After two decades of wandering, Evergreen Christian Fellowship had finally come home.

Founded in 1990, the 800-member church had met for years in temporary locations. In 2008, they opened their first building—a 30,807-square-foot big-box church in Sammamish, Washington, about a half-hour from downtown Seattle.

Getting the 20 acres had been a godsend. The property first belonged to Plateau Bible Fellowship, which was about to close its doors. They had hoped giving it to Evergreen would ensure years of fruitful ministry. For Evergreen members like Tami Floyd, it was a time to celebrate. “It’s a great place to call your own after 20 years,” she told the Sammamish Review.

But two years later, Evergreen had shrunk to 200 people. The ensuing financial crisis left the church on the edge of shutting down.

Enter Mars Hill Church, a then-thriving 12,000-member congregation meeting in a dozen locations in the Pacific Northwest. (You may have heard of it.)

Afraid their church would close, Evergreen leaders approached Mars Hill about joining as a satellite campus. Although it would mean the end of Evergreen as an independent church—all of its assets would transfer to Mars Hill—the merger would allow the church to live on.

In 2011, Evergreen members voted to join Mars Hill.

“This is a big, grace-filled gift from God,” Mark Driscoll told his congregation in a blog post. At the time, Mars Hill seemed to have the perfect strategy for growing membership, finances, and ministry, much of it hinging on the appeal of a charismatic pastor with a national following.

Church planter Neil Cole wrote in 2010 that he once heard the strategy for starting new Mars Hill locations summed up as, “Just add water and Driscoll and poof—you have a new church.”

Within three years, Mars Hill would implode in spectacular fashion following Driscoll’s resignation. The Sammamish congregation would find a new home, this time merging with another former Mars Hill church in nearby Bellevue. This May, the City of Sammamish bought Evergreen’s shuttered building from Mars Hill for $6.1 million. The proceeds from the sale will likely go to pay off Mars Hill’s debt.

Evergreen’s story is one that signals some growing pains within the multisite movement, which many researchers say is now as ubiquitous as megachurches were 20 years ago. And it highlights the growing gap between the church haves and have-nots, between bustling large churches and struggling small ones.

When the multisite model (defined as one church in two or more locations) works, once-empty pews are filled with worshipers and an older church’s legacy lives on while a larger church expands its outreach. But when things go poorly, multisite churches can become another struggling American franchise, precariously built on the brand of a celebrity pastor—and one step away from collapsing like a house of cards.

Getting Acquired

According to the National Congregations Study, most churches in America are small, with a median weekend attendance of 76 people. Yet most churchgoers attend a big church, with a median attendance of 400.

This means small churches have most of the church buildings, and big churches have most of the people and the money. In other words, small churches have what many big churches want: property, often on highly valuable land. And big churches have what most small churches want: money and people.

Increasingly, small and large churches are trading their assets. Or, to put it in less capitalistic terms, they are finding ways to partner as a growing number of multisite churches essentially become church flippers: taking over older, struggling churches and rebooting them as thriving worship spaces.

Article continues below

The enthusiasm for these mergers was summed up in a short promotional video for the 2012 Resurgence Conference organized by Driscoll. At the time, Mars Hill and Harvest Bible Chapel, a multisite Chicago-area church led by James MacDonald, were two of the most ambitious US congregations pursuing church mergers. “James has the spiritual gift of real-estate acquisition,” said Driscoll, introducing MacDonald during the video. He was half-joking.

But many small churches are actually happy to get acquired, so to speak. One early adopter of the multisite reboot model was Galilee Baptist Church. It once hosted one of Chicago’s largest Sunday schools and a thriving mission program. Then, little by little, people stopped showing up. Eventually the church dwindled to a handful of worshipers meeting at the corner of Damen and Wellington on Chicago’s North Side.

Fearing his church would close its doors, longtime member Chuck McWherter made a call to Mark Jobe. Jobe, the lead pastor of New Life Community Church in Chicago, had already helped to revive one struggling local church. McWherter hoped he could do the same for Galilee.

Eventually Galilee and New Life merged. Fifteen years later, New Life–Lakeview has about 200 members, many of them families and young professionals. It’s one of about two dozen churches that have rebooted as campuses of New Life, one of the most successful multisite congregations in the country.

‘James has the spiritual gift of real-estate acquisition,’ said Mark Driscoll, introducing MacDonald. He was half-joking.

McWherter is thrilled. “Our story is a classic story of revival. It’s one of the best things that’s ever happened to me.” These days, McWherter often tags along when Jobe meets with churches interested in merging.

“Usually you find one of these older city churches [that] have a dozen to 20 people,” he said. “They have lost their financial base. They have lost their missionaries because they can’t support them anymore. And they don’t know what to do.”

Steve Dawson is president of Chicago-based National Covenant Properties, a building-loan provider affiliated with the Evangelical Covenant Church denomination. He says joining a multisite church offers struggling congregations a chance to start over while maintaining full-time ministry.

Mergers make strategic sense for larger churches as well, said Dawson. They can expand ministry without facing the startup costs of acquiring land or building a new site.

Like Ambulance Chasers?

But mergers carry risks, said Dawson. If the new site fails, where does the money go? Will the small-church members resent the larger church for failing to revive their church home? Even a successful merger means the old church has died, a painful reality for longtime members.

In a rush to expand their brand, larger churches can easily discard small churches’ unique history. “If the church is trying to look for expansion space but dismisses the history of the ministry, they are doing a great disservice to the kingdom,” Jobe said.

And small churches are tempted to give hero status to the bigger church.

That’s a recipe for disaster, said Rick Egbert, executive pastor at the Chapel, a suburban Chicago megachurch with eight campuses. Of those, four came from mergers. The multisite model works only if members of a small church feel empowered by a relaunch, he said. “If you come in as savior, the entire relationship you have is as a superior to an inferior,” said Egbert. “We want no part of that.”

His approach to multisite acquisition is both aggressive and gentle. For a while, the Chapel hosted reNEWmychurch.org, a site explicitly advertising its reboots. Today Egbert and his team relentlessly scout for potential mergers. But once a potential merger is on the table, Chapel leaders move slowly.

Article continues below

Good candidates for reboots are churches whose pastor has left and who are having trouble finding a replacement, as well as churches in financial trouble that aren’t ready to sell their property to the highest bidder. “You have faithful people who say, ‘We don’t want to see the church go down on our watch,’ ” said Egbert.

That was the case with Faith Lutheran Church in Mundelein, Illinois, which merged with the Chapel in 2006. Unable to afford the premiums, the church had let their insurance on the property lapse. “They were one slip and fall in the parking lot away from becoming a gas station,” said Thomas McArthur, the Mundelein site pastor.

Today the campus draws about 500 people, including Egbert and his family, to 3 weekend services. Because it’s a church where people know each other, he says, it shows the multisite model at its best.

“You get the pastoral presence of a small church while having the resources of a large megachurch behind you,” said McArthur.

Most Chapel mergers start with a relationship. Campus pastors are encouraged to work with local churches on projects and to offer help when they can.

Sometimes that help comes in the form of prayer or a favor, like the time a church was looking for a guest preacher and approached the Chapel for suggestions. That favor led to a friendship and, years later, a merger.

Sometimes small churches approach the Chapel. The process starts with a series of conversations between the two congregations’ staff. No merger is final without a vote by both.

The merger business can be surprisingly competitive. At one point, the Chapel was one of more than a dozen churches vying for the chance to merge with a church in Hinsdale, one of the wealthiest communities in Chicagoland. Egbert estimates that as many as 30 Chicago-area multisite churches are actively seeking struggling churches. But many more churches are struggling and in danger of closing. That’s a loss for the kingdom, he said.

“People might look at us and think, You are like ambulance chasers,” he said, referring to the pejorative label for lawyers showing up at disaster sites, offering their services to people who have barely escaped death.

“But to think of the money and time that was poured into these churches to make them vibrant place of worship, and now to see them torn down or turned into restaurants and bars or whatever—that is heartbreaking.”

But even a successful merger can be heartbreaking.

A Wedding and a Funeral

Becoming the campus of a bigger, more successful church is like “having a wedding and a funeral on the same day,” said H. B. Charles Jr., pastor of Shiloh Metropolitan Church.

The 8,000-member African American megachurch was looking to expand from its downtown campus in Jacksonville. They’d hoped to plant a church in Orange Park, about 35 minutes away, where a number of members already lived.

At the same time, Ridgewood Baptist Church, a mostly white congregation of about 500, had lost momentum and members after their pastor died in 2008. His death came on the heels of a major building project. Members were left with about $5 million in debt and no clear path forward.

In a rush to expand their brand, larger churches can easily discard small churches’ unique history. And small churches are tempted to give hero status to the bigger church.

After learning about Ridgewood from the Jacksonville Baptist Association, Shiloh thought about renting space from them. Eventually the conversation switched from planting a new church in Orange Park to creating a second campus.

Article continues below

The site will be intentionally multiethnic, drawing from the former members of Ridgewood as well as Shiloh members who already live in the neighborhood and can forgo driving into downtown. The staff will draw from both churches.

“God is forcing us as a church to put our money where our mouth is,” said Charles. “This is a step of faith for us.

“At this point, we need to stop planning the wedding and start creating a family.”

Not all “new families” last. According to a major 2014 report from the Leadership Network, about one in ten multisite churches surveyed said they had shuttered at least one campus.

That can leave hard feelings, as in the case of Addison Bible Church in Illinois. A self-described “blue collar congregation,” it merged with Harvest Bible Chapel of Glen Ellyn (now Naperville) in 2004 in an attempt to draw in younger members, according to the Daily Herald.

The partnership proved short-lived. The two congregations proved incompatible, and one year after the merger, Harvest closed the church and eventually sold the property.

“They promised us they would keep the church open, and so forth, and they did not,” one Addison member told the Daily Herald. “So, of course, we signed all our property over to them. And they took it and they sold it.” (Representatives from Harvest Naperville have repeatedly declined to speak with CT.)

At their worst, multisite congregations fuel American Christianity’s reliance on celebrity pastors rather than solid biblical teaching to grow.

Thabiti Anyabwile, pastor of Anacostia River Church in Washington, D.C., summed up this concern in a 2011 blog post for the Gospel Coalition titled, “Multisite Churches Are from the Devil.”

“Try as one might,” he wrote, “I can’t escape the conclusion that those who take the multisite option are effectively saying, ‘My preacher is better than your preacher, so we’re gonna brand him and export him to a theater near you.’ That’s crass, I know. But that’s really the bottom line.”

And at least one longtime multisite church leader is nervous about the number of churches adding new sites. Ron Brown is executive pastor of the People’s Church, which has campuses in Franklin and Spring Hill, Tennessee. Before that, he was executive pastor of the multisite Vineyard Church in Champaign, Illinois. He worries some churches are becoming multisite because it’s the vogue thing to do.

“That is what a lot of churches are being tempted to do,” he said. “The big churches are doing it, so if we don’t do it, we are behind them.”

Churches aren’t McDonald’s or other franchises. One size or model doesn’t fit all. Brown says a multisite church can’t be built around a pastor or a church brand. He compares starting a multisite campus to building an aircraft carrier. Both can be effective but only if the right support systems are in place. An aircraft carrier needs a whole fleet—supply ships, cruisers, frigates, and destroyers. The carrier can’t operate on its own, Brown says.

It’s the same thing with a campus. You need all the support systems—technology, HR, staffing—to make it run. “You’re building a whole fleet,” said Brown.

From Consumerism to Community

Given Mars Hill’s highly visible collapse, questions remain about the long-term viability of multisite churches.

Chuck North, an economics professor at Baylor University, said the fall of Mars Hill mimicked what happens with successful startup businesses and their founders. (Full disclosure: North and I once collaborated on a book about economics and faith.)

Article continues below

One of the big challenges for such businesses is succession planning. Who will take over when the founding or longtime CEO leaves? Likewise, “the pastor is the face of that church,” he said. “How do you get a successor who is going to fill that role?”

Yet North sees an upside to multisite. He thinks they help to fill the void left by the decline of denominations. In their heyday, denominations often had a consistent approach to worship and outreach. So a newcomer to a Baptist, Presbyterian, or Methodist church knew more or less what to expect when he walked in the door.

With many multisites, North said, people know what the church stands for ahead of time. That makes it easier for them to walk in the door without being caught off-guard. And in sheer numbers, if multisites were a denomination, they would be the fourth-largest in the country.

Scott Chapman, senior pastor at the Chapel, argues that the multisite model is preferable to the traditional megachurch, often charged with becoming centers that distribute religious goods rather than foster deep, authentic communities of faith. He says the multisite model leads to better pastoral care and stronger discipleship than the megachurch model.

In most megachurches, the average church member has no trained pastoral presence in his or her life, Chapman says. There’s the pastor in the pulpit—or on the screen—and her small group leader, typically a layperson. But few members get hands-on spiritual care or direction from a pastor.

Breaking a big church into smaller worship spaces makes it easier for people to personally connect with the pastor, in what he calls “midsized community”—groups of 30 or 40 people, rather than just in a crowd.

“We are moving out of the social contract of consumerism and into the contract of community,” said Chapman. “We are not there yet, but we are pushing in on that.”

In a few cases, struggling churches that once merged with a multisite church have regained their strength and are ready to step out on their own. That’s the case for the Denton campus of the Village Church (whose lead pastor is Matt Chandler), which has taken the first steps to becoming independent.

The process began last May, when Denton campus members voted overwhelmingly to become an independent church. In part, Denton leaders and members didn’t want to build their strategy on the Matt Chandler brand. It began a yearlong transition.

This past December, campus pastor Beau Hughes began preaching at about 60 percent of the services. Before that, the sermons by Chandler had mostly been delivered by video.

Becoming a freestanding church is actually a return to the Denton campus’s roots. It was born as a merger between Grace Temple Baptist Church, a congregation of 50 or so, and the Village. Today the campus has just over 1,000 members and draws between 1,500 and 2,000 on Sundays. Many are college students or young professionals, as Denton is home to North Texas University and Texas Women’s University.

Becoming a self-governing church isn’t simple. For most of the past eight years, the Denton campus ran a deficit, in part because it drew so many college students. Denton’s leaders also hadn’t emphasized stewardship and giving.

This year, with the transition in mind, the church has a financial surplus for the first time.

“It’s like a kid moving out of the house,” Hughes said. “This is part of growing up.”

Hughes believes most multisite churches are taking the same approach. They’ve not had to think through a succession plan or consider the long-term sustainability of multisite.

Article continues below

That’s changing, he thinks, with the collapse of Mars Hill. All of a sudden, having a long-term plan is a necessity.

Meanwhile, out in Seattle, former members of Mars Hill–Sammamish are starting over again. The newly replanted congregation of about 800 people, Doxa Church, went through a 12-week sermon series designed to get the church off on the right foot. Doxa also received Mars Hill “seed money” to cover startup costs, and will receive a gift after Mars Hill liquidates assets and pays its debts.

By March, the first wave of members had officially joined. “I have been thoroughly blessed and encouraged by the willing hearts and ready hands of the people who are joining us on this journey,” Jeff Vanderstelt, Doxa’s new pastor, told CT via email. Whether Doxa will survive the relaunch, time will tell.

Bob Smietana is CT senior news editor and president of the Religion Newswriters Association. He previously worked for LifeWay and The Tennessean.