Mainline & Multi-Site


The multi-site movement is growing. Several months ago USA Today featured an article on the growing phenomenon.   The Leadership Network and Hartford Institute for Religion Research reported that among U.S. Protestant megachurches, 37% reported having two or more locations under the same leadership in 2008.  Of the USA’s 100 largest churches, 67% now have two or more sites and 60% of the 100 fastest-growing churches also have multiple sites, according to the annual listings of the USA’s largest churches in Outreach magazine’s October issue.

Increasingly, in my role as Alban’s Large Church Specialist I am being called upon to engage congregations who are experimenting with various expressions of multi-site ministry.  The congregations I’ve been working with on multi-site issues are large congregations, but they are definitely not megachurches.  The multi-site movement may have emerged from within the evangelical megachurch; however, many moderate and liberal mainline congregations are experiencing great success with multi-site venues. This is not a passing phase. It is a new organizational expression of congregational life that is popping up everywhere.

There aren’t many places to turn to learn about multi-site ministry, and research on the movement is still pretty sketchy. The Leadership Network  is the primary group offering voice, vision and training for multi-site efforts. However, their expression of multi-site is decidedly evangelical and theologically conservative.  Their material doesn’t always translate well into more moderate and liberal environments. I attended their training and while I learned a lot about multi-site structures and vision-casting, I continually encountered material that I knew wouldn’t resonate with the congregations I engage (primarily because their language excludes female leadership, and they assume that all congregations define growth by numerical standards).

Here are the similarities and differences that I’m noticing in the mainline expression of multi-site.

Both the evangelical and the mainline approach to multi-site focus on the Great Commission; finding ways to spread a message beyond the confines dictated by a particular location.  Both evangelical and mainline approaches seek to leverage the resources of large, successful congregations; finding ways to spread the impact of an experienced and well resourced team, by expanding the number of venues/expression of worship and programs.

Evangelical churches engage multi-site ministry heavily steeped in the core value of ministry multiplication; new leaders, new services, and new sites.  Success is measured by the ongoing numerical expansion of a singular Gospel message. Consequently, the primary organizational expression of multi-site in the Evangelical Church employs the following models: the New Venture Model (a church planting kind of approach), the Satellite Model (one mother church that other smaller churches orbit around) or the Video Venue Model (one remarkable preacher whose presence is extended to multiple locations through video technology). These are the multi-site expressions that the Leadership Network services well.

Churches with more liberal leanings are coming at multi-site ministry from a different perspective, prompted by a different set of values. Theologically moderate and liberal churches are also seeking to promote the growth of “something” but the “something” takes on different expressions in different places. Some mainline churches are engaging multi-site primarily as a way to more effectively serve multi-cultural communities. Each culture can embrace a unique worship expression, dedicated pastoral leadership, and a contextualized interpretation of the Gospel; all under the stable umbrella leadership of a large congregational entity.  

Other mainline churches are engaging in multi-site to better leverage denominational resources. In these instances a thriving large congregation takes one or more smaller, struggling congregations under their wing to revitalize programming and worship. The entire new entity functions as a singular congregation. This approach strengthens and protects regional denominational presence and identity.

Still other mainline expressions of multi-site are seeking to reproduce effective and excellent worship venues through the Encore Model (the entire worship service is reproduced live, in multiple settings on the same day or weekend. This often involves the senior minister and the choir being chauffeured from one location to the next for live worship in each setting). 

The point in lifting up these differences is to acknowledge that different core values lead to different reasons for launching multi-site ministry. Different reasons for launching give birth to different organizational expressions. Different organizational expressions place different demands on staff team structure, board design and polity expressions. Different expressions require different metrics for evaluating success or failure.

We have a lot more to learn!

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