6 Dirty Secrets about Multisite Churches That (Almost) No-one is Talking About

Is your church considering going multisite? It would seem like every church leader I talk with is wrestling with this approach on reaching new communities. Studies have shown that basically every growing church is either already multisite or actively looking into it. I’ve been a practitioner of this approach to church since the early 2000s. I can still remember having conversations with Greg Ligon from the Leadership Network many years ago and him telling me about nearly a dozen other churches that were doing something like what we were doing at The Meeting House – launching this dispersed approach to church. At that time, it seemed crazy to me that there were that many other churches trying out this approach; little did I know that in just over a decade, the multisite revolution would jump to 1,000 churches and impact the lives of millions of people. As an unabashed fan of this approach to reaching more people, I do have a confession to make. There are aspects of being a multisite church that aren’t as great on the inside as they look on the outside. There are some dirty secrets within this movement that I want you to be fully aware of if you are considering launching a new campus. Or maybe you already have a few campuses and something just doesn’t feel right.

85% of Multisite Churches Aren’t Launching More Than 2 Locations.

Leadership Network has been at the heart of fueling this movement. They’ve done a number of great studies and books that have been cornerstone to this movement’s development. In fact, in a lot of ways, they deserve the credit for helping codify how this movement understands and talks about itself … a critical aspect of disseminating ideas. They’ve done a number of landmark studies into the dynamics of this movement that you should check out. In their most recent study, it was found that 85% of multisite churches don’t get 2 locations beyond their original location. The vast majority of multisite churches simply aren’t moving beyond 3 locations in totality. Why? It could be that the movement is still too young and this number is likely to rise over time. It could be that there is something built into the complexity of 4+ locations that is slowing down the churches’ abilities to go there. Having talked with dozens and dozens of multisite church leaders over the years, I’m convinced about the problem: most multisite churches launch campuses as opposed to  launching a system for launching campuses. They think about how they extend themselves into a location or two, but don’t put enough creative thought into building a culture and approach that gets the church into the rhythm of launching regularly. I had the honor of being a part of The Meeting House as this fantastic church launched its first 6 locations. After launching out the first location we set the audacious goal of launching one campus every year for 5 years! We had no idea what we were doing when we set that target, but it did impel us to think about building a system for sustainable launches rather than a single location. All these years later, this church has 19 locations and is actively looking to launch more in the future.

Finding Campus Pastors is really (really!) hard.

Over the years, I’ve had a number of whispered conversations with multisite church leaders at many conferences about this secret. Every once and while I talk with a senior leader on the phone who admits they are really struggling with this fact. Finding, training, releasing, rewarding and ultimately, retaining campus pastors is an incredibly difficult task. We’ve suffered over the years with cute sayings about this role in an attempt to define it. Among the things we led ourselves to believe about what these leaders need to be includes …
  • Face with the place …
  • A big dawg leader!
  • Bleed the vision out one arm and the community with another …
When I think back about the most personally painful aspects of leading within the multisite movement, a lot of it has to do with managing campus pastor relationships. Sometimes we didn’t clearly articulate what we were looking for because we didn’t know what we needed. Sometimes, the campus pastors convinced themselves about fitting into the scheme of things even as they realized deep down that they really wanted to do something else. The eclectic mix of expectations, ambitions, vision and communication seems to conspire against us to make it really difficult. Churches often find themselves with the location, the people and the financial resources to make new campuses work, but they can’t find the right leader to lead it!

87% of campus pastors come from within the church. [ref]

I wish I had let this fact sink in deeply years ago. All the time, effort, energy and money that we spent on attempting to attract campus pastors from outside should have been spent on identifying, training and releasing people from within our church to lead campuses. Your next campus pastor is already attending your church. The question is: What is the system you’re employing to identify them and raise them up to do justice to that role? I’ve seen it first hand; campus pastors who are from “within” have a better “stick” rate than those from elsewhere. It makes sense because they have already bought into the vision of the church. Their notions of what it means to lead within the church have been shaped by the church.

Older Location’s Ability to Reach People Slows Over Time

Nothing reaches new people like new campuses. The other side of that coin is that older campuses aren’t as effective at reaching people as newer ones. This isn’t just my personal opinion; it was backed up by Warren Bird in his study on the dynamics at play within new multisite campuses. [ref] We often like to celebrate the fact that new campuses reach more people, but until you’ve lived within the dynamics of an “old” campus and understand its subtle contours incisively, the conversation takes on a slightly different tenor. (Studies show that “old” campuses are anything over 5 years.) Some of the impacts of this on a church culture can be:
  • “Shiny New Car” Syndrome // Where the church leadership gets fixated on launching new locations, much to the detriment of the older locations.
  • Deflated Leaders // People leading in “older” campuses can easily get down on themselves because they aren’t seeing the same results over time.
  • It’s a push // Older campuses have to push more to reach people. Stop using the same “yardstick” to measure the effectiveness of all campuses.
Leaders who are effective during the early days of the launch of a campus are different than those who are effective after a few years. Churches need to find a way to build growth strategies that take into account the needs of an older campus. Leaders in older campuses shouldn’t shy away from reaching new people. Instead, they should see the natural “slow down” as a challenge to meet and overcome. The most effective days of new campuses are when they first launch, so your strategy needs to push hard in those early days, months and years to reach as many people as possible. The growth trajectory of the campus is set early on!

The Size and Health of Your Launch Team is THE Key Success Factor

I’ve been in the middle of the launch of 14 campuses directly and seen a bunch more from the fence as coach. I’ve seen all kinds of factors that impact the effectiveness of a campus. (Campus pastor, location, time of year, etc.) By far, the most important factor in the launch of a new campus is the size and health of the core volunteer launch team. Across all the launches I’ve seen, this one factor is the best predictor of how the campus will fare over time. The benefits of a large and healthy team are pervasive …
  • More people to invite friends to the church.
  • More people to share the volunteer load, which in turn increases the appeal to serve.
  • More financial resources to help sustain the campus.
When you are thinking about the target size of the community of volunteers that are needed to launch a new location, try going beyond your comfort zone. What factors would have to be in place to send 10% of your church to go launch the new location? What would it take to get 150+ volunteers to make the new location their home? This dirty secret pushes towards you taking longer in your launch cycle. You need to take longer to work with “late adopters” who aren’t initially interested to be involved in the launch. You can convince a small team of “innovators” to jump to the new location quickly, but you need to slow down to woo less innovative people to be a part of the launch. The advantage of this approach is that “late adopters” are more likely to stick with the campus in the long haul than “early adopters” any ways. You don’t just need people to attend the new location. You need people who are willing to serve at the new campus. Your launch process needs to revolve around building up a strong and healthy volunteer core team, and not finding people who will sit on the seats at the new campus. Build a big enough volunteer team and you won’t need to worry about what your attendance will be, because all those volunteers will invite their communities to be a part of your church!

Multisite Will Scale Up Your Problems

Multiplication is at the core of the multisite church movement. It’s a way for your church to spread the good things that are happening at your church to new locations. It’s a path to see your church implement the lessons you’ve learned in a new community. The downside is that your problems will scale up as well. If your kid’s ministry is struggling in one location, it will struggle even more in three locations. Taking a music ministry that is having a hard time developing artists in one location and spreading that problem to multiple locations may not be a great idea. If you have problems aligning your vision with your leaders in one location, the discord will just grow wider as you add new locations. Your financial predicaments in one location won’t be solved just by adding new locations. As the multisite movement enters this next phase, its pervasiveness means that lots of churches that might not be ready to multiply are now beginning to consider it. Even worse, some leaders are seeing this approach as a tool to help kickstart a stuck church. Please don’t.

Nail it before you scale it.

Your church needs a modicum of excellence within its ranks before you look to replicate the model. There needs to be signs of health weaving through the ministry across multiple levels. With humility, can your church say that you are doing aspects of your ministry differently from what other churches are doing in the communities you are looking at moving into?

Conditions Will Never Be “Perfect” For Launch

Talk with any of those rare churches that have launched more than 8 locations and they will tell you they never really felt ready to launch new locations. It was always an internal drive to reaching people, something that the church isn’t able to do today. It was choosing the future while living with a real reality that the present still needs a lot of work. Over the years, as we’d come up to the launch of a new campus, leaders within our church would start to hold back our plans on the launch. These caring and intelligent leaders would list internal factors that simply weren’t in the spot that they should have been. People could find reasons why this was the year we did not need to launch. They were right but we launched anyway. In fact, the resistance to launch ended up becoming the first step in our launch process. It was like that moment when you stand on the end of the diving board and think twice about jumping. You have to go through the second thought as a human before you can jump. The fact remains that if your church is growing, you need to launch a new campus. 94% of churches are losing ground against the population growth within their communities. [ref] If your church is growing faster than the community you’re currently in, we need your church to multiply what is happening there. The kingdom needs your church to launch its next campus. You’ll end up facing the fact that things won’t be perfect, but you’ll need to launch anyway. There will be things that you’ll need to work on even as you multiply. It will feel like building the plane while trying to fly it. It will require a lot from you and your leaders … but it’s worth it. Seeing new people connect with the eternal message of Christ in a new campus is exciting and invigorating in equal measure.

Let’s talk about your next campus (or two!)

Yes, I’m biased. Even with all of these “dirty secrets”, I think that the multisite church approach is the most effective way to reach more people in today’s generation. Is it perfect? Definitely not, but the results are breathtaking to see and be a part of. From just a handful of churches all those years ago to millions of people attending a multisite campus today, it has been an honor to be a part of this amazing transformational journey. I have the privilege of being a part of the Exponential Conference again in Orlando in 2018. This conference is the largest gathering of people considering church multiplication in the world. This is something you must attend! Follow this link to see the seminars that I’m going to be presenting. If you will be at this year’s conference, I’d love to connect and hear your church’s story!

Get the FREE three-part video series designed to help your church launch more multisite campuses.

Is your church thinking about launching new multisite campuses? Have you already launched a campus or two but are stuck getting the next locations launched? Are you ready to take the next steps in your multisite expansion but aren’t sure where to start? I’m releasing a FREE three-part video series designed to help your church reach more people through multisite church expansion. The lessons in this series come from my practical experience being in the driver’s seat for 13 launches and from helping many other churches like yours! Here is what we’ll be covering in the free video series:
  • Video #1: The Biggest Mistake Churches Make When Launching Campuses. Build an approach to launching locations that avoids this mistake, and your church will scale up to reach more people!
  • Video #2: Keys to Picking a Great Location for Your Next Campus. Apply the lessons in this video and you’ll find effective locations that will aid your church’s growth for years to come!
  • Video #3: 5 Dirty Secrets of the Multisite Church Movement. Finally, get an insider’s look at the underbelly of this movement to better inform your leadership as you move forward!
[Click here to sign up for the free three-part video series today.]

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  1. This resonates a lot with us here in New Zealand. We currently have 7 campuses, two of which are in a different country to the ‘mother’ church, 5 of which are not in the same city as the mother church. The difficulties only increase, for sure, as does the excitement and the momentum. Immense prayer undergirding this movement needs to ramp up. one of the obstacles is getting to a ‘natural peak’ where we’ve stretched as far with the leaders we already had. The temptation is to not keep moving or launching or being creative and expanding. Developing systems, people and infrastructure is key to move forward, while being Spirit-led and still stepping out. “Launching a system to launch campuses, instead of launching campuses” I like that thought! Cheers Rich.

  2. Thanks for sharing this Rich! So much truth in this! “85% of Multisite Churches Aren’t Launching More Than 2 Locations” does that 2 locations include the original site?

  3. […] – Written by Rich Birch, he has been involved in church leadership for over 20 years. Early on Rich had the privilege of leading in one of the very first multisite churches in North America. He led the charge in helping The Meeting House in Toronto to become the leading multi-site church in Canada with over 4,500 people in 6 locations.  This site teaches you what seminary did not.  Rich’s most popular post last year was 6 Dirty Secrets About Multisite Churches Which Almost No One Is Talking About. […]

  4. […] – Written by Rich Birch, he has been involved in church leadership for over 20 years. Early on Rich had the privilege of leading in one of the very first multisite churches in North America. He led the charge in helping The Meeting House in Toronto to become the leading multi-site church in Canada with over 4,500 people in 6 locations.  This site teaches you what seminary did not.  Rich’s most popular post last year was 6 Dirty Secrets About Multisite Churches Which Almost No One Is Talking About. […]

  5. What is the rationale of becoming multi site vs. planting a new church, or “adopting” an existing church to assist them to be able to do more? From my experience and observation, the multi site approach makes the big churches bigger at the expense of the smaller churches in the areas they’re expanding into. The existing churches in the community may not have the resources to keep up, whether it be flashy worship or the various programs the larger entity can more easily afford to implement…plus it becomes even more challenging for those existing churches when the new multi site poaches its members. Once the new multi site hits that 5 year mark and is now “old,” how many people who came because it was the “shiny new car” move on to the next “shiny new car?” Multi site seems to be the model to grow your specific churches numbers, and potentially grow finances, and grow in width, but not necessarily depth. Most successful churches develop strong community in their immediate vicinity because it’s where they live and work. It’s harder to gain that same depth of impact in the new communities because they’re the new kid on the block, or if they’re only coming in on Saturday or Sunday and not visible and building community the rest of the week. Are most multi sites developing stronger, deeper, faithful Christ followers, or enabling people to check the box that they’ve gone to church this month so they can feel good about themselves? On the surface, multi site may be the trend to grow your church, but I’m not yet convinced it has the stamina and depth to grow The Church.

  6. Rich, do you find a higher level of turnover with the multi site model? Maybe campus pastors not fully capturing the vision? Because with multi site you truly all should be on the same page.

  7. The Apostle Paul knew much about planting churches and feeding them in many different locations. He traveled around planting, visiting, re-visiting, praying for, and encouraging those churches through his letters. But Paul sent leaders to those churches, leaders that were certainly less qualified than he was. He sent Timothy to Ephesus to lead, to appoint leaders, not to simply be a representation of himself extended. No, the great Apostle sent Timothy to appoint elders/pastors and deacons in that church so that the church could be an autonomous church with its own leaders. He did the same thing in Crete as written in Titus chapter 1. Along with that, he gave the proper order of apostolic succession to be pastors in local churches after the apostles were gone (Ephesians 4). What’s the point of all of this? The local church as designed by Christ and instructed through the apostles is the model that God wants. A local church, with its own leaders, pastors, elders, and gifted believers. How foolish of us to think that in the 21st century we have somehow found a better way than Christ designed. One last thought, the early church tried to stay in Jerusalem in the early years as recorded in Acts. They had great leaders, great fellowship, and were essentially a single church meeting in multiple sites (homes). This is not what Christ instructed in the great commission, so he sent persecution to the church to scatter it, to spread it out, to create local churches throughout the region rather than a single site in Jerusalem.

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Rich Birch
Rich Birch is one of the early multi-site church pioneers in North America. He led the charge in helping The Meeting House in Toronto to become the leading multi-site church in Canada with over 5,000+ people in 18 locations. In addition, he served on the leadership team of Connexus Church in Ontario, a North Point Community Church Strategic Partner. He has also been a part of the lead team at Liquid Church - a 5 location multisite church serving the Manhattan facing suburbs of New Jersey. Liquid is known for it’s innovative approach to outreach and community impact. Rich is passionate about helping churches reach more people, more quickly through excellent execution.His latest book Church Growth Flywheel: 5 Practical Systems to Drive Growth at Your Church is an Amazon bestseller and is design to help your church reach more people in your community.