As the American church struggles to maintain its
place in contemporary society, some observers point with optimism
to the rise of the multi-site church.
“It’s one very encouraging bright spot,” they say. “This is what
will save the church in America.”
I’m not so sure.
Borrowing from the American business franchise model, the
multi-site concept begins with an ambitious pastor who
attracts a weekly crowd in one location. Then he (almost always a
guy) starts new locations, copying the essence of the first
Though each congregation may have its own unique members,
demographics, pastoral staff, musicians, and architectural feel,
there’s one thing this franchise model insists must be uniform
across the system. The guy.
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Each location may be free to handle its own greetings, music,
sacraments, announcements, and so on. But when it comes to the
sermon time, that’s reserved for only one individual-the guy. Since
he can’t physically run around to all the locations simultaneously,
he uses technology to beam his image and personality to
high-definition screens all over the territory.
Currently, the model seems to be working in many places. People
are gathering in various locations, worshiping with friends, and
watching the televised image of a guy they’ll never meet.
The model is so attractive that I often now hear young church
planters include ambitious multi-site plans in their
strategy-before they ever enlist their first member in their first
So is this the organizational iteration that will save the
church? In 20 years will we all be sitting in large halls watching
one of a handful of famous guys deliver a televised speech, beamed
from the headquarters somewhere behind the curtain?
SCALABILITY AND SUSTAINABILITY
Since we’re looking at the franchise model, experts note that a
growing organization needs a couple of key things: scalability and
sustainability. The multi-site church strategy arose out of a
perceived need and desire to expand-to be scalable. Initially,
growing churches attempted to be scalable by adding worship service
times, and then by building ever-larger auditoriums. Ultimately,
those strategies could not provide endless scalability. Thus,
multiple sites. That part of the equation makes sense. It’s the
same strategy that denominations used successfully to grow their
But it’s the other thing-sustainability-that poses some eventual
problems for the church multi-site model. It’s because the model
relies on an unsustainable product-the guy.
The televised guy is unsustainable for several reasons. Firstly,
the public has already demonstrated its unsustained interest in the
medium itself-a perpetual diet of 30 minutes of televised talking
head. That static format (long-form televised lecture) has not been
sustainable in entertainment, news, or business. It also lost
its luster the last time it was tried in the religious realm-with
Multi-site church strategies starring the guy on the screen are
simply another variant of televangelism. With all of the attached
unsustainable encumberances. What happens when the guy dies? Or
decides to move away? Or changes careers? Or relinquishes his
faith? He-and thus his personality-driven network of multi-sites-is
And the multi-site pastor shares another, more unseemly, danger
with the old televangelists-pride. As adoring flocks grow, those in
the spotlight often become more removed, isolated, protected,
unaccountable, and susceptible to temptation. The multi-site guy
may become convinced that the most compelling factor that has
attracted the crowds across the locations is the face of the
franchise-his. Pride and fame do not mix well with sustainable
Preacher fame and ubiquity can also be toxic to those who view
the guy on the big screen. They can become star-struck and attach
more adulation to the guy on the screen than the Guy in the
Fame corrodes even the most well-intentioned. Some have said,
“Well, that’s not going to happen to me. I know how to keep myself
in check.” But even that statement is evidence of a certain
The dangers of ministerial pride are not new. The disciples
argued about who was the greatest among them. Jesus cautioned them
about their pride: “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very
last, and the servant of all.” That doesn’t sound much like
aspiring to be the screen star of a chain of churches.
So, will the multi-site model overcome these pitfalls and become
the new norm for the long haul?
DO WHAT WORKS
The basic thinking behind the model has promise: Find what works
and duplicate it in many locations. And, it’s wise to be good
stewards of creative development. It does make sense to develop
message content centrally and distribute it widely. But not through
a guy’s televised lectures.
Instead, tell stories and move people through wise use of media.
For example, a friend recently predicted that in the coming years
we’ll see big-budget half-hour movies produced for weekly
distribution through churches. These compelling productions could
replace the televised or live lecture-style sermon.
This type of multi-church expansion will require different kinds
of leaders-those whose genuine humility doesn’t crave the
spotlight. Instead, these leaders will be relational architects,
artfully bringing people together, encouraging relationships, and
planting people for service in the Kingdom.
That kind of multi-site strategy might intrigue me.
(Like to imagine the future of the church? Join me and a
bunch of insightful thinkers at the Future of the Church summit
event in Colorado in October. More