Is “Multisite Church” the Last Good Idea?

Blockbuster video was amazing in its prime. Just 10 years ago, they had 9,000 locations and over 60,000 employees. [ref] It made renting a movie “simple and convenient” because they had so many locations. We only had to drive across town to access hundreds of movies from a wide variety of categories. They purchased the naming rights to stadiums. It was a household name. They won. As late as 2008 they were exploring expansion through leveraging their brand and cash flow into other businesses. BlockbusterBy 2010 everything shifted. In March of that year, Blockbuster’s own auditing firm published a report saying they doubted the business would be able to continue operation because of shifting markets and an inability to respond. They filed for bankruptcy protection just a few days later. By July they were delisted from the New York Stock Exchange. It all unraveled. Now they seem like a punch line to bad joke. What happened? The internet. People’s preferences for how they consumed content changed subtly at first but then exponentially grew. In particular, Netflix — a potent mixture of great marketing and fantastic execution — made movie watching simpler, more convenient and gave people a wider variety of choice. From this side of the change, it’s hard to remember a time when Blockbuster was amazing. It’s difficult to recall when dropping in on a Friday night to pick up a movie was a national pastime. They had figured it out. They designed a system and approach to meet the needs of the people they were serving. It worked well and it was successful. What does this have to do with church leadership? The multisite church movement has figured out an unprecedented way to reach people and connect them to the local church. We’ve perfected a way to “take church to the people” and make it easier for people to get plugged into the local church. We’ve devised a systematic way of offering teaching and community that we spread from one location to another and it’s changed the landscape of the Kingdom of God. It’s working … well. Multisite churches reach more unchurched people, raise up more volunteers and release more leaders than any other type of church today. [ref] Leaders from the “megachurch” movement — arguably the biggest concept in community impact before multisite churches came along — have repeatedly praised the effectiveness of this approach. [ref] What started as a niche approach to ministry 15 years ago has blossomed to the point where 5 million people attend a multisite church every weekend in North America. [ref] Personally, I’m a fan of the multisite approach to doing church. I’ve spent the better part of 15 years launching new locations and helping other churches figure out how to do multisite in their context. I’ve seen thousands of people’s lives changed because churches took the risk to reach them. I’ve seen it “work” in accelerating a church’s growth and impact. I’ve seen it “work” in the lives of individuals who have been impacted. I think Blockbuster is a cautionary tale for leaders like myself within the multisite church movement. We can get too comfortable. We can let our assumptions go unchecked. The rhythm of our campus launches can lull us into thinking that this approach will always be the approach. In the early days of the multisite movement it was amazing to sense the real risk in the air. There was a sense that this might not work. There were significant questions about whether it was possible to replicate experiences and communities like this. Have we lost that edge as a movement? Where is the next innovation coming from in the broader church of Christ? Who is taking risks today that might fail but have the potential to impact millions of people? Where is the moonshot thinking that aims to make a 10x difference in our churches?  Is “multisite church” the last good idea? Like Blockbuster, which was too slow to change to the market realities around it, churches need to pay attention to cultural changes happening around us. These realities are growing and may undermine the very foundation of what makes this approach to community impact “work”.
  • The fastest growing category of religious belief is people who identify as “none”. It’s going to take more than a hipper approach to what we’ve always done to reach these people. Simply delivering what we do in a more effective manner isn’t helping us turn the tides of this cultural reality. [ref]
  • People are driving less. Is the idea of driving to church viable in a future when leaving your home and driving 15 minutes to the mall seems outmoded because of online shopping? [ref]
  • Half of all kids born in our country are born to single moms. Core to so many multisite churches is a strong family ministry approach that assumes two parents and kids. Is it realistic to have stressed out and time poor single parents bring their kids to our churches? [ref]
  • Diversity is on the rise in every aspect of our culture. The idea of a monolithic culture is a thing of that past. [ref] Even the idea of “pop music” that sounds all the same is a fading reality. [ref] In a world where diversity and uniqueness is celebrated, does the idea of taking a ministry model that “worked” in one area and spreading it across a region make sense?
  • Even the most committed people are attending church less. My friend Carey Nieuwhof documents this well in a series of posts and a podcast interview. Early indicators are that even people who love our churches and call them “home” show up less often. Is there a future for “attractional” ministry when we’re doing our best work ever and even the most committed people are attending less?
Don’t be fooled into thinking that these changes will slowly creep up on us. Social change comes in quick bursts, not long evolutionary arches. Look at this chart to see how quickly society’s views have changed on a number of significant issues, as represented by reversals on bans by the courts over the past 200 years. [ref] The bottom line: Societal change can happen quickly and be widespread. paceofchange This is good news for people like you and me in the “society change” business. It shows that in a short period of time we can see widespread change across a large part of our culture. The opposite is also true. Once cultural momentum reaches an inflection point, it can be a tough trend to turn around.

Where are the crazy ideas that just might work?

In 2000, Blockbuster passed on an opportunity to purchase Netflix. It was seen as a crazy idea from the fringe that could never make the impact that Blockbuster needed. Within a decade, that small player brought down Blockbuster. Where are those fringe ideas in the church today that have the potential to dwarf the impact of the multisite movement? The stakes for the church are so much higher than just some business. It’s not quarterly earnings reports or stock prices on the line … it’s our need to reach the next generation. Our mandate as church leaders is to constantly look over the horizon to see what’s next and to lead our people there. What got us here won’t get us there. The moment we settle into a comfortable spot is the very moment that irrelevance and decline creeps in. We need to strain forward and find inventive, effective ways to reach people tomorrow.
We need scalable, crazy ideas that just might work. Where do you think we should be looking? Please share your ideas below. To provide you with inspiration, I asked a few friends of mine to comment on what they think “comes next” after multisite church. Tomberlin_Jim“Multisite changed how we think about and do church, but very few multisite churches are really maximizing the multiplication principle inherent in multisiting. They are adding campuses more than multiplying them. I believe we are approaching another paradigm shift that will change how we think and do multisite. We also are seeing an explosion of church network movements through multisiting and church planting that will have the strength of centralizing resources without the bureaucratic weight of past denominations. Increasingly there will be more collaborative alliances of churches with businesses, schools, government, NGOs and ministries uniting to better serve their cities together. The Church is still waiting for fresh breakthroughs in leadership development and fresh strategies for making disciples that make disciples. I also believe that we will see an explosion of online campuses that will do more than we are seeing now and integrate more with social media.” – Jim Tomberlin, founder of Multisite Solutions and author of 125 Tips for MultiSite Churches and Better Together: Making Church Mergers Work
gregligon_bw“The things that I believe the growing edges are … NEXT WAVE OF … 
  • Campuses that engage communities – external focus – Dream Centers PLUS Missional Models like what Greg Nettle got started at River Tree
  • Mergers … really big wave coming as denominations join the movement
  • Growth … networks and sub-movements as churches move beyond 10
  • Global … multiplying movement models like what Mark Jobe and New Life in Chicago are doing
  • Micro-site … historical move from mono-site to megasite to multisite to microsite; only a few churches I am aware of that are doing this much; most well developed approach is Northland (Joel Hunter) –
– Greg Ligon, Vice President and Publisher at Leadership Network.  Author: “The Multi-Site Church Revolution” & “A Multi-Site Church Roadtrip
dan_king“I think the next big thing for the next 20 years is churches working together. In some cases, this will mean churches all across a city or town partnering together for massive community impact in partnership with schools, governments, etc. In others, it will mean truly doing ministry together, such as choosing to focus on helping unchurched people find the church that will bring them closest to Christ, not just growing my church but growing the kingdom. And in many cases, I think we will see a dramatic increase in the number of acquisitions and mergers between churches who realize they can do more together than apart. The other big trend I see is that many growing churches and gatherings will actually feel smaller. The more post Christian our country becomes (as we are already discovering in New England), the less impressed people are by big light shows and rock concert vibes and the more people simply want authenticity and to feel known. The churches that reach a post Christian unchurched culture will be those who get bigger by acting smaller.” – Daniel King, Operations Pastor at Next Level Church (Outreach Magazine describes NLC as one of the fastest growing churches in the country … and they’re in New England!) carey_small“I’d say multisite church is not the last good idea, but it’s the last clear idea. I think what comes next is smaller, more local and more experimental venues and experiences until a clear next way of reaching thousands emerges. And maybe smaller will become bigger than bigger in terms of overall reach” – Carey Nieuwhof, Pastor at Connexus Church and blogger, podcaster and speaker

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  1. I agree with Carey. Instead of the church moving into communities we’ll be moving into neigborhoods. That will make the church look entirely different than it does today. To quote Carey at last year’s Orange Conference. People aren’t going to drive forty minutes to church any more. Christians will, but people won’t.
    At 65 years of age, I’m excited about what the next chapter in church growth in North America is going to be.

    1. Hi Dave 🙂 Actually, I’m not even sure that “Christians” still do either… We live about 45-50 mins away from Willow Creek, our home church. I love going & have for decades but the drive is very taxing. The past year or so we’ve been watching church online primarily & attend in person periodically. I’m involved with online & in-person study groups as well. Just looking for a way to consistently serve locally, which typically was done through the church.

      So I think you’re right–people don’t really drive as much as they used to & it probably applies to believers & seekers alike.

    2. Tagging on to Dave’s comment, I’m not even sure that “Christians” still make the drive either…

      We live about 45-50 mins away from Willow Creek, our home church. I love going & have for decades but the drive is very taxing.

      The past year or so we’ve been watching church online primarily & attend in person periodically. I’m involved with online & in-person study groups as well. Just looking for a way to consistently serve locally, which typically was done through the church.

      So I think he’s right–people don’t really drive as much as they used to & it probably applies to believers & seekers alike.

      1. I think this is a critical “sleeper” issue for the local church today. The mega church movement and the multisite movement are really movements “driven” by the car. (Pardon the pun.) Before the wide proliferation of cars people would walk to the parish around the corner.

        Speaking personally … I would rather order products from Amazon than drive to the other side of town to get it. Waiting a couple days seems like a less of inconvenience. !!! I don’t think I’m just lazy … I think it’s a part of a shifting pattern of what “community” is.

        Online might be the answer … hyper local might be the answer … not sure … but I do think it’s a growing trend.

        – Rich

  2. Thanks for this thought-provoking article, Rich! There seems to be a (fine?) line between staying socially relevant, in order to connect with a broad audience, and Biblically sound by patterning churches in a way that honors God’s Word. Your article gives much “food for thought” on the topic of multi-site churches.

    1. Thanks for the kind words!

      All the time we see Jesus using stories to connect with his culture … those stories where an attempt to transmit a timely message in a container that made sense to his day … I think we need to do that same thing today … to think clearly about the world around us so we can communicate the timeless truth in a way that makes an impact.


  3. Thanks Rich for always thinking forward!

    What we’ve stumbled into at Westheights is the potential for a church that is deeply connected to its community. We’ve been int the same corner of town for 30 years and were finding most of our growth comes from within a short drive or walk.

    What if the next big thing is churches that love their communities in practical ways, bringing the ancient reality of the church into modern terms and technology, and the help young and old live and grow together?

    1. Tom!

      Love it … I think you are onto something here for sure.

      I’d love to hear more about what you are learning about reaching the people within walking distance of your church.


  4. Couldn’t agree more with what a lot of these comments are saying. The beauty of Netflix, Redbox, and Amazon is that they happen where we are.

    We don’t have to break stride to bring them into our lives.

    Whatever the next thing in church is I imagine it will be smaller, mobile, responsive, and personal.

    Seems like online, return to smaller neighborhood churches, affinity based groups, community organizations, and existing things that people already carve out time and passion for is where we could make the most impact by sharing Jesus.

    I think that lean paid staff with high capacity leaders are already making this shift possible I do think that even more of an emphasis on lay pastors, bi-vocational pastors, and developing these men and women into leading pockets of 100-125 people will continue to rise. Just look at Church on the Move and their “section” approach to ministry. They are breaking a big space, into tiny clusters.

    Thanks Rich for this post! YOU ROCK

  5. I’m going to sound like a broken record here and echo a lot of what has already been said. But I don’t think multi-site is the last good idea, but I do believe it’s the foundation for the next great movements.

    Even now we are seeing medium sized churches get into the multi-site game. Churches as in the 200 range are launching new churches and campuses. Not only that we are seeing a resurgence of mergers and partnerships between churches that are struggling.

    As we continue down this road I do believe we’ll see more campuses of churches in the 200-600 range pop up in smaller communities and downtown urban areas.

    Multi-site is the foundation for the next of the great movements

    1. Bobby … love the idea that it’s the foundation of the next big idea. That’s probably true. The “multiplication bug” has been let out and isn’t going back in any time soon!

      – Rich

  6. Here’s another thought – what if the answer is MORE sites? What if a church was made up of 50 small sites instead of 5? Like Small Groups but to the extreme.

    Would this let us be more nimble and serve a fragmenting culture more? Maybe we gather big bi-weekly instead of weekly?

    1. I think there might be something around the frequency of meeting.

      What if the church just did once a month “big event” church and then weekly “house church”?

      Or what if church ran in “seasons” rather than “series”? (10 weeks in the fall, 8 weeks leading up to Easter, 4 week spring season)

      Interesting ideas …

      – Rich

  7. Great article! I think decentralizing everything (location, teaching, staff, etc) leads to what essentially becomes a loosely affiliated network of small groups meeting wherever, however, and whenever is convenient for those who are part of that community. I can’t honestly say how to carry it out or grow something like that, but it’s a concept I’m working through in my head. Nothing more than a shared meal (and sacraments), a discussion (vs a lesson), and worship (in whatever form that takes).

    1. Philip … I think you are onto something there … trying to think through what are the “essential few” things that make a church … a church?

      – Rich

  8. I think that church networks can potentially be the next great idea. In rural Manitoba, Canada we are in the beginning phases of launching a network of vibrant churches through rural hubs in our province. The best of a church plant and the best of multisite working together to spread the Gospel. We’re learning as we go but are really excited about the contextual advantages of networking congregations.

  9. Rich…BOOM! Great post.

    I agree that multisite is the best thing currently for multiplication. But in a broad sense, multisite is not new. I would suggest that many denominations were birthed in their initiation to be a multisite church movement…that then morphed into a denomination of legalism.

    I believe multisite, as we know it today, will continue to grow and morph. I think the variations of models will continue to grow…and change.

    While I am a huge fan of Multisite, the most incredible movement int he church world (maybe not from a growth perspective) is the ever growing “tribal” environment. I can be SBC and be part of ARC and a number of other tribes and organizations. Churches making an impact are more prone to be multi-tribal and not just multisite.

    KEep it coming Rich!

    1. Tim … I think you are bang on. If multisite church don’t keep on the edge of innovation and vision it could become just another way to organize activity. Which (sadly) can sometimes be were denominations end up.

      Love the idea of a “multi-tribe” church!

      – Rich

  10. Another thought-provoking and insightful article. And as always the comments from this community challenge and encourage.

    I’m still in awe of the collaboration of networks and denominations with the singular focus or “Big Idea” of planting life-giving churches. As Tim mentions above, one can be supported financially by one group, logistically by another network, and in prayer and encouragement by all of them.

    I would love to see this same unity in purpose and “open-source” ideology expand into the service and ministry done within the cities, communities, and neighborhoods. I think if a similar collaboration could be done between churches, networks, non-profits, city services, etc. that we would truly see the widows and orphans comforted and the people and communities restored and redeemed. We have great models and a catalog of systems to effectively get the Word to people, but I believe the next great idea will be to replicate that to our Acts, to effectively meet the myriad and complex needs of people.

  11. The last good idea? No way. I think, in this current social age, the church is recovering its innovative footing. We were innovative with papyrus once, then the printing press, and then radio and television. Somehow we missed the boat with the Internet, but I think we’re catching up and I look forward to watching the church innovate… like old times.

    As for multisite, I agree with most of the commenters here. I believe we have to be thinking about spreading out more, in micro-sites. As Rick Warren put it back in the 80’s, the church will have to continually think about how to grow larger and smaller at the same time.

    I also think we have to change the scorecard. We can’t measure disciple-making merely by weekend attendance. We must be asking how many people are growing, getting into community, and going on mission even if our weekend attendance seems to flatten.

    I think awesomely good ideas are rare and only come around once or thrice per generation. It’s just a matter of time, prayer, and confident dreaming.

  12. Rich, your post is like a manifesto. It’s like your 95 thesis.

    So what’s next?
    I feel like there’s going to be a greater sense of collaboration where, instead of one big megachurch with their central support helping each of their campuses, it’s going to be a dispersed network of churches united together via resources and common mission. There’s going to be a greater emphasis on multiplication than addition. This multiplication will play itself out by churches taking on the ownership and responsibility to multiply. How will they do that? Via church based residency programs.

  13. If they will realize it, small community churches/ storefront churches/ old county seat churches might be blessed by this focus on community ministry. Many were born that way 50, 100 or 200 years ago.

    The strength of denominations have always been the pooling of resources for a bigger impact. (we don’t need to rehash the weaknesses) With technology today, the information, resources, examples, best practices are centralized while the people are living as the church decentralized.

    I love the comments about collaboration and truly believe that true teamwork will come when we are looking for contributions from all over God’s church. From the old and small to the large and new. Everyone of God’s gatherings has something to teach those who are willing to listen.

  14. Very insightful mix of many ideas you’ve been tossing around for a while. Multisite is the last great idea in the same way “Sunday School” was the last great idea. Any idea that is timely, effective and reproducible is always the “last great idea” until the next one. Blockbuster is instructive. As church leaders we must be watching and innovating passionately, but I’m not worried. It’s not my church. Jesus can and always has preserved and grown his Kingdom. We just have to follow well as we lead courageously.

  15. Great thinking Rich!

    With regards to the future… Small is the new big.

    The relational discipleship model provides the rich connection & spiritual growth people want. They can’t get it in culture. People will seek out relational churches because they are unique.

    There will always be a place for large attractional churches. But those thinking micro-church might be on to the next big idea.

  16. If you look at the Catholic church, which has been around for 2,000 or years, you notice the original multi-site church. The Catholic church had a strong leadership (the Bishop) and the priest underneath him. The Bishop not only oversees the diocese, but the main church (Cathedral) and neighborhood parishes. In the majority of large cities, you can’t go 5 miles without passing the neighborhood parish. This means that the Catholic church is available to be multi-ethnic. It’s services are based upon the needs of a community, hence a Saturday night service and one or more Sunday morning (and possibly night) services. If Evangelicals desire multi-site churches, they need to study the past.

  17. The biggest problem the local church has right now is that the truly creative and innovative people have no place or ownership in the local church. It’s the minor league for creativity and innovation.

    We won’t come up with the next great idea until we can figure out how to engage the culture makers.

    I will say this; increasing attendance is not the answer.

      1. Increasing attendance is not the answer. I believe the local church has to figure out a business model where their best attendees show up on Sunday 10-20 times per year. On top of that they need to figure out how to deliver all of the other aspects of the church, especially synchronization and coordination, at near zero marginal cost.

        New Media won’t be THE answer but the answer will not be possible without these tools. Much like the protestant reformation was not caused by the printing press but it would not have been possible without it. Or more recently, the Arab Spring was not caused by new media but it would not have been possible without it.

        This has been on my heart for years and I used to write about it and speak about it but I found that those who actually make the decisions at the local church cannot see past THIS Sunday and I’m fearful a lot of churches are going to miss this train. A post a jotted down a few years ago was republished here:

        The dead end I was running into is the main reason I’m no longer, vocationally, active in the local church. I believe it can’t be changed from within. With a team of brilliant creatives and innovators we’re trying some new things. We’ll see.

  18. Great read, thanks for this! I think that the challenges are not only what are the next great ideas but where will those ideas come from. In my context, it seems like the emerging generation has been fringe enough to project into the future. A big challenge is going to be current leadership being open enough to release the younger leaders to try and see if their ideas will work.

    1. Hey friends … you should check out Ted’s hearty disagreement with the multisite movement and it’s impact. Good food for thought.

      – Rich

      1. By the way, I thought the “ideas on announcements” link was terrific! I see it pop up again and again on your twitter and want to encourage others who might be interested! Just need to get everyone doing announcements to read it!

  19. I guess if you disagree, you don’t get posted. I well imagine this ones goes into file 13 as well.

    That’s where we are today in our faith…disagree and you are cut out of the conversation.

  20. Rich, I’m sorry I’m late to the conversation but I feel the next great idea is home churches with the “mother church” streamed in live. If you domino out the idea, what is after smaller venues in storefronts and schools? It is homes in residential neighborhoods. This is being experimented with by a number of churches including The Cove Church in Mooresville, NC. This will allow the church to grow exponentially.

  21. The next big idea? Could the next idea be not to have a big idea. Over the course of the last thirty years I have observed Christianity here in the United States rapidly change from one new movement to the next. It seems that many leaders have been striving to each create their own niche or brand of church that would captivate as many people as “humanly” possible. Could it be possible that the next move should be to simply reclaim an old idea? By this I mean to reclaim the idea(s) that directed Christ and the disciples.

    Much of language in this discussion seems to be communicating that answers have been and will be found in institutions, organizations, methods or systems.

    What about the idea of relationship? I know we can say that relationship is a part of institution, organization, etc. But, should it be that institution, organization, methodology or system should be a part of relationship instead?

    I don’t have time to flesh all of it out, but it seems that if the germination of the church began with Christ choosing twelve, nurturing relationship with them and they in turn developing relationships with others in the New Testament church that maybe we should find our answer in the primacy of relationship as well. I suppose what is most suspect to me is whether or not all else is causing the church to diminish the value and importance of relationship.

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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.