Lost in Space?

From video uplinks to satellite small groups, why successful churches take the risk of multi-site ministry.
Some of the 200 people at National Community Church's 11 a.m. service this Sunday may catch a personal glimpse of senior pastor Mark Batterson. But his sermon will emanate from a theater screen at Union Station's American Multi-Cinema.

That's because the video message will be recorded Saturday night before 150 worshipers at nearby Ebenezers, the $2.5-million coffeehouse the church opened March 15. Ten miles away in the Regal Cinema theaters at the Ballston Common Mall, 250 people will view the same video—part of the church's plans to spread the gospel along stops serviced by the Washington, D.C., subway system.

The 10-year-old church decided to establish its second location at the mall in 2003 after recognizing it would be foolhardy to leave its theater-based setting in the middle of the capital's leading tourist destination.

"One day I had this vision of meeting in Metro stops throughout the area," Batterson recalls. "It was a paradigm shift. It changed the way I thought. We view ourselves as a mobile church. We're going to continue to have fluidity and be a church meeting in the marketplace."

While National Community Church is a trendsetter branded by its theater church.com Web site, it is riding a wave that supporters believe may counteract predictions of a precipitous decline in traditional church attendance.

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"Multi-site" is the newest catchphrase for churches that find themselves hindered by zoning codes, tax-hungry municipalities, lengthy driving distances for some members and a thirst for more community in congregational life. A survey by noted author and church consultant Thom Rainer (now president of LifeWay Christian Resources) showed that 33 percent of churches were exploring this approach in 2005, compared to only 5 percent in 2003.

Though the movement is gathering steam, some churches have maintained additional locations for 15 to 20 years, with their roots extending back two centuries. Founded in 1681, after the Revolutionary War the Circular Congregational Church of Charleston, South Carolina, faced a challenge that sounds positively modern. Its rapid growth was outstripping the sanctuary's capacity.

To resolve the dilemma, in 1787 Circular built a second meetinghouse. For the next 25 years, two co-pastors preached in both places, alternating between morning and afternoon services. The arrangement ended when the second facility became an independent congregation.

Though the concept may not be new, the high-tech revolution has extended its reach. Thus, multi-sites can be close (Seacoast Church [seacoast.org] in Mt. Pleasant, has one a quarter-mile away) or remote (Oklahoma City's Life Church (lifechurch.tv), maintains a campus 1,000 miles to the west in Mesa, Arizona.

Large churches lead the way in this experiment, but multi-sites grow in rural soil as well. First United Methodist Church of Sedalia, Missouri, numbered just 136 people when pastor Jim Downing Sr. persuaded members to build a second facility. Today more than 750 attend, and the church plans to expand to a town 10 miles away.


Warren Bird of Leadership Network (leadnet.org) predicts that in the next few years 30,000 churches (about 9 percent of all U.S. churches) will use multiple sites to transmit their message across their cities and the world.

The director of research for the Dallas-based ministry, which works primarily with megachurches, says the leading factors driving the multi-site phenomenon are evangelistic outreach (55 percent), a desire to get closer to a target group (21 percent) and overcrowding (19 percent.)

"The number of churches doing multi-site is increasing significantly each year," Bird says. "Our initial 2001 forum on the topic drew 75 registrants. We are making plans to host more than 1,000 at a conference in February 2007."

Along with Geoff Surratt and Greg Ligon, Bird wrote The Multi-Site Church Revolution: Being One Church in Many Locations (see executive summary on page 26). Among their observations:

  • More than 1,500 churches feature multi-site operations, including 25 percent of megachurches, nine of the 10 largest and seven of the 10 fastest-growing.
  • Up to 20 percent of churches are considering multiple sites because of problems with parking, seating or zoning regulations.
  • Some 25,000 churches already use image magnification, a key component of multi-sites that rely on live or taped transmission of sermons.
  • Cost factors are a key consideration, with additional sites in leased or smaller spaces more economical than traditional starts. They also offer such efficiencies as central accounting, record-keeping and staff.

    Although roughly half the practitioners use some form of videocast, one of the book's points is that there is no dominant model.

    Examples include:

  • Seacoast Church, which ships videotapes of senior pastor Greg Surratt's sermons to its eight other locations within a 200-mile radius of Charleston.
  • In Longwood, Florida, Northland: A Church Distributed (northlandchurch.net) uses both high-tech video links and DVD recordings to reach its five locations.
  • Before turning over its second location to the campus pastor last year, Zachery Tims Jr. of New Destiny Christian Center (ndcc.tv) in Apopka, Florida, hopped in a helicopter for a 37-mile ride to Kissimmee, Florida.
  • In Indianapolis, pastor Jeffrey Johnson Sr. drives to each of three campuses of Eastern Star Church (easternstarchurch.org).
  • Each of four locations of Chartwell Baptist Church (chartwellchurch.org) in Oakville and Mississauga, Ontario, offers live sermons by campus pastors.


    Unlike some "copycat" trends, the multi-site phenomenon seems to have sprouted virtually independently among churches across the nation. Though some congregations have studied others first, many acted as the need for more space or better community outreach surfaced.

    Peter Roebbelen, who started one of the earlier experiments at Chartwell Baptist, discovered this phenomenon's organic nature after securing a three-month study grant in 2001.

    "One thing I learned is there is no one model, no one pattern," Roebbelen says. "Multi-sites' ways of doing things are very dependent on the local setting, community, gifts and people God has put there. This model was popping up everywhere. It seemed like it was a movement of God that was neat to see."

    Roebbelen says Chartwell "backed into it" after responding to God's direction 13 years ago. After packing its sanctuary at two services, leaders met to decide whether to stay downtown or move to a suburban site.

    "We came back from the retreat and heard the Lord saying we were supposed to stay and not build a big church," he notes. "We had no idea how significant that decision was going to be."

    Chartwell made mistakes initially, such as launching its second site with too small a core group. Yet, the church adapted along the way. It even extended the concept to its original location, which reaches separate Sunday constituencies at 9 a.m. and 11 a.m.

    In Sedalia, Missouri, First United Methodist (firstsayyes.com) was on the verge of splitting in 1997 because of disagreements over whether to relocate to a donated 16-acre parcel of land. Pastor Tim Downing Jr. resolved the dispute by asking parishioners to show photos of their children and grandchildren to one another. When he asked how many of those offspring were in church, the smiles dissolved.

    The pastor posed the question: What if we are supposed to be the church for youngsters who move here from other places? What if we tried to do that by building a second facility? At the time, the church knew that First Methodist in Houston had established another location west of the city after running out of space downtown. But for specifics, the Sedalia church forged ahead on its own.

    Today, its Celebration Center campus features worship and classroom space, a theater, a bookstore, a woodworking shop, art studio and recording studio. Yet, traditionalists are happy that they can worship downtown, where Downing drives after preaching twice at the newer facility.

    "We've seen the beauty of the 'and' instead of the 'either/or,' " Downing says. "We added to [the church] locations, services and ministry. The new building is available for social events—and we don't leave a ministry gap downtown."

    Seacoast Community Church entered the multi-site arena by force. Then attracting 3,500 people to three Sunday services, in 2001 the city government rejected its plans for a 4,000-seat auditorium. Straining for answers, senior pastor Greg Surratt and a church leader hopped on an airplane for a whirlwind tour of multi-sites in California and Illinois. Their verdict: "We think this can work."

    "When we first encountered city council, we were stuck," teaching pastor Geoff Surratt says. "All we knew is you grow, build an auditorium and fill it. When we were offered our first [off-site] auditorium in 2002, we didn't know if it would fly."

    More like soar. After opening the facility down the street, Seacoast decided to offer a video service 100 miles away. Today congregants in nine auditoriums over a 200-mile radius view Greg Surratt's sermons, and a Greensboro, North Carolina, church wants to affiliate. By 2010 Seacoast hopes to reach 18 to 20 sites to bring megachurch resources into community-church-size settings. Even in a widespread network like Seacoast, intimate relationships are possible, Geoff Surratt says.

    "For us, community starts in small groups and at every one of our campuses small groups is their focus," says Surratt, also a leadership community director with Leadership Network. "Each campus has a campus pastor, and we tie together in various ways. We meet with campus pastors almost every week, and we acknowledge each campus every week in our message."

    In Apopka, Florida, pastor Zachery Tims Jr. uses multi-site for church-planting. Three years after New Destiny Christian Center started its Kissimmee site, he sensed God directing him to turn over the church to the campus pastor. Today Tims is searching for property for another site.

    "I definitely feel a pull to the east side [of Orlando]," says Tims, who credits Houston pastor I.V. Hilliard—who recently purchased Lakewood Church's old sanctuary—with inspiring him to experiment. "God has a way of giving me assurance and not giving me the totality of the picture until I'm halfway into it."


    Despite the cost advantages of using schools, storefronts, hotels and other nontraditional venues, multi-sites aren't always cheaper. Northland: A Church Distributed in Longwood, Florida, spent $1 million on fiber optics and related equipment to start broadcasting its services to a high school auditorium one mile away in November of 2001.

    Kevin Urichko, distributed-site pastor for the Orlando-area church, says Northland's inspiration originated with a Revelation-based vision to reach every tongue and tribe with the gospel.

    "This is more difficult and expensive than any other model we've seen," Urichko says of their high-tech system, but adds that it provides worshipers an awareness of the larger body of Christ.

    "Everyone who goes to church on Sunday knows there are other churches worshiping, but to see folks are worshiping 30 miles away or across the world focuses them on a common mission. This is to give people a foretaste of heaven."

    Cost concerns are one of many factors pastors and church leaders face before moving to a multi-site model. Warren Bird of the Leadership Network spells out three considerations:

    First, how healthy is your church? Is it growing? Are members excited about bringing family and friends? Launching a second site will not bring health to an ailing church, nor is it wise for unhealthy churches to reproduce. Bird suggests those who aren't sure to take the Natural Church Development assessment (ncd-international.org).

    Second, is there a driving impetus? Leaders of successful multi-sites told Bird they opened another site because they didn't see any other options. Others had a sense of mission or wanted to take their ministries into members' neighborhoods: "In each case, though, multi-site was not seen as merely another program or strategy but rather a key component in fulfilling their God-inspired vision."

    Finally, do key leaders back the decision? Multi-sites can stretch budgets and leaders while inviting criticism from other churches. If senior leadership isn't sold on the concept, Bird says that should be a major warning sign.

    Though pastor Jim Downing Jr. of First United Methodist of Sedalia, Missouri, affirms those observations, he calls the pastor the key to progress, saying he can't lead people to a place where he isn't willing to go.

    Traditionally, Downing says United Methodist pastors have functioned as chaplains who are experts in hand-holding and ministry maintenance. Moving to multi-site sparked a desire for more, changing his view from pastoring a church to shepherding his entire county.

    "For me, it's been to realize there's a whole host of people in the community who are waiting for a church to make a place where they can be loved, and a place they can come and work out a relationship with God without being judged," Downing says.

    Tims emphasizes that putting the right person in charge of the extended location will make it or break it.

    "They become an extension of your character and person," he says. "Don't give the wrong people authority in an extended church. I look at it as a baby church: it's easier to kill a baby. Their immune systems are weaker."


    When Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, launched its first off-site location last Easter at San Clemente High School, it had a built-in community awareness, says Gerald Sharon, pastor of regional campus development.

    Sharon, who envisions multiple locations in coming years for Rick Warren's nationally known megachurch, says exporting the Saddleback name some 20 miles south of its Lake Forest campus had many advantages.

    Although it would have been easy to plant a church the traditional way, Sharon says, new congregations face skepticism and questions about teaching, beliefs and identity.

    "When we got there and it had the Saddleback name connected with it, there was already a reputation in the community," he notes. "We didn't have those initial barriers to overcome."

    Yet, talking about brand awareness and consistency raises the threat of a "McChurch"-type model that spreads a type of stale conformity. Though Scott Thumma of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research (hirr.hartsem.edu) thinks multi-sites are a creative response to structural problems, he sees potential drawbacks that few participants acknowledge.

    The leading one is splitting a congregation into various parts and promoting the potential assembling of groups by race, ethnicity or occupation—in the same way cities develop around various subgroups.

    "You see that where churches have multiple services," says Thumma, a professor of sociology of religion and Web/distance education at the Connecticut seminary. "The older people come at 9 and the younger families at 11. You run a greater risk of that where you have multiple locations."

    Thumma also questions multiplying the same presence, pointing to the Calvary Chapel and Vineyard movements expanding the last three decades because of their church-planting emphasis. With multiple congregations relating to one senior pastor, he wonders not so much about the "franchising" of church as he does whether a multi-site church can see itself as one.

    "A church has its own potential and implications for the larger Christian world," Thumma says. "I haven't heard too many folks talking about multi-site vs. spinning off into multiple congregations that would have the potential of eclipsing the original church."

    Even proponents recognize there are challenges to overcome. Two challenges Roebbelen identifies are communication and petty jealousy.

    He says achieving effective communication within one congregation is bad enough, but it multiples as you add sites. And, in the same way siblings fight at home, they squabble in multi-site environments.

    "There are sibling fights over multiple demands and limited resources," Roebbelen says. "One congregation gets a video projector and another sees it and says, 'Why didn't I get one?' or 'Why is the youth pastor spending too much time over there?' That kind of stuff can get intense at times."

    There are others challenges. In Bird's survey of 1,000 multi-site churches, respondents named such problems as launching too soon, losing momentum because of waiting too long or underestimating start-up costs.

    Despite these barriers, proponents proclaim a bright future for multi-sites. Addressing one criticism, Bird says he doesn't know anyone who advocates a McChurch approach to cloning a church. Nor does he think multi-site pastors will turn into oversized egos.

    "The potential 'superstar preacher' impact is blunted due to the importance placed on the local campus pastor, who in ways tag teams with the videocast preacher."

    Geoff Surratt notes that the multi-site movement is in many ways a downsizing movement. Most churches he consults with are asking how they can start small sites. This trend is reflected by North Coast Church in Vista, California, which has nearly 6,000 at its Sunday services. Yet, none of its venues seat more than 600.

    Although there aren't enough church buldings to accommodate the unchurched across the nation, there are plenty of schools, theaters and coffeehouses to do the job, Surratt says. In the multiple venues he envisions, churches will thrive in every environment imaginable, challenging demographer George Barna's prediction of traditional church attendance dwindling in half by 2025.

    "I see multi-site becoming a backbone of a structure where we can make an impact on the number of unchurched people in the country," Surratt says.

    "The multi-site community isn't a bunch of Starbucks-type clone copies of this perfect model. It's a lot of connected campuses that have a common DNA but reach their communities in individual ways and individual sizes."

    With this movement unleashing its reach, it will be interesting to watch America's spiritual life unfold in the next two decades.

    A freelance writer in Huntington, West Virginia, Ken Walker collaborated with management consultants Chris and Vicki Gaborit on their book, God's Apprentice. It will be released in October by Destiny Image.
    Passing the Baton

    Five lessons I learned from multi-site ministry.
    By Zachery Tims Jr.

    Not everything we start are we meant to finish—but what God starts He finishes! Today, I am the senior pastor of more than 7,000 members at New Destiny Christian Center in Orlando, Florida, a church we started with six members in 1996.

    It was when our growth began to explode that God challenged me with one of the greatest lessons of my life as a pastor: how to let go of something I wanted to keep.

    On the first Sunday that we moved out of our storefront church into a 600-seat facility on a 12-acre property, the crowds were standing-room-only, and eventually we began holding as many as three to four Sunday services—plus mid-week meetings. Being constantly stretched to the limits indicated that it was time to duplicate our ministry work in another community in Central Florida.  

    God expects anything He creates to grow. Pastors who embrace this principle must also embrace a level of determination to make room for change. God's work on this earth comes with conditions and transitions. We must be ready to face the challenges and not put limitations on how God wants to build His church.

    The Bible is clear showing us that the children of Israel had to move with the glory cloud in their 40-year determination to reach the Promised Land. Moses, a visionary of purpose, divinely selected by God, hadn't a clue of the things to come, but he was willing to obey God by following the glory cloud.

    Moving to the next level means letting go of the previous level. I have found that God doesn't reveal the entire vision of your ministry to you all at once. You may start out in one direction only to have God transition you into another direction—or even into a journey that you are not called to finish. 

    Moses was called to lead God's people out of Egypt, yet the baton he was commissioned to carry was later passed to Joshua to take them over into Canaan. If you are obeying God in your ministry work, there will be seasons of transition that will require you to let go of what you want to keep and pass the baton to someone else.

    I struggled with the challenge of the transition, but I knew, without any doubt, that I had to run this race and obey God. Like any team player, I realized it was not for the glory of one but for the glory of many.

    Out of our main church body of about 2,000 members, a new congregation was birthed and located just south of us in Kissimmee, Florida. We placed billboards throughout the community to promote the New Destiny Christian Center vision as "one church in two locations." I preached multiple services at both locations, taking a helicopter from one venue to another in order to be on time.

    As both the north and the south churches began to flourish exponentially and supernaturally, I perceived in my heart that the vision had accelerated and that God was preparing me for yet another challenging transition.

    Recognize and develop quality leadership. These must be faithful people who are qualified primarily by their ability to live holy lives and obey the Word of the Lord. It may not be the most obvious prominent leader in your church. It could be someone out of obscurity who has demonstrated humility and faithfulness "on the back side of the desert"—someone who is submitted to the ministry and humbly serves for the glory of God and not vain glory. Jesus had 12, yet out of the 12 He identified three He could trust to walk with Him into higher levels of ministry.

    God made it very clear to me that it was time to pass the baton and release the south church to become independent, under its own leadership of pastors I ordained. I struggled with this in my flesh. It felt as if I were severing a limb or giving up the child I labored into birth, nurtured and protected for two years.

    When we first launched New Destiny Christian Center South, I did not know this is what God would require of me. In fact, I believe He did not reveal this to me until later when it happened because I may not have accomplished that assignment with as much zeal had I known. The challenge to pass the baton was not easy for me, but I wanted to obey God's will and the harvest of souls the south church is producing to this day confirms it was in God's plan.

    God is raising up an apostolic group of pastors who have a pioneering, trailblazing anointing. Of course, the concept is not new. By his New Testament example, the apostle Paul pioneered ministries, ran the race, and passed the baton to faithful sons and daughters.   

    God has promised to build the church, so it's His glory cloud and not yours. Early in your ministry growth, pray for God to reveal your 12 and then your three. Nurture the components of the vision to duplicate your ministry. Prepare to release and birth the inheritance of your seed with financial and physical support, and as you pass the baton of God's glory in ministry growth to another, enjoy the operation of the gifts in public worship.

    Zachery Tims Jr. is senior pastor of New Destiny Christian Center in Apopka, Florida. After launching the satellite campus New Destiny Christian Center South in Kissimmee, Florida, Tims transferred senior pastoral leadership to Michael Phillips. Tims is the author of the upcoming book It's Never Too Late (Charisma House).
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