Reopening Multisite Churches in the “New Normal”

Oct 2, 2020 | Multi-site

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At the beginning of the COVID-era in March of 2020, local churches learned to pivot to online church and online giving, then doubled down on connecting and shepherding their flocks.

Many served their local communities in highly tangible and visible ways. Some churches leveraged the evangelistic opportunity and reached a lot of new people. As the summer of 2020 progressed the focus began shifting towards reopening of church facilities and campuses. 

Here are some key questions I am being asked about ‘multisiting’ as we approach the reopening stage and the new normal of the COVID-era:

1. Is multisite still a viable option in the COVID-era? 

The concept of one church meeting in multiple locations is not new. It began in Acts 2 with the church of Jerusalem meeting in many locations. The one church-multiple locations concept has seen many expressions throughout church history as church leaders adapted to changing social-cultural realities and leveraged technological advances. 

Churches that dabbled in multisite, got into it for the wrong reasons or have campuses that are not self-sustaining financially will abandon their multisite strategy in this era. However, churches who truly made the paradigm shift pre-COVID from a mono-site, main campus-centric mindset to a mission-driven, community-centric mindset are well-positioned for the COVID-era. They will survive and thrive in this era.

Churches that dabbled in multisite, got into it for the wrong reasons or have campuses that are not self-sustaining financially will abandon their multisite strategy in this era.

2. If ‘multisiting’ is still viable, what is the multisite new normal?

COVID did not change the multisite trends we were already seeing pre-COVID, but accelerated them. . . 

Small is the New Big. The financially sustainable model for multisite churches is launching big in smaller facilities with multiple services. COVID-19 finally cured us of our addiction to unsustainable, mega-campuses and demonstrated that buildings don’t reach people, people reach people. We also learned that buildings don’t generate income, life-changing ministry does. Online giving demonstrated you don’t have to come to a building to give your tithes and offerings. Going forward new church buildings will be smaller, simpler, multipurpose, multi-venue and community-centric. Many multisite churches are discovering this is a good time to lease or even purchase a facility because the prices are low, the loans are cheap and many landlords are desperate. 

Church Mergers. The Barna Group projects that 1 out of 5 churches will close over the next 18 months. The Unstuck Group identifies 25% of North American churches are vulnerable. That is over 60,000 Protestant churches. Church mergers were increasing pre-COVID with 40% of multisite campuses being acquired through a church merger. Merging is better than closing and is a win-win for stuck or struggling churches that merge with a strong, healthy church. The online church will also attract more mergers occurring beyond local communities across the nation and globally.   

Phygital Church. The debate is over. COVID has legitimized church online. Online church goes beyond merely presenting a live-streaming video of a church service for the church family. People can log on through their computers, tablets or smartphones anytime from anywhere. They can engage in worship, watch the sermon, interact with others, pray together, take communion, get baptized, respond to invitations, give offerings and are cared for by an online campus pastor—in real time or on-demand. 

Online church has become the point of the spear of outward-focused churches reaching people in the digital neighborhood locally and globally and moving them into biblical community online and onsite. Online church attendees anywhere in the world can become watch-parties that gather into small groups locally, expand into house churches and eventually result in a local campus. Online church has become the front door for people seeking spiritually or looking for a church as well as a side door for people wanting to stay engaged in their church. The effective multisite churches in the COVID-era will not just measure attendance at a physical campus, but engagement in many environments physically and digitally. Phy-gitial!

COVID-19 finally cured us of our addiction to unsustainable, mega-campuses and demonstrated that buildings don’t reach people, people reach people.”

3. How does a multisite church reopen its campuses?

The various restrictive guidelines nationwide made it difficult, unappealing or financially challenging for many churches with large auditoriums and multiple campuses to reopen quickly or easily. The smaller the church and campuses, the easier and sooner the reopening. In this unchartered season of reopening there are no proven and clear best practices for reopening multisite churches. . . yet.

As I have observed multisite church re-openings around the country, here are my takeaways. . .

    • Attendance. Lower your expectations. Most church leaders accept that it will be a long time, if ever, before we will return to pre-COVID attendance. Most churches are starting with a 20-30% return rate and are slowly growing to 50-65%.  
    • Over-Communicate. Provide phases and FAQs with some general time frames to plan their return to campuses. Even if they don’t like your timeline (too soon, too long) it helps them to have confidence in your leadership and rebuilds some stability in their uncertain world. 
    • Engagement. Focus on offering opportunities for community with the church family rather than just on re-opening. Watching online as a family, small group watch parties, home gatherings and re-openings of campuses give options for people to regather at their level of comfort and on their timeline. 
    • Social Distancing.  Uphold and model the local guidelines concerning facemasks, social distancing and sanitizing. Most churches affirm the biblical mandate to honor their civil authorities, set aside personal rights for the most vulnerable in their midst and to be a good neighbor and witness to their local communities. The church mantra for the COVID-era is safe, sanitized, spacious and SPECTACULAR!
    • Hybrid Ministry.  There are audiences onsite and online to be engaged in equally strong, but in different ways. The challenge going forward will be to deliver incredible onsite church experiences while maintaining a high-quality online church experience. Many pastors are pre-recording their message for an online audience sitting at home and preaching a live weekend message for their campuses. Other pastors are taking a “live before a studio audience” approach on the weekend broadcast service. 
    • FOMO Worship Services.  Offer more, shorter and smaller worship services with longer turn-around times and FOMO moments. What will bring people to physical campuses? The Fear of Missing Out on an experience they can’t get online. Invite people to pre-register their attendance online to determine location and time. With social distancing limiting space this may be a good time to add additional services and times. 
    • Next Gen. If you haven’t moved the junior and senior high student gatherings off the Sunday morning schedule and integrated them into the adult weekend services, now is the perfect time to pivot. The biggest challenge of regathering is in the children’s area. This is one of primary reasons some churches are waiting till 2021 to reopen. Many churches began reopening with family-friendly worship services only, then phased in elementary and preschool re-gatherings.

Welcome to the New Normal!

Jim Tomberlin is a multisite and merger specialist at The Unstuck Group and is currently serving as the Chief of Staff at Christ Fellowship in Miami that has 17 campuses locally and globally. 

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