Remember way back when there were no multisite churches? Back when church planting (and releasing) was the ultimate form of sacrificial expansion for the sake of the Kingdom? Back when dinosaurs were around and roaming the earth?
Recently I was challenged by the Senior Pastor of a large megachurch (not the one I serve with) to reevaluate my thoughts on multisite and church planting. He was passionate that we could be heading down a dangerous path. He urged that American Christendom could be making a drastic mistake. At the time, he seemed to me like a man standing on the shore, trying to stop the tide from coming in.
Nevertheless, I was intrigued. I am blessed to serve on the staff of a massive multisite church and haven’t given the issue any real thought for years. Was there any chance that the man with the proverbial unkempt beard on the street corner holding the sign, “The end is near!” was actually right? Are we all lemmings following Craig Groeschel (et al.) over the cliff? Many of us work with a new generation of millennial pastors who have likely never seen or even considered any alternative.
In this article, I’ll list four (in the interest of brevity) strengths of multisite and four strengths of church planting. As is often the case, many of these strengths also hide weaknesses. Which is better? This is for each church to think/pray through and decide.
Four Strengths of Multisite
1. Multisite Equals Effective Reproduction
There is no doubt that one of the top strengths of multisite is that best practices are imported from the beginning. When a church plants a campus, it is able to immediately import that DNA into its campus. With a campus, there is no laborious reinvention of the wheel. There is no process of going from mediocre, to good, to great. This means that everything—from assimilation to discipleship to worship flow to child safety—is immediately granted like the “poof” of a genie’s granted wish. In our society today, an unprecedented level of quality is expected in every area. Beware the church that doesn’t have all their ducks in a row. After all, if a church is noticeably subpar in one area, how can visitors have confidence that the church is protecting their kids with vigilance or that the pastors aren’t pilfering?
However the practice of importing best practices comes with a warning label:
- Churches often go multisite without truly understanding (and optimizing) their own systems, despite their numerical success. In other words some systems are imported, though they aren’t yet great. A church’s success in certain areas often hides their weaknesses in others. Mediocre practices are passed on along with the strong as non-negotiable.
- The process of developing the systems from mediocre, to good, to great, is extremely beneficial. Like the butterfly who gains the strength to live by struggling from its cocoon, there is a new generation of pastors who aren’t benefiting from the struggle of process.
2. Multisite Equals the Efficiencies of Shared Staff and Resources
Another top strength of multisite is shared staff and resources. There are synergies that occur, just like in (dare I say it) a large corporation. A large multisite church commonly can have a central financial team, for example, which eliminates redundancies. Less overall staff is needed, and a much higher degree of competency and specialization can be obtained with shared staff as opposed to completely separate churches. One can analyze how this plays out in each area of a large multisite church, but in no area is this clearer than in the role of the Senior Pastor. Let’s face it—there simply are a limited number of world-class communicators. Why not compensate one pastor well versus compensating ten pastors an average amount? Ultimately what’s gained is considerably more quality and less financial waste.
3. Multisite Equals Alignment
Another strength of multisite is that everyone is very clear what the mission is and what the leadership structure is. In fact, all leaders are aligned from top to bottom or they will soon be off the team. There isn’t an internal struggle in each campus about who they’re trying to reach and how they’re trying to accomplish that. Think this is a minor detail? Spend a year in an established small church and then let me know how valuable you think this is.
4. Multisite Equals Much Greater Survival Rates
Much research has been done on church planting and multisite. Depending upon what study you believe, it seems that about eighty percent of campuses launched are still around after five years; in contrast, far less than half of church plants celebrate their fifth anniversary (many times, it’s quoted that only twenty percent of church plants survive). Considering the time and expense, these are not statistics to be ignored.
Four Strengths of Church Planting
1. Planting Unleashes a Unique Voice
Perhaps one of the most compelling arguments for church planting is that a fresh, new voice for the Gospel is created with each plant. Besides the unique expression of the Great Commission an independent church produces, multisite runs the risk of not producing additional pastors who go on to become world-class communicators. Instead, it produces pastors who are organizationally savvy and specialists in process and volunteer recruitment.
In the short term, it would seem reasonable to ask, “Why would we need two Andy Stanleys?” In the long term, when the best are no longer assertively reproducing/mentoring new Gospel communicators, the next generation of Christians is impoverished.
2. Planting Doesn’t Put All the Eggs In One Basket
From the beginning of aggressive multisite reproduction, one question has hung over the entire process: What happens when the massively multisite senior pastor falls, resigns, or suffers an untimely death? We got a chance to see with the collapse in 2014 of Mars Hill in Seattle; the church plunged into chaos over the cumulative miscues of a single senior pastor. Church planting advocates would rightly point out that the resulting fallout was much more global and damaging than if Mars Hill had simply planted and released fifteen churches instead of hanging onto them as multisite campuses.
Though an amazing level of excellence can be achieved by employing a world-class communicator, we must remember that this person is still human. Ultimately, we worship Jesus and not our senior pastor. He/she can still fall, leave, die, etc. In the majority of the cases, no one is more aware of this than these senior pastors themselves. Why put so much pressure on them?
3. Planting Keeps the Sending Church Hungry and Humble
Church planting advocates say that regular church planting keeps pastors and leadership hungry, sharp, and more dependent on God. Why? Because when you plant, tons of money and experienced leadership regularly exits the door. By contrast, catalyst campuses in multisite churches can become content to primarily fund the movement, instead of being the engines of growth they once were. This can remind us of the mature church that puts lots of money toward missions yet no longer effectively reaches the people directly around them.
4. Planting Equals Freedom
Perhaps most obvious, when a church plants and releases, that new church has freedom. Freedom to invest people and resources in the Great Commission in the way that it feels is most effective. They have the freedom to potentially reach their local culture even more effectively. They have freedom to potentially become the next great catalytic church in our country instead of “just another franchise.” They represent the freedom to loose a new and independent voice in Christianity that would likely be fired in short order from a large multisite staff before they ever had a chance to develop.
Importantly, these churches become thousands of tiny labs to develop new best practices.