How Can We Plant 1,000 Churches by 2050?

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If you’re familiar with the Summit at all, you’ve heard our vision of planting 1,000 churches by 2050. When I first floated the number, it was a mix between a hunch (based on a round number) and a Spirit-led ambition, something in the line of William Carey’s “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.” More recently, as God has blessed many of our church planting efforts, our staff has tried to think through how we might actually see this happen.

We knew from the beginning that to reach 1,000 churches in one generation would require more than just planting churches from the Summit, but planting churches that, in turn, would plant churches. So we asked a few of our staff to chart what it might look like, assuming that we continued to plant at our current rate (3 churches per year), and that our daughter churches would plant a church every 5 years.

As it turns out, this was a hard question—the sort of question for a math junky, not well-intentioned pastors.

The day was saved by one of our members, John Pearson, who had the mathematical skills and time to run several models for us. He added in a host of other variables (I even saw the terms “mortality rate” and “half-life” in there at one point), and this was the result:

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John also gave us a few key insights to help us interpret the data. These were his thoughts:

1. Exponential growth benefits from early investment. In some ways, church planting is a lot like a retirement plan. The more you invest early, the bigger the yield in years to come. Or, as the proverb puts it, “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is today.”

Another graph might help to show what we mean. Look at how small of a proportion our “daughter” churches will contribute to the total church plants:

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2. The most important factor in long-term success is the rate at which daughter churches reproduce. Even if the Summit plants 5 churches a year until 2050, this accounts for less than 20% of the total. This means that more than 80% of the churches we hope to plant must be granddaughter churches!

3. The only way to reach 1,000 churches is to effectively pass on the vision.  There is very little room for diminishing returns in the daughter church growth rate. The real growth in domestic church planting has to come out of the churches we plant, but that only happens if they believe in the vision like we do. “Sending” has to be in their DNA, just like it should be in ours.

Our current tally is 19 domestic church plants and 41 international church plants. (Everything above, by the way, is only looking at the domestic side!) And 180 of our Summit people are currently serving on international church planting teams. Those are exciting numbers, but I don’t want to simply celebrate what God has done; I want to leverage what we have to see him move in bigger and bigger ways. 

This is a God-sized vision, and it will only pan out if God puts his hand on our efforts. This is something I plead for in prayer daily. But I have no shame in putting our minds to the task, planning for the ways in which God’s Spirit will move. As D. L. Moody said, “If God be your partner, make large plans!”

But in Multi-Site, I Don’t Know the Pastor

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It has been nearly 10 years since The Summit Church moved to a multi-site strategy. We’ve learned a lot during that time, and continue to evaluate how this strategy is serving God, our people, and our community. One of the objections I hear a lot to our multi-site strategy is this: “In a multi-site church, I don’t know the pastor (and the pastor doesn’t know me).” For those who make this objection, multi-site appears to be a hindrance to good member care. And because I believe the church is to be a family that cares deeply for its own, and that we elders will have to give an account for every member of our church, I feel deeply, and personally, the weight of this objection.

Here is the heart of my response: Why is the Senior Pastor the one expected to administer all the pastoral care? Doesn’t that presuppose the very “cult of personality” for which multi-site churches are often criticized? “I need to be known by my pastors” is a legitimate request. “I need to be known by that pastor because he is special” is not.

It is undeniable that large churches face pastoral issues. But so do small churches. In fact, Rodney Stark demonstrated in What Americans Really Believe that megachurches had more intimacy and better pastoral care than smaller churches (pp. 48–49). Stark’s research notwithstanding, however, let’s acknowledge that it is easier for people to slip in and out of a large congregation unnoticed. In fact, this is why we moved to a multi-site model as our church began to grow. It’s easier to hide in an auditorium of 5,000 than it is in an auditorium of 500.

Our people ceased to “know me” when we passed 500 people. In fact, that was the hardest ecclesiological shift for me—going to more than 500 weekly, not going multi-site! When we hit 500, I realized that I could no longer know every member in a meaningful way. And even then I was behind the curve, since a lot of research shows that pastors can’t personally pastor a congregation of more than about 200! So in reality, the problem of the lead pastor not knowing everyone in the congregation is an issue for any church of more than 200 people. Unless you want to stay below 200, you’re going to have to adopt a “multiple elder” model, where everyone is known and pastored by an elder, though not necessarily the “lead” elder.

I think that the multi-site church may most effectively address that problem for churches of several thousand. Since the venues are smaller, it is easier for campus pastors and elder representatives to keep up with those that come. Smaller venues reduce anonymity. It’s easier for a campus pastor to keep up with his elders, who keep up with their small group leaders, who keep up with their people, when they all see each other every week.

But still some say: “The multi-site movement fosters a cult of personality by tying everyone to one mega-teacher.” Perhaps. And unfortunately, many large church leaders seem all too willing to foster it.

But the cult of personality can exist as much in a small, single-campus church—in fact, sometimes moreso! When I pastored a small church, my congregation seemed to think that my presence was necessary for everything of spiritual significance. I had to marry and bury everyone, and my people wanted me to resolve every problem and answer every question. I tried to teach them otherwise, and even though we had other pastors, their natural tendency was to look to me as the only “real” one. If I wasn’t there personally, it was JV.

Now that we are multi-site, however, members of the Summit are regularly exposed to other Spirit-filled pastors in our church, men to whom they can look for leadership and ministry. When our people have a question or need pastoral guidance, their first move is often toward their campus pastor, because that is a relationship in which they know and are known.

The bottom line is this: A church is not an audience, it is a community, a body, and a family. And those necessitate close, intimate relationships. So, regardless of the size of our church, everyone should be known and cared for by their elders. But unless we strictly limit congregations to 200 people, we simply cannot expect that one particular person will carry the entire pastoral responsibility. And whenever the expectation arises that everyone must know that specific pastor, then we’ve elevated that pastor to an impossibly super-human role. That kind of expectation is not fair to the pastor, and it bypasses the ways in which God has gifted other elders in the church to care for his flock. The irony is that those who accuse multi-site churches of a ‘cult of personality’ are often guilty of a cult of personality themselves.

God has called churches to do two things that can sometimes compete with each other: a) take care of our local church body, and b) reach new people as fast as possible. If we lean too far toward evangelism, we risk neglecting pastoral care; if we lean too far toward pastoral care, we risk becoming insular and neglecting evangelism. It’s so much easier to pursue just one. But we have to do both. In our judgment, the multi-site approach allows us to continue drawing unbelievers in while still being pastorally responsible for our members.

A multi-site approach can certainly be organized in a way that heightens the pastoral cult of personality and squelches other leadership. But we believe that this is due less to the structure itself and more to sinful human nature, which can lionize personality in any structure. For us, the argument comes down not on whether to do multi-site but on how to do it. And our responsibility is to use this structure in as biblical and God-honoring a way as possible.

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Special thanks to Chris Pappalardo for helping pull together these thoughts in the writing and editing of this post!

Why Plant Campuses, When You Can Plant Churches Intsead?

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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.

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Special thanks to Chris Pappalardo for helping pull together these thoughts in the writing and editing of this post!