Basics of the Movement, Bad Reasons Churches Go Multisite,
and Church-Planting vs. Campus Launching
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Jim Tomberlin and I recently announced that our two ministries—MultiSite Solutions and The Unstuck Group—are coming together this year.
Jim was one of the pioneers of the multisite movement back in the early 1990s and has been helping churches effectively transition from being one church to being one church in multiple locations ever since.
We’re excited about strategically coming together to offer the best guidance to multisite leaders we can. Both of our companies have been serving more and more multisite churches in recent years, and things haven’t been slowing down.
Literally—twenty years ago there were fewer than 50 multisite churches in the United States and Canada. Now there are 5,000+ and counting, according to Leadership Network’s data.
This episode is an informal conversation between me and Jim, talking multisite history, strategy and best practices. Check it out!
In Part 1 of this conversation, we discussed:
- How multisite moved from a radical idea to the mainstream strategy for growing churches to expand in just 30 years
- Bad reasons churches go multisite (really, we hear these reasons—or rather lack thereof—all the time)
- The RIGHT reason to consider multisite as a strategy
- Jim’s “3 G’s” for determining whether you should launch a campus or plant a church
- Why multisite churches are growing faster and seeing more conversions than most church plants
- How multisite is like marriage, and why having “campus kids” won’t fix any problems
Think of multisite as a marriage. If you have a healthy marriage, the odds are better you’ll raise healthy kids. If something is broken in your marriage, having kids will exacerbate the problem. You reproduce who you are. Click To Tweet
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Tony : 00:00 Hey, before we start, I wanted to share a resource I’m finding churches need but don’t often realize they can actually afford. The Church Lawyers is a solution focused national law firm serving the legal needs of churches of all sizes. Their membership program gives you high quality legal expertise that’s really affordable. The team prioritizes the relationship part of the attorney-client relationship. To learn more about becoming a part of their membership program, contact The Church Lawyers at thechurchlawyers.com
Sean: 00:33 Well welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast where each week our team’s having a conversation about getting churches unstuck. This week on the podcast, Tony is joined by Jim Tomberlin, founder of Multisite Solutions for a conversation about some of the best practices they’ve been learning about leading multisite churches as well as the newly announced merger and succession between Multisite Solutions and The Unstuck Group. You might find it helpful as you listen to use the show notes and download our leader conversation guide to work through this content together with your team. You can find both of those at unstuckgroup.com/episode 83. Also you can subscribe now to get the show notes in your inbox every single week. You’ll get links to all the resources mentioned during the show. You’ll get bonus resources and the leader conversation guide to help you take this conversation back to your next senior leadership team, board or staff meeting. Just go to theunstuckgroup.com/podcast and now here’s the conversation with Tony and Jim Tomberlin.
Tony : 01:28 Jim, I’m excited about the journey that we’re on. Actually, we just announced that our two ministries are coming together and we’ll talk about that a little bit later too because merging churches has been a part of your journey, but you’re actually one of the founders of this whole multisite strategy and that’s the primary reason our ministries are coming together. And if I’m correct, I think that journey for you started more than 20 years ago back in Colorado Springs. Can you walk us back in time?
Jim: 01:58 Well, first of all Tony, we are in the glow of our announcement this week of our joining together and our two companies and I couldn’t be more excited about that. I wouldn’t say I was the founder, but I was one of the early pioneers of the multisite movement, me and a handful of other churches that were unknown to each other at the time. But we’re actually into the third decade of this movement. But my journey with multisite church began when I was a senior pasture in Colorado Springs at Woodmen Valley Chapel and I have a video that is still on my website now that, where I was casting the vision for this idea of one church in two locations. And I just happened to mention in that video here in 1997 as we approach the 21st century, it’s time to think about church in a different way.
Tony : 02:41 Hmm. You know, in 1997, I wasn’t even in ministry yet. Haha. I was born, I was born. Well that journey then carried forward and you actually helped Willow Creek in the Chicago land area start their first locations outside of South Barrington. What was, what was that like?
Jim: 03:00 Well, yeah, I thought I’d spend the rest of my life in Colorado, which I actually have cycled all the way back and I attend my former church now, attend one of our campuses that meets at a school when I’m there, which isn’t very often, but that’s what started me there in Colorado is what got me invited to come to Willow Creek and to pioneer and to develop the idea there. So I was there for five years. I launched the first four campuses of multisite campuses of Willow Creek. Today there are in eight locations. And so the five years there I was getting so many calls from churches at the church, could we talk to the multisite guy?
Tony : 03:36 And that’s how you picked up that moniker. So, talk to me about Multisite Solutions and this decision for us to come together. What in your mind, what really drove that decision?
Jim: 03:49 Well, Tony you remember that I think our conversation really began about four years ago when you asked me, hey Jim, what are you thinking about long term with Multisite Solutions? And I said, well, it’s interesting you’d asked me that. I’m thinking a lot about that because the request for consulting and help is growing. And so let’s start that conversation. So four years later, here we are, you know this movement has been going as we’ve said, and I’m at a point now where it’s, there’s more requests, more inquiries, more can you come help us multisiting, church mergers, succession, which all have these components. Kind of all circling around the multisite model and when I was looking around who is the best company out there that knows what I know and knows it better and can help churches, I think better than I can. And I’ve always felt that was you Tony and The Unstuck Group.
Tony : 04:46 Yeah. And the feeling’s mutual by the way, and when we were looking at how can we continue to expand the work that we’re doing with multisite churches. It was pretty, it was a short list of one person that we thought, Jim and Multisite Solutions are really going to help us not only improve the service that we offer to churches when it comes to multisite, but again, your wisdom and experience through the years, it’s really going to be powerful in helping to come along the systems we’ve created at The Unstuck Group.
Jim: 05:19 And so much of my consulting has, I’ve drawn from the well of The Unstuck Group. It’s so much research. You have excellent tools, templates, processes that I’ve drug from deeply in helping my own clients and quote you often in those situations. And so it just felt like we have, I’ve always felt that we would like two brothers of a different mother in terms of how we, you say what I’m thinking and you say it better than I could say. I’ve always felt that about you. But, so I think this is why, where could I get the most synergy of bringing what I know and have done to the table and who could I play with and partner with in a way that would take what I’ve got and make it better and be able to accommodate more churches?
Tony : 06:05 It’s hard to believe, but actually, I was just looking at some data from the leadership network from just last year and they’ve been tracking the multisite movement through the years and 20 years ago there were fewer than 50 multisite churches in the US and Canada, and now there are over 5,000. Yeah. So, first of all, it doesn’t look like the movement is slowing down. Do you agree with that?
Jim: 06:31 Absolutely not. It’s exponentially growing.
Tony : 06:36 Right, and I guess my question for you is how does it feel to be a part of that explosion of a ministry strategy that’s impacting so many people for the kingdom?
Jim: 06:49 It’s incredibly rewarding, personally rewarding to have been a part of a movement that has transformed the church in America and beyond. And so that’s very humbling, in that regard.
Tony : 07:03 So Jim, as you sit here today, again with all of these churches that have embraced the multisite strategy and many more too in that strategy, merging with other churches too, when you look into the future, what do you see? What do you kind of predict as far as this multisite movement going forward?
Jim: 07:23 Well, there have been many wrinkles to this movement for sure. What began as a radical idea became the cool idea. One of your churches was one of those cool idea churches that you served there at New Spring. But then it became, has become now the the mainstream idea and so this is not slowing down. You know even the whole idea of a multiple services was a radical idea in the 80s. And that really in a lot of ways was the beginning of multisite.
Tony : 07:52 Believe me, it’s still a radical idea for some of the churches that we’re working with today.
Jim: 07:57 But that revolutionized the church, and that began about the 80s, and then we had multiple services that are multiple days, Saturday night services, Sunday services. Then we began to say, we have multiple rooms on a campus with a closed circuit TV. And then as the technology got better, that experience got better and it was an inevitable step that hey, we have multiple services on multiple days and multiple rooms why not multiple locations? And so that is becoming just like multiple services now is a staple of any growing church. They’re going to at least do two services, any healthy growing churches is going to, unless they’re intentionally said this is not our model, they’re probably going to be doing that. Now there’s a lot of churches that started to join this movement in the early days that didn’t really understand it. Some of those are going to fall by the wayside as normal transitions happen. But for everyone that does, the new church starters and I work with exponential and a lot of the church planting movement, most of these church planters are starting their churches even before they have one site with a multisite vision. Or at least they are wanting to start with a multisite strategy. I spent a lot of time talking with them about that.
Tony : 09:03 Jim, the stats show us more and more and more churches are going multisite. What are some bad reasons to go multisite?
Jim: 09:14 We did in the, I’ve been involved with leadership network all these years and we’ve actually done five surveys over the years of multisite churches and we asked that very question, why did you go multisite? Thinking it was, well we were trying to solve a space problem. But the overwhelming answer was, some churches have a space problem, some don’t, but the primary reason was we became convinced that this was the best model or strategy to fulfill the mission and vision of our church. To reach more people, to reach and serve more people in our larger community and that would be the right reason because it helps you accomplish your mission.
Tony : 09:54 Helping healthy churches expand their reach and spread the gospel further in their communities.
Jim: 10:00 There are a lot of churches that joined this movement, like any new idea, it was trendy or everybody else is doing it. Or hey, a church knocks on our door, wants to join us. I guess we weren’t thinking about multisite, but I guess we’ll be that now. And that’s about it. Those are bad reasons.
Tony : 10:17 Right! And I’ve even heard people blame that on God. So a church has contacted us, it must be a God thing. That may not be the case. Absolutely. Right. Yeah. So I’ve shared with people, you kind of have to think of multisite as a marriage and if you have a healthy marriage, when you have kids, the odds are better that you’re going to raise healthy kids if you have an unhealthy marriage, some people think, well we’ll just have a kid and that’ll fix our marriage. And it’s kind of the same thing with multisite. We see stuck churches, unhealthy churches, they go to launch a new location thinking this is somehow going to get us unstuck and help us get healthy again. Have you run into that experience?
Jim: 11:00 It’s like, hey, our marriage is broken and so that let’s go have a child. That’s right. Our church is messed up, let’s go reproduce another one. Right. I always like to say don’t reproduce yet. Get healthy. Called the Unstuck Group. Get Healthy. Then call me back and I’ll you go multisite. And that’s one of the beauties of our journey together.
Tony : 11:19 That’s right. Jim. I was just looking at some of the latest research again from the leadership network when it comes to the multisite strategy and it’s pretty fascinating in a number of different areas. But one of the stats jumped out to me and they were comparing multisite with church-planting. And I know you and I both agree those are both very valid and helpful ways for churches to replicate who they are. But what was fascinating to me anyways was they looked at the growth of the multisite churches compared to church plants and the number of conversions, people coming to Christ and people were, multisite churches are growing faster and they’re seeing more conversions than church plants. Does that surprise you?
Jim: 12:03 No, because I think the difference between a church plant and a multisite campus. And as you’ve mentioned, I’m an advocate for both and I’m involved with both of those kinds of, both of those movements. But the reason why multisite campuses tend to have faster growth and more conversion rate is because they are not starting from scratch. They’re opening, you know, when this is done well, a church has opened up a campus and they’re hitting the ground running day one, functioning like a strong church already. They’re not growing into that. They’re opening up day one with the strengths of the sending church. And so they’re able to deliver those best ministry practices, at a high level of quality. And so they have the quality of a large church in the context of a smaller context. And so they, they are just able to, I think, get more traction that way. Sooner.
Tony : 12:57 Yeah. So looking at the two strategies, multisite strategy and church-planting, where do you see similarities? Where are there overlaps between those two strategies?
Jim: 13:06 Yeah. Well, first of all, every church at one day, at one time was a church plant. To start. So every generation has to start new churches. The multisite model is really just leveraging the strengths of an existing church, but, how they’re similar at the end of the day, whether you’re a multisite campus or a church plant, as far as that community is concerned, there’s no difference. It’s a church. How it’s managed and governed and how the teaching is delivered is irrelevant to the larger community. But the goal is each multisite campus, I tell campus pastors all the time, once you get launched, this is all great. You’re off to a great start because of the strong support and resourcing to get you started. But the end of the day, you’re still, it’s church 101 in that community.
Jim: 13:49 Now we know that both church planters and campus pastors, both the requirement is that they have a strong leadership bent and gifting. But, the difference is a church, a campus pastor’s leadership gift is oriented to be a team player. A church planters leadership gift is oriented to be a team owner. And so those are some of the differences there of what we see. But a lot of ways the startup excitement, energy costs is similar as a church plant. And I say the cost is actually less for multisite campuses generally. It depends a lot on, who’s launching that campus.
Tony : 14:33 Any key differences that you see between multisite strategy and church planting that maybe churches aren’t even aware of? So what I’m picturing is a pastor plants a church, it thrives. And then they assume the same strategies that help them plant their church are going to help them be successful with multisite. But there are some key differences aren’t there?
Jim: 14:54 I like to talk about the difference between a church plant and a multisite campus around three GS, the three Gs. First of all, Geography. We know that most multisite campuses ideally are launched between 15 to 30 minutes, within 20 to 30 minutes is the ideal launching place. So when you’re thinking about as a church, if you want to do both and multisite or church planting, and the reason why it was within 30 minutes is because the strength of multisiting isn’t you’re going to the next town, you’re already there with a significant number of people who are driving to your campus within a 15 minute drive, 15 to 20 minute drive. And so those, that makes the ideal place to launch a multisite campus, if you are thinking church planting as well.
Jim: 15:42 I like to say church plants, are the 30 minute plus locations. And the strength of multisiting is that you’re building on your base you already have. But when you go beyond 30 minutes, the vast majority of people who attend church live within 30 minutes, most of them within 15 minutes to attend your church, our church. So you go beyond 30 minutes, and you’re moving into church planting territory in my opinion. The second G, it has to do with Gifting, which we just mentioned a moment ago about, the gifting of a campus pastor or a church planner needs to be the same. Everybody agrees church planters need to have a high leadership gift. So to campus pastors, but it’s the orientation of their gift. Campus pastors are oriented to be a team player. Church planters are oriented to be more to be a team owner. Third G is Governance and this is where it really, what makes multisite, multisite more than anything else. A multisite church, it’s centrally governed. In a church plant, it’s self-governing. That’s the difference. Yeah.
Tony : 16:46 So let’s talk about that because I’ve seen multisite churches try to kind of play the middle ground on that where they still have one board for all the locations, but they have separate teams that are kind of defining the strategy at all the other locations. Have you seen that work?
Jim: 17:04 Oh, totally. And this is where, uh, they get stuck.
Tony : 17:09 So you’ve seen it, but they get stuck doing that.
Jim: 17:12 You know, the strength of a multisite model is when you have clarity about our mission, vision, strategy, and philosophy, and consistently delivering that across all campuses.
Sean: 17:21 Well, thanks for joining us for this week’s podcast. If you’d like to learn more about how The Unstuck Group is helping multisite churches, you can visit our website at theunstuckgroup.com/multisite. If you’re enjoying the podcast and it’s been helpful to you, please consider leaving us a review on your favorite podcasting platform. We would appreciate your help in getting the word out. If you have a question about this topic or any of our topics, you can use the #unstuckchurch and join the conversation on social media. We’ll be back next week with a brand new episode.