Church Mergers in the Digital Age
“The digital age has microwaved the courting process of a church merger.”
– Pastor Jeremy Needham
The vote to merge was unanimous by 36 members of an 89-year-old church. The congregation owned an 800-seat auditorium on 8 acres of land voted to merge and give their property to a 7-year-old church plant of 1,800 people meeting in leased facilities in two locations. As we were celebrating this momentous decision at breakfast the next morning, Associate Pastor Jeremy Needham of Summit Park Church in Lee’s Summit, Missouri, reflected, “You know, the digital age has microwaved the courting process of a church merger.”
The past decade has witnessed a swelling wave of mission-driven church mergers that is transforming the church landscape across North America. Mergers are occurring among churches of all sizes and types and in increasing numbers. They are happening in urban centers, suburban neighborhoods, and rural communities.
A soon-to-be-published national study found that 3% of churches merged with another congregation in the last 10 years.
In our recently released expanded and updated edition of Better Together: Making Church Mergers Work, Warren Bird and I document several reasons for this increase in mergers:
- Multisite churches have continued to benefit from mergers with over 40% of multisite campuses being obtained through a merger.
- 20% of merged campuses have been released to church planters to become a newly planted/re-planted church.
- Denominational and network leaders are also seeing church mergers as a vehicle for church revitalization, for pastorless churches, and for pastoral succession.
- A distinct decline in church attendance in the past decade due to the dramatic shifts in cultural attitudes away from church attendance.
- Undergirding the rise in mergers is the painful reality that 80% of the 320,000 Protestant churches in North America are stuck or even struggling to survive—and that was before COVID-19. The likely demise of many of these churches with “underlying health conditions” is accelerating as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
All of these reasons have made church mergers a viable option for strong as well as stuck and struggling churches, but Pastor Jeremy’s observation is not to be minimized. The digital age has made church mergers easier, faster, and more able to occur further geographical distances from each other.
Even before the pandemic, digital church online allowed people to virtually visit and experience another church without ever stepping a foot onto the property. People can log on through their computers, tablets, or smartphones anytime from anywhere. People can engage in worship, watch the sermon and experience the personality of the church in real-time or on-demand.
Emails with FAQs and embedded videos from the pastor can be sent to every church member. Arial photos and videos taken by a drone are used to show the facility to the lead congregation so they could visualize the church building and see it in the context of its neighborhood. Church merger consultation can occur through zoom calls and shared screens. There were even virtual townhall meetings during COVID to answer people’s questions and the opportunity to vote electronically for the merger.
Prior to the digital age, church mergers were slower, more tedious, and less common. Why? They took too much time to determine compatibility, and time is the greatest killer of church mergers. Taking too much time to make a merger decision gives more opportunity for it to unravel or be sabotaged. Given too much time, momentum can decline and people can talk themselves out of a good decision. They can come up with dozens of reasons not to merge and undo the compelling reasons to merge. The ability to access who a church is online accelerates the merger courtship.
What is the average length of a church merger conversation? In preparation for our recently released expanded and updated edition of Better Together: Making Church Mergers Work Warren Bird and I surveyed nearly 1,000 churches. The survey revealed that the average length of a church merger from the initial conversation to the final approval is eight months. Eight months is more than enough time to determine if a merger is possible, feasible, and desirable.
Some multisite churches are seeing mergers as a way to extend their reach beyond local and regional impact. Christ Fellowship in Miami, where I serve as the chief of staff, is a multisite church with 17 campuses regionally and globally. Two of our seven regional congregations and four of our global congregations in our network came about through a merger. The ability of global congregations to experience Christ Fellowship online across the Caribbean and South America and in Spanish was a factor in those mergers becoming a part of the Christ Fellowship family of churches. In addition, Christ Fellowship services online allowed our global campuses to sustain through the COVID shutdown.
The internet has definitely expedited the rise of church mergers and removed geographical barriers in the same way it has accelerated the number of couples meeting their partner. Surveys by Stanford University show that between 1995 and 2017 the number of heterosexuals who met their partner on the internet rose sharply from 2% to 39%.
The digital age has made church mergers easier, faster, and more able to occur further geographical distances from each other.
Is there a church merger in your future? It may be just one click away. . .!