For the past 5 years, I’ve been watching an interesting phenomenon in the church in the United States. Mainline, denominational churches are declining, closing, and crying out that the church is dying. This is happening in the middle of an exciting evangelical church planting movement that is growing, equipping, and sending many church planters who are thriving. In one week you can read articles about the church dying away and the church multiplying at an increasing rate. It is a fascinating dichotomy of perspectives.
I’m partially able to see these conversations because I sit in the middle. I grew up in, and still serve, a United Methodist Church. And yet, the church I serve now is multi-site, we’re attending conferences by the evangelical church that is multiplying, and we are reaching people and growing. I’ve written about history and tradition before, with all the blessings and challenges it presents. But the more I see both sides, the more we coach communities through Contextual Worship, the more I am convinced that the multi-site model is the best future for denominational churches.
We are Stronger Together
A few years back I was blessed to serve at a community-oriented, forward thinking, exciting UMC in a small town. Across from the elementary school, every Wednesday we saw 30-40 kids cross the street and participate in our after-school program. We saw 10-30 young adults gathering during the week, and for a multi-sensory worship service on Sunday evenings. They have a great band. They are growing. They have strong leadership. This is a really exciting community of faith for the Kingdom of God.
These church leaders and innovators are changing lives and their community. Now, in this small town, they will never worship with 500 people, or probably even 200 people. After all, in each of the surrounding towns there is another small UMC. Within a 10 mile radius there used to be (I’m not positive since I haven’t been there in 3 years) 5-7 other UMC’s worshiping with 40 people or less. So the current model (that we have passed down through the years for a long time) is to have one of these churches in each town. And in the 50’s and 60’s that was working. But now those 5 churches worshiping with 40 people or less are the ones crying out “the church is dying.”
The momentum would completely shift if those 200 people attending 5 or 6 different churches would join the 100 people going to church in the first small town. Here’s how:
- Synergy: Having 300 people is much more exciting than gathering with 25 (or even 100). A worship service of 200 is almost always more engaging and inspiring than a worship service of 10. (10 people is more like a small group). There is a synergy when believers gather.
- Pastoral Team: Those 5-6 churches probably have 3-4 full-time equivalent pastors. Instead of 4 full-time pastors who each have to know how to do everything , one combined church could assemble a team with varying gifts. Those four people could be a teaching pastor, a music pastor, a youth pastor, and a pastor of congregational care. Rather than forcing 4 people to be generalists and do everything by themselves, you move 4 people to be specialists, work together, and focus on what they are great at.
- The Body of Christ is More Full: Within those 200 people worshiping in 5 locations, there is a huge variety of spiritual gifts. Some of those churches have great musicians. Others have great teachers. Others are amazing at hospitality. But none of those 5 small churches have each of those things. If you joined them into one community of faith, you would have all those gifts together. 200 people gifted by God’s spirit can do amazing things when they work together.
Multi-site works because we are stronger when we work together.
Working Together Sets Us Free to Reach Our Context
With a pastoral team of specialists, the spiritual gifts of a larger community, and the synergy of that many people together, God can get a lot done. Within that 10 mile radius there probably isn’t a need for 7 Methodist Churches. Rather than having 7 churches struggling to pay the bills, survive, and worrying about their decline, you would have one church that could focus on fulfilling the great commission.
Trying not to die takes up a lot of energy. But having specialists and God’s people work together in their gift set, at what they are passionate about, towards God’s vision is a really exciting thing.
Of course, multi-site means having more than 1 location. What if those 7 churches combined, and kept gathering in 2 of their buildings? First, you get rid of 5 other buildings that you have to maintain (you might even be able to sell them and make some money). With more resources, you could focus the building usage to fit the context of people (better multimedia equipment for a more contemporary gathering, for example). In general, you would just have more resources of people, time, and money. Rather than focusing on trying to keep 7 churches alive, you focus on doing 2 locations really well.
Multi-site Presents Challenges
This past weekend I attended a worship event with one of our other worship leaders. Some way or another, we got talking about business mergers and church mergers. While mergers can be great opportunities for businesses, they don’t always go smoothly in the church. We all have strong feelings about the church we grew up in, or were married in, or have relatives buried. Changing that feels threatening. I’ve seen church mergers and closures not succeed, or be rejected outright, because of the emotions of some in the congregation. That makes it hard.
Things also get tough when you’re involving buildings, appointed pastors, part-time staff members, and money. Can we sell the buildings? How do we spend that endowment money? What staff stays and what staff loses a job? We have to have some hard conversations and make tough decisions.
Multi-site is a Vision of Hope
This one geographic area of 7 churches isn’t the only example that exists, but it speaks to me. What are the possibilities if 7 churches would stop trying to survive and come together with 1 vision for the Kingdom of God in that area? Yes, there would be tough conversations. Yes, there would be challenges. But moving from a “we must survive” mentality towards a “the Kingdom of God is thriving here” mentality is such a major shift. It’s a shift from death into life.
Isn’t that what we proclaim and the hope we hold onto? That true life wins. That there is hope. That God’s Kingdom has come near to us. That community is better than isolation.
Multi-site provides that hope. It is a different future and dialogue than death. It is life-giving, challenging, and exciting. It is new. It brings God’s people together. And it is much better than the outcry that “the church is dying.” It is time to have the tough conversations, work together, and reclaim the greatness of our history and tradition for the Kingdom of God.
Eric Drew leads worship and leads leaders in worship ministries. After receiving his degree in music performance and working as a professional musician, Eric spent three years as a missionary in Central America. Now he enjoys using his experience as a musician and missionary as he serves at a vibrant, multi-site church community in Harrisburg, PA.
Republished with permission. Originally published at: http://www.basileiamovement.com/multi-site-future-denominational-churches/