Since the advent of Christianity some 2,000 years ago, a local church body usually has grown beyond its physical capacity in one of two ways: building or relocating to a larger site, or sending forth leaders to plant a new church elsewhere, often taking with them families who felt similarly called to this new location. In recent years, however, some churches have embraced relatively new methods to expand beyond the boundaries of their current facilities.
Though not without their own challenges and not necessarily the best fit for every church looking at options for managing its growth, these three methods have been used by a myriad of churches across the nation and may be worth a look.
Method No. 1: Multisite
Many churches have embraced a multisite approach to growth. Central Florida’s Northland, A Church Distributed; Urbana, Illinois’ The Vineyard and Surprise, Arizona’s Parkway Christian Church are only a few of the large churches that have expanded their breadth by opening multiple locations serving area communities. Some megachurches, like California’s Saddleback Church, have expanded globally, with its multiple sites in Southern California supplemented by satellite campuses in Argentina, Germany, China and the Philippines. Though not exclusively used by megachurches, the staffing, upkeep and ministry offerings of multiple sites at once is a difficult, expensive and time-consuming enterprise that often lends itself to large, financially robust churches.
The multisite approach differs from church planting in that planted churches are usually autonomous bodies with their own dedicated pastors, while satellite campuses share the same name, mission and vision—as well as many of the same pastors and programs—as a multi-site church’s main campus. Satellite campuses can help facilitate not only numerical expansion of congregants, but also geographic expansion. Large metropolitan areas tend to be prime markets for the multisite approach, as reducing traffic hassles and traveling distance can open up new groups who might be interested in attending your church.
Multisite is not without its detractions, however. One difficulty can come in reduced feelings of community stemming from a physical displacement from the rest of the church body. Though satellite campuses usually have their own pastoral staff, the main pastors often primarily focus on the main campus. The lead pastor usually delivers his sermon live to the main campus, while satellite campuses have to settle for a live video stream on a projector. The church’s biggest events are usually concentrated on the main campus, and though similar smaller events may be held in tandem at the satellite campuses, this can make some congregants feel their campus is inferior.
Further, in a single church, splintered across several campuses miles apart, pastors and staff must work hard to ensure that all congregants feel included in the church body. Large churches can already struggle with the relational aspect, as face time with lead pastors can be far more difficult to come by in a congregation of several thousand. The small-group ministries that many churches use to ensure members feel loved as people—instead of just another number lost in a sea of faces—can also prove key to making those attending satellite campuses feel included and valued.
Method No. 2: Mergers
A church merger is just what it sounds like: two or more churches becoming one. There are several different scenarios that fall under the merger umbrella, and all of them need to be navigated with care.
Reasons for mergers can include a church that has outgrown its facilities, shifts in leadership positions or needs, or simply the belief that a set of believers can do more for the kingdom together than as separate entities. Though mergers are usually initiated with an eye toward greater things to come, some members of the participating churches may feel uncomfortable with the shift as the part of their church’s identity is changed in one fell swoop. These feelings can be understandable, and must be navigated with prayer, compassion and understanding as you move the church toward the vision God has given you.
Merging two distinct church bodies into one new body can come with hazards of its own. Each church has unique doctrines, leadership, staff, traditions, ministries, assets and members whose needs should be taken into account. Launching into a merger without careful evaluation of how each element will change during and after the transition could cause the whole process to melt down mid-stream. If you find that the two churches cannot come to agreement on certain points, it may be best to walk away from the merger lest it cause damage and division to your congregations.
Method No. 3: Buy-outs
Perhaps the most controversial of these methods is when a struggling church is “bought out” by a financially healthy one. It is similar to a merger, except that, instead of a brand new merged church resulting, the church being bought out ceases to be, its membership and assets being absorbed into the “stronger” church. Unlike with mergers, there is an obvious “power” difference between the two entities, and the church being bought can feel slighted even if the buy-out is handled with care.
In a buy-out, one church is usually financially unable to continue its ministry as it is. Much like a corporate acquisition, the weaker church’s assets, including the building, are incorporated into the healthy church’s coffers, as are its liabilities. The leadership is often largely or completely replaced, though the “parent” church may choose to keep a few leaders on staff if they are a good fit for the church’s needs. Oftentimes the bought-out church can become a satellite campus for the larger church’s multisite goals, or it could even be used as the main campus for a younger, growing church that has expanded beyond its current facilities.
Despite the usually attendant leadership changes for the purchased church, many members may want to stay; it’s the closest thing they have to a home church at that point, after all. This influx of new members can be a good thing for the bigger church and for the body of believers as a whole, but bear in mind the doctrinal differences and emotional ties to the previous church that may become barriers to full assimilation. Some, or even most, of the previous church’s membership may want to leave, particularly if their doctrines don’t line up with those of the larger church, and that’s OK. Make sure that, no matter what side of the buy-out you’re on, you treat both your members and those of the other church with respect, integrity and, above all else, love.
If you are considering any of these methods for your church, make sure to do so prayerfully, reflecting on what is best for the congregation’s present and future needs, as well as the vision God has given you. There are myriad variations on each of these three methods that may crop up depending on your situation. Do sufficient research to ensure you make the right decision with the right people at the right place in the right time. Make sure that, no matter what path you take to grow your church, you never lose sight of the reason you were called to ministry in the first place.