Randy Pope was the first pastor we knew, back in the 1980s, who led a multisite church. But in the 1990s he discontinued that approach. In light of the current popularity of the multisite strategy for churches, we asked Randy to tell the story of his decision. With some reluctance, because he refuses to be critical of others who practice multisite ministry, he agreed to tell why he doesn't.
I was an early and enthusiastic proponent of multisite church. It was thrilling to launch new satellite campuses and be able to extend the church's influence overnight. A new site is birthed at a fraction of the cost of a full church plant. How easy to leverage the brand and reputation of the mother church and her more well-known preacher.
I was the pastor of one of the first multiple-campus churches in America. We came to Atlanta with the plan to have "one church, many congregations" in order to impact the city. Within ten years we had four congregations across North Atlanta and were hoping for more. Our decision to discontinue this approach had nothing to do with church growth and everything to do with church health.
We invited noted church consultant Carl George to show us how we could spread a hundred congregations throughout Atlanta. He came to a leaders retreat with the plan. The mother congregation would act as the primary hub. From there the message would be recorded and then distributed via video to the other campuses the following week. We would have an assistant pastor in charge at each location. This model would allow us to have hundreds of locations all over Atlanta.
Carl finished his presentation. It was clear. It was workable. We could make it happen. Many of our leaders were energized and even enamored with the vision. It made our multisite church model sustainable and gave us the ability to grow even more. It was the best-case scenario for the vision of "one church, many congregations."
But I could see where this vision would lead us, and I came to a sudden realization: we couldn't let that happen to our church.
"Carl," I said, "what you have described is way ahead of its time. I predict it will be widely used one day. But not at Perimeter." I began to articulate why we needed to abandon our multisite aspirations.
Soon thereafter we released our three daughter congregations, and they particularized as churches with each assistant pastor becoming the senior pastor. I never regretted the decision.
Here are three of the reasons we chose not to continue our multisite approach.
1. Preaching and leading.
A pastor is called to lead the congregation. Much of the leadership collateral that makes this possible is gained through preaching. We are called pastor-teachers because we pastor in a significant way through our teaching. If the leader isn't preaching, and the preacher isn't leading, there's a serious disconnect.
2. Make a difference in your locale.
God calls each congregation in each specific location to engage the gates of hell in specific ways. Sometimes those efforts are extremely costly and difficult; some are even dangerous. It is only these God-appointed preacher/leaders who can effectively lead such a charge. The congregation needs to hear the leader say, "We are heading up this mountain to engage the enemy. Will you come with me?"
As the pastor-teacher, it is my leadership collateral gained through pastoral teaching that influences the congregation to follow.
3. A leader must be local and engaged.
As a pastor of a multi-campus ministry, dispensing my message from a distance to outlying congregations that need to engage their specific gates of hell, I am absent. My leadership is not available as needed in each local site.
Every local community is unique in the needs and issues it faces. A few years ago, two different staff members in our church faced unusual crises. One had a daughter killed in a car crash. Weeks later, another's son suffered brain damage in a separate car crash.
Can you imagine me, on each following weekend, not speaking to the issue that the grieving congregation was facing? At that congregation, it's the thing on everyone's mind. But if my message has to be one-size-fits-all, going to multiple congregations that don't know the affected staff members, the preaching comes off as generic and disconnected, and the urgent needs of individual congregations go unaddressed.
Yes, the assistant pastor could step in that week, but this solution is merely indicative of the bigger issue. Each congregation always has different needs. Each community of believers is in a different stage of maturity. Different challenges and opportunities arise. A pastor-teacher must prayerfully discern the teaching that is most helpful for this particular congregation at this particular time This isn't possible when the message has to be generic enough to be delivered to multiple communities at once.
Having said all that, I think the multi-campus model is a great means of planting churches. Why not use a leader's gifts and popularity to form new works which in time become churches with their own pastor-teachers? It's a great opportunity to develop new leadership, the hope of our future.
When we particularized our three congregations, there was instant growth in maturity. It was like adult children in a family. True, our youngest congregation could probably have been served well to stay at home a little longer, but our oldest congregation was like an adult child who had lived with her parents too long. When they were given their independence, they found meaningful ways to serve their own neighborhoods, and they assumed responsibility for sustaining the ministry.
We have continued to plant churches in the Atlanta area. We've been blessed to see almost 40 daughter, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter churches planted around Atlanta. Each has a valuable pastor-teacher dedicated to serving and reaching out to their community.
I certainly wouldn't ask pastors of multi-campus churches to dismantle their structures. Instead, I'd ask them to consider why they're using that model and what is being produced. If any outcome other than healthy Kingdom advancement emerges, then use these sites to become healthy church plants with leaders prepared to build their local congregation for the community, and who are willing to say to their people, "Follow me as we storm the gates of hell in our community."
Randy Pope is senior pastor of Perimeter Church in Atlanta, Georgia.
Copyright © 2015 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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