The multi-site church feels weird

Jared Mary Beth DragounMeet one of my favorite couples, Jared and Mary Beth Dragoun. Jared was my college roommate and is maybe one of the most photogenic people in the world. Mary Beth was my wife’s college roommate and has been known to point at bad drivers who venture too close to her vehicle. Jared and Mary Beth are Christ-followers who’ve been on staff at a well-known church in California. They recently announced that they are going to plant a church in North Hollywood and invited us to an informational meeting. (Here’s a link to their website if you’d like to learn more about what they’re doing.)

Here’s what I expected to hear at the meeting: “Our church has grown tremendously. So it’s moving to a multi-site church model, and we’ll be planting a satellite church campus in North Hollywood.”

Here’s what I heard instead: “We feel like God’s calling us to move to North Hollywood and love the people there. We’ll be planting a church there, although we’re not yet sure what it’ll look like.” (Yes, I’m paraphrasing slightly.)

This felt like a breath of fresh air to me. And it made me realize that I feel kindof weird about the multi-site church model. Not weird like, “multi-site churches are unbiblical”…more like, “I get it, but I’m not sure what I think of it just yet.”

To me, the multi-site church model is essentially taking a franchise approach to growth. And franchises make a LOT of sense in the business world. The new franchisee succeeds by leveraging an established (hopefully well-respected) brand and offering a consistent, quality product. The parent company benefits from the new franchisee’s success through franchise fees and the chance to wage war against the competition in a new market.

In this metaphor, the franchisee is the satellite church campus. The established brand is the name of the church opening the new campus. The consistent, quality product is the senior pastor’s message (which will be shown at the new campus via live or pre-recorded video). The franchise fees are the portion of the tithes and offerings that go back to the home church. And the competition in the new market, of course, consists of existing local churches in the city where the satellite church campus will be located. I know…this metaphor starts to feel icky.

One might rightfully say, “No…a satellite church campus doesn’t compete with existing local churches…they’re on the same team, waging war against a common enemy.” And I guess that’s true. But after seeing how quickly our local coffee shops folded after Starbucks came to my town, it makes me wonder what would happen to small local churches if Saddleback Church decided to open a satellite church campus in every city with over 30,000 residents.

There are times in your life when you look at yourself and think, “Maybe I’m becoming a crotchety old man.” And this is one of those for me. God is definitely moving in and through multi-site churches, and I’m by no means qualified to say, “You’re doing it wrong!” Still, I wonder…even if the multi-site church model works for the short term, is it good?

A few random closing thoughts/questions, in no particular order:

  • My friend Joe Barruso recently posed this question about a somewhat-related topic: “Should the child be a clone of the parent?” In other words…if a planted church is the “child” of the parent church, should that child be allowed to grow up and have its own name and identity? Or should it look, feel, and act exactly like its parent?
  • When we open a satellite campus, whose name are we most interested in lifting, raising, and promoting? Who (or what) is getting the fame?
  • Can a multi-site church model work without a dynamic, charismatic lead pastor? If not, does that mean we’re placing too much emphasis on the lead pastor?
  • What does a multi-site church do with members of its own congregation who are called to pastor, teach, and lead? Do they find fulfilment doing those things without having a pulpit (or stage, etc.) of their own, or do they need to go to a different church (or start their own) to earn the ability to speak on Sunday mornings?

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