Churches try multi, not mega

Why build one giant church, leaders ask, when you can spread smaller ones right into churchgoers' neighborhoods?

Published June 25, 2006

If the Rev. Charlie Martin seems a bit busy, it's because he's got places to go.

On a typical Sunday, Martin, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks in Largo, worships at 8 a.m., preaches at the 9 a.m. service and then slips into a car and hurries toward Pasco County.

Forty-five minutes later, he's on again. This time in front of his second flock: First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks, North. His second congregation is only eight months old, but Martin already contemplates a third in the southern part of St. Petersburg.

“It kind of keeps you buzzing,” Martin said of his schedule.

His multicampus vision mirrors a national trend, as churches around the country franchise themselves and open multiple branded locations. Established churches are using the concept to grow by getting smaller, avoiding the impersonal nature associated with some megachurches. They also sidestep the high cost of constructing large buildings to hold growing flocks.

Martin's budget bears witness to the benefit. It likely would cost his church millions to expand its main campus or buy land to build a new church in development-heavy south Pasco County. But operating a second congregation at Trinity College this year will rack up a bill of only $228,500, church officials said.

Most importantly, he says, his ministry reaches a new crop of potential believers.

“Everybody needs a close-by church,” Martin said.


There is no single formula for multisite expansion. Some churches are employing separate staff at their satellite locations and operating almost completely independent of their mother churches. Others are transmitting services from main campuses to alternate locations where members watch on big screens.

Church growth experts say ministries are at the beginning of a fertility boom. In 1990, approximately 10 churches had satellite ministries. By 2004, about 1,500 multisite locations had sprung up, according to Leadership Network, a consulting company in Dallas that trains church leaders.

But some scholars set the number of multisite venues at least three times higher.
The motivation to multiply comes from the 60 to 90 percent of the national population that scholars say are unchurched.

“The question for us really isn't 'How many churches are there?' ” said the Rev. Geoff Surratt, co-author of The Multi-Site Church Revolution. “The question is 'How many people do not have a relationship with Christ?' If we're really going to impact that many people, we can't build enough new buildings.”

Many church leaders see the multisite model as a viable solution to growth and evangelistic challenges. But some critics warn the approach could leave parishioners feeling disconnected from the founding church and place too much emphasis on preachers and personalities.

“One of the negatives is you're not allowing the new church to have autonomy,” said Rodney A. Harrison, a professor at MidWestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo. “You're going to reproduce any unhealthy characteristic in a multisite church.”


Biblical scholars trace the multi-site church movement back to the New Testament, when early apostles founded churches in the days following Jesus Christ. The modern movement took off about two years ago with megachurches leading the way.

In August 2004, Without Walls International Church in Tampa opened Without Walls Central, a second church in Auburndale. Last summer, the new church moved into a 10,000-seat facility in Lakeland. Leaders at Without Walls, which has 26,000 members and is the nation's fastest growing church, are considering even more expansions, including using fiber optics to beam worship services to movie theaters around the country.

“We need to redefine the church in the 21st century,” said Bishop Randy White, the church's founding pastor. “The only way that we can do our job properly is to actually take it outside the walls of the church to venues all over.”

Although local churches say there is rarely a single reason for entering multisite ministry, the graying of congregations often plays a prominent role. About two years ago, leaders at the First Baptist Church of Sulphur Springs approached LifePoint Community Church in New Tampa and asked to combine ministries. The Rev. Brad White, LifePoint's senior pastor, declined to merge.

But eventually, First Baptist gave him the building. LifePoint's congregation then collected $150,000 within two weeks to get the Sulphur Springs church up and running again.

Now, within the next 10 to 15 years, White plans to open branded LifePoint churches within 15 minutes of every home in the bay area.

“Our value is 'We want to be close to your street to help you get into the seat,' ” White said.

Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz sees itself as more nurse than franchiser. The church opens additional locations to help depressed churches bounce back and releases them once they're healthy.

In 1998, Idlewild adopted Mission of Love Community Church, a small black congregation in central Tampa.

Idlewild buttressed the 60-member church with mentoring, personnel and financial backing — an anonymous donor bought the congregation a building for $1-million. The Lutz church renamed its new offspring Idlewild Central. Now the Tampa Heights congregation thrives, counting Tony Dungy's family among its 600 members, church leaders said.

The pastors of both churches talk about the day when the satellite church will become independent and Idlewild will look for another ailing ministry to assist.

“I don't think you start a church for it to stay a child,” said the Rev. Ken Whitten, senior pastor of Idlewild in Lutz.

“We don't ever want to be one of those enabling parents, as a church, that holds them back from their full potential of reaching people for Christ.”


Multisite expansion, however, is not all amens and hallelujahs.

Martin, of First Baptist of Indian Rocks, has planted churches before. His record so far: 2-for-3. A predominately black church he opened in Ridgecrest failed to gain traction and eventually folded in the 1980s.

But Martin is optimistic about his Pasco County venture. He's already scouting land for a permanent church. He predicts that the north campus will become as successful as the church's main branch, which sits on 50 acres, has a 3,200-seat sanctuary and 5,500 members.

For Delores Byers of Palm Harbor, the multicampus system has been a godsend.

Before First Baptist of Indian Rocks started a service at Trinity College in Pasco, she commuted to the Largo church for five years.

“I kept searching in this area for something in this area, and I couldn't find that same Bible teaching,” she said.

“This is an answer to prayer.”

Sherri Day can be reached at sday@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3405.