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.
By 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.
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.
“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.”
- 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) – distributedchurch.com“
“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!)
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”