Worship at Freedom Life Church, a Hampton, Va., congregation with a campus in Texas. (FLC photo)
Worship at Freedom Life Church, a Hampton, Va., congregation with a campus in Texas. (FLC photo)

Multisite movement inspires growth, debate

Virginia Baptists celebrate 10 years as supporters of churches with multiple campuses, as the multisite movement cracks the 8,000-congregation mark nationally.

By Jeff Brumley

It’s been a decade since the Virginia Baptist Mission Board embraced the then-budding multisite church concept, becoming one of the first state organizations of any denomination to throw their institutional and financial weight into the movement.

So, was it worth it?

“Oh my goodness yes — no question,” said Glenn Akins, who oversees the effort as the VBMB’s assistant executive director.

A multisite church is one that has two more physical campuses connected administratively and often featuring simultaneous worship in which sermons are beamed via satellite or the web to the different locations. In many cases the new outlying locations result from another church either closing its doors or merging with a stronger church.

Akins GlennIn Virginia, 15 multisite churches have been created in the state since 2004, providing a combined 100 worship services across 35 campuses. All of those, Akins said, are reaching people that may otherwise not have been reached.

“It was a big decision 10 years ago for our board to regard this as church planting, meaning we are willing to invest grant money and include them in our counts,” he said. “We lent validity to a new form inside our system.”

Rapid growth

Virginia Baptists are not alone either in their embrace or enthusiasm of the multisite concept.

The Leadership Network/Generis released a scorecard in March showing that multicampus congregations are “booming across the continent.” It cited a Duke University study reporting that more than 5 million Americans worship at one of 8,000 multisite churches each weekend.

The Leadership Network/Generis survey says 85 percent of multisite churches are growing at 14 percent annually, and that a third of them began as a merger.

“Multisite campuses grow far more than church plants,” the study found, “and likewise multisite campuses have a greater evangelistic impact than other churches.”

It added that nearly half of all multisite churches sponsor new churches. Nearly 60 percent report an intention to launch additional campuses in the next year.

‘A hungry beast’

But there are those who are cautious about the movement, saying it’s often vulnerable to entertainment and consumerism impulses that can detract from true discipleship building and God-focused worship.

“It’s a common problem and began in the U.S. with the rise of the megachurch movement,” said John Chandler, an ABPnews/Herald columnist, author and leader of the Virginia-based Spence Network.

American megachurches began as large-scale public gatherings where leaders had to then discern how to create small-group situations to nurture fellowship and discipleship.

“They figured out how to attract a crowd, then had to figure out what to do with people beyond large groups,” Chandler said.

JohnChandlerA similar trend has been seen in many multisite settings, where the initial focus is often on getting people through the doors, then determining how to take them through spiritual formation.

“Typical Baptist churches think, ‘how can we get people to show up at worship?’” he said. “When that’s the means you use to reach people and you think of worship as a showroom for the rest of the life of the church — that’s a hungry beast and demands lots of feeding.”

So energy is spent on attracting and entertaining while internal community building suffers, he added.

The broadcast sermon format used in many multisite communities contributes to the feeling of worship-as-entertainment and also to the idea of pastor-as-celebrity, Chandler added.

The message on the screen must always remind viewers that “you are not here watching a movie right now, you are here to encounter Jesus.”

Some churches are doing that and Chandler said the multisite movement certainly has a future.

“It’s in its primetime right now and really enjoying its heyday in American church life.”

That could change if developments in technology alter the way Americans are accustomed to interacting with large screens.

“As long as big movie screens are around and that’s how people engage, then I think multisite churches will continue to do well,” Chandler said.

‘A clear vision and strategy’

Worshipers’ attitudes about screens isn’t the technological issue that concerns Freddy Villarreal, the senior pastor of Freedom Life Church.

The Virginia Baptist church plant in Hampton, Va., launched a satellite campus in January in San Antonio, Texas, to maintain relationships with military members who move between the two cities.

Rather than beaming Villarreal’s sermons to Texas, the new location has its own pastor. The technological challenges, however, have been with web-based video conferencing programs used during staff meetings.

PastorFreddyThe technology often prevents participants in both locations from hearing everything and there can be glitches that interrupt the flow of a meeting. Synergy and team chemistry have been hard to maintain, Villarreal said.

But the new launch has been successful in every other way and Freedom Life Church is making plans to launch campuses in San Diego and Seattle — where there are also strong Air Force communities, he said.

Villarreal said going with a multisite approach instead of a traditional church plant makes more sense because church plants often fail from lack of vision and finances.

“Launching a campus, we are fully vested, we have a clear vision and strategy and a clear identity,” he said. “And the biggest thing is it’s fully funded.”

Stepping forward

Another advantage of going multisite is the excitement and buy-in from existing church members, said Travis Collins, regional coordinator for Fresh Expressions and the former pastor of Bon Air Baptist Church, a multisite church in Richmond, Va.

“Every time we launched a new campus ... people stepped forward with gifts we didn’t know they had,” Collins said. “It breathes life into the entire organization.”

But there were downsides, too, including youth groups and congregations being dispersed as new campuses opened up, he said.

TravisCollinsMug“Our ministers knew they would lose some of their best members, we would lose choir members and you look around the sanctuary and it’s not as full.”

Collins added that a concern he has about the movement is its depiction in media and books as a potential cure-all for the ailing church in America.

“What I fear is that it will become for many the silver bullet,” he said. “There have been so many churches that have done this well that people will assume ... they can pull this off.”

‘Where the people are’

Among Baptists in Virginia, those kinds of assumptions are being avoided with a system of training congregations and potential pastors before they are backed for multisite, Akins said.

“Surprise — leadership is critical,” Akins said. “We’re a little more rigorous about our training for multisite pastors.”

That process ensures candidates are comfortable being under a lead pastor’s leadership.

“A church planter must be independent; he is the last word,” Akins said. “But a site pastor is accountable to a senior pastor — if he is not interested in working on a team, we are not interested.”

And while the multisite concept is relatively new, he said, the practice is really just a new take on a historic Baptist approach to evangelism.

“Baptists have a long history of going where the people are — and that’s what this movement is doing.”

Related story:

10 things you need to know about multisite churches