Jim Tomberlin & Tim Cool on Current Trends in Church Facilities


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ChurchLocality_emailGrowing churches today are utilizing multisite and church planting strategies to reproduce themselves for greater outreach and impact. This interview features a robost conversation with Jim Tomberlin & Tim Cool about the new rules for church buildings in a multisite, church planting, and giga-church world. It’s a wide ranging conversation providing some fascinating insights into current trends in church buildings from across the country! If want to dive even deeper into this discussion make sure to pick up a copy of Jim & Tim’s book on this topic!

Jim Tomberlin [website] [twitter]

Tim Cool [website] [twitter]

Interview Highlights //

00:37 // Rich introduces Jim Tomberlin and Tim Cool.

01:05 // Tim introduces himself.

01:56 // Jim talks about his journey to become a multisite guy.

03:10 // Jim talks about consulting with churches and their facility issues.

03:52 // Jim talks about people reaching people, not buildings reaching people.

04:37 // Rich introduces Jim and Tim’s book. Church Locality: New Rules for Church Buildings in a Multisite, Church Planning and Giga-Church World.

05:31 // Tim talks about the importance of location and facilities.

07:45 // Jim talks about the misconceptions of church buildings.

11:29 // Jim defines the meaning of Giga-Church.

12:44 // Tim talks about the benefits of smaller church buildings versus larger one and the current trends after the recession.

15:47 // Jim explains the concept of a multisite.

18:07 // Jim talks about the changes in youth ministry.

19:46 // Jim talks about how the church needs to acknowledge attendance.

20:33 // Rich summarizes the book by Kara Powell from Fuller called: Sticky Faith.

21:15 // Jim talks about how young adults prefer smaller venues.

23:00 // Tim talks about how people are looking for a return to connectivity within the church.

25:01 // Jim offer his contact details:

25:15 // Tim offers his contact details: or [email protected]

Interview Transcript //

Rich – Hi and welcome to the unSeminary podcast. My name’s Rich Birch, the host here, I don’t even know my own name this morning. My name’s Rich Birch, the host here at the podcast. We’re just so glad that you’ve decided to take some time out to listen in today. We’ve got a great conversation lined up, I’m super excited to have Jim Tomberlin, a friend of mine and a new friend, Tim Cool spending some time with us today, talking about a brand new book. I’m looking forward to diving in. Welcome to the show guys.

Tim – Thanks Rich.

Jim – We’re not just friends, we’re old friends. You and I have been doing this thing together for a number of years.

Rich – It’s a long time it’s true. It’s true, well Tim why don’t we let you go first, why don’t you tell us a little bit about, who is Tim Cool and why did you get such a great name?

Tim – I’m not quite sure why God allowed my parents to have the last name Cool, but it is truly a cool name to have and I’ve got cool kids and a cool wife and we live in a cool house and what could be better and I work for Cool Solutions Group.

Rich – Nice.

Tim – I tell you what Rich, I has been so cool, I’ve been doing this now 28 years, working with churches in relation to their facilities, helping them think through what’s the best way to utilize the tools that God’s entrusted to the them and then how do they take care of the tools long term as well. So it’s a combination of the planning, building and then how do you take care of the buildings that God’s entrusted to you?

Rich – Nice, very cool. Jim, why don’t you give us your story, how do you describe yourself? You call yourself the multisite guy, but give us the Jim Tomberlin story.

Jim – Well Rich, basically my journey as a multisite guy began as a pastor. I was a pastor for nearly 30 years, 3 decades and I had the privilege of being one of the early pioneers of whole multisite church movement. That’s what got me invited to leave my wonderful church in Colorado Springs, Woodmen Valley Chapel to where my journey with multisite church started. To come to Chicago to develop the model there at Willow Creek and 5 years later, 4 campuses later and at the front end of that whole movement I found myself being sought out to help churches, how do you do this multi-site thing?

So for the last 10 years, I worked fulltime as a consultant, 10 years ago and we located to a nice warm place in Phoenix Arizona, Scottsdale and I have been working and serving the

church around the country and beyond for the last 10 years and helping churches discern, is multisite right for us and if it is, how do you do it? That has excreted some other waves and we’ve found ourselves doing a lot of consulting of mergers, multisite into mergers. Over a third of all of the multisite campuses come through as a result of a merger.

So we have this merger consulting, multisite consulting and when you’re talking about growing churches, I have the privilege of working with growing, at the most part the exciting, dynamic growing churches, churches have a local expression and they need facilities to meet in. So I found myself having a lot of conversations about where should we start our campuses or where should we relocate, where do we start a church, is a church (unclear 00:03:41) and that’s a facility issue.

As we’ve talked about in our book, probably the most expensive decision church leaders will ever make in their ministry is facilities. We know that church buildings don’t reach people, people reach people. But Jesus said, “Wherever two or three gathered his name, there he is in the mist,” and that’s a place. So there is a real physical place, it’s a church locality, it’s all about church facilities and location.

So we try to answer, where’s the best place to meet, what’s the guidelines on what kind of facilities etc. and Tim, who I have had the privilege of working with over the years as well, he’s a specialist in that whole area. Anyway we found ourselves just having a lot of conversations and thought why don’t we write a book about this and kind of share what we’ve, or at least compile a book of what we’ve been writing about and seen.

Rich – Very cool. Now the name of your book is Church Locality: New Rules for Church Buildings in a Multisite, Church Planting and Giga-Church World. Wow that’s a mouthful. Locality church, you know, locality, tell me what does that word mean, what is this book all about?

Jim – Go ahead, jump in Tim.

Tim – Yeah locality is kind of a play on words between location and facility. We all have to have a place to worship. I did a real informal survey with Sam Rayner and I asked him and several other guys, “How many churches in America meet in a building?” The best we can tell is 99 and 44 100ths of churches meet in a building, even if you’re a home church, you meet in a building.

Rich – You still meet in a building, yeah.

Tim – And if you’re in an internet church your servers are in a building. So knowing that facilities are one of your most expensive decisions and it’s generally at least your second

biggest line item in your church budget after your employees and your FTEs, how can churches best think through their location tied to facilities, related to them being a tool not just a building? They’re not just a means to an end, they are in sorts a means to an end but they can also be a detrimental means to a deterioration if it’s not the right locality. If it’s not the right location it just becomes a problem.

So we wanted to be able to provide guidelines, in fact Jim and I have laughed about this. When Jim first approached me, almost a year ago, we were at a retreat together. This started off to be a whitepaper that turned into an eBook but then turned into a fully-fledged book. Because there is just so much information that’s not available, whether you’re a church planter, a multisite or even if you’re just a single location church, looking to move out of a school for the first time, there’s not any good information as to what’s our options and how do we know which are the good options and bad options.

Rich – Absolutely and I feel like I spend a significant portion of our time, my time specifically on building stuff. We’re a multisite and we’ve got building issues all across the board, basically at all of our campuses. So this book of huge interest, actually we bought it, it’s one of those things we’ve been reading as a leadership team. So what are some misconceptions about church buildings Jim, what are some things that might be floating out there that people are like, “There maybe half truths that aren’t really true,” what are some misconceptions?

Jim – Well before I jump into that I want to also say, our book really is a compilation of a number of blog postings and specific focus on writings, articles about things related to facilities. Tim and I were the biggest contributors to the book but the third largest contributor was you. Rich Birch. Some of our chapters are from you.

Rich – Hey I got my free book out of it, so that’s good.

Jim – Anyway, we appreciate that.

Rich – It’s great, happy to help.

Jim – Yeah some of the misconceptions. One of the things that stimulated my thinking a couple of years ago about this, a book that I read that just had profound impact upon me was Ken Follett’s book…

Tim – Six Pillars?

Jim – What was that?

Tim – The Pillars book.
Jim – Yeah but I’ll think of it in a minute, but it’s a novel all about the building, a historical novel all about building… Pillars of the Earth, that’s the name of the book, Pillars of the Earth about the building of a cathedral in the middle ages and it’s a well written, a thousand page book and just all the dynamics and issues that were going on, all about the building of these great cathedrals in Europe. They were economic, they were political, they were spiritual and really the guidelines and the principles that produced those great cathedrals have been really the guidelines that we have been operating in building churches for a millennium.

All that’s really changed in the last 20 years and so that was one of our thinking, there’s some new rules about church buildings. But I think some of the myths that we often operated under in the last generation or so, probably one of the biggest ones, ‘if we build it he will come’.

Rich – Right.

And I like to say that we built these big, huge, mega church campuses in the 70s, 80s, 90s in America, why? Because we could. The money was there, the impetus was there, the motivation was there, but the recession really has changed that thinking dramatically. As well as some other factors which we’ll talk about in a few moments, some other things that have changed these rules. But ‘if we build it they will come’.

Another misconception is, that’s a certain variation of that is, ‘if we launch they will come’. This is the danger of multi-siting churches. “Hey we’ve got a great pastor, a great church, a great communicator, great ministries and we’re maxed out in our one location, if we just go and open up a theatre or school or another building, 20 minutes away, people will just flock there, just because we have all these great things going on.” No. You’ve still got to do the basic Church 101, good hard work of loving and serving your community and all that but you still need facilities and all that sort of thing.

So these are a couple of rules that are obviously misconceptions. I think too, the other thing too is that buildings reach people. I we just build this fabulous building…

Rich – More people will come just because it’s…

Jim – Because the building will overwhelm them and maybe sometimes in the past, I don’t know if that was ever true, but buildings don’t reach people, people reach people.

Rich – Right.

Jim – Buildings are tools, they are a means they are not the engagement. I think one of the

unfortunate realities I think of Western Christianity, is that we have put so much emphasis, we’ve defined success and church work as a building. The church building. The goal is to get to a building. The bigger the building, the greater the success and you know, a big large building will service a growing church under a dynamic leader for maybe a decade or two or three, while that pastor’s there, but often the next round, the next generation, that large building unfortunately becomes an albatross round their necks, something they can’t afford, something they can’t sustain. That’s why we have a lot of downtown urban cathedrals empty, that sort of thing.

I think in the next decade we’re going to see a lot of super mega campuses, megachurches that have overbuilt and will not be able to sustain that.

Now, the megachurch movement is not dying, in fact we’re going into a giga-church world. Giga-church is a new definition, a new word to describe churches that have over 10 thousand in attendance, (unclear 00:11:41) at the weekend. A megachurch being over 2 thousand and from our latest research, Outreach magazine, it’s defined, described a surface of 72 giga-churches in America today.

Rich – Wow.

Jim – Most of those are multisite churches.

Rich – Right.

Jim – That’s the reason why they can get that big because they are not limited to a building now.

Rich – Yeah, it’s been amazing to watch. I noted recently that it seems like all those churches that are at the very top, like I’m thinking NewSpring, they don’t have a massive, like 10 thousand seat room somewhere, they have a multiplicity of rooms across, that seems to be, at least from a layman’s perspective, that seems to be the trend.

Tim, what are some of the new rules, you’re obviously in the trenches, talking to a lot of churches, working with a lot of churches that are building buildings, what are some of those kind of new rules concerning church facilities, what are people building today?

Tim – Yeah people, for example, you mentioned NewSpring, I attend Elevation Church in Charlotte.

Rich – Great.

Tim – Our biggest campus is 11 hundred seats. We run 25 thousand people on a weekend with the largest worship center being 11 hundred seats. We do lots of services

but the idea was, why not have campuses that are only 30 or 35 thousand square feet, so you’re investing five, six, seven million dollars per campus, if you’re owning and buying it or building it. But that makes a whole lot better sense, to be able to run a campus that is, if you’re running four services, you’re pushing 35 hundred to 4 thousand per location, per service and most of these multi-sites, when you’re in that kind of tight quarter, you’re getting a higher percentage of seats being covered with butts on Sunday.

So the over 80% rule doesn’t apply in those kinds of settings anymore, you’re getting 90%, 95% even pushing 99% total coverage of seats to people and that kind of thing.

Rich – Well Elevation is a perfect example, I think that… I don’t want people to miss what you said there. Elevation to run 25 thousand people on a weekend and to have the largest room be 11 hundred seats, which is not a large room, it’s a big room but that’s not a massive room to build. That’s incredible. Any other trends?

Tim – Yeah the other trends that are coming out of the recession, we’ve seen more and more of the Big Box church and that’s because there is so much empty retail. It didn’t really matter whether or not I was in Kalamazoo Michigan or (unclear 00:14:19) in Orlando, there was a lot of empty retail.

Rich – Right.

Tim – So that became the natural gravitation point, particularly for planners of multisite, is why go and buy land, and one of the examples we used in the book was showing how, by going into a shopping center you don’t have to do the site work, you don’t have to do the parking lot you don’t have to do all of those infrastructural type things, that could run 40% to 50% of the cost of a project. The downside of that, is people just assume, because it’s an old retail store, that it has enough parking and it’s probably sprinkled and it has air-conditioning and so they misconceive and this is going back to Jim’s misconceptions, they misconceive as to what it really is going to cost them to get in that Big Box store and they undershoot it.

Rich – Right okay, very cool. Now besides the Big Box trend, Jim are there other, from your vantage point you been through, you’ve worked at (unclear 00:15:12), they have the big room and they have multiple smaller locations, are there another trends that you’re seeing as you’re interacting with your clients across the country?

Jim – Well to build on what Tim was saying, one thing is that we’re seeing smaller facilities with multiple venues. An example is say when we want to build a two thousand seat auditorium, I think the ideal size is around 12 to 15 hundred seats maximum for most churches but some cities have higher people density etc.
The concept to multisite is don’t put all your eggs in one location and even in that one location, if you’re going to have a lot of seat, don’t put them all in one room. If you’re going to have 18 hundred seats, 15 hundred seats, maybe you ought to do a thousand in one room and five hundred in another and then that gives you more options, more flexibility for worship styles, for different language groups, whatever. It gives a lot more options.

So I think there’s that one, and to your point, the Big Box yeah, very few multisite churches are buying land and building buildings. Now we’re starting to see maybe a few starting to do that after 10, 15 years of being successful in a rented space and now that’s owner space. That may make more sense. But we’re seeing all kinds of usage, all different kinds of facilities, you know the recession did produce a lot of empty space and I love the idea of that, the work of the church is not only about redeeming lives, that’s what we’re about, but actually we’re redeeming space.

Rich – Yeah absolutely.

Jim – Rent space and blinded areas where they are people that need a church. This has been a great boom for local churches to be able to extend themselves into these difficult challenging under-resourced areas, because they are not on their own, they are part of a larger church that’s resourcing them and that sort of thing, and getting them beyond survival. But the primary location, 50% of our multisite campuses started as schools. That’s started to change a little bit because now as the economy’s getting better, schools are less… they were desperate 10 years ago, needing more money. Clearly the trends are smaller facilities, we don’t need to build three thousand, five thousand seat auditoriums, that day is over in my opinion.

Tim – Let me kind of jump in on one of the things that Jim talked about, the multi venue on the same campus. Jim and I were both consulting a church in Virginia Beach that said they needed another two to three hundred seats in their worship center but they also needed about a two hundred seat youth facility. Well, tell you what, instead of building a Bigger Box that’s going to sit empty five or six days a week, why don’t you build a three hundred seat youth facility, that’s oversized for youth, but it becomes your second venue on campus because the youth don’t meet on Sunday morning.

Rich – Absolutely.

Tim – That’s one of the trends I think that Jim and I have both seen more of, is you need a larger space for worship but you’re not going to build a bigger room.

Jim – Another trend along that same line and it’s related, all these things are so related

Rich. Increasingly newer churches for sure and a lot of the older churches are moving in this direction, they are moving the youth ministry off of Sunday morning. At least the high school age and many in the middle school for two reasons. One is that we feel like we’ve done a disservice to the young generation by segregating them from the rest of the church. So when they get away from high school, they don’t come back to church because their church doesn’t exist anymore and so there’s a move clearly, to let’s worship together, let’s serve together as families, at least from junior high up and then they have their own youth group or whatever on Wednesday night, Sunday night or another night of the week.

So that student room becomes a worship, a video venue on a Sunday morning, which gives them more seats without any more additional costs. So that’s a trend that we’re seeing as well that’s related to facility usage. These are the kinds of things that are changing.

Back in the day when I was… we intentionally built really strong youth programs on Sunday mornings to compliment the adult services. Now another trend, that’s affecting church attendance and facilities is that today, back in the day, 50 years ago, a hundred years ago, it was the cultural norm that everybody went to church and we all went and expected it, it was almost like, if you don’t go to church what’s wrong with you? Today it’s you go to church, what’s wrong with you, you’re weird?

But when people do come to church, the people we’re trying to reach, they’re not coming like we used to, Sunday morning nine to noon, We all go to Sunday school then we all go to worship, that doesn’t happen anymore. They come for one service and they’re going to come at that 11 o’clock and some of them late to that. So you have one shot to reach those people, that later hour, 10 to 11 o’clock hour frame is the ideal time for the unchurch people so you want to be ready for them, and then if the youth have their own service we’re not being together. So there’s that trend there of acknowledging our attendance, our crowd, our target is not coming to spend all Sunday morning and they’re not going to come at 9 o’clock or Saturday night, but you can get your core members to go there to create space at 11.

Rich – Very cool. Yeah Kara Powell from Fuller wrote an incredible book called Sticky Faith. If you haven’t looked into that it explores this exact issue around young people particularly and how do we pass the message onto the next generation. They did this great study where to summarize it and I’m going to butcher it, but to summarize it they looked at young people that were still connected to their church after college, or after that age bracket and they found the thing that got them connected wasn’t great, incredible, segregated student ministry it actually was intergenerational relationships. So her work really does challenge some of the norms or at least some of the practices that have been

our core, that’s obviously what we’re seeing on the facilities side.

Jim – Rich talking about the next generation, the latest research about the millennials, the young adults now that are coming into the church, they’re much more inclined to smaller venues, which is very conducive to a multisite model, they’re not drawn to or attracted to big mega facilities and so this is very concerning if you’re the possessor of a huge mega…

Rich – A massive building yeah.

Jim – The next generation is not only drawn to it, they’re turned off by it. Now they’re not turned off by big churches that do things well, but they do it in smaller venues, it’s more about high tech but also high touch or high community and high social engagement and churches that are doing that, and this is one of the things we are seeing in the list of the fastest growing churches, the largest growing churches every year that Outreach magazine produces, there’re three characteristics that are common among all of those, or tend to be common among those church, three things that they all are doing. They are getting their people into small groups, that community relational aspect of church. They are externally focused and are serving their communities in high profile ways, they’re doing good in the community and bring value to the community. Then thirdly they are multi-siting.

Rich – Absolutely, absolutely.

Jim – They are getting smaller locations.

Rich – Cool, well anything else you’d like to add Tim before we wrap up? This has been fantastic conversation today, I’m so glad that you decided to spend some time with us. Anything you’d like to add before we wrap up?

Tim – Yeah tied to that connectivity that Jim just mentioned, one of the big facility trends that we’re seeing is the larger lobby connecting spaces. When I started doing this in 19… the idea is we would use maybe one to two square feet per person for a foyer, a narthex if you will and in those days it was strictly a cattle shoot to get people from one part of the building outside.

Now the common rule of thumb is the lobby needs to be no less than 50% the size of the worship space.

Rich – Wow, that’s great.

Tim – People are looking to connect. We, for too many years have allowed ourselves to become backyard inhabitants. We pull in our garage at night, we put the fences up and we go and live in our back garden, we don’t communicate with each other.
The millennials particularly are looking for connection to each other and I think even people in Jim and I’s age group, and you’re obviously not there yet Rich, but eventually you will be, we’re looking for connectivity because we’ve lost it over the years.

Rich – Right.

Tim – So being able to have spaces, and I’m not just talking about a big open foyer here, I’m talking about comfy couch areas and café areas and…

Jim – Conversation pits.

Tim – Exactly. People are looking to connect with each other before, after, during the week. More and more churches are saying, “Hey we want to open up our lobby space for those small groups but they don’t want to meet in a classroom, they want to meet in a conversation pit.”

Rich – Yeah absolutely. Very cool. Well this has been a great conversation today. I’m super excited about this conversation, I’m glad you guys have come in and given us lots to think about. We’re going to link to your book in the show notes, so you can drop by unSeminary and find that. Look at that, you’ve even got a picture of it right there, you’ve got the actual book, nice. Church Locality, that’s great so we’ll link to that.

Jim, if people want to get in touch with you and learn more about what you do from a multisite point of view, how can they do that?

Jim – Well you can go to my website at That’s, all one word and that will be the best way to connect with me and I’d love to hear from you.

Rich – And Tim, if people want to get in touch with you, how can they do that?

Tim – Yeah, they can either go to or email me at [email protected].

Rich – Nice, I really appreciate you being on the show today, thanks so much guys.

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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.