Choosing to have multiple sites was not an obvious decision for The Summit Church in Durham.
Even though the church now has eight locations in the Raleigh-Durham area, “we sort of backed into multi-site,” said J.D. Greear, lead pastor.
“We spent three years searching for property to build a much larger facility near our original location. We had actually already sold our building and begun meeting in a high school.”
Because they couldn’t find land in the area, they relocated 30 minutes away.
“We did own a small church building near our original location, and it seemed like a good idea to provide worship services there as well for people who had lived in that community for so long. So, almost by accident, we became multi-site.”
It was only after they added the services at the church building that the leaders began to realize what having multiple sites meant and might mean for the future of the church.
“We’re still learning all the time,” Greear said.
Early in his ministry at what was then known as Homestead Heights Baptist Church, Greear said he was praying for revival in Durham.
The Summit Church logo. Used with permission from The Summit.
“In the midst of that prayer, I felt the Spirit of God whisper in my heart, ‘And what if I answer this prayer … and send a revival into Raleigh-Durham beyond all you’ve asked or imagined … but I choose another church through which to do it? What if that church grows, and yours stays the same?’” Greear said.
The pastor would love to be able to say he had an emphatic “Yes” for God and that he rallied behind John 3:30 (“He must increase, but I must decrease”), but the answer that bubbled up from Greear’s heart was “No.”
“Somehow ‘thy Kingdom come’ had become all jumbled up with ‘my kingdom come,’” he said. “I’ve had to learn, again and again, that many of the most important elements of ministry are also the most costly. But they’re also the most rewarding.”
Some concerns about multi-site churches turned out to be strengths for The Summit.
“We’ve found that the pastoral care and leadership is very strong because it’s local, closer to where people live and worship,” he said.
“The pastors and staff who serve at each campus have the opportunity to know the congregation and be involved in their lives.”
Greear credits this local emphasis as the reason why the church starts campuses in the local region and not in cities across the nation.
The Summit’s leadership takes unity seriously and doesn’t want to lose the sense of being one church.
“We concluded that we would lose the local flavor if our campuses spread out too far, so we limit ourselves to the [Raleigh-Durham] metropolitan area,” Greear said.
“Besides our geographical unity, we are also united around our common call to Jesus and His mission.”
The Summit only starts sites where its members already are.
“We believe God has The Summit Church here to reach and bless this area,” Greear said. Because of the central location of its sites, the church can come together like it did in the fall for a worship service at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park. They also held Christmas services at the Durham Performing Arts Center.
Just because the church has multiple sites does not mean it is not involved in church planting. Since 2010, The Summit has planted churches in Denver, Tennessee, Indianapolis and Baltimore, and it plans to plant four churches this year in Washington, D.C., Wilmington and two in the Triangle.
“Planting churches and being multi-site go hand-in-hand for us,” Greear said. “The Church is God’s ‘Plan A’ for the world, and we believe all Christians are sent by Jesus to be a part of that plan.”
The church has a goal to plant 1,000 churches worldwide by 2050.
With The Summit’s help 19 churches have been planted in North America, 12 in Central and South America, 11 in South Asia, six in southern Africa, four in Central Asia, three in east Africa and one in East Asia, Western Europe and Eastern Europe.
For The Summit, moving to a multi-site church has helped its church planting vision. Greear said the church’s plants have taken a higher priority because of the congregation’s growth.
“Multiplying campuses is not the alternative to church planting, but the alternative to building an enormous building,” he said.
When looking at starting another site, Greear said they look for a person, place and people. They begin by having meetings for those interested in launching a new location.
“Once we determine that we are going to start a new campus, we’ll call a Campus Pastor to start leading even before the campus is launched,” Greear said. “He will focus on building and organizing a core group.”
The church would like to have 150-200 willing adults to be part of a new campus.
“This core group is vital as they are the ones who will serve in ministry at the new location,” he said. “Our people see this as part of their mission to reach their community, so they are really committed. Once we find a facility to meet, we’re ready to go. Well, it’s not really that simple, but those are the basic ingredients.”
Campus pastors meet weekly to discuss campus leadership, ministry ideas, vision and strategy.
“We will also go over the sermon for the coming week and what elements of worship will be common at all campuses,” Greear said.
Each campus has a team of pastors, staff and lay leaders. There is a central team “that develops excellent training and curriculum for making disciples of all ages,” Greear said.
Greear said he has found that the multi-site church “is better at developing leaders than a single-location large church.”
Some of Greear’s favorite leaders are no longer staff members he sees on Sunday.
“They are serving at one of six campuses I don’t usually get to on Sunday,” he said. “These were guys I raised up, trained and depended on. Now, as campus pastors, they have the opportunity to lead in ways they didn’t when we were all at one place. And, in their wake, new leaders have emerged at the original campus.”
Opening a new site stems from growth and building capacity. The Summit looks at adding more services but when that site is running three or four services, the leadership begins to look at starting a new campus.
“The other reason for starting a campus is to better reach people in an area where Summit members already live,” he said.
“It’s not uncommon for Christians to be willing to drive 30+ minutes to attend a church they love. But it’s unlikely the unchurched friend you just met at Starbucks is excited about a long commute on Sunday. If we are able to bring the church closer to where they live, we know it gives us an opportunity to reach a new community of people. So we will look for a location in an area from which people are already coming.”