Operating multiple sites and venues creates a wealth of ministry opportunities, whether you’re operating from your existing church main campus—perhaps in a gym, fellowship hall or café outside of the primary sanctuary—a school or theater across town or maybe even in another state. According to some estimates, more than 3,000 U.S. churches have adopted some form of multi-site and multi-venue strategy, and there are plenty of successful examples and case studies from coast to coast, including North Point Community Church in Atlanta, Community Christian Church in metro Chicago and Christian City Church in metro San Diego.
In many ways, multi-site is a positive and automatic response to modern American culture, how we communicate and our increasingly complex lives and interactions with each other and the world in which we live.
“The multi-site model has exploded,” says Jim Tomberlin, founder and senior strategist at Scottsdale, Ariz.-based MultiSite Solutions. “It started out as a Band-Aid for megachurches that had outgrown their facilities, but the concept has really gained traction with churches of all sizes. It’s the new normal.”
Still, as many blessings as a multi-site strategy may provide, it’s not easy, and it’s not for everyone.
First, you have to make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons, and then there are complexities involved in the business, staffing and overall message and vision of the church and what it wants to convey to the broader community. It’s an opportunity to communicate the unique culture of your church and congregation, but you have to know who you are and who you aren’t, reports Greg Snider, senior project developer at Frankfort, Ill.-based design/build firm Aspen Group.
“The DNA issue is critical because a church has to have the vision to do multi-site, and not because everyone else is doing it,” Snider says. “We try to find out first what the DNA and culture is and what the drivers are for multi-site. Our culture has almost forced this multi-site trend, and multi-site is done in so many different ways.”
That vision and maintaining or purposefully changing the DNA is the first priority, according to Snider. What if the campus/multi-site pastor wants to preach and not just play videos from the mother church? Even though churches generally want to maintain culture and DNA, if new sites have markedly different demographic, socioeconomic, geographic and language differences—both literally with foreign language ministries and figuratively with how different age groups communicate—it’s only natural that those sites will have a different culture and DNA.
These issues and questions spawn a number of others, too. How long does the mother church support the satellite financially, and how long do you support the satellite before it’s sustainable in its own right? How do you allocate capital campaigns for multi-site? Do you have the same church board and/or deacons? Leadership and management become increasingly complex, especially with three or more sites, Snider says.
“The challenge churches will have is whether they want to hold on too tightly,” he says. “That’s something pastors need to be aware of. The whole management and business side of things can be really tricky if it’s not well thought out.”
Thinking It Through
Two of the primary reasons to go multi-site are easy enough to grasp: greater potential outreach and lower investment costs. Then what?
Aspen Group’s Snider recommends that churches do multi-venue—worship in multiple locations on the main campus—before going for multi-site. Multi-venue gives the church a chance to test drive different concepts and forms of worship targeted at different demographics with different worship leaders as well. If and when you decide to go multi-site, there are a number of big issues to consider, but “where?” is among the first.
Schools and theaters offer an existing-space option, and 50% of all multi-site churches start in a school because it’s the least expensive option, Tomberlin says. While it can be done for cheaper, the average cost to launch a multi-site location at a school is $250,000, he reports, mostly due to technology costs. Theaters are generally less expensive, but may lack space for a nursery, children’s and other ministries, as well as weekend flexibility regarding when you can use the property. Also, utilizing theaters as worship sites just isn’t in some churches’ DNA.
Most school systems are willing to work with churches—legally they have to allow everyone within reason or no one, Tomberlin says—especially amidst recession and budget cuts. They need the funds that church rents generate now more than ever. When considering multi-site in rural or exurban communities [the ring of prosperous communities beyond the suburbs that are commuter towns for an urban area], a school may be the best option if only due to a lack of suitable commercial space.
Commercial space has always been a possible solution for multi-site, and is even more compelling amidst a recession that’s lead to vastly lower property values and rental rates compared with only a few years ago. Owners of shopping centers, flex buildings (a combination of office and warehouse space), and vacant pharmacies and car dealerships are ready to deal.
“Leasing an existing facility and retrofitting it for church purposes is not a cheap solution, but it is usually a lot less expensive than buying land and/or building new facilities,” Tomberlin says. “In these current economic times, there are a lot of commercial facilities available at good lease and/or purchase prices.”
Building a new campus is also a possibility but may not be feasible from a financial or timing perspective, especially given the lengthy nature of capital campaigns and the permitting and construction process. It’s also a matter of a church recognizing a need in the surrounding community and wanting to act rapidly or meeting demands of rapid growth.
“By the time they find a site, permit it, design and build, that’s two years,” Snider says. “The speed and cost is going to drive you to get a storefront or warehouse or old pharmacy or car dealership.”
Besides, one of the main objectives of multi-site is to leverage the resources of the main campus to spread the Word. You may want a 24/7-satellite operation, or you may only need it for five or six hours a week. Either way, you need to carefully study the demographics and neighborhoods of potential multi-site locations, and understand that geographic location may determine the parameters of whether you buy new land and build, rent an existing retail property or use a school or theater, Snider reports. Getting to know your new community helps determine how you best serve it and the best path to creating a unique new house of worship that will be an important component in the revitalization of both neighborhoods and people’s lives.
Hear Me, o Lord
It’s common for satellite venues to broadcast the sermon from the church’s primary sanctuary, so the audio/video/lighting components for multi-site strategies start at home. If the audio, lighting and broadcast capabilities aren’t up to snuff at the mother church and your broadcast clearly shows it, you’ve already lost the other venues. At the other end, one common mistake many satellite venues encounter involves projectors that aren’t bright enough, says John Day, account executive in the San Diego office of Minneapolis-based AVI Systems. A 1,000-1,500-lumen projector on a 100-inch diagonal screen isn’t going to be bright enough in most cases, he says.
Really, it’s about human nature. God may look at our hearts, but the vast majority of people can’t help but judge initially on more superficial aspects. Plus, glorifying God and making the best use of people’s tithes should demand excellence, Day says. While you should seek guidance and expert assistance from those who live and breathe the field, you don’t have to acquire all the A/V/L pieces at once. If budget is an issue, buy them when you can and phase them in.
“People focus on outward appearance nine times out of 10, and the last thing you want is for people who visit your church to think it’s cheesy,” he says.
Regarding A/V/L, the first consideration is the venue, Day says. A venue like a performing arts center may already have the necessary equipment, while a gymnasium’s acoustics may require added manpower and expertise to transform it into a serviceable worship site. The next question: who’s running the sound system, pro, experienced amateur or weekend warrior? All sound boards require some level of training, and you don’t want to give them something that requires a PhD in physics to figure out how to use, Day says. Also, the sound system, the most important initial piece of the puzzle, will need to be robust and capable of accommodating the venue’s growth as instruments or a band, vocalists or even a choir are added to the site’s worship mix.
Of course, with video venues, the V(ideo) becomes absolutely essential, too. A/V consultants can calculate the appropriate-size screen for the venue’s size and person farthest from screen. With broadcasting the sermon, hard drive or DVD are still the most common methods, but live Internet video streaming is gaining acceptance. The standard video presentation involves a high-definition, center-screen shot with side screens using image magnification (IMAG), but single-screen set-ups with an overlay of scripture or other relevant information can be a viable option, as well.
“The goal is to make people feel like they’re in the service and not watching the service,” Tomberlin says. “Though satellite transmission is increasing, video-streaming over high-speed, broadband Internet connections or dedicated lines will become the primary vehicle for delivering sermon content. Still, the most common, least expensive and reliable means of digital sermon delivery remains video recording and delivery utilizing DVD or hard drive.”
Video sermon challenges and solutions …
Can’t find the Worship Facilities’ Sept/Oct 2009 print issue? Find out how young multi-site Elevation Church in Charlotte, N.C., turned a leased facility into an ideal location to capture professional-level video and sound, at: