One of the most frequent objections I get to our multi-site approach is this: “Why do you plant more campuses when you can plant churches instead?” Since our church is committed to church planting, I take this objection very seriously. And at first glance, the objection seems rather intuitive—people and money you could be investing in a church plant are instead being re-directed into a campus. This objection, however, is built upon two assumptions: first, that church planting solves the problem of overcrowding; second, that the multi-site approach competes with—or even precludes—church planting. But neither assumption is true.
1. Church planting does not solve the problem of overcrowding.
Most people who propose church planting as an answer to overcrowding have never actually had to deal with a rapidly growing church. When a church grows so rapidly that its facilities are at (or over) capacity, there are three possible solutions other than going multi-site: 1. Build bigger buildings, 2. Plant new churches, or 3. Turn people away.
We can dismiss the third as unbiblical, leaving us the two previous options. And given the choice between just these two, church planting certainly seems appealing. Buildings are expensive—and large buildings are enormously expensive. So that only leaves one option, right? Plant churches to make more room!
The trouble is, studies continue to show that church planting by itself rarely alleviates the overcrowding in a local congregation. For example, say your auditorium of 700 is filled to capacity each week, with people sitting in the lobby for multiple services, and so you convince 100 of your people to go and start a new church (and convincing that size number is an extraordinarily difficult feat, I might add!). If your church is growing at even 10%, you will make up that growth in less than a year and be out of space again. Even if you plant 10 churches out of your church in 10 years, chances are that you will still be dealing with space problems each year, likely turning people away.
Furthermore, as I allude to above, finding the people willing to leave their church to plant a new one as well as one or two new leaders each year who can do it are both difficult! Yes, everyone in your church should be willing to leave. But there is a gap between what people should do and what they will do, especially in churches that are growing rapidly and filled with young and immature believers.
Church planting is a wonderful and effective evangelism strategy and should be pursued aggressively by every local church, but church planting cannot provide a solution for a church’s space issues. So, by all means, plant churches! But in order to faithfully steward the people God is bringing to your church, you’ll need a different solution.
And so, at the Summit Church, we found our solution to rapid growth in the multi-campus model. In other words, multiplying campuses was not an alternative to church planting. It was an alternative to building a larger building or turning people away.
This is why we only plant campuses in our local city, not cities around the nation. Local campus plants are an on-going alternative to constructing a mammoth building. So when we recognize a large portion of people commuting from a certain area, we begin to think about a new campus there. (You won’t find us planting a campus in New York, Los Angeles, or Tokyo, because no one is currently commuting here from those places, so planting a campus there would be a replacement for church planting.)
Having a local campus not only leaves space at the original venue; it also makes evangelism and community easier for those at the new campus. For evangelism, you may be willing to drive 40 minutes to church, but the guy you just met at Starbucks who doesn’t know Jesus? Not so likely. For community, if you’re driving 40 minutes to church, you’re making that trip once a week and that’s it.
That evangelism and community are best executed locally has become so ingrained to our strategy at the Summit that it is reflected in one of our plumblines: stay where you are, serve where you live; let’s be the church in your community.
2. Multi-site does not preclude church planting; in fact, it encourages it.
This is a new discovery for us: we’ve found that our church planting efforts actually increased after we went to a multi-site model. I once thought we might be an anomaly, but research is beginning to show that our experience is more of the exception than the rule. An extensive study conducted by the Leadership Network found that churches that participate in multi-site strategy are 7% more likely to plant churches as well. Now, 7% isn’t massive, but it’s significant. While the multi-site strategy doesn’t automatically produce church planting, it does create the culture that makes church planting easier.
It’s not surprising to see why. Many of our church planters began as campus pastors, which allowed them to do much of what a lead pastor would do, yet within an environment where they can still learn and have the support of their original church. So for our campus pastors who have an eye toward church planting, it’s a good first step. For others, they discover that their gifts are better suited to campus pastoring—occasional platform preaching, but a strong focus on leading teams, pastoring people, and leading in evangelism.
The multi-site strategy also does something to the psychology of the church itself. Planting campuses—instead of building a behemoth church convention center—lends itself to an outward-facing posture for the church. A large building says, “Come,” but a multitude of campuses say, “Go.” By planting campuses, we communicate that it is more important for us to reach people than it is to build an empire. Our people catch that sort of a vision, and it helps to fuel passion for church planting as well.
By God’s grace, church planting is in the DNA of The Summit Church. We have an audacious vision to see 1,000 churches planted by 2050, because we believe that planting churches in strategic cities is the New Testament pattern for effective evangelism. Whether the church God gives me is 10,000 or 10, church planting will always be our priority. It is a non-negotiable.
Campus planting is—and must be—secondary to church planting. It is an answer to a specific circumstance, and if it failed to address our situation, we will put it aside. But for now, it is helping us better pastor people, reach our community, and plant churches. I believe it remains a biblically faithful, practically wise, and pastorally helpful model.
Special thanks to Chris Pappalardo for helping pull together these thoughts in the writing and editing of this post!