Multi-site churches decorate the landscape across North Carolina meeting in local schools or a former boat dealership. Some actually meet in church buildings.
“To me, it’s the most effective evangelism tool for pastors today,” said Ray Johnson, lead pastor of High Rock Church (highrockchurch.net) in Salisbury.
Research backs up Johnson’s claim. Studies have shown that visitors are more likely to visit multi-site churches. Also the multi-site model reaches and baptizes more people and has more volunteers than single site churches. Multi-sites also spread healthy churches to more diverse communities and draws more people into ministry than single site churches.
In the United States, there were more than 8,000 multi-site churches in 2012 according to the data from the National Congregations Study done through Duke University. That number is up from 5,000 in 2010.
Mark Gray, Baptist State Convention of North Carolina’s team leader for church planting, said there are many ways to do multi-site churches.
“It is important that the lead pastor understand who he is, and then applies that truth to his multi-site,” Gray said.
Typically, multi-site churches have a main campus with a senior pastor and one or more satellite locations. Participants at the satellites watch a live feed or a recording of the pastor from the main campus and have live music and small groups.
Gray said multi-site churches share resources more often. So instead of buying a portable baptismal pool for each site, the church shares one among its campuses. With a main campus and maybe some stronger campuses, they can financially carry another campus until it gains footing within a community.
High Rock Church – Harrisburg Facebook photo
High Rock Church in Harrisburg holds a baptism service in 2013. There were more than 500 people baptized through High Rock’s eight sites in 2013. The Harrisburg site celebrated its one-year anniversary on April 6.
Several multi-site churches – such as Biltmore Baptist Church in Arden; Central Baptist Church in Dunn; Dublin First Baptist Church; First Baptist Church in Indian Trail; The Summit Church in Raleigh – have unique characteristics. These churches develop ministries according to each community’s needs.
A multi-site model
While the typical multi-site church does have a lead pastor with a feed to its satellite campuses, High Rock uses live communicators at each of its sites.
Johnson said they tried video, but claimed he was “too fat, too old and too bald” to carry the load.
“We don’t knock people that do video preaching,” Johnson said, whose church celebrates its 10th anniversary in July.
When Johnson planted High Rock Community Church in Salisbury and the church began to grow, they discovered a barrier – High Rock Lake. Because there was no bridge crossing the lake people were driving 45 minutes or more to get to the church. The lake divides Rowan and Davidson counties.
“It was hard to invite their friends,” Johnson said because they were unwilling to give up so much time to drive to church. The idea of taking High Rock to the other side of the lake was discussed.
Johnson, who has a background in real estate, arranged to buy a bank-foreclosed car dealership in what became the second site.
Unlike other multi-site churches High Rock owns its properties where the services are held. But they are not typical church buildings, except for the one in Albemarle. High Rock meets at a former boat dealership, three former grocery stores (Lexington, Kannapolis, Salisbury), a former elementary school (Wilkesboro), an ex-furniture store (Harrisburg), and a T-shirt factory (Myrtle Beach, S.C.). All are owned by High Rock, except for Myrtle Beach which is on a lease-to-own arrangement. All facilities have been renovated to suit the needs of each campus.
“It fits what we do,” Johnson said. “The Christian life is all about restoration. We live in a fallen world in a fallen place.”
High Rock did have nine campuses but they merged two that were in the same county.
The church dropped Community from its name when it became evident the church was no longer limited by the geographic barrier of High Rock Lake.
“We don’t have a main campus,” Johnson said of the church’s eight campuses.
For Johnson the biggest benefit of multi-sites is that “it allows the church to grow beyond four walls.”
“We could have never been a church of 3,000 [people] in one site,” Johnson said indicating Rowan County doesn’t have a church in the county that has 1,000 people.
Having multiple sites allows High Rock to have the resources of a larger church.
“It still allows the personal feel of a smaller, more regional church,” he said. “Each campus has its own personality that’s indigenous to that region. Each campus has the ability to adapt.
“Paul became ‘all things to all men so I might save some,’” said Johnson quoting 1 Corinthians 9:19-23.
One of the huge disadvantages is it’s expensive. Because of its structure, High Rock has to support all of its facilities as well as live communicators and other staff for each campus.
Multi-sites have the advantage of multiplying ministry.
“We’re constantly growing,” Johnson said. With eight sites, each church as a worship leader, video producer, youth pastor, head usher and more positions. Those sites raise up other leaders who are then sent out to other sites. High Rock started three campuses last year.
“[Multi-sites] allows you the opportunity to reproduce yourself,” Johnson said. High Rock tries to promote from within its current church leadership.
One thing Johnson said he would change if he could: not starting so many sites so fast.
Each campus’ pastor meets by video with the rest on Tuesdays. All eight write their message together. They agree on a scripture passage and start going through the passage. On Fridays they come together to preach and critique one another’s sermon.
“We’re able to make the message better,” said Johnson who believes this practices helps give confidence and uniformity.
While the main message is the same, “there will be campus-specific elements,” Johnson said.
Statistics back Johnson’s decision for live communicators. A 2013 survey by LifeWay Research shows that most (65 percent) of Americans would choose a live person over a church with a video feed.
“I don’t think anyone gets up on a Sunday morning saying, ‘Boy, I’d really like to watch a video sermon,’” said Scott McConnell, vice president of LifeWay Research and author of Multi-Site Churches: Guidance for the Movement’s Next Generation, in a LifeWay Research story. “But the fact that many churches utilize video sermons means other factors such as relationships, preaching approach, music, relevance and location can be more important.”
Of the 1,001 people surveyed, about 35 percent said they would only visit churches with a live sermon. A very small percentage (less than one percent) preferred to watch a video sermon.
High Rock does not limit itself to starting sites but also helps other church planters with starting churches.
“When God speaks we step,” Johnson said.
While High Rock is not planning to start any other sites for a couple of years, 2016 is shaping up to be a stellar year. While the church has eight sites currently, in 2016 High Rock plans to start eight more sites.
“We actually look for locations that have a high unchurched population,” he said. “We look for areas where there aren’t churches doing what we do … or a lot of churches.
“What we’re doing is working” said Johnson who shared that around 1,000 people made salvation decisions in 2013 with more than 500 people being baptized.
Johnson admitted that High Rock is weak in the area of discipleship, which is “why we’re taking a break on launching. [We’re] focusing on strengthening our spiritual growth of our church. We’ll be poised for exponential numerical growth.”
For churches that are dealing with the prospect of moving a church, multi-site is an option, Johnson said. Launching another site can be less expensive and less daunting than actually moving a campus.
Developing a multi-site plan
Like other pastors Mike Whitson, who leads First Baptist Church in Indian Trail, knows there is not a “cookie-cutter approach to multi-site ministries. What may be successful in one endeavor may not work in another. For instance, developing a plan for a brand new site looks entirely different than the plan to revitalize an already existing, but floundering ministry.”
Whitson has ministered at this church for 31 years. He explains the result as a “divine work of God. The greatest lesson that I have learned is to listen to that unmistakable voice of God and seek to be obedient to His leading and leave the results to Him.”
With about 6,000 members, Whitson said of the four sites that have been established, the church only went looking for two. The last two have been revitalizing other congregations. With each multi-site comes positives and negatives and they can vary from site to site.
For FBC Indian Trail, they found that you can take what works at one location and try it at another site.
But multi-sites have a “tendency to fragment one’s focus,” Whitson said. “It is like juggling plates and trying to keep all of them in the air, and that can prove difficult when leading from a centralized place of ministry. Keeping one’s finger on the pulse of many locations can prove challenging.”
It is important early on to set up a budget, find a location and train the leadership.
“Leadership is a prime consideration,” Whitson said. “We like to see the Lord raise up a leader and then we seek to establish the ministry around that person in a particular location.”
Maintaining the overall campus DNA is important, Whitson said. Part of that process involves regular meetings. FBC Indian Trail leaders have written weekly reports as well as face-to-face meetings.
“If you raise up communicators from within you’re able to transfer DNA,” Johnson said sharing that there are four communicators being trained currently.
One of the main issues with multi-site churches is helping prospective members understand the beliefs and values of the church. All of the multi-site churches have some form of membership class.
For FBC Indian Trail, classes are offered fairly frequently (every two weeks for 2.5 hours). They focus on spiritual gifts discovery, church values and ministry opportunities.
For Central Baptist Church in Dunn, classes are offered once a quarter and are usually called “breakfast with the pastor.”
High Rock requires its members to sign a covenant when they join agreeing with the vision, strategy and structure of the church: “High Rock Church exists to see lives changed through Jesus.” A three-hour class is offered regularly that “communicates why we exist as a church,” Johnson said.
Each month at each of The Summit Church’s campuses there is a class called “Starting Point,” that explains “what we believe and what it means and how to become a covenant member of the Summit,” said J.D. Greear, lead pastor.
Tracking multi-site churches is difficult in North Carolina. The Annual Church Profile, which is suggested but not required for all Southern Baptist churches, does not collect data on how many churches are multi-site. Gray said it is a growing number.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – More stories are coming on Biltmore Baptist Church in Arden, Central Baptist Church and The Summit Church in future issues of the Biblical Recorder.)
While there are other multi-site church resources available, the list below encompasses recommended materials by the pastors interviewed along with a list of the churches that are mentioned or will be in stories in the Biblical Recorder.
Mark Gray, church planting team leader for the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina: [email protected] or (800) 395-5102, ext. 5550
Ray Johnson, lead pastor, High Rock Church, [email protected], (704) 223-2217
Biltmore Baptist Church in Arden: biltmorebaptist.org
Central Baptist Church in Dunn: cbcdunn.org
First Baptist Church in Dublin: dublinfbc.org
First Baptist Church in Indian Trail: fbcit.org
High Rock Church: highrockchurch.net
The Summit Church: summitrdu.com
Leadership Network: http://leadnet.org/
The Multi-site Church Revolution: Being One Church in Many Locations by Geoff Surratt, Greg Ligon, and Warren Bird
Multi-Site Churches: Guidance for the Movement’s Next Generation by Scott McConnell
Better Together: Making Church Mergers Work by Jim Tomberlin and Warren Bird
The Purpose-Driven Church by Rick Warren