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
Some launches go better than others. Over the last 10+ years of group launches both in the churches I’ve served as well as churches I’ve coached, we have seen some significant progress and we’ve seen some incremental growth. Whether your launch feels exponential or expected really comes down to your grasp of four keys.
1. Is Your Senior Pastor All In?
Having been an associate pastor for over 20 years, I know that if I invite people to lead groups, I will get 30 percent the result of my senior pastor. How do I know this? Well, after reaching the seventh year of my five year plan, I only had 30 percent of our adults in groups. The first time my senior pastor make the invitation, we doubled our groups in a day, and within six months, we had 125 percent of our average adult attendance in groups. Now, that’s not funny pastor math. Not everyone attends every Sunday, but they will go to their group. And, we had a good number of people who had never darkened the door of our church join groups as well.
Let’s face it, if people aren’t connected to each other, the reason they attend is because of the senior pastor. My family is part of NewSpring Church at the Greenville, SC campus. We don’t know a lot of people there, but Kidspring and Fuse are stellar for our children, and Perry Noble, well, he’s pretty amazing.
When the senior pastor stands up and makes the invitation for people to gather their friends and grow, it’s huge. Now, what will help both your senior pastor and your “unconnected” people get on board with groups is creating your own curriculum with your senior pastor’s teaching. Your pastor’s teaching + your pastor’s invitation + your pastor’s message series aligned with the study is a Win/Win/Win. For more on engaging your senior pastor, check out my free ebook, Exponential Groups.
2. Is Your Topic Relevant to Your Community?
The topic of your series will creating determine who is included and excluded in your launch. Obviously, there has been huge success with topics like 40 Days of Purpose by Rick Warren and One Month to Live by Kerry Shook. What is your community, not your church, but the people in the place you live concerned about? What previous sermon series have had an appeal? The right topic will make a huge difference.
A few years ago, I was coaching a church in Baltimore. I asked the pastor what his series would be for the new year. He said, “I’m thinking about doing a series on dying.”
I said, “You’re killing me, Frank.”
While everybody will die, people usually don’t want to be confronted with that reality. It ended up being a great series, but not one to launch an exponential number of groups. Whether you talk about relationships, stress management, conflict resolution, or something else, think about what would draw the most people into the topic.
3. Will Your Coaching Structure Support a New Influx of Leaders?
More groups will stall before the start of a series than will stop after the series. When someone steps up to lead, they have just painted a huge target on their back, and the enemy will try to discourage them in every way possible. They will invite friends only to discover some can’t come on Tuesday night; others are already in another groups; and a couple of them really aren’t their friends. In that moment, they need someone to encourage them or that group is toast.
A few years ago, a couple in our church, Ray and Pam, left a group they loved to start a new group. (I’m not longer in that forced birthing business by the way). I asked them on a Sunday morning how their group was going. They said, “Not very well. We think it was a mistake to leave our group and try to start our own group. We have invited 20 people to our group, and they all turned us down. We shouldn’t have left the group we loved.”
Trying to contain my panic, I said, “Ok, you guys had an idea of what your group should be. Now let’s pray and see who God wants in your group.”
A week later, Ray and Pam called me, “Pastor Allen, please stop sending people to our group. We have 14 people, so we are maxed out.” Now, how many people had I sent to their group. Well, none. God answered our prayer. Their group started around 2003 and continues under different leadership to this day. But, if I hadn’t had that conversation with Ray and Pam on that particular Sunday, that group never would have happened.
Your coaching structure (or lack of one) will be completely overwhelmed by a successful launch. But, you cannot leave those baby groups unattended. They need care and encouragement. Ask your existing group leaders and other mature members of your church to check in on the new leaders weekly from when they say “Yes” until the end of the campaign. This will greatly increase the success rate of your group launch. After all groups that don’t start tend to not continue. For more on enlisting new coaches, check out this video interview I did with Steve Gladen and Brett Eastman.
4. What’s Next?
Now that your head is swimming about what the topic of your series should be, you also need to have a next step curriculum ready for groups to continue. The reason so many groups fell off the cliff at the end of 40 days was because they weren’t given a specific next step. If you send them to christianbook.com or a book store, they will get lost in the choices. Most new groups don’t have a real opinion of what to study next. In the middle of your first campaign, give them a next step to continue their group. If you can get a group to complete two back to back six week series, you’ve got them. They will continue from there with some coaching, training, and direction.
Your success in your next group launch will be greatly affected by which of these four keys you implement. If you go four for four, you can certainly see exponential results. If you implement two of these and neglect the other two, you’ve probably halved your result as well.
If you would like to learn more about experiencing your own exponential group launch, I’d like to invite you to a free webinar on Wednesday, August 5 at 1:30pm ET/10:30am PT. Click here to register. Registration is limited to 25 seats, so register now.
By Allen White
On Sunday, February 22, Pastor Perry Noble announced eight new campuses of NewSpring Church by the end of the year. In addition to four multisite campuses in Clemson, Greer, Simpsonville, and Northwest Columbia, SC, house campuses are being launched in Rock Hill, Sumter, Aiken and Hilton Head Island, SC.
Hearkening back to the start of NewSpring Church, Perry shared how 15 people started in a living room in 2000. In the same way, the house campuses will start in homes led by NewSpring members and supervised by NewSpring staff. Different from a small group, the house campuses will view a special edition of the NewSpring service together online and will include children’s ministry. Similar to a small group, house campuses are exponentially expandable and are only limited to the number of homes available. House campuses will offer pastoral care and ministry similar to a multisite campus. They are more than just a bunch of people watching an online service in a living room.
As house campuses grow, additional homes in the area will be added. If enough people begin to participate in the house campuses, there is potential to add a multisite campus to the area.
With a goal of reaching 100,000 people in the state of South Carolina for Christ, the house campus concept, similar to the microsite campus I blogged about a while back, has the ability to reach all corners of the state and any open living room. There is no cost for renting or purchasing a building, since the millions of dollars in NewSpring’s members’ homes will be leveraged to bring the Gospel and the ministry of NewSpring Church to any community.
Every church currently doing multisite campuses can launch new campuses in the same way. These microsite, house campuses can be launched anywhere from the small town out in the country to a group of scientists in Antarctica to a group of astronauts on the space station. There is no limit.
I can’t wait to see where requests for house campuses come from next. I love my church!
You might also be interest in:
Three Reasons for Microsite Campuses
The Rise of the Microsite Church