Does Your Church Have the Right Model?

For the past several years, I’ve noticed that three words tend to dominate the church model conversation: “multisite, multisite, multisite.” It’s not hard to see why. According to a study sponsored by Duke University, as of 2014, there were over 8,000 multisite churches in the US, and though only three percent of all Protestant churches were multisite, nine percent of Protestant churchgoers attended a multisite church. And among the 100 largest churches in 2014, only 12 had a single campus. This outsized influence led missiologist Ed Stetzer to announce, “Multisite is the new normal among large churches and widely embraced elsewhere.”

While the multisite model is here to stay, its primary innovation—one church in multiple locations—lit the fuse for an explosion of other church models. Now, I’m pleased to say, multisite is one player in a quickly expanding universe of ministry innovation. Churches are no longer limited to planting an independent congregation or growing into a megachurch. Chris Backert, national director of Fresh Expressions US, describes how a church might riff on the multisite concept in a smaller setting:

You can take that same model and place it over a church of 300 that has six micro churches all run by lay people. The multisite movement gave us an organizational architecture for new expressions of church taking place alongside existing congregations.

Backert’s organization encourages churches to experiment with ministry models: “Our world is rapidly changing. It needs a church rooted in Scripture, orthodoxy, and tradition, but fluent in the language and culture of the world today.”

As more dishes are added to the ecclesial buffet, how can pastors decide which strategy might best serve their congregation? And what can pastors learn from these models, even if they’re not ready to adopt them wholesale? Each model comes with benefits and challenges, but two key filters help explain why you might embrace certain models over others.

Filter 1: Leadership Autonomy

Churches interested in expanding their influence tend to fall along a spectrum of autonomy. At one end lie churches with strong centralized leadership and a desire to replicate an experience, structure, or teaching platform. These are low-autonomy churches. On the other end are high-autonomy churches, including church plants and looser ministry networks.

Low Autonomy

At the farthest edge of the low end of the spectrum are video venue multisites, where live or pre-recorded messages are streamed to campuses within a church to promote a uniform experience for all attenders, no matter the location.

For many people, multisite and video campuses are practically synonymous, but they might be surprised to learn that televised sermons are “used by fewer than one in 10 Multisites,” according to a recent Barna study. Wade Burnett, senior partner at MultiSite Solutions, says, “There is no longer just one model for multisite. It’s not just a megachurch thing; it’s not a video thing.” Still, though the term multisite represents a larger selection of church expressions than it once did, the model tends to occupy the low end of the autonomy spectrum.

I have to admit, I have a hard time imagining myself preaching from a pre-written outline or sitting on the bench while my congregation watches our mothership’s service. What makes a low-autonomy leadership model attractive to so many church leaders? For one thing, it has a proven record of success. According to Ed Stetzer,

Statistically, multisite churches:

-Reach more people than single site churches.

-Tend to spread healthy churches to more diverse communities.

-Have more volunteers in service as a percentage than single site churches.

-Baptize more people than single site.

-Tend to activate people into ministry more than single site.

But the attraction of low-autonomy leadership models goes deeper than that. Many church leaders don’t mind trading in a bit of independence to join a larger movement. If you love Chick-fil-A and believe in their company model, you wouldn’t start from scratch by opening a competing restaurant. You would run a franchise and benefit from their tried-and-true systems.

Like guard rails on an overpass, authority structures help pastors stick to the vision and values they hold dear. Dave Ferguson, lead pastor of Community Christian Church, tells this story about the creation of his church’s “guard rails”:

Most of my campus leaders said, “Give us the playing field so we know when we’re out of bounds.” I wouldn’t want that; I’m wired as an entrepreneur. I’m apostolic. But other people need it because they want to do a good job without jumping over a fence they’re not supposed to cross. Our campus pastors and I came up with a list of campus constants to clarify things so they would know if they were in alignment.

Campus pastors also have an opportunity to apprentice with a proven leader. In How to Lead When You’re Not in Charge (Zondervan, 2017), North Point campus pastor Clay Scroggins writes, “Working for a great leader has many benefits. My favorite aspect of working for Andy Stanley is that I feel like I’m getting a graduate-level leadership degree just by observation and osmosis.”

High Autonomy

At the other end of the autonomy spectrum, churches trade structure for flexibility and congruity for diversity. Pastor Barry Crane bumped up against this edge of the spectrum when his Baptist congregation, North Sound Church, planted an Anglican one. Homogeneity was the last thing on their mind as they took this tremendous step. Todd Hunter, a bishop in the Anglican Church in North America and Crane’s church planting partner, had this to say: “Ultimately the reason this worked was that Barry and North Sound Church looked at their community from a kingdom point of view. Not like a McDonald’s or Starbucks, making sure they have a unit in every part of Seattle. … They just bit the bullet and said, ‘We’re planting Anglican churches.’”

Of course, church models that value leadership autonomy lose some of the benefits of low-autonomy models. Jon Tyson developed the City Parish Model to increase the freedom available to pastors compared to a traditional multisite. He says, “The downside of our model is that we don’t have a distinguishing voice or a clarified mission.”

But many pastors find high-autonomy models compelling because they allow for greater innovation. They aren’t restricted to certain sermon topics, ministry styles, or aesthetic choices as are campus pastors in traditional multisite churches. Instead they’re freer to contextualize. The loosely connected congregations within Trinity Grace Church, Tyson’s New York City church plant, benefit from shared resources and friendly collaboration, but they aren’t beholden to Tyson’s personality or preferences. “We developed a megachurch in a major metropolitan area that wasn’t built on one personality,” he says. “I wanted to empower people to lead individually.” If you’re weary of celebrity culture in ministry, this kind of high-autonomy model should have you grinning ear to ear.

Filter 2: Missional Strategy

While the spectrum of autonomy focuses on your inward preferences, this second filter encourages you to look outward. What group of people is your preferred church model best equipped to reach? Chris Backert sheds light on this dimension:

Traditional church-planting churches and multisite tend to be oriented to people who are likely to attend something that looks like a church as we understand it. Other church models, such as Verlon Fosner’s Dinner Church and Fresh Expressions, are more likely to reach people who wouldn’t attend church as we know it.

For People Likely to Attend a Traditional Service

While practitioners may use descriptors like “missional” to distinguish their church models from multisite, that’s an unfair characterization. I rarely meet multisite pastors who aren’t passionate about making disciples of Jesus or influencing their community for God’s glory. As Barna reports, “Jesus’ Great Commission and his call to church leaders are the key underpinnings of the present advance of … multisite campuses.”

Dave Ferguson agrees. “At Community Christian, we want to reach people because we believe that each person matters to God,” he says. “When churches begin multiple locations, they dramatically increase their outreach.”

Andy Stanley describes North Point’s evangelism strategy as “invest and invite”: “You invest in a life of an unbeliever, and when they're ready, you invite them to a ‘foyer’ event [such as a Sunday service]. And in that environment they're going to be presented with the gospel in a relevant way.” This approach appeals most to people who don’t mind attending a traditional church service—at least once.

That is why strong brand affiliation is a high priority for most multisite churches. They’ve developed a strategy that draws people into their ministries, so they want to cast as wide a net as possible with that same approach. “When I go to any Starbucks I know I will get a great cup of coffee from friendly people in a relaxing environment with good music. I know this because after hundreds of visits in dozens of cities, I have almost never been disappointed,” says Ferguson. “Whether we like it or not, similar thoughts go into how people choose to attend church.”

For People Unlikely to Attend a Traditional Service

But not everyone enjoys the Starbucks atmosphere. I, for one, can’t stand the taste of coffee! What options exist when traditional church services leave a bad taste in someone’s mouth? According to missiologist Reggie McNeal, to engage a culture that’s increasingly hostile to recognizable forms of church, we must invest in unconventional church models, such as missional communities. “These are going to reach people who would never show up at their church on Sunday anyway.” Ben Connelly, who planted a network of missional communities in Fort Worth, Texas, agrees. “You’re not inviting folks who don’t believe in Jesus into something on Sunday mornings that they have no history with—or a really bad history. It’s less intimidating to invite them into your house.”

Chris Backert sees an opportunity for churches to reach new groups of people if they’re willing to forego consistency for the sake of contextualization. He has seen churches of all sizes plant and support fresh expressions—micro churches—that look nothing like the primary congregations:

We’re working with a church in Reading, Pennsylvania that has six or seven micro churches, all led by lay people. One is a micro church of hunters, another is a gun club, and one for bikers, one for artists that meets in an art studio, one that calls itself “the house church for sinners.” There’s also a Methodist church in central Florida sponsoring a fresh expression in a Moe’s Southwest Grill, one in a tattoo parlor, and one in a dog park. In my opinion, that’s going to be a very significant stream of mission in North America.

Along with unconventional church expressions, Connelly believes more and more pastors will turn to bi-vocational ministry—for economic reasons, yes, but also for its mission potential. “The conversations and opportunities to which my [second] job have led have been astounding, largely because I get to talk to those who would never enter a church gathering.” Pastor and missional thinker Lance Ford has seen this trend take off in church planting. “It is easier to get to know people in some kind of public-profile job, so many church planters are simultaneously starting coffee shops, pubs, and other micro-businesses.” Yet as with all ministry expressions, there is a downside to bi-vocational work. “I know of two or three heartbreaking instances,” says Ford, “where planters started a coffee shop and planted a church at the same time, and then lost their marriages. It wasn’t through sexual sin, but through emotional abandonment.”

The Current Landscape

This smorgasbord of church strategies can be confusing and intimidating for church leaders. But Chris Backert sees it as an opportunity. “Everyone thinks what they’re doing is the best thing in the world. But we are living in a time when we have to have multiple options on the table, and many of these things are well within the reach of most churches in North America.”

Not all church models are created equal, and some have greater challenges to overcome than others, but it’s good that pastors have so many choices available to them. People complain about having “hundreds of TV channels, but nothing to watch,” but let’s be honest—would you ever go back to just three stations? Finally, in this model-rich landscape, our hunt for the ideal, one-size-fits-all church strategy can end. Pastors can select the model that best fits their passion, calling, and context, and flourish as one piece of the Church in their city.

And speaking of church-to-church connections, pastors have more options than ever to partner with churches that don’t look like theirs. In his book Center Church, Tim Keller writes that pastors “must be more concerned about reaching the whole city and growing the whole body of Christ than about increasing their own tribe or kingdom.” In many cities, this has led to remarkable interdenominational cooperation.

Leadership coach and author Amy Simpson describes one example of this: “The churches of Holden [Missouri] see themselves as one church: a multisite megachurch with more than 2,000 members, meeting in different locations and belonging to different denominations.”

But even without interdenominational networks, pastors have ample opportunity to befriend churches that do different things and minister to different populations. Chicago pastor Aaron Damiani writes, “There is now a critical mass of church leaders in Chicago who model this posture, including Jon Dennis, Jackson Crum, and Mark Jobe. They and others have set a tone of collaboration, and as a result some of my best allies are other Chicago pastors and planters.” This should encourage churches of all shapes and sizes. “We’re living in a transitional age when multiple ecclesial expressions of the gospel are important,” Backert says. “Traditional church planting has a role. Multisite in its various forms has a role. All of these models hit different situations.”

Like the members of their individual congregations, churches are learning to work together as one Body made up of many parts.