A multi-site church is a church that meets in more than one location. Multi-site churches have been around a lot longer than you may realize. In the 1800s, Methodist circuit riding pastors led multiple satellite churches. Sites were set up as soon and as cheaply as possible. When the circuit rider wasn’t at the satellite church during the week, a class leader or other member would keep things running until the circuit riding pastor could stop through again.
Fast forward to the 1980s. A small handful of pastors began establishing multi-site churches. Obviously, they weren’t riding horses. Instead, they were using modern tools to expand their church’s reach into their community and beyond.
By 1990, there were 10 multi-site churches. In 1998, that number had expanded to about 100. In late 2005, there were more than 1,500 multi-site churches in the United States. In mid-2008, there were an estimated 2,000 multi-site churches. And by the end of this year, predictions are that every major city and large community in America will have a multi-site church.
I have served at three multi-site churches. The multi-site journey began for me over 10 years ago. The pastor called me in and shared with me his vision to establish another location about 15 miles north of our original campus. He shared how it would enable us to reach more people and impact our region for Christ. I was excited, but of course, the big question for me was, “What does this mean for the children’s ministry?” I had my hands full leading the children’s ministry at one site. How was I going to lead the children’s ministry at two sites?
Long story short, God provided a great part-time leader who helped me lead the second location. I led the volunteer team and children’s services at the original site, jumped in my car, and drove very quickly (okay I admit it – I sped a lot) to the other site just in time to lead the volunteers and services there.
Since that time, I’ve led the children’s ministry at two other multi-site churches and I currently serve at a church that has five sites. Through the years, I’ve learned some things about leading a multi-site children’s ministry. Most of my learning has come through making mistakes, discovering what works and doesn’t work, and just plain old hands-on experience.
There are three basic multi-site models.
The Disney World Model
One perk of living in Florida is being close to Disney World, so I normally buy season passes. There are four different parks under the umbrella of Disney World Resorts: Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom. Each of these parks offers a different experience with its own unique theme, rides, and shows.
The multi-site church that uses the Disney World model provides a different and unique experience at each site. There is normally very little collaboration between sites as each site works independently to provide a unique experience for children. From branding to curriculum to events to strategy, each campus does its own thing. This is the model that we followed at the first multi-site church I served at. We purposely wanted to provide a different, more contemporary model of children’s ministry at the second site.
In this model, the sites are very similar but each site has contextual freedom. A few years ago, I was in Hong Kong. I was looking for fast food and there they were … the golden arches … McDonald’s. As I looked at the menu, I saw the familiar Quarter Pounder, Big Mac, fries and other items you would see at a McDonald’s in America. But, I also noticed that they had rice and other items specific to that culture on the menu. It was a McDonald’s, but the menu had been tweaked to meet the needs of that culture.
The children’s ministry in this multi-site model may have similar branding, strategies, curriculum, policy and procedures, and events, but each campus has the freedom to tweak in order to reach the community they are in. In this model, some of the ministry philosophies may not transfer to each site and each site may have a slightly different emphasis. An example would be one site using the traditional Sunday school classroom model and the other using a small group model. They might use the same curriculum but with differing formats.
Last fall I decided it was time for me to go on a diet. The plan I followed was to only consume a certain amount of calories every day. Subway was one of the places I frequented during this time. I went to lots of different Subways, but every time I went in one, whether it was at home or in another state, I knew exactly what was going to be on the menu. The menu is the same at every Subway in the country.
The Franchisee Model strives for alignment across the sites. The church wants families to be able to walk into any of their sites and have the same experience. Everything is cloned from branding to curriculum to events to strategies to policy and procedures.
So how do you decide which model to use?
The answer is simple. Align with your church’s multi-site vision, philosophy, and direction. This should be the deciding factor for which model you use. Hopefully, your leadership sat down and had conversations with you. If not, initiate it. Ask these questions:
- What is the overall church vision for this site?
- How can the children’s ministry help fulfill this vision?
- What do you want the focus of the children’s ministry to be at this site?
- What would be some wins for the children’s ministry at this site?
- Where would you like to see the children’s ministry be a year after the launch?
- How can the children’s ministry support the overall ministry of the church at this site?
Now, you may ask: which model does your church use, Dale? Thanks for asking. We use the Franchisee Model, and here is why:
- We believe in the power of alignment. There is so much value in everyone going the same direction.
- We want to know that children will have a quality experience at each site.
- We want to know what is being said and taught to the children at each site.
- It makes messaging much more simple and effective.
- We are so much stronger together. All sites collaborate and give input, ideas, and creativity on the front end. We make decisions together and once a decision is made everyone follows it. When the leaders from each site are part of the process, they feel valued and buy-in is accomplished.
- We can share resources. Here’s an example. Once a quarter we do a worship experience for children and their parents together. We use music, drama, and other creative elements in the experience. Instead of each site having to come up with their own actors, we have one set of actors made up of people from several sites. We stagger the nights the event is held at the sites and use the same actors at each site. This teamwork and cooperation makes the quality so much higher. Teamwork makes the dream work! Individually our sites are just drops of water; together we are an ocean! Does it take more work and intentionality up front? Yes. But remember, you can go faster alone, but together you can go farther!
Here’s some other tips I’ve learned over the years about multi-site.
- Be committed to unity. Psalm 133:1 says “How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity.” A natural tendency can be for sites to compete against one another. But when the flesh steps in, your unity is threatened. When sites stop praying for one another, when sites care more about their agenda than the big vision, then that is a problem. Preserve the unity of your sites at all cost. Talk us, not them. Dream together. Plan together. Bring the volunteers from all the sites together at least once a year for a training event. Do a combined event for the kids from all the sites at least once a year. If you were to ask me what has been my biggest win as the director of five sites, I would not talk about the growth or the new buildings or the budgets. I would talk about the unity and teamwork that exists among our sites.
- Prepare for stress. Going multi-site will stretch your children’s ministry at its seams.
- You must adopt a new way of thinking. You must look at the big picture. You’ve got to ask questions like: Is this reproducible at all the sites? How will this decision affect all the sites? Did I take time to include the leaders from the sites in the process?
- You will have site hoppers. Some families will jump from site to site based on convenience.
- You will reach more kids and families for Christ. That’s the great thing! When you go multi-site, you will see more people brought into a growing relationship with Jesus. That’s what it’s all about.
Multi-site can be complex and there are many factors to consider. But, you can make fewer mistakes and be more prepared for success when you consider all the options, models, and experiences of others.
Here are some websites where you can get more information about multi-site children’s ministry.
www.relevantchildrensministry.blogspot.com (Dale’s thoughts, ideas, and insight about multi-site children’s ministry. If you want more information about multi-site start up, planning, budgeting or staffing, feel free to connect with Dale through this website.)
www.goChristFellowship.org (Dale’s home church)
www.cmconnect.org/group/multisitechurches (Connect with other people who are in multi-site children’s ministry, share ideas, ask questions, etc.)
www.multisitekids.com (Community Christian Church, multiple sites in Chicago area)
www.portablechurch.com (supplies, storage cases, and more)