The impact of the economic downturn was a key concern at the XP-Seminar in Dallas, but there was plenty of upside when the conversation turned to multi-site venues.

By Ronald E. Keener

When 120 executive pastors and pastors met in February for David Fletcher’s 2010 XP-Seminar — more than half present there for the first time — the topic of the hour was the national economy and the hits that churches have taken in their budgets, building plans and outreach.

In days following, The Barna Group in a new survey says that nonprofits and churches are feeling the pinch from reductions in giving, and that 2010 will be another year of tightened giving and budgeting. The Crystal Cathedral, for example, cancelled its “Glory of Easter” pageant after 27 years, and is trying to sell its retreat center.

But if the economy was a bummer for churches at the XP-Seminar, the upbeat message was about the dynamic movement toward multi-site churches. Jim

Tomberlin, who is the go-to guy on multi-site or multicampus settings (he’s changing the name of his consultancy and Web site to Multi-Site Solutions), says what began as a band-aid for megachurches dealing with space issues or zoning restrictions is today a strategy for any healthy, growing church regardless of size. Three-quarters of multi-sites are about churches under 2,000 in attendance. “It’s not about size, but health,” he explains.

Tomberlin, who spent five years developing the regional strategy for Willow Creek church, says that the net growth for Willow in the previous decade has come primarily from its four Chicago area multi-site campuses rather than its state-of-the-art 7,200-seat auditorium added to its original South Barrington campus mid-decade.

In a December 17 article in USAToday, Lauren Green laments not “having a pastor at the door shaking hands in the ‘check-out line.’” But she’s understanding when noting, “We’re just not looking for that kind of relationship with a pastor anymore. Today, it’s all about a personal relationship with God, not the culture of a church. And a megachurch or a multi-site church can still offer this. If you are there to hear a message and it’s a powerful one, it shouldn’t matter how it’s delivered.”

Note, for example, The Chapel of Lake County(IL) that went from a church of one location to one of four locations in a year and saw attendance bloom from 3,000 to 5,000 — and a fifth campus is about to launch. Tomberlin worked with Rick Egbert, pastor of campuses, and the congregation on their strategy and says that multi-site models are using mergers, absorptions and adoptions in going the multi-site route.

Tomberlin spells out four mistakes that churches make when considering multi-site:

Having an over-concern about video teaching being accepted. Only one-third are video venues, another one-third are live, and the other ones are a hybrid. It’s about quality, not about whether it’s live. You want people to feel they are in a service, not watching the screen, he says.

Underestimating the role of the campus pastor. All rises and falls on leadership. Everything else can be great, but the wrong person can spell disaster.

Underdeveloping the launch strategy. Church plants have a high failure rate; multi-site plants have a high success rate. No multi-site has yet lost their pastor in the past 10 years.

Not anticipating the paradigm shift. Multi-site is a different way of doing church. Launching is easy, the hard part is managing the inter-campus relationships and staff organization for a multicampus strategy.

Rick Egbert says some ask why do multi-site? His response, “Why wouldn’t we?” The Chapel’s senior copastor Scott Chapman had a dynamite presentation on “The Church Unstoppable” in which he spoke of the four qualities of such a church: Spiritually transforming; relationally connected; culturally inspiring and missionally impacting.

The Chapel carries this philosophy into each of its campuses. There are some bumps along the way — like the home campus feeling an immediate drain of volunteer leaders — but they have worked it out.

The Chapel is looking beyond the Chicago area too. National Community Church in Washington, D.C. can soon begin telling people to come to church “at a theater near you.” Will it be long before another church begins offering services to “all the ships at sea”?



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