is that it is all about changed lives and about more rapidly and more effectively reaching people.”

Five communities surround Marsico’s church, each with about 20,000-45,000 people. NorthStar has been strategic about starting new small groups in each of these communities with the long-term goal of adding multiple locations of NorthStar (following the Regional Campus model) or even planting new churches.

“There is so much geographical distance,” he noted, explaining that current members are never going to be able to bring their friends consistently to the original location, which now meets in Windsor Knolls MiddleSchool’s auditorium in Ijamsville.

“We are more than happy to go to them rather then them come to us,” he said. In fact, NorthStar now posts video sermons and vignettes online in an effort to reach more people.

Marsico plans to employ video-teachings until such time that the campus pastor (“face with the place”) is comfortable enough to lead the communications alone. He also says that should a church location grow enough to be independent, he is willing to release that church as a church plant.

Which begs the question: what’s the difference between expanding to multi-site and planting a new church? “The Multi-Site Church Revolution” authors say if the new campus has a vision, budget, leader or board that’s not part of the sending campus, then it’s a new church, not a multi-site campus.

They also say that many churches that began as extensions of the sending church become fully functional churches on their own. The multi-site effort gives newer leaders time to build relationships, develop teams, do community projects and develop as teachers in a safe environment until they are ready to be released as stand-alone churches.

Acknowledging that there are risks involved in any type setting, the authors say that decision makers in congregations need to sort through at least three questions before launching additional sites:

  • How healthy is your church? It’s never a good idea to reproduce an unhealthy church.
  • Is there a driving impetus behind your desire to go multi-site? “Starting a second site without a compelling drive behind it is like trying to give birth without being pregnant,” they wrote.
  • Are your key leaders behind the decision? Noting that going multi-site can stretch budgets, invite criticism from other churches, and make new demands on church leadership, the authors asserted it is critical for the senior leadership to be sold out to the concept. If not, it should be a major warning sign, they said.
  • The key question should be, “What is God saying for your church in your community?” the authors concluded.

By Shannon Baker
BCM/D National Correspondent