Misplaced perceptions of multi-site ministry

Would Jesus have set up his ministry in a regional church in a prominent town in Galilee and worry about the seating capacity?

By Scott McConnell
What are multi-site churches thinking today? When the multi-site movement emerged, it really made a lot of practical sense. A church could reach more people in more places without duplicating the back office tasks of accounting, technology, communications and employee policies and benefits.

Through new worship services in new locations, a church could make a permanent investment in people in another place. These reasons to consider multi-site all made sense. Reasonable minds could see that this approach was a viable option for a healthy, growing church.

In fact, many may have perceived that multi-site is primarily for reasons such as economic efficiency, more worship services, or seeking to do more ministry on your own. Yet the actions of many multi-site churches defy these reason-driven perceptions.

Places multi-site churches go

RiverTree Christian Church open-ed its second site in downtown Massillon, OH. Senior Pastor Gregg Nettle admitted, “From a demographic standpoint you would look at that area and say, ‘Why in the world would you want to go there?’” Instead of focusing on the lower incomes or the churches that were struggling or abandoning the area, Rivertree responded, “If we don’t, who will?”

Likewise, the chief of corrections from the local jail came to The Chapel in Libertyville, IL and said, “You know, you are starting some of these campuses. Would you ever start one in our jail?” He wasn’t talking about a jail ministry. He was talking about a campus.

The Chapel did launch that campus and they have staffed it with two people. “They minister to those inmates and we have just seen amazing things happen in their lives,” says co-pastor Scott Chapman. The impact has reached beyond the inmates to the guards, attorneys, sheriffs and judges.

Success for sites in a lower income neighborhood, jail or other places God has led multi-site churches must be defined differently. The site may not pay for itself in 12 months. In fact, it may never pay its own way. Success is more than efficiency. It is measured in the lives that are being reached in the new places.

Places of service

Some churches have the name recognition and a group of core members living in the new area to launch a site quickly. Instead of rushing to start a worship service there, we increasingly see churches who first work to show the love of Jesus Christ as they seek to reach people in the new place. Their service actually precedes their worship services at the new site. [See sidebar]

Rick Rusaw, senior minister of LifeBridge Christian Church in Longmont, CO and author of The Externally Focused Church has established service as the introductory phase of every site they establish. “We will not launch a new campus without finding ways to already be serving in the community for six to 12 months ahead of the launch,” says Rusaw. “We want our sites to be externally focused — and to see serving the community as a critical part of who we are.”

“The harder thing for us to communicate vision-wise is that we are really a church that is focused on others,” said David Parker, senior pastor of Desert Vineyard Christian Fellowship, Lancaster, CA. This “others focus” means many new sites seek to demonstrate the love of Jesus before they rush to pipe in any preaching.

Places with partners

If a church is intentionally choosing to permanently minister in several places, one would think that much of their attention would be consumed by their own sites. There are only so many ministry connections a church can have and many must be consumed by staying connected to the other sites.

This last summer Crossroads Community Church had a team from its Freeport, IL campus make a trip to its Northern Range campus in Colorado. However, they didn’t spend the majority of their time at that campus. Instead they helped a partnering ministry that meets immediate, practical needs in the lives of underprivileged people in Denver.

They wouldn’t have had that relationship if their church didn’t have a Northern Range campus. So being multi-site not only created new partnerships but also allowed Crossroads to make bigger contributions to those partnerships.

For Crossroads and other multi-site churches, involvement in missions globally is also the norm. While this is usually in the form of mission trips and partnerships, several churches literally have campuses around the world.

While keeping sites connected takes a significant investment, multi-site churches continue to defy the perception that this might limit their connections by partnering, sponsoring, and participating with more ministries to reach more people.

When we look at how Scripture describes the significance of place, one of the patterns we see doesn’t fit our typical way of thinking.

Jesus had come to preach and he quickly drew crowds. Instead of focusing on those who had heard, he moved on to other places in Israel so that more people could hear. The pattern is seen again in Acts 8 and 13.

In contrast, our thinking says Jesus’ ministry could have been maximized by setting up a regional church in a prominent town in Galilee. Seeing God at work in Samaria, we would have found a way to increase the seating capacity. With the ministerial talent in Antioch, we would improve the personnel benefits to make sure this great team stays together.

A biblical pattern of place

Yet, the pattern in Scripture is that God’s activity is not one of entrenchment but of advancement. As Kingdom impact occurred in one place, God moved them to another place.

Following the biblical pattern of going to a new place must begin with God’s specific leadership. Jesus specifically knew He came to preach in villages throughout Galilee. God sent an angel to tell Philip to get up and go. The Holy Spirit clearly spoke to the church in Antioch.

In the same way, many multi-site churches today are not following their thinking but following God’s calling. Guy Melton, senior pastor at Oasis Church, advises, “Make sure you’re called to the area! When times get tough it’s only the calling that keeps you there.”

Scott McConnell is associate director of LifeWay Research and author of Multi-Site Churches: Guidance for the Movement’s Next Generation. www.LifewayResearch.com

Where service precedes site

Many multi-site churches have service deep in the identity of their church. Showing the love of Jesus Christ as well as telling about it is a value they proactively pursue.

”We have been very outreach driven from the beginning and so the whole idea of multi-site was more a product of that than vice versa,” says David Lonsberry, executive director of business and finance at Christ Fellowship Church in Palm Beach Gardens, FL.

Their mission statement: “We are called to impact our world with the love and message of Jesus Christ.” “This means we are intentional about first demonstrating Christ’s love for people by helping them at their point of need. We often find that this then opens a person’s heart and leads to opportunities to share the message of Christ. Serving and adding value to others and then pointing them to Christ has been at the center of who we are from the very beginning,” says Lonsberry.

“We are constantly seeking to make a difference through practical acts of love. We call it ‘being the Hands and Feet of Jesus.’ There are also several, more intensive ministries we’ve birthed out of this mission. One of them is a children’s home called Place of Hope, which has as a priority to bring together displaced sibling groups, and it has become a model for our state’s foster care system in terms of quality of care and how we partner with local agencies. The whole idea of going multi-site was birthed out of this heart for outreach — to reach people where they are,” he says.

Another multi-site church with outreach ministries is Cedar Park Church` in Bothell, WA. They call them “auxiliary ministries.” While these ministries are visible in the community, they wouldn’t necessarily be recognized as a church based ministry.

“These ministries exist for no other reason, than to give us an inroad,” said Craig Gorc, senior associate. These ministries include a thrift store, a mechanics ministry, a counseling ministry, a sports league, a recording studio, and a camping system.


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