In this four-part blog series, we attempt to answer the question: is it possible to pursue multi-site in a biblically faithful way? We’re considering four questions: 1. Is multi-site evangelistically effective? 2. Is multi-site a biblically sound model? 3. Is multi-site pastorally helpful? And today we tackle the last question: 4. Does multi-site encourage or discourage leadership development?

Final topic: the cult of personality.

In this final post, I want to consider one last criticism of the multi-site model, a question well-meaning people have often asked me: “Why build the church so much around you? Do you really think there are no other good preachers in Raleigh-Durham? Why not develop other leaders and teachers and let them preach instead?”

Short answer: The multi-site model helps, not hurts, leadership development.

Shortly after we planted our third campus, my wife said to me, “Have you ever noticed that some of your favorite staff members are the ones you no longer see each Sunday?”[1] They are now serving at one of our other campuses. These were guys I had raised up, trained, and depended on. But now, as campus pastors, they have the opportunity to lead in ways they didn’t when we were all at one place, and their role in the worship service was (mostly) to sit and take notes and make occasional announcements or every once in a while preach (they led mostly in ministries outside the services). Now, however, they lead from up front every weekend. And in their absence from the original campus, new ministry leaders have emerged. I can confidently say that if we were all meeting in one place at one time we would have 1/4 of the leaders we have today. Let me use real numbers:

When we launched our most recent campus, we found that 80% of the volunteers serving on the first weekend had never served anywhere at the Summit Church before. And we aren’t alone: 9 out of 10 churches report that after moving to multi-site, they saw a marked increase in their volunteer-per-capita involvement.

Multi-site provides an enormously greater amount of preaching and teaching opportunities, too. On average, I preach about 38 weekends a year, which I would say is on the average to low side of senior pastors. That leaves 14 slots for other pastors and elders to preach. That is, if we were at one location. By having our congregation gathering in 9 sites, that translates into 126 spots. When other pastors preach, they typically decide together on a central passage, and then we work together on coming up with the points and outline. It’s been an incredible way to raise up a lot of new preachers and teachers and give them on the job training.

Furthermore, far from precluding church planting, the multi-site model has exponentially encouraged it. I’d go as far as to say that multi-site is the most effective component of our church planting pipeline. Again, we aren’t the only ones who have experienced this: the enormous research project conducted by Leadership Network found that churches that participate in multi-site strategy are 29% more likely to plant churches than their single-service counterparts.

The multi-site strategy created a culture that made church planting easier, and when you think about it, it’s pretty easy to see why. First, planting campuses—instead of building a behemoth church convention center—lends itself to an outward-facing posture for the church. A large building says, “Come,” but a multitude of campuses say, “Go.” By planting campuses, we communicate that it is more important for us to reach people than it is to build an empire. Our people catch that sort of missional vision, and take it upon themselves to initiate ministry opportunities, to serve more regularly, or to even help plant a church. And as we send more leaders out—both to plant campuses and to plant churches—we create a leadership vacuum that calls out more leaders. Every time we send out a leader we are forced to raise up another in their place.

Second, the multi-site model has helped us raise up, test, and train many of our future church planters. Some of our current church planters began as campus pastors, which allowed them to do much of what a lead pastor would do, yet within an environment where they still have the support of a well-developed pastoral team. During the process, some of our campus pastors have discovered that their gifts are better suited to campus pastoring—that is, leading teams, pastoring people, missional strategization, and classroom instruction with periodic platform preaching. You see, preaching 38 (+) weekends a year is not for everyone. Preparing and delivering a message takes up about 25 hours of my week. I tell aspiring preachers that it is like writing a 15-page seminary term paper every. single. week. Some of our campus pastors have discovered that though they are capable preachers (and enjoy it when they do it), they appreciate having space in a normal week to do those things they are even better at–leading teams, discipling, mentoring, evangelizing, missional strategy, counseling, etc. They have appreciated learning that about themselves before getting locked into positions where they are expected to preach nearly every weekend a year. Other campus pastors have discovered that they do have the passion to preach every weekend, and when that happens, we send them out with a group of our members to plant their own church.

People sometimes ask, “In your city, when you do you plan a new campus and when do you plant a church?” Here’s the pithy way we describe it: we plant a campus in places where we have people coming from, and we plant a church in places we don’t. Periodically we survey the congregation to find out which zip code has the most people driving from more than 20 minutes away. We are grateful they enjoy our church enough to make that drive, but I know they can’t be meaningfully and effectively involved in evangelism or community with that distance. You, as a mature disciple, might drive 20+ minutes each weekend for a church you love, but that person who is not a Christian you just met at Starbucks will likely not make that kind of drive to a church they have never heard of. And if they are 20+ minutes away from the central gathering point, they will likely only go once a week, which means they likely will not attend “special” meetings, like prayer meetings, kids or student events, etc. So we tell people, “Stay where you are; serve where you live; be the church in your community.”

When we find an area (or demographic) we don’t have people coming from that’s when we plant a new, independent church there. The thinking is that people there are not already driving to come to our church, so it makes no sense to put a campus there to give the people a closer location to attend or free up space at the campus they were attending, since, of course, they weren’t coming to our church. That’s a place for a new work, not a campus as a solution to an attendance and distance problem we are having. Of course, campuses do reach lots of new people, but usually through members who live there (who were already driving the 20+ minutes to come to our church) inviting their friends.

We planted two such churches in Durham this past year, both reaching parts of our city in which we had little representation. This is also, to note, why it makes no strategic sense to plant a campus in another city (In the first post, I questioned whether campus planting in another state is biblically faithful—here I question whether it is strategically wise.). People in Denver, CO or Miami, FL are not driving to The Summit Church each, or any, weekend. So it makes no sense to put a campus in one of those cities and say, “Stay where you are; serve where you live…” They are already “staying where they are.” So why not just put a new church there, led by a local pastor in that city? Here I agree with many multi-site critics: Is God really that short on leaders that he needs one man to broadcast himself all over America? And in case you just thought, “Well, then why not also do that in Raleigh-Durham instead of planting campuses?” I explained why that doesn’t always work in post 1 (see also the dialogue in the comments!).

Those that know him well say that Jack Welch’s (the legendary CEO of G.E.) greatest gifting was his ability to spot and raise up leaders. An impressive number of CEOs came from G.E. Welch gave away some good leaders, but the leadership culture he created attracted many to replace the ones he “sent.” That is what we desire as a church—not to be a group of people gathered around a leader, but to be a leadership factory. And multiplying campuses is one way we raise up and send out our best.

Some Final Thoughts

I’ll go ahead and own it: The multi-site model can be messy. As with all large churches, size creates lots of cracks that people can fall through. Growth from evangelism always invites chaos and disorder into the church. Is the alternative to just “not grow?” How is that a better alternative? I often think of it like this: My wife and I have four kids. We have given up our neatly organized schedule, mountains of “us” time, and we struggle to maintain the general cleanliness of our home. For a few years it smelled like diapers; now it smells like hamsters; in a few years it will smell like the sweat of a middle school boy. But we wouldn’t trade that messiness for everything in the world! It is the same with our church. Growth creates problems, however you facilitate it. Our church will gladly deal with the headaches of the multi-site model if it means reaching more people for Jesus.

Some will try to argue that the New Testament only encourages small churches because they are easier to manage. Having pastored a small church myself, I don’t really agree with that statement (pastoring small churches can be quite challenging), but I don’t see how you can read Acts 2–5 and conclude that God is not sometimes also into bigger churches, too. God saved 3,000 new believers in Acts 2 and another 5,000 in Acts 3 in the one church in Jerusalem. Imagine being the small groups pastor of the Jerusalem church on the evening after Peter baptized 3,000 in one day. Probably, as senior pastor, Peter went on a mini-personal retreat and left that poor sap with 3,000 people to get organized in discipleship and accountability groups. We don’t know his name because he probably quit (joke).

I will own a second thing, too: We still have questions about the best and most faithful ways to do multi-site. Lots of them. For instance, how often should the entire body assemble together in one place? And just how far is too far from the church’s “center” when planting a new campus? If we only start campuses in our city, where do the “borders” of our metroplex actually lie? Should a campus ever become an independent church? If so, when and how? And how many campuses in Raleigh-Durham is enough? We welcome those offering helpful answers to these questions, and correction for where we have gotten it wrong, as we try to be the church for our community. As John Piper, former pastor of a multi-site church himself, has noted, the multi-site movement is very young. We don’t know exactly where it’s going, and we need to pull back from definitive predictions and overly confident visions of what the future will look like.

We must live with the holy tension of taking care of our local church body and constantly bringing new, immature sinners loaded with problems into our midst. The elders of The Summit Church believe that the best way for us to do both has been to adopt an aggressive multi-site strategy. The multi-site approach, in our judgment, best allows us to be effective in evangelism, faithful to Scripture, pastorally responsible over our members, and to develop leaders and church planters. May God help us, and you who lead churches, both multi-site and single-service, to that end!

 


[1] Staff members, if you’re reading this: you’re all my favorites.