What the Future Looks Like for Multisite Churches

“It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.” –Yogi Berra

In the fall of 2001, a handful of multisite pioneers and trailblazers came together in Chicago to share their experiences and learn from one another. Those of us in the room at the “yellow box” facility of Community Christian Church in Naperville sensed we were on the verge of something new and game changing. It was a historic gathering sponsored by Leadership Network that gave birth to the modern-day multisite church movement. 

Two decades later, I am frequently asked about its future. 

When it comes to making predictions, I study the past, observe the present, extrapolate into the future … and anticipate surprises!

Studying the Past 

“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” –Mark Twain

The concept of one church under a centralized leadership meeting in multiple locations is not new. It began in Acts 2 with the church of Jerusalem meeting in many locations under the pastoral authority of James (the brother of Jesus) and the Apostles. Over the centuries, the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed movements exhibited similar models of centralized governance; common beliefs through prescribed catechisms, liturgies, and homilies; and standardized practices by way of sacraments and ordinances. 

The one-church-multiple-sites concept has seen many expressions throughout church history as church leaders adapted to changing cultural realities and leveraged technological advances. The details, circumstances, settings, and names may change through history, but the ideas and events are similar with a tendency to reoccur and have a familiar ring. A rhyme?

“There is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, ‘Look! This is something new’? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time” (Eccl. 1:9–10).

Observing the Present

“You can observe a lot just by watching.” –Yogi Berra

When I started down the multisite path as a senior pastor in Colorado in the 1990s, multisite was a radical idea. In the early 2000’s, multisite became the cool idea among large, cutting-edge churches. As it approached the end of its third decade, multisite had become the mainstream idea for healthy, growing churches of all kinds in urban, suburban, and rural communities.  

What began as a Band-Aid strategy for megachurches that were out of room or limited by zoning restrictions progressed through several identifiable stages. It quickly evolved into a growth strategy for healthy churches from 100 attenders and up, but the larger the church the more likely to become multisite. 

Stable-but-stuck churches found multisite to be a revitalization strategy to re-energize their base and leverage their influence beyond the walls of their congregation. Increasingly, it has become a rebirth strategy for struggling churches that merge with a multisite church. Nearly half of all multisite campuses have come about through a church merger.

The multisite strategy had become a proven model for church reproduction and multiplication for more than 8,000 churches across North America before the pandemic — and it’s not slowing down. According to the latest ECFA survey and research at The Unstuck Group, 70 percent of megachurches and 60 percent of churches of 1,000+ are multisiting.

The multisite congregation is the single most profound change in American congregations in the past century.” –Thom Rainer

Extrapolating Into the Future

“Come on the rising wind, We’re going up around the bend.” –John Fogerty

Based on what we are seeing today, here’s what appears to be around the bend 

1. Multisite Is the New Normal. 

for healthy, growing churches of all sizes. In the same way any growing church will offer two or more weekend worship services (a radical idea prior to 1975), most growing churches will launch two to three campuses over time. More church planters will be planting their churches with a multisite strategy.  

2. Small Is the New Big.

The most financially sustainable model for multisite churches is to launch big in smaller facilities with multiple services. The pandemic experience reminded everyone that buildings don’t reach people; people reach people. Multisite eliminates the need for big-box, unsustainable facilities. The pandemic and high-interest rates today remind us that the business of the church is to invest in making disciples not costly high-maintenance and unsustainable buildings. Going forward, new church buildings will be smaller (10,000 to 30,000 square feet) and simpler (400–600 seats, plus children space, spacious lobbies, and appropriate parking). Buying land and building or acquiring church facilities will still occur, but on a smaller scale.

3. Community-Centric Is the New Focus. 

Buildings are no longer the end game, but a means to the end of establishing church presence in a community. Churches will move away from income-draining buildings for themselves to revenue-producing, shared facilities (preschools, gym space, office space, conference centers, etc.) that serve their local communities.

Going forward, new church buildings will not only be smaller and simpler, but often less expensive, multipurpose, income-generating, financially-sustaining and community-centric.

4. Back to the Future: Megasite to Multisite to Microsite

A microsite is a microcosm church. These microchurches are a cross between a multisite campus and a house church. Microsites enable anyone to take church to the people anywhere, anytime, but with guidance and support of a sending church. Though the microsite idea is still embryonic, micrositing is another step forward in the multisite movement that will help churches reach more people better, faster, cheaper, and further. Just like the multisite movement, there will be various expressions of these missional small groups onsite and online.

5. Mergers Are the Great Opportunity.

Church mergers had already become the primary way multisite churches were obtaining facilities before the pandemic. Once seen as a last resort or lose-lose option, church mergers have become a viable win-win opportunity for struggling and stuck churches, as well as strong churches. Acquiring facilities through church mergers will continue to grow exponentially across the church landscape.

6. Church Online Is the New Front Door to Church and the Mission Field.

Online outreach, taking church to the digital neighborhood, has become the front door for people looking for a church and a side door for people wanting to stay engaged in their church. Online engagement can even drive onsite attendance. When it comes to digital services, churches have four options:

  1. Nothing online
  2. Streaming church services online 
  3. Providing an online campus 
  4. Doing both—streaming church services and a church campus online 

Many churches will continue to have their church services online, but the churches that are going to reach thousands will have a campus online that is designed to reach people online with an online experience that is different than watching a streaming church service remotely online. And the most effective churches of the future will do both! These churches will invest human and financial resources into a digital online strategy that is integrated seamlessly into its onsite campus strategy. 

7. Multiplication Is the New Math.

Churches become mega through addition, multisite through reproduction, and movements through multiplication. As more churches experience the exponential power of multiplication—disciples that make disciples and congregations that generate congregations—there will be more movement-making churches. These churches will become the new denominations/networks with a multiplication mindset and scorecard. They will be led by apostolic leaders that birth campuses that birth campuses and plant churches that plant churches.

8. Campus Pastors Are the Next Senior Pastors. 

Multisite churches have a built-in pipeline of campus pastors who can be discipled, mentored, groomed, and prepared for succession by their senior pastor. Most new senior pastors of multisite churches will come from within the church. This will ensure a more seamless and less disruptive transition for senior pastor succession.

9. Un-Multisite

Many multisite churches will drop out of the multisite movement. Campuses will be dropped by churches either because the originating church was not healthy, got into it for the wrong reasons or took the wrong approach. Many will un-multisite for legitimate reasons, but for every church that departs the multisite model, many more will embrace it.

“I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” –Wayne Gretzky 

Anticipating Surprises

What lies ahead? No one fully knows. That’s why we call them surprises and they are inevitable. They can be breakthroughs or setbacks, pleasant or unpleasant, positive or negative, game-killers or game-changers. Many times, surprises turn into opportunities for those who can see around the bend.

Two days after 9-11 in 2001, 300 of us gathered for Willow Creek’s first “videocast” message in the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College. Two days previously we wondered, in light of the terrible event that had traumatized our whole nation, whether we should delay the launch of our first multisite campus.  

Quickly we concluded, “We have to move forward with our plans, even more so, in light of this tragedy. This was a time for the church to step forward with confidence as well as comfort.” 

Our pastor opened the first videocast multisite service, with a simple prayer and concluded the prayer, as he so often did with .

“And everyone agreed with this prayer and said, ________.” 

Without any prompting, all 300 of us sitting in an auditorium 45 minutes away watching on a large screen showing a video recorded the night before, responded aloud in unison with a hearty “Amen!”  I knew then the multisite, videocast concept was going to work!

The rest is … HIS-story.

“The best way to predict the future is to create it.”  –Peter Drucker