18 Nov

An Excellent ExampleWillow Creek Community Church is a Model of Multi-Site Expansion

Doug Turner

Every church leader wants to avoid problems — except the problems of church growth and expansion.

Pastors and church leaders are fortunate when trying to decide how to accommodate a healthy, expanding congregation. In the ‘90s, as a result of a church building boom, the overwhelming choice was to expand facilities to catalyze and accommodate the growth in numbers. Relocating or expanding the facility — attractive when land is available and the existing structure can be easily transformed — is still a wise investment for the local church. Today, however, churches face a greater complexity of ministry challenges than ever before. In short, the “build it and they will come” mantra is no panacea for obstacles to growth.

An emergent option church leaders are considering is choosing to be a multi-site church — one faith body (one staff, one board, one budget) worshipping in at least two separate locations. During recent years, the success of several high-profile churches – especially Chicago’s Willow Creek Community Church — has caused a great deal of interest in the concept.

Lessons Learned

Leaders at Willow Creek Community Church engaged in a capital campaign to resource their Chapter Two vision, which was taken from Acts 2 as a model for the church and to communicate Willow moving into the next chapter of its history. Along with the need to build out the South Barrington campus, the Chapter 2 vision included executing a multi-site model in greater Chicago. The people of Willow Creek gave more than $80 million to that vision, in large measure because the multi-site model was passionately embraced as an exciting new initiative that was consistent with the church’s vision.

Partnering with Willow Creek during this campaign, we learned important lessons that have helped other congregations become successful multi-site churches.

Play to your strengths. When churches explore the multi-site option, ministry strengths must drive that decision, not simply ride the latest growth fad. For instance, Willow Creek leaders looked first at the ministry strengths God had provided. Greg Hawkins, executive pastor, determined the multi-site option was a true fit for their strength of facilitating “transformational moments” in a group experience, not for starting new churches. Willow Creek could more effectively expand their “ministry brand” by pouring resources into what they do incredibly well: replicate an innovation culture in which the gospel will be relevant and convenient to the local culture.

Strengthen your mission.  Another consideration related to the multi-site option: Does this move strengthen our stated mission? The multi-site option creates challenges in preservation of the missional identity of your church. By meeting in more than one site, the impetus to make such a dramatic move should come out of a clear ministry identity of your church.

Willow Creek was founded with the mission of “turning irreligious people into fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ.” Through the years, Willow has reached people as attendees invited and brought friends and neighbors with them to the services. The multi-site imperative came out of a clear understanding that when attendees lived more than 30 minutes away from the South Barrington campus, friends and neighbors wouldn’t make that trip often.

Don’t miss the point in this distinction: The DNA of Willow Creek is to influence the unchurched by equipping people to reach out to their respective spheres of influence. To no longer do so would not simply change an outreach activity, but alter the identity of the church. With a clear sense of identity, the church could move forward with the communication challenges that are a part of transitioning to a multi-site model.

Listen to the people, and open the channels of communication.  Considering a multi-site model for ministry must pay heed both to the community currently being served and to the community yet to be served. There’s a delicate tension to maintain between the people currently worshipping and those the church hopes to serve in the new site. Churches that successfully launch a second site have leaders who pay close attention to God’s guidance through prayer and conversation. Communication is critical.

Like many new ministry models, with initial success, the tendency could be to over generalize the approach. The multi-site model isn’t for every church who hits a down turn in attendance.

On the other hand, it could also be a great option to maximize resources to reach communities with a fresh, new ministry voice. Clearly understanding your present vision and priorities goes a long way in understanding whether or not this challenging and potentially rewarding step is right for your church.


Doug Turner is president of RSI Church Stewardship Group, fundraising specialists who have helped 5,200 churches raise more than $8 billion in the past 30 years. For more information, e-mail Turner at [email protected], or visit www.rsi.viscern.com.

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