Mark Richardson is the Life Pastor at San Diego Rock Church, where he has served for 15 years. Rock Church has over 500 small groups and saw their groups increase by 211% in 2020. Prior to the Rock Church, Mark served as a board member and executive director at the Jireh Ministries Foundation and was an intern with the Christian Embassy to the United Nations. He holds a MA in Pastoral Studies from Azusa Pacific and an MBA from Point Loma.
Well, 2021 hasn’t quite turned out the way that we thought it would. It’s not 2020, but it’s also not 2019. The world has changed. Our people have changed. Hybrid life seems here to stay. People are craving community. Keeping certain things virtual. And being pickier overall about how they spend their time. How do we move forward with small groups in 2021? I’ll give you a hint: it’s not by moving backward. That’s why I am offering the 2021 Small Group Reset: 5 Days to Reframe Your Ministry. This FREE On Demand Video Resource will help you navigate the changing culture within your church. Sign up at allenwhite.org/reset and start now. Fall 2021 looks to be the largest group launch opportunity you’ve ever seen. Let me guide you in getting prepared.
Recently, I came across a post that I wrote on March 13, 2018 called The Future of Church. It struck me because things that I had written back then are exactly what we’re living right now amid the Coronavirus pandemic. I’m not saying this in the guise of “Oh, look how smart I am,” because to be honest with you, I’m just as surprised as you are that I got something this right. Here are some updated thoughts on what I wrote two years ago, but I would encourage you to go back and read the original post for yourself.
Ministry Outside of a Church Building was Coming
I started that post by saying I was reluctant to share these things, but they’d been on my heart. These were things that I’d been sensing for a while. It talks about problems with church buildings. While they’re not the exact problems that we’re having right now due to the Coronavirus pandemic, we are certainly having a problem with church buildings.
There are no mega churches meeting right now, except for one that meet last Sunday. Only 30% of churches are conducting in-person services. Most of those churches have only about 25% in attendance. For some it’s because of spacing and social distancing issues. I know of one church that’s at about 40% of their summer attendance, but they’re in North Dakota in a county that has literally three cases of Coronavirus. For the most part, buildings are not being used.
This brings us to a question that Rick Rusaw and Eric Swanson raised in their book, The Externally Focused Church. If your church disappeared from your community, would you be missed? Your church, your in-person services, the things that happened in your building — your church today has disappeared from your community. Is it being missed? That’s a hard question because I know that pastors work hard. I know that they invest a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into the work of the ministry, but is what we’re doing being missed?
The attractional model was a great model for the last 30 or 40 years. We saw a lot of people come to Christ. We saw a lot of great churches built. We saw a lot of great things happen because of that strategy. But, the reality is that what happened in the last 30 or 40 years is not what’s going to work in the next 30-40 years. As of four months ago, nothing that we’ve ever done before is working. The whole game has changed. I hear of a lot of pastors really struggling with discouragement right now, because if you’re holding yourself to a standard that you had a year ago, or if you’re still defining a win by what you had a year ago, you are living in a very discouraging and very depressed place. We don’t even live in that world anymore.
Pastors Need a New Measuring Stick
There are new ways to measure how effective we are. The first thing is decentralized organization. The church could not be more decentralized than we are right now. To borrow from Dave Ferguson and Warren Bird in Hero Maker, the hero in any church is the member, not the pastor. When you think of your congregation, you have to ask yourself: do you see your congregation as an audience or as an army? If they’re an audience, they have to be entertained. You have to perform for them. You have to give them something so that they’ll keep coming back. And the win is that they come back.
But if you see your congregations as an army, then you see a group of people that need to be equipped and empowered to serve. What they need from their pastors is permission and opportunity. Your church building may not be functioning in the way that it normally does, but your church is in the community. Your church is dispersed. How could you encourage your church to serve others — to check in on their neighbors, to check in on elderly people, to make calls, to send texts? People are on their phones all the time. Why not use their phones to encourage other people and see how they’re doing? You see the focus changes from gathering to scattering. And this is what I say in the article: “In the last 25 or more years, the church gathered well, but scattered poorly. It’s time for a change.” If you’re in a gathering mindset in a scattering climate, you’re living in a very frustrated place.
You have to embrace the scattering mindset. Here’s something interesting. The initial fulfillment of Acts 1:8 when Jesus told to his disciples, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth.” The fulfillment of Acts 1:8 is found in Acts 8:1, “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.” We’re not in persecution per se. (Some people would say that we are). But we’ve definitely been scattered. How can you use this scattering as an opportunity to fulfill your mission?
Flexible, Unstructured Gatherings
The second thing is flexible, unstructured gatherings. This goes back to a conversation I had about eight years ago with Josh Surratt at Seacoast Church. Josh mentioned that a family from his church had moved to the state of Maine. They had about 30 people gathering at their house to watch Seacoast service every week. I looked at Josh and said, “Well, maybe you need to redefine what a campus is.”
Around that the same time period, 8-10 years ago, people in a number of ministries around the country began to think about this notion of microsite churches. What I saw in the 2018 article were microsite campuses in smaller communities where multisite churches wouldn’t build a campus. The question I asked in the article is what if the service via streaming video was brought into homes, restaurants, or smaller meeting places to serve these areas?
Here’s the deal — if your church is not meeting in person (which is about 70% of churches right now), you have microsite churches. You have families gathered in homes. Maybe a few people are doing “watch parties” where they’ve invited some neighbors. Right now your church is gathering in microsites.
The challenge right now is that I, personally, attend a multisite campus that is a video venue. There’s a campus pastor and a team. There’s live worship and a service host, and then the messages are on streaming video. Why would I go back to my video streamed multisite campus when I can stay home and participate from my microsite campus? If I want more people to gather with me, I can invite them to my house.
Here’s the other side of it — nobody was meeting in those buildings anyway because of the pandemic. They had all been closed down. There was no reason to pay rent on the buildings. There is no reason to maintain a building for a multisite campus that nobody is meeting in because everybody is meeting at home.
These flexible unrestricted gatherings can multiply without church-owned property or paid staff. Now there needs to be some training. Where do you get trained volunteers? This goes to the next point in this 2018 article — meaningful volunteer ministry. I hate the word “volunteer” because Paul says to the Corinthians that one part of the body can’t say to another part of the body, I don’t need you (1 Corinthians 12:21. By definition, “volunteer” means that people aren’t being paid for their time. But, the dichotomy between volunteer and staff has become as great as the one between clergy and laity.
Churches have reached the point that they keep hiring all of these people to do tasks, because it seems easier to motivate them and get them to meet a deadline than it would with a volunteer. But the reality is that every one of us has spiritual gifts that God’s given us. Every one of us has a calling. The calling is not just limited to clergy. Ministry is not limited to paid staff.
What do we need volunteers for in the church? Volunteers are needed to maintain in-person worship services. Since there are no in-person services, there is no need for “volunteers.” Again, quoting from this 2018 piece, “the church burdens many of its members with meaningless ministry, parking lot attendants, greeters, coffee servers, and so forth. Potentially the worst staff position in any church is the guest services coordinator, because this person must constantly hustle to fill vacant spots every week of the year. Why? Because no one is called to this!”
Today, if you’re the guest services coordinator and your church is only meeting online only, you’re like the happiest person in the world! You’re like on vacation. Here’s the thing — believers will rise to the occasion for gift-based ministry, things that they’re called to do, things that they see a need for and could fill it. They could do something about it with their gifts and abilities. They just need to be equipped. They need to be released to do that. JD Greear said this, “Even when you can’t come to church, you can still be the church.” When you look at Ephesians 4 you see the work of pastors and teachers is to equip the saints for doing the work of the ministry. Pastors and staff should be ministry multipliers to release their congregations to serve rather than doing the work themselves. We are decentralized. People can use their gifts. They can invite people into their homes. The church can be the church.
This is a Major Shift
We can’t meet in-person for various reasons. The church doesn’t revolve around the building. This is a shift. The multiplication of microsites is easier than multiplying megachurches. What about training? What are they doing in the houses while they’re being friendly? They get people together. They’re watching the service online. You can train somebody to do a microsite much more quickly than you can train a pastor. A person doing a microsite doesn’t need a Master of Divinity, but they do need supervision.
Most churches will never have the budget for all of the paid staff or buildings they need to accomplish what God has called them to. Yet, the church already has millions and millions of dollars worth of property in the homes of the church members. The “staff” for these microsites originates from gifts-based assessments.
Now, when I wrote this original article on March 13, 2018, this might have all seemed weird to you. It may still seem weird to you right now, but if these things are put it into practice right now, it would make a huge impact in your communities.
We have a world that is hurting in so many ways. They’re afraid of a virus. They’re afraid of meeting together. They can’t see a loved one in a hospital. Some of them can’t even go to a funeral. We have political unrest to an extent that I don’t even remember in my lifetime. We have racial injustice. We have so many things that are plaguing our country, and there’s such a great spiritual need. In fact, I would say the last time we saw a spiritual need at this level was 9/11. And if you remember, after September 11, 2001, that next Sunday, our churches were packed.
People are feeling that level of anxiety, depression, and uncertainty. Some people don’t know if they’re going to have a job. How can they buy food? There’s so much uncertainty. They can’t go to church or they’re afraid to go to church, but they can go online. They could go to a friend’s house. They could go to a small group. They can watch a streaming service.
Here’s the crazy thing. These things that I’m talking about — a year ago, they were a novelty. Four months ago, this became a necessity. Today, this is an opportunity. Let’s make the most of this opportunity.
[Dear Readers – Do you ever have thoughts that you can’t get away from? For a few years now, I have almost resisted writing about some things that have been stirring deep inside me. Also, over that time period, a number of events as well as ministry startups in various sectors have confirmed many of the things I’ve been sensing. Over the next month or so, I will post some of these thoughts. What I am writing should not be taken as an indictment of any ministry or methodology. I am sincerely inviting you to wrestle with some things I’ve been wrestling with. I would appreciate having you join the conversation.] Megachurch, as we know it, is not the future. In an increasingly secularized society, the tolerance for more “big box” churches will decrease. Churches are already viewed by municipalities as heavily reliant on city resources, yet do not pay taxes. In fact, some of their prime locations could generate more revenue as a Costco. I foresee zoning as a continual obstacle. Speaking of taxes, while I don’t see tax deductions for charitable contributions disappearing, the new tax law makes most people’s charitable contributions irrelevant in regard to their taxes. Since the standard deduction has increased to $24,000, for many households their mortgage interest, charitable giving, and medical expenses aren’t going to top that amount. Now, I’m not a CPA, but the math is pretty simple to pencil in. If giving no longer offers a tax advantage, then how will giving be impacted? If giving decreases, then what happens to capital campaigns and building projects? Then, we could go back and ponder the question asked by Rick Rusaw and Eric Swanson in The Externally-Focused Church (Group Publishing 2004): If your church disappeared from your community would you be missed? Does your community rely on your church? Do you pick up the slack where government services lack? Can you serve the under-served in your community? Or, does your building provide a meeting place for weekend gatherings, then sit empty the rest of the week? The climate is changing. I haven’t even mentioned those churches who are fighting a culture war that’s already been lost. I also didn’t bring up a moral majority that’s become an oxymoron. The strategies that served us well over the last 25 years are not going to do the same in the next 25 years. It’s time for a shift. Decentralized Organization The “hero” in any church is the member, not the pastor. The best representation of the impact and ministry of the church is the individual member. Members will determine the effectiveness of the church’s outreach. While churches can have a great location, in the churches I’ve served, we found that less than 2 percent found their way into our church from merely passing by. About the same went for paid advertising, social media, or other forms of advertising. How well does your church make disciples? There is nothing more attractive than a believer whose life has been transformed inviting a friend who’s noticed their life change. When you look out at your congregation on Sunday morning, do you see an audience or an army? If it’s an audience, then they need to be entertained. The concern is over comfort and convenience. If you perform well and offer a good experience, then the hope is they will return. But, if you see them as an army, that’s a different story. Your army needs to be equipped and empowered to serve. They don’t need to be catered to. They don’t need to be fretted over. They need marching orders. They need permission and opportunity to live out what God has called them to do. The focus changes from gathering to scattering. For the last 25 or more years, we have gathered well, but scattered poorly. It’s time for a change. Flexible, Unrestricted Gatherings About six years ago, in a conversation with Josh Surratt, Lead Pastor at Seacoast Church, he mentioned a family from their church who had moved to Maine. Every Sunday morning, they gathered with about 40 friends and neighbors in their living room to watch the service at Seacoast together. My immediate reaction, “Well, maybe it’s time to redefine a ‘campus.’” Conversations like this led to the idea of microsite churches. In my initial brainstorming with my friend, Brett Eastman, we imagined smaller communities or places where multisite churches wouldn’t build a campus. What if the service via steaming video was brought into homes, restaurants, or smaller meeting places to serve these areas? The microsites would rely on unpaid staff to manage them, but with connection and support from larger organization. One of the first places we saw develop these microsites was NewSpring Church in South Carolina. They took a little different spin on the idea by using “houses campuses” as a trial balloon to determine whether a community could support a viable multisite campus eventually. It was essentially planting a multisite campus with a less expensive, less risky trial run. We also interacted with the folks at The Rock Church in San Diego, who had heard from people who were not comfortable walking onto their main campus on Sunday morning. So, they multiplied 50 microsites in venues where these folks felt more comfortable gathering. This included bars, night clubs, and other locations. Read more about the early days of microsites. By developing a microsite strategy with online video and support, there is no limit to a church’s potential to reach any community that can provide someone to pioneer the work. Once the strategy has created a unit of one, then the sky’s the limit. Locations can easily be rolled out in same language communities or translated into other languages and cultures. Potentially, these flexible, unrestricted gatherings can multiply without church-owned property or paid staff. As long as their kept small and taught to multiply, securing larger gathering spaces is unnecessary. Meaningful, “Volunteer” Ministry I hate the word “volunteer,” but it’s the word everyone uses, so here we go. With the congregation as an army, the key to deploying the army is gifts-based ministry. God has gifted and called every believer to fulfill his or her mission on the earth. Calling is not limited to clergy. Ministry is not limited to paid staff. For all intents and purposes, the only difference between “volunteers” and paid staff is the source of their income and possibly their availability. If the church fully embraces the concept of the priesthood of believers, then it can accomplish far more than what it’s currently doing. The key is to champion the member, help them discover their spiritual gifts with a tool like Network, and to support and deploy them as they do the work of the ministry. When believers are operating in their gifts and abilities, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and supported by their pastors and churches, they are unstoppable. They find meaning and purpose beyond what anything else can provide. And, the church functions as it should. I led the gifts discovery and deployment process at a church I served for 15 years. Every member who attended a discover your ministry type class met with me for a post-class interview. I was always amazed at what people aspired to do and how God had equipped them. In fact, I even identified my future wife this way! Our church reached a point where we only started new ministries out of these conversations following the gifts discovery class. Some of these ministries, we heard about from sources in the community because our people were serving based on their gifts and hadn’t told us what they were doing. That thought just makes me smile. The church burdens many of its members with meaningless ministry – parking lot attendants, greeters, coffee servers, and so forth. Potentially the worst staff position in any church is the “guest services coordinator,” because this person must constantly hustle to fill vacant spots every weekend of the year! Why? Because no one is called to this. (Feel free to argue in the comments, but read on). Yet, believers rise to the occasion in gifts-based ministry. Pastors – do you want your members dragging themselves out of bed to serve or jumping out of bed to serve? The difference is organizing ministry around spiritual gifts rather than filling slots. Multiplication Microsites are easier to multiply than megachurches. Microsites don’t require church-owned property, elaborate budgets, or guest services. As someone is welcomed into a member’s home, isn’t that the only guest services needed? What about training? Who can be trained more quickly – a pastor or a location host? No location host to date has been required to earn a Master of Divinity first. Most churches will never have the budget, paid staff, or buildings to accomplish what God has called them to do. Well, that’s if we look at the church as an institution. But, in viewing the church as the body of Christ, there is millions of dollars worth of property in the homes of the church’s members. The “staff” originates from gifts-based assessments. There might be a few expenses, but really no budget. As it becomes harder to fill and maintain the big box church, there are viable options. Examples like the Tampa Underground (tampaunderground.com) are worth considering. After 10 years of developing their model, they are now sharing their learnings with others. The future of the church is bright, but it is different. While previous models of ministry have served us well, it’s time to reconsider our strategies and redefine our ministries.
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 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