As a former executive pastor, multi-site director and campus pastor in Florida and North Carolina, I’m passionate about issues surrounding the multi-site movement. Through the multi-site model, we can reach people in areas we couldn't otherwise, and churches can grow without building massive campuses. Multi-sites are pretty awesome.
Plus, my wife, Holly, is involved with multi-site coaching at several churches. I guess you could say a love for multi-site runs in the family. We’re still working on the kids, but they’re just in elementary school. We’ve got time.
As a speaker on Dave Ramsey’s team, though, I also have a passion for igniting a culture of biblical stewardship across the country. Combine those two things, and my excitement was through the roof when I was able to speak with Jim Tomberlin, who’s known as The Multi-Site Guy for good reason. Jim pioneered the multi-site model at Willow Creek Church in Chicago in the early 2000s. Since 2005, churches that want to go multi-site have hired him as a consultant and coach through his company, MultiSite Solutions. He lives it, breathes it, and knows every statistic under the sun about it.
So that’s the multi-site side. Now you might be wondering how stewardship fits into the equation. Here’s how: The multi-site strategy is often a form of good biblical stewardship, Jim told me. He summarizes it this way: “Going multi-site reaches more people better, faster and cheaper.”
“The facility is probably the largest expense a church will have,” he said. “The amazing thing is that for the first 300 years of the Christian faith, the early church turned the Roman world upside down without ever constructing or owning a building. Unfortunately, the modern church has made success a building, and the bigger the building, the bigger the success. Buildings are just a means to the end. They’re not the end game. They’re a tool, but we’ve often made them the goal.”
Stop and think about that. Over a period of 300 years, Christianity grew from about 1,000 believers to about 5 million . . . all without buildings. Wow! If that’s not proof that God doesn’t need buildings to win hearts, I don’t know what is. It’s also a great reminder that church isn’t a physical structure. It’s the people inside.
But for the past few decades, U.S. churches have loved their big buildings: the acreage, the mega campuses, the massive institutions that rival shopping malls in scope and size. They invest time and money in those things, but most of it is for people who live within 15–30 minutes. This key geographic radius is what causes every church to reach what Jim calls its saturation point—the demographic limit when its growth levels off.
“This is why building huge facilities in one location may make sense for a decade or two, but eventually it’s going to be hard to fill those buildings up,” he said. “The community stops growing because it’s all built out.”
Here’s where stewardship comes in. Those churches that build a single massive campus aren’t using their resources as effectively as they could. They pour lots of money into a single location to keep people engaged, but eventually they reach saturation. The alternative—going multi-site—allows churches to spend a fraction of that money to launch new campuses. By renting or buying an existing space, they can reach more people. And that’s good stewardship.
In contrast, some poor stewardship decisions led to disaster during the Great Recession. More churches foreclosed on their properties in 2008 and 2009 than in the entire decade before. Sadly, lots of single-site, mega-campus churches weren’t practicing biblical stewardship principles. They were spending money they didn’t have on campuses that could only reach so many.
There was a silver lining though. The recession freed churches from excessive fundraising and overbuilding. More people returned to church and to God amid the economic chaos, but churchgoers had lost their appetite for huge buildings and multi-million-dollar campaigns. So with more people and fewer funds, churches looked to opening up new campuses instead. The multi-site movement suddenly became much more popular. Those churches could expand their influence more quickly and with a more effective outcome—all for less money.
Expanding an existing campus could mean spending several million dollars to add 500–800 seats as well as parking spaces and children’s space to accommodate those people. Don’t forget securing building plans and zoning permission. Completion of such a project could take two to three years.
The alternative would be to go multi-site. According to Jim’s research, the national average in startup costs for a multi-site campus is $500,000.
“That’s not cheap,” he said, “but that won’t buy you much if you add to a church building you already have. If you renovate a commercial building, that’s about another $1 million. So with anywhere from $1 million to $1.5 million, you could be in a facility that could accommodate 500-800 people per service. You could be a vibrant congregation with multiple services of a couple thousand people. You could have a fully functioning congregation within a year that hits the ground running because you’re reproducing an already proven church model that’s known in the community.”
Jim encourages church leaders to start by asking questions like, “How can we leverage the gifts that God has put in our church, our staff and our team for the greatest kingdom impact?”
“When you look at the pros and cons, multi-siting is very compelling from financial and effectiveness perspectives,” he said. “It’s good stewardship. But even though those are compelling reasons to go multi-site, they’re not the primary reasons. The primary reason should be that you’ve become convinced that this is the best strategy for your church to fulfill its mission, and if you don’t do this, you will be disobeying God’s call on your church.You have to have that kind of spiritual heart, that gut-wrenching sense of being disobedient if you don’t do it. And with that, you become unstoppable.”
And as Dave Ramsey often says, focused intensity over time, multiplied by God, equals unstoppable momentum. Wouldn’t it be awesome to see the multi-site movement gain so much momentum that it becomes responsible for bringing thousands and thousands more believers to Christ? I think so!