Can Multi-Site Work in a Rural Context?
When people find out that I pastor a church in rural South Dakota that has four multi-site locations (in South Dakota, Illinois, and Jamaica) as well as an online, iCampus, they are often quite surprised.
I have a feeling if I told them our church was in Dallas or Atlanta, they wouldn’t think that much of it. But the thought of a small church reaching a rural context with a multi-site strategy is somewhat of an unusual concept, although that’s beginning to change).
Over the last decade or so, we have seen many churches embrace a multi-site strategy with a lot of success. But often, we see that playing out in larger churches in urban and suburban areas. We assume that for multi-site to work, it needs to come from a large congregation with numerous staff, lots of money, expensive technology, and skilled people to operate that technology.
Essentially, the thinking is that because of the challenge of limited resources almost all small-town and rural churches face, utilizing multi-site to reach a region beyond their small town is simply out of the question.
I’m here to tell you that multi-site can and does work in a rural context.
So what does your rural church need in order to go multi-site? While the following is probably not an exhaustive list, I’ll offer up six essentials to get you started:
You need a call from God.
While I could offer many reasons for why a church should consider going multi-site, I could also come up with a list of reasons for why not. At the top of that list would simply be this: If God has not called you to multi-site, tell him thank you and keep doing church in a single location to the best of your ability.
Multi-site should not be entered into just because it’s trendy, or because the church down the street is doing it, or because you dream of looking into a video camera and welcoming all of your campuses to a service. Yes, multi-site offers many benefits and awesome opportunities, but it also brings a whole host of specific problems and challenges. Before jumping into the fray of multi-site, make sure you’re hearing clearly from the Lord.
You need vision.
One way you will know that God is inviting you to embrace multi-site is if you have a vision that reaches beyond your single-site location. Often, God will give you the vision before you have the resources to accomplish that vision and you will find yourself with more questions than answers. I can remember standing in front of my church (about 60 people at the time) back in 2009 and boldly declaring that God was going to use our church to reach thousands of people for his kingdom in rural communities through a multi-site strategy.
This vision has been the fuel that has propelled our church from one location to four campuses, an online campus, and a healthy church plant as we recently transitioned what was a fifth campus to an independent church. If you’re going to embrace multi-site to reach rural communities for Christ, you’ll need to ask God for a huge vision and the boldness to step out to pursue that vision.
You need the right leadership structure.
I will tread lightly on this one as I recognize that this can be a hot button issue with some people in the church. But simply put, if your leadership structure is such that it requires continual committee meetings that lead to business meetings where many people get to cast votes on the direction and decisions of the church and where Roberts Rules of Order trumps biblical spiritual authority, multi-site will most likely end in a train wreck!
I believe in order for a multi-site church to operate effectively, it will require a leadership structure where God-called leaders have the authority to do what God has called them to do: lead! It will not be possible for everyone to get to have a say on every decision that is made in every location. The church will need its leaders to make good decisions that are in the best interest of the entire church as it pursues its God-given vision.
You need a commitment to excellence.
I realize the term excellence is kind of a buzzword that came out of the church growth movement and some people are beginning to grow weary of it. But I still believe we serve an excellent God who is worthy of our very best. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing to the best of our ability. I believe excellence is simply giving God our very best with what he has given us to work with.
Therefore, excellence doesn’t have to be synonymous with expensive. It’s holding a high standard to take what resources we do have to create the best product we possibly can. The way a rural church will do multi-site (especially when it comes to staffing and technology) will look very different from how a mega-church does it. But that doesn’t mean a rural church has to come off looking sloppy and unprepared. It’s totally possible for a small church with limited resources to produce an excellent worship experience in multiple locations.
You need a team.
One of the challenges (and benefits) of multi-site is that it is impossible for one pastor to accomplish alone. If you are a leader who tends to micro-manage and struggles to release responsibility and authority to others, multi-site will probably not be a good fit for you. In order to operate one church meeting in multiple locations it will absolutely demand that you learn how to identify, recruit, equip, release, and lead a team of people to carry out the vision of the church.
You will most likely have to learn how to accomplish this largely through a volunteer staff in a rural context with very limited resources. (I would invite you to check out my course on how you can add staff to your rural church with a limited budget at smalltownbigchurch.com.)
You need a commitment to ongoing learning.
As I have become a student of multi-site since 2009, I have come to realize that many churches are doing multi-site in a variety of ways. There are so many creative ideas and strategies to learn from out there. Technology continues to improve and expand, offering more options at more affordable prices with each passing year.
Our culture continues to change at a relentless pace. All of this change demands that as a leader you must be committed to continually growing in your knowledge and understanding of the culture you’ve been called to reach and the tools available to help you reach it. You will find that the way you’re doing church today will not be the way you’re doing church 12 months from now. A willingness to continually evaluate and adapt your methods without changing the timeless message of the gospel will be paramount to your success in multi-site.
So while I can’t say for sure whether or not your rural church should embrace a multi-site strategy, I can say that it absolutely can work! And whether or not God calls you to be a single-site or multi-site church, ultimately I would challenge you to believe that the God who has called you to your small town or rural setting delights in doing BIG things in small places and he longs to use your life and leadership to make an eternal impact in your community. If I can be of any assistance please feel free to look me up at smalltownbigchurch.com.
Jon Sanders is the Lead Pastor of The RESCUE Church, a multi-site church with a vision to reach rural communities with the gospel. Jon is the primary content creator for smalltownbigchurch.com and the host of the Small Town Big Church Podcast, a resource geared specifically for small-town and rural church leaders. In addition to pastoral ministry, Jon works as a full-time firefighter for Sioux Falls Fire Rescue.