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An effective multi-site ministry calls for intentional analysis

Key elements of master-planning for multiple church campuses require a detailed decision-making process.

Tom Greenwood

Many large and growing congregations often think seriously about starting regional branches of their churches to spread the Christian message. The multi-site church trend has proven very rewarding for some churches, but not without each church backing up the fervor underlying it with a wise analysis and decision-making process.

By some estimates, 1,500 to 2,000 churches have started mult-site locations in the U.S. We’ve discovered our church clients who intend to implement or expand an existing multi-site concept are learning the value of creating a strategic approach to planning those facilities.

Several of our church clients have launched a total of nine successful satellite locations. Leading the pack is the much-watched Fellowship Church, in Grapevine, TX, with three church campuses in nearby cities and one in Florida. What the churches learned along the way could help other congregations that are thinking and praying about doing the same.

‘One church, many locations’

The multi-site church concept is best summed up in the phrase “One church, many locations.” Existing churches open second or third locations in another part of a city, county or, in cases like Fellowship, in completely different states. The concept seems to be working for a variety of reasons: resources are shared, there’s a unity of purpose and the leadership’s strength from the existing church serves the new churches too.

Congregations like Gateway Church in Southlake, TX, say good discernment and planning should precede any major decisions. Gateway launched a satellite church last November. Located just eight miles from their primary location, the second site shares the same church name, staff resources, operational costs and ministerial leadership. Worshipers see and hear the pastor’s sermon on large screens in the sanctuary via delayed broadcast. One campus pastor serves the church, but has an office back at the Southlake location. Otherwise, the second congregation provides its own worship music and programming.

Given each congregation’s one-of-a-kind character, history and approach to ministry, it’s hard to cite definitive steps to launch a satellite church. It’s not a cookie-cutter kind of process and there are many variations of the same model, each customized to do what works for each congregation.

Some churches have seen their multi-site ministries grow organically, either as a response to rapid growth or as a special opportunity for ministry. However at some point all churches intentionally begin to think through the dynamics that fuel current and future multi-site facilities. So how does a church begin to get its arms around their multi-site facility strategy?

Full-fledged phenomenon

Because the multi-site movement has now grown into a full-fledged phenomenon, there are a number of key practitioners, or teaching churches, which are excellent sources of experience. However, there is great value in tapping into the knowledge of professional facility planners, architects and construction consultants. Outside consultants who can assist in helping the church understand the financial and budget requirements of multi-site approaches are also invaluable in forming a holistic picture of good strategic ministry planning.

Before making specific decisions for launching a new location, church leaders should evaluate the validity of the mission and vision of their churches. Are core values and purposes for doing ministry and serving God and others in line with the new endeavor?

Next, leaders should take a solid look at the church’s health, analyzing strengths and weaknesses. Starting a Christian community at another address will tend to reflect similar factors.

For Gateway, the issue came down to accommodating explosive growth. Six worship services were occurring at the main facility to provide for more than 7,000 in attendance. Church leaders realized attendees came from other burgeoning Dallas/Fort Worth suburbs to the west of their current church site. That’s where a new site was targeted.

Conduct a demographic study

Planting another church site un-doubtedly requires a demographic study. The church’s data should reveal what faraway ZIP codes have active or inactive attendees for starters. Additional visits to prospective areas will reveal whether a satellite church is needed or whether the location has plenty of churches there already. An initial evaluation should also include financial health since a second location will create new expenses that existing congregants will help fund.

Finally, leaders should gauge the existing members’ spirit and behavior to determine whether they will support a second or third location in “word and in deed.” Existing members make great volunteers for new locations. Similar consideration should be made of the existing staff. What responsibilities will change? How will their workloads change? Should more staff be hired?

To Doug Sluiter, executive director of campus development at Gateway Church, the issue comes down to:
•    Is it part of the vision of the church and its leaders?
•    Is there a demand?
•    Is there a base of support?
From a facility standpoint, potential locations should be evaluated from the outside site first. Parking needs, traffic patterns on weekends, visibility of the building, and permissible signage are just a few of the key considerations.

Drain on volunteers

Warehouses, “big-box” retail stores, movie theaters and even old church buildings are all options. Leasing a local public school is a popular choice and yet, while affordable, meeting in a school is also demanding on volunteers who must carry in and out much of the necessary furniture, AV equipment and other items each week.

It’s also important to understand a municipality’s zoning restrictions. Cities usually require more stringent obligations for church sites. That’s due in part to the fact that churches are like major event venues in which hundreds of people converge on the premises at the same time.

Consideration of a building’s interior to be adapted for a church use will require defining space expectations for all age groups and ministries. Most important is the space for worship since it demands higher ceilings, good accessibility and traffic flow and large unobstructed spaces.

If renovating an existing space, a church must consider electrical, HVAC and plumbing loads that are generally much greater for churches than other businesses. Restrooms must be larger, exits must meet safety codes and changes like raising ceilings and relocating columns may be required.

Opportunity for special focus

Gateway purchased a vacant 50,000-square-foot supermarket for its second location. The span of open space permitted the design of an 800-seat worship center, children’s areas, a large lobby, as well as a 15,000-square-foot youth section, correlating to their special focus on youth ministry.

Undoubtedly, current technologies and our culture’s comfort watching action on a screen, has helped the growth of multi-site. Since many locations rebroadcast the sermon of a lead pastor from the main campus, the church must decide whether to produce a live simulcast or a delayed broadcast.

Simulcasting can have tremendous challenges in both the cost and ability to run a tight schedule at multiple locations. For some, congregations such as Fellowship Church, a more achievable approach can be recording and delivering a DVD with sermon to the sister church across town. The technology choice is one that should be carefully weighed based on cost, staff to support and desired ministry environments on each campus.

Not to be underestimated is the importance of exporting the inspiring spirit ministry of the existing church to its other campuses. Every church has distinguishing characteristics and cultures that both members and visitors find familiar and comfortable. In marketing terms, it’s called the church’s “brand.”

Consistency is important

Leaders should determine how their church’s brand will be reintroduced and maintained at the second location. What architectural elements are vital? Consistent design in printed materials, graphics and signage are also important. The exception would be in starting a new congregation with a different target audience or with approaches or ministries unique to the new church.

Since every church is unique, no formulaic approach works for creating a master-plan for multi-site expansion. But that doesn’t mean it’s not important. “There’s no real magic in a strategic plan, it just helps you evaluate things,” says Sluiter. “It’s not hypothetical, but shows you real patterns, real objective data.”

By following these and other steps — steps that have proven important for other churches who have made similar commitments — congregations can achieve their desired missional goals of changing the world one nearby community at a time.

Tom Greenwood is director of church services at The Beck Group, Dallas, TX, an architecture and construction firm serving churches throughout the world. [beckgroup.com]

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