I was recently interviewed by Aaron Earls on the trend toward launching multisite campuses through microsites. As I have blogged previously, microsites start in homes for the purpose of gathering people for a weekend service. Microsites are not a small groups, but can certainly create small groups very readily. Below is the article that appeared in Lifeway’s Facts and Trends magazine.
By Aaron Earls
The popular image of an American megachurch as a sprawling campus surrounding a massive worship center drawing thousands of attendees every Sunday needs some updating.
Even as most continue to draw in more worshipers, the typical megachurch sanctuary is shrinking. And some of the largest churches from California to South Carolina are planting their new campuses in the smallest of sites—homes. This comes as church leaders realize sustained growth of their congregation and spiritual growth of their people will come from going small.
Multisite and Microsites
In the last five years, the typical megachurch’s main sanctuary decreased in size from 1,500 seats to a median of 1,200, according to the 2015 Megachurch Report from Leadership Network and Hartford Institute for Religion Research.
The move to smaller sanctuaries is an outgrowth of the burgeoning multisite church movement. Instead of building a large church and asking people to come to one place, megachurches are building smaller spaces in more places.
Since 2000, churches with multiple campuses have grown steadily from 23 percent to more than 60 percent of all megachurches, according to the 2015 Megachurch Report. “Megachurches have shifted their philosophy from building bigger and bigger,” says Ed Stetzer, executive director of LifeWay Research, “to spreading further and further.”
In the midst of this, a new trend is emerging. Larger churches are now launching microsite campuses. “Microsite is a much smaller version of a multisite campus that meets in a home or another small space,” says Allen White, a pastor and church consultant in South Carolina. The Rock Church in San Diego, California, and NewSpring Church in South Carolina are two megachurches that have added microsites to their multisite approach, according to White.
Instead of securing a larger temporary location such as a school or movie theater, for a microsite, a church identifies an area of the city or community it wants to reach and often begins meeting in the home of a member there. “A microsite can pop up as quickly as a sandwich shop,” says White. “All that’s needed are local leaders, resources to train them, and video for the services.”
White says these microsites allow larger churches to experiment. “If it blows up, that’s how experiments go,” he says.
Megachurches may need that infusion of experimentation. A study shows that megachurches—once hailed as a new way to experience church—may be getting stuck in their ways.
In 2010, more than half (54 percent) of megachurches strongly agreed they were willing to change to meet new realities. In 2015, according to the Megachurch Report, that number plummeted to 37 percent.
As churches grow larger and older, they can lose flexibility. Adding microsites or other innovations allows churches to regain some of what was lost. Those microsites are one of the ways in which larger churches are trying to recapture the essence of being small.
Why Megachurches Go Small
Larger churches often recognize what small churches might miss—there are advantages to being little. Through small groups, multisite campuses, and now microsites, those megachurches are attempting to continue their growth while retaining small-church benefits.
“Churches are taking advantage of Dunbar’s number,” says Bob Whitesel, a professor at Indiana Wesleyan University and church growth expert. Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist, found humans can comfortably maintain only around 150 stable relationships. Beyond that, says Whitesel, “relationships don’t seem to have much depth.”
This is why he believes many churches stall around this plateau. “Once it gets bigger than that, people stop inviting others because they no longer know everyone else at church,” he says.
It’s incumbent on large church leaders to capitalize on smaller groups that organically emerge in the church. Whitesel calls these “sub-congregations,” and they mirror other numbers Dunbar found in his research. Groups of 50 can unite around a task, such as the music ministry or preschool volunteers. Small group gatherings of 15 have the feel of an extended family, and groups of five are intimate connections.
These numbers have been seen not only in sociological research but also in church history, Whitesel says. “In the Wesleyan revivals, every leader had to be involved in what they called ‘Band Meetings’ of five individuals. Larger groups of 15 were called ‘Class Meetings.’”
With this sociological and historical support, church consulting experts identify at least four areas that can be more easily developed in smaller churches.
Accountability — With larger churches, anonymity is easier. Attendees can sneak in late, sit in the back of an enormous sanctuary, and leave without interacting with anyone. But this leaves individuals prone to slipping away from the church as quickly as they slipped in.
Whitesel says smaller numbers allow people to “connect with a group that brings accountability and interdependency.” If the church goes through changes, being connected to a smaller group—be it a campus or a small group—serves as glue to hold people in place.
Community — The main benefit larger churches can gain from going small, according to Allen White, is connection and community. “Everyone desires the experience of being known and accepted,” he says.
Microsite campuses allow much larger churches to “meld together the feel of a small group with the production of a large church,” White says.
Leadership growth — As with accountability, attendees at a megachurch may be tempted to avoid leadership. They may feel intimidated by the size of the church or a lack of education and training. Going small forces new people into leadership roles.
“Once a church is able to train and deploy staff or volunteers to lead a microsite campus, then the number of campuses is limited only to available space and willing leaders,” says White. The opportunities for involvement and leadership are endless, and in smaller settings many may feel more comfortable taking the reins of a ministry.
Reproducibility — Thousand-seat arenas aren’t on every corner to start a new megachurch, but that’s not a problem for microsites or small churches. The ease at which microsites can begin makes it possible for them to go viral, according to White.
This type of planting churches and starting new sites is not exclusive to megachurches. LifeWay Research’s analysis of more than 800 church plants found more than 1 in 5 were launched from a church with an average attendance below 100. The clear majority (60 percent) were started by churches of fewer than 500.
As churches quickly reproduce, mistakes will be made, and they’ll learn what not to do. But White says this means the church is trying to fulfill her mission. “The church as a whole has spent too many years perfecting ministry, but not producing disciples,” he says.
Going small allows larger churches to produce faithful disciples in new contexts outside the gigantic arena.
AARON EARLS (Aaron.Earls@LifeWay.com) is online editor of FactsAndTrends.net.
UPDATE: Since the writing of this article, NewSpring Church has moved all of their microsite campuses to larger portable locations. They outgrew all of the houses!
DISCLAIMER: Before you launch microsites in your church, check with local zoning regulations as well as HOA policies and fire regulations. If microsites become too large, they can cause parking problems as well as other potential headaches for neighbors. It might be wise to rotate microsites between different homes to alleviate any neighborhood issues.
By Allen White
Starting today, I am introducing a new monthly post called “5.5 Questions with…” where I will be interviewing small group experts from across the country. Today in the hot seat we have Rick Howerton and his 5.5 answers to my 5.5 questions.
Rick Howerton is the Small Groups and Discipleship Specialist at LifeWay Church Resources. He has authored many small group studies, is a highly sought after trainer and speaker, and is the author of Destination Community: Small Group Ministry Manual as well as A Different Kind of Tribe: Embracing the New Small Group Dynamic. He is also the co-author of Disciples Path: A Practical Guide to Disciple Making and Countdown: Launching and Leading Transformational Groups. But Rick’s deepest passion and his goal in life is to see, “a biblical small group within walking distance of every person on the planet making disciples that make disciples.”
Q1 Tell us about your first small group.
RH: The first small group that I led was actually a group of college students. I was a twenty-something year old seminary grad without a clue concerning what a small group was (Having come from a traditional Southern Baptist pastor’s home, I’d never even heard the term) or what a small group was suppose to do. I simply did a swan dive into relational community in the best way I knew how. The experience was very organic and, I would imagine, much more transformational for me that for those college students. They were amazingly patient and I was embarrassingly green.
Q2 You work for Lifeway who has been a stalwart for Sunday school for decades, centuries, millenia. Nowadays, Lifeway has become a major source for small group curriculum. How did that change come about?
RH: About fourteen years ago LifeWay made a strategic decision to connect with and partner with small group churches. I was hired at that time. A few years later LifeWay purchased Serendipity House, one of the premiere resource providers of small group Bible studies at the time. It was at this time that LifeWay began to build her reputation as a ministry aiding small group churches as they make disciples through small groups.
But, in the last two or so years, LifeWay has wisely realized that, in order to meet the many needs of small group churches, she needs to be more than just a Bible study provider. Because of the many helps LifeWay offers the small group world, our Bible studies are becoming more known. A quick list of offerings for small group pastors in 2015 alone is noted below. You may be shocked.
Q3 “A plethora” wow! You created the Groups Matter initiative to launch 100,000 groups. How is that going? How can pastors and churches get involved?
RH: The goal of the Groups Matter initiative was to see 100,000 new groups started in two years. At present, there are 46,296 groups registered. To join the movement go to www.groupsmatter.com.
Q4 What emerging trends are you seeing in small group ministry?
RH: I’m seeing multiple trends in the groups ministry movement.
- Discipleship – For at least a couple of decades the groups world had as its mantra, “creating community.” The conversation has transitioned from focusing on creating community to, “making disciples.”
- Doing Sunday School and Small Groups Side by Side – Not so long ago few churches would’ve even considered doing both Sunday School and small groups. As of the last two years this has become a major movement. In fact, the largest audiences I have when leading regional training conferences are when I’m doing a day of training for churches presently doing Sunday School that want to add small groups.
- Sermon based Bible studies – It seems many pastors long to see their groups discuss the Sunday sermon. This has led to many churches creating their own questions for discussion based on the weekend sermon.
- Mid-size groups – While this isn’t a major movement right now, there is some discussion in some groups circles about mid-size groups meeting in homes. These would be any groups over 12. In fact, the size of the home determines the appropriate group size.
Q5 If you could turn the clock back in ministry and start over, what would you have done differently?
RH: Allen, I think the one thing I’d do differently, is spend more time with God daily, memorizing His Word, and studying biblical theology. I’ve tried to make up for lost time but I don’t know that I will ever be able to gain the knowledge I believe is necessary for a groups pastor in today’s post-Christian era.
Q5.5 Ok, the half question: Country or bluegrass?
By Allen White
Let’s talk about the opposite problem from last week. Instead of low attendance, you find that everyone decided to show up. One group in our current series has 30 people meeting at their house. Is this legal? Will the small group police be visiting soon to split up the group? Here are a few tips for when your group attendance exceeds your expectations.
1. If your meeting space is large, then try to make folks as comfortable as possible. Just like a church auditorium, however, your room will only comfortably fill to 80 percent of capacity. If people sense that you have plenty of people in your group, it may become their excuse to back out of group. Make sure everyone feels like they have a place and that they are welcome to the group. Remember, community is what we need the most, yet resist. More to come on #3.
2. If your space is too small, do the best you can on week one, then develop a strategy that night for the next week. Crowd-in the best you can to watch the DVD, then sub-group for the discussion (more on sub-grouping in a minute). If you have a friend in the group or basically anyone with a clue, you might ask if part of the group could meet at their place next week. If that person is not readily apparent, then just ask the group: “It’s obvious that we have a problem. Would anyone else be willing to have part of the group meet at their place?” Chances are that if most of your new recruits were just looking for a group in the neighborhood, they won’t be offended by meeting somewhere else. They’re just not attached to you yet.
3. Make sure everyone can get their word in. Any group larger than eight people (six in a restaurant) makes it difficult for everyone to talk in the group. In a larger group, a handful of the more boisterous members will tend to take over the group while the more timid members might get a chance to talk in the car on the way home. (Well, unless, they are married to a boisterous member.) Have everyone crowd-in to watch the DVD, then say, “Okay this half of the room will move to the living room, dining room, whatever you have available. The rest of the group will stay here.” Notice that I didn’t say, “Men, go in there. Women, stay here.” Your group, most likely, won’t stay at 30 people for the long term. Sub-grouping could lead to starting a new group down the road. (Now, I said “could.” I will keep my promise). Unless you want to intentionally start a men’s group and a women’s group, it’s best to sub-group by couples.
4. Quickly locate the potential leaders. Once the group has sub-grouped, you can either ask for a volunteer to lead the discussion or you can just see what happens. The leader will naturally rise to the top. Years ago, I heard a small group leader talk about sub-grouping 45 people at their house. They used every conceivable room in the house. Then, they asked the person with the most speeding tickets to lead the discussion. They were the risk takers.
I know that Andy Stanley said that “if it has a back row, it’s not a small group.” Andy is a wise and intelligent guy. But, I also know that some folks have a wonderful gift of inviting and including others. Why would I get in the way of that?
Copyright © 2010 by Allen White