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    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

Satellite Churches

Multiple sites are changing how churches operate

By Kirk Noonan
Jan. 10, 2010

Many churches across the nation are expanding their influence, reaching new demographics, empowering staff members and laypeople to become leaders, and maximizing their finances.

How are they doing it?

By becoming multisite churches.

On a typical Sunday morning in San Ramon, Calif., a platoon of volunteers roll crates filled with sound and lighting equipment into the auditorium at Gale Ranch Middle School. Chairs are neatly lined up. Signage is hung. Gigantic video screens are assembled. Classrooms and even hallways are transformed into play areas for children.

Within hours, a fully functioning - yet temporary - church operated by volunteers and a campus pastor is up and running. New Life Church San Ramon is an offshoot - or satellite - of New Life Church (AG) in nearby Alamo.

"We realized that if we were going to minister to more people, we were going to have to meet at more than one location," says Doug Heisel, lead pastor of New Life Church.

In Northern California's Bay Area property values are exorbitant, and many churches - such as New Life - simply cannot afford to expand their facilities despite fast-growing congregations.

"Having multiple campuses is extremely cost-effective and allows us to be strategic in the way we reach into our community and the ones around it," Heisel says.

Though the multisite church movement is nothing new, only recently has such a methodology become popular. There now are more than 2,000 multisite churches in the United States. The Assemblies of God represents more than 200 multisite venues. 

By their very nature, multisite churches lean toward the unconventional. Drop into one in California and then visit one in Minneapolis or Washington, D.C., and the experiences are completely different.

At Timberline Church in Fort Collins, Colo., congregants can take in one of the church's regular services in the main auditorium or scoot across the hall to the video venue affectionately known as "Timberline Edge." In the video venue, worshippers watch a broadcast of the same sermon in the main sanctuary, but the music and vibe in the video venue might be considered edgier.

In Washington, D.C., National Community Church has campuses throughout the area. The vision, according to Lead Pastor Mark Batterson, is to have a plethora of satellite campuses in movie theaters along the city's Metro subway lines.

In Ozark, Mo., James River Assembly in September opened a campus 16 miles away in a rapidly growing part of southwest Springfield where more than 13,000 households are clustered in a three-mile radius. Some of those residents attended James River. 

"People are willing to drive 30 minutes to attend church, but when they do drive that far they are less likely to volunteer and bring their friends," says Curt Cook, campus pastor at James River's Wilsons Creek location. "By starting a campus in a high-growth area, we saw that we could not only reach more people, but we could serve the people who attended James River better."

And those two facts seem to be reason enough to add more campuses.

"There are many variations on the multisite theme," says Steve Pike, director of the Church Multiplication Network for the Assemblies of God. "But most every satellite church will identify themselves and keep close affiliation with a parent church."

In most cases, the parent church - including James River and New Life in Alamo - does more than financially support its satellite. It also provides a campus pastor, staff, volunteers, resources, prayer and the sermon - via high-definition broadcasts.

"With the advancement and affordability of technology, you can offer worshippers high-definition video that makes it appear as if the speaker is actually there," says Heisel. "People at our San Ramon campus react to the broadcasted speaker as if he were really right in front of them."

The technology doesn't seem to keep people from having a spiritual encounter, including attendees making decisions to accept Christ as Savior.

"In large churches with video screens, most people look at the screens versus the speaker anyway," contends Batterson, whose staff downloads his sermons on hard drives and distributes them to the satellite campuses. "There are certainly people who prefer a live message, but many people love the video message. We have not found it to be a hindrance to growth. But it's critical that you have a campus pastor to provide leadership and pastoral care at each campus."

Heisel agrees.

"Our biggest challenge is finding campus pastors for each site who are on board with what we're doing," he says. "That's more challenging than finding equipment and a site to have church."

The value of multicampus congregations ranges from shorter commute times for worshippers to giving junior members of the church's staff opportunities to wade into larger leadership roles that may eventually lead to them planting churches or starting ministries on their own. 

"Satellite churches can extend a church's mission, help it grow exponentially and rejuvenate the life of the parent church," Pike says. "Any church - whether it's a satellite church or a planted church - will always do better if it is started by and maintains a strong partnership with a mother church."

Even so, there are skeptics of multisite churches. Such people often say that the model erodes the idea of a church being an assembly that gathers in one place at one time.

"If you're not questioning multisite [churches], you're not thinking," Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research, a Southern Baptist agency that tracks church trends, recently said during a videoconference. "I see multisite as a great opportunity.... But we need to think through these things. I don't have a difficulty with people coming to church and watching the sermon on a movie theater [screen] if there is missional engagement locally, if leaders are being raised up, and if leadership is being multiplied."

At Wilsons Creek, more than 1,700 people attend services each week. Cook is still part of the James River preaching rotation, and when he is back at the mother church preaching John Lindell, lead pastor at James River, assumes the leadership role at the Wilsons Creek Campus.

For New Life Church, the opportunity to start a church in a new community at a fraction of the cost to plant a new one appeared too good to pass up.

"Instead of costing us millions of dollars and taking several years to start a church, we were able to have a church up and running within five months," Heisel says. "The question we kept coming back to was, ‘What is the best stewardship decision we can make to reach the most people?' The answer was to become a multisite church."

KIRK NOONAN is communications director for Convoy of Hope.

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