Multisite, merger, fostering, adopting — what's in your church’s future?

Paul Alexander

Executive pastor, Sun Valley Community Church

Point Magazine // January 2021

“Multi” no longer means “mega.”

Studies conducted during the multisite church movement of the past 20 years show there are more than 8000 multisite churches across the United States and more than 1600 megachurches (churches of more than 2000 people in weekly attendance). While both are growing, the multisite church movement has outpaced the megachurch movement in the U.S.

Once seen only as a Band-Aid solution for space issues at megachurches, the multisite church has become a vehicle for growth in local churches of all kinds and sizes (the average size that a church goes multisite is around 850 people). Churches in urban, suburban and even more rural settings make the multisite model work in their context. There’s no doubt about it: “Multi” definitely does not mean “mega” anymore.

For the past 10 years, I’ve had the opportunity to have a front-row seat to the multisite movement, both leading in a large multisite church as well as consulting with multisite churches across the country. As you can imagine, I’ve seen churches go multisite for all kinds of reasons.

The best reason churches decide to go multisite is because they have to. They have to because they’re growing and have momentum. They have to because they’re running out of physical space. They have to because there are people who don’t yet know Jesus and someone — you — has to do something about it.

Multisite churches and your kingdom assets

Many churches that have a great history of growth and helping new people say yes to following Jesus. Most churches got their start because of a small group people who were compelled at some point to begin a new church in a new area to reach new people.

But for many churches those stories of reaching new people and growth are in the past. They’ve experienced a consistent decline in recent years and are in maintenance mode or on life-support. The Barna Group recently projected that 1 out of 5 churches would close over the next 18 months. Many of these kingdom assets are in places like Atlanta, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and high-priced suburban areas where the cost of real estate is a barrier to starting new churches.

Instead of holding onto these physical assets until the church ultimately has to close and the property be sold, wise churches would strongly consider gifting those assets to a thriving and growing church in your state with a proven and successful multisite model and turn that location into a campus. Too much prayer, effort and sacrifice have gone into the ministry of your church to see it eventually sold off to a strip mall or a housing or commercial property developer.

Multisite churches and mergers

Every church leader I’ve spoken with this year readily admits that COVID-19 has been a game-changer. One of the many implications is that the multisite church movement is not going to go away. If anything, it will accelerate in the next 12 to 24 months through an uptick in church mergers.

Through my experience working with churches, I’ve discovered that the idea of “church mergers” is met with a wide variety of emotions, many negative. Some voice the view that gobbling up smaller, struggling churches is cannibalistic. They enlarge their own footprint and grow their brand, not the God’s kingdom.

Some churches would rather die and close their doors than merge with or gift their property to another church.

With all this negative emotion around the idea of church mergers, I thought I would throw out a couple of questions. These may open a more helpful conversation about mergers and maybe even begin to shift some thinking.

Would a merger bring greater kingdom results?

If you merged with another church, would you experience a greater kingdom impact together than you would individually? If each church would take more kingdom ground as an individual autonomous church, then, by all means, they should stay that way. But if greater ground would be taken together, then it’s worth a serious conversation.

Do you want this person to be your senior pastor?

Language is important. In a church merger, you’re often leading through an emotionally charged situation. Poorly wording things can stop movement before it begins.

I’ve found one helpful way to discuss a merger is to ask the church that is potentially joining your church if they would want your pastor to be their pastor? This reframes the conversation and makes it a lot less threatening.

Would you want to adopt the vision and practices of the church you’re merging with?

It’s difficult to generate much traction in a church merger conversation if you list all the joining church will have to change. For instance, adopting a new vision, changing their approach to ministry or adding different ministry practices. This can feel overwhelming and threatening to the joining church.

A more palatable way to get into a merger conversation may be to start with the stories of life-change, momentum and all of the great things God is doing in and through your church’s ministry. Would the potentially joining church like to have those kinds of stories and results?

Are you considering fostering or adopting?

If multisite is in your church’s future, then you’re going to want to determine if you’re going to be open to adoption, fostering or starting a brand-new location (or maybe all three). A church adoption is exactly what it sounds like. It happens when a healthy church adopts a struggling church. That struggling church then becomes a campus or location of the adopting church.

Church fostering happens when a struggling church partners with a healthier church for a defined period (typically under a year). If you go down this road, don’t be too surprised if, just as in families, the intent to foster later turns into an adoption.

Post-COVID-19 opportunities

While the term “multisite church” may be relatively new, the idea of multisite (one church meeting in multiple locations) is not new. Multisite began in Acts 2 when the Jerusalem church met in many locations. Shortly thereafter, the church started sending the Apostle Paul’s letters all over the region. This may be our first example of gospel teaching being delivered to multiple locations through technology (letters).

In the not-too-distant past, circuit riders of some faith traditions rode horseback between locations. They would pastor and preach to many people in many different locations. Often throughout church history pastors of some faith traditions would listen to great preachers and then preach those sermons in their churches. This wasn’t considered plagiarism; it was how they intentionally distributed content among their churches.

This idea of “one church-multiple locations” has seen many iterations and expressions throughout church history. In other words, multisite isn’t a new idea — recently it’s just being expressed in a new way.

COVID-19 is reminding the church about the necessity to be flexible and solution-oriented. While the gospel never changes, we must constantly adapt to the changing culture and times we live in.

Throughout this past year, the majority of North American churches have not had the opportunity to gather as they’ve done for so many years. Although our ministry approach and methods have been severely impacted, we cannot let this be an excuse to not reach and help new people say yes to following Jesus.

Every church in North America should be discussing and praying about whether or not multisite is a part of their future. If your church is healthy and reaching new people, you should ask yourself about fostering, adopting, merging or starting a new location. If your church isn’t healthy and isn’t reaching new people, you should be asking yourself about becoming fostered or adopted by a healthier church.

Either way, if the post-COVID-19 early indicators are correct (and they sure seem to be), the next 12-24 months will bring an incredible opportunity for your church to merge with another church to expand the kingdom work you’re doing and reach new people in a new place.

If your church needs help taking the next step with your multisite strategy, I encourage reaching out to the Unstuck Group. Our team has more than 100 combined years of experience leading in successful multisite churches. Our proven multisite services are designed to help multisite churches clarify their strategy and effectively lead one church in multiple locations. You can also check out the Converge website to learn more about church planting and multiplication.

Paul Alexander, Executive pastor, Sun Valley Community Church

Paul Alexander is a ministry consultant with the Unstuck Group and has more than 25 years of experience serving in the local church, the last 20 of which have been on the senior leadership teams of some of the nation’s leading megachurches. Currently, Paul is serving as the executive pastor at Sun Valley Community Church, a large multi-site church located in the Phoenix area.

Additional articles by Paul Alexander