SEATTLE- On sleepy Fairhaven Avenue in rural Burlington, Wash., more than an hour north of Seattle's bustle, several dozen casually dressed local residents trickle inside a storefront church on a recent Sunday morning. Some parishioners pick up drinks from the coffee bar and linger in the foyer. Others make their way to a small sanctuary in the building's rear.
John Aguilar, a longtime minister who joined the congregation in January, finds a seat near the front and makes final preparations for the sermon he will deliver in place of vacationing pastor Dave Browning. When he takes the stage, Aguilar, 45, props his notes on a music stand, perches himself on a stool, and engages the crowd in a half-hour message on the value of community.
The scene smacks of small-town simplicity, an unremarkable slice of nondenominational evangelicalism. Nothing about the service or congregation betrays any connection to a massive international church body. Nothing, that is, but the name, to those paying attention to ecclesiastical innovation: Christ the King Community Church.
Over the past decade, CTK has built one of the largest multi-site churches in the world. Originating in a small community in the North Puget Sound region, the congregation has launched 18 worship centers in Washington, seven more in states across the country, and 18 more internationally, including sites in Canada, Argentina, India, Israel, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa. In 2007 alone, the church created close to 1,000 small groups throughout Africa.
At the middle of it all stands Browning, 43, his vision for an organic, relational network driving the rapid expansion. But the former Baptist minister is no mere organizational puppeteer. He tried wearing the CEO hat exclusively two years ago-didn't stick.
"After eight or nine months, it felt like I was wearing Saul's armor, like I was out there trying to do this battle the way others might think it should be done. But it just didn't fit me," said Browning, who went back to being a local pastor of a small body within his movement. "We've made a decision to go with a player-coach model: Anybody in our organization that's got some administrative role is also going to be in the game with us pastoring and being in a small group and doing the same things we're asking everybody else to do."
That decentralized approach pushes administration to the edges, empowering local bodies and ministers. Other churches have taken notice. Browning is a regular on the church conference speaking circuit, where his conversational tone and attitude as a humble reformer make him a favorite among innovative pastors and church planters.
Yet CTK's particular multi-site strategy remains a minority endeavor within the much broader multi-site surge. Many churches have moved toward adding satellite campuses in an effort to open more seats. Others have adopted the new approach to expand the influence of a particular preacher, or to reach new neighborhoods or subcultures.
Among those varied motivations and the expressions they birth, Browning's simple, no-frills methodology pales in glamor or cultural traction. Most prominent multi-site churches employ television technology to pipe in videos of preaching pastors or worship bands. Such practices raise many pragmatic issues and important theological questions as to the definition of a church. CTK's model raises questions, too, mostly about the qualifications for church leadership.
But unanswered questions and unproven strategies have yet to slow multi-site mania. Nationally prominent pastors from a variety of evangelical circles, such as John Piper, Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, and Timothy Keller, have become pioneers. A LifeWay Research survey last year found that 16 percent of Protestant churches in the United States are considering adding at least one campus within the next two years. Other LifeWay findings are due out next spring with the publishing of Scott McConnell's Multi-Site Churches: Guidance for the Movement's Next Generation.
Ed Stetzer, an experienced church planter and president of LifeWay Research, hopes its data will help protect against what he sees as common pitfalls of the movement: "Here's my main concern: Now that multi-site has become the next big thing, will people take the time to do it well or will they simply set up theaters with videos? Often what multi-site becomes is one prominent pastor projecting his image into another town without a missiological or evangelistic strategy accompanying it."
As interim pastor of the multi-site First Baptist Church in Hendersonville, Tenn., Stetzer does not oppose using multiple venues. But in "Questions for McChurch," a recent magazine column for Outreach, he outlines several potential negatives of the model: diminished pastoral care, the discouraging of church community, and fewer pulpits to develop young leaders.
Geoff Surratt, co-author of The Multi-Site Church Revolution (Zondervan, 2006), takes issue with Stetzer's criticisms. He says the multi-site model fosters greater pastoral care, deeper community, and more opportunities for young leaders to develop as preachers and teachers. He says that at Seacoast Church, where he serves as pastor of ministries, the congregation's 13 sites in the Carolinas and Georgia have helped section a large church of 10,000 people into smaller, more manageable blocs. Campus pastors direct the individual mission- and community-building at the various satellites.
Surratt relates how Seacoast "opened a campus in an inner city area where other churches were moving out. We moved in and started providing clothes, teaching English as a second language, and trying to meet the needs of the community." He notes that one campus pastor has parlayed such ministry experience into a thriving church plant, the success of which Surratt attributes to lessons learned at a Seacoast site.
Critics of multi-site expansion are apt to interpret the morphing of a campus pastor into a church planter as evidence that starting new churches is a more noble and significant enterprise than starting new campuses. Trouble is, that charge fails to recognize that many of the most committed church-planting churches in the country are also knee deep in multi-site ministry. Seacoast co-founded the Association of Related Churches, which has planted 60 new congregations since its inception in 2001.
According to a recent Outreach magazine report, the top two church-planting churches in the country are Redeemer Presbyterian (part of the Presbyterian Church in America denomination), which holds services at four sites in Manhattan and has planted more than 100 churches, and Mars Hill Church, which operates 16 services at seven locations in and around Seattle.
Stetzer celebrates such examples of internal and external replication: "I'm not a theologically driven critic of multi-site. I'm a critic of it done poorly. If you don't think this through and you don't have the right motives, you end up with a baby that grows up to be pretty ugly."
The speed and agility with which a large church can mobilize into new areas are among the benefits of planting a new campus rather than a new church. People, resources, systems, and values are already in place to make an instant impact. What's more, the church is often a known entity in the region with name recognition and existing appeal.
A desire to leverage that established brand for all it's worth has pressed some multi-site churches to launch online campuses, complete with pastoral leadership, community building chat tools, and even Sunday altar calls. Seacoast, with an online campus that currently generates only sparse participation, is still struggling to determine whether such a virtual venue truly constitutes a church. Baptism, communion, and the laying on of hands are proving difficult.
Other congregations, such as LifeChurch.tv out of Edmond, Okla., have embraced church online without reservation. The 13-campus church attracts several thousand weekly visitors to its five online service times. The interactive "worship experiences" include live chat with other online parishioners in a virtual lobby or seated in the same virtual row. Congregants may push a button to indicate response to the 40-year-old pastor Craig Groeschel's regular sermon-ending call for conversion.
Though cheesy to some, such applications may be useful to prisoners, the handicapped, and the elderly. Online church services offer a higher level of interaction than television preachers-not to mention availability to a wider variety of content and styles.
Stetzer believes such online outreach is a valid tool, provided it serves people who cannot physically attend church or offers an aid for people to connect and move into physical community. "The problem is when people equate it to church with online baptisms and that kind of stuff," he said. "You have to assemble, and that requires feet, not electrons."
Last year, LifeChurch.tv took the online experience a step further, launching a campus within the virtual 3-D world of the popular computer game Second Life. Dubbed "Experience Island," the new campus "sits on sixteen virtual acres on which Second Life 'residents' are able to explore and experience a LifeChurch.tv campus, attend worship experiences, and watch teaching messages on-demand around the clock," according to the church's promotional materials.
Bobby Gruenewald, the LifeChurch.tv pastor of innovation, explains: "Church isn't about asking people to come to us; instead we're called to go where the people are. Second Life represents a new frontier in that effort."
The role of technology in generating frontiers for multi-site ministry is undeniable, but the practice of churches employing multiple venues is not such a new idea. In 18th-century America, Methodist itinerant ministers effectively functioned as multi-site megachurch preaching pastors without the benefit of video. Local pastors assigned to each Methodist venue amounted to modern-day campus pastors, filling the pulpit in the absence of the traveling preachers and handling local ministerial needs.
While Methodism's multi-site approach birthed a denomination, today's multi-site pastors try to birth large churches. Browning is quick to reject the moniker of denomination in describing his network of worship centers, but the two organization types function similarly in some ways.
As Pastor Aguilar makes his closing Sunday morning remarks at CTK Burlington, a much younger and smaller congregation files into the rear café of a Lynnwood, Wash., coffee store some 50 miles south. Pastor Shahram Hadian welcomes his fledgling flock of fewer than two dozen before calling his wife and two young children forward for baby dedications.
Standing in front of a portable screen operating PowerPoint notes on his personal laptop and trotting to the side of the room to correct the levels on a small sound board, Hadian is a picture of simplicity-and representative of just how broad the multi-site movement can range.
Yet even amid that humble worship service, Hadian's congregation emphasizes a global perspective. "The international centers bring to mind that people around the world are paying a much higher price for their faith than we are," Browning says, his voice tightening with intensity: "Four of our leaders were burned to death last year in India. We have leaders who are beaten down regularly for their faith. For us in America, who have a pretty easy environment to be able to work in, that's been somewhat of a kick in the pants."
Cornerstone Church in Simi Valley, Calif., has a problem not unlike many fast-growing evangelical bodies: It is running out of room.
The 4,000-person suburban congregation hopes to construct a new facility soon on 138 acres of private land just west of the city limits. But building plans for the proposed 3,000-seat sanctuary defy church conventions. The blueprints include no foyer space or coffee bars, no windows or doors, and no walls or roof. Cornerstone intends to hold services outside.
The idea of constructing a massive outdoor amphitheater in lieu of a more traditional brick-and-mortar structure developed out of church leadership meetings on financial stewardship. Lead pastor Francis Chan, a resolute advocate for simplicity and generosity, has instilled the virtue of frugality into his congregation and staff. Chan has downsized into a 1,000-square-foot home for his family of six in the interest of devoting more personal resources to caring for the poor.
"We have a desire to give more money away," administrative pastor Todd Tucker explained. "We just completed our fiscal year and committed in our budget to send out 50 percent of the money we spend. So in looking at the need to expand we don't want to sink tons of money into a building. Every time we meet outside, we'll realize that we're making a sacrifice to give money out."
Cornerstone's application for a building permit is under consideration in Ventura County. If approved, the site would function much like a public park, with community ball fields. The plans also include some traditional buildings, including a 1,000-person capacity multipurpose gymnasium, a necessity should rain or unusually hot temperatures ever invade a Sunday morning.
The site would also house administrative headquarters and warehouse facilities for Children's Hunger Fund, a partner organization largely funded with Cornerstone monies. Classroom and office space for a church-sponsored Bible college and a small chapel round out the plans.
Though hardly an economy project, Cornerstone's decision to forgo a traditional auditorium could save the church as much as $20 million, about 50 percent off the sticker price.
Tucker told WORLD the congregation has proved largely receptive to the innovative idea: "You have people who are a little apprehensive about it, but it's shaken us all to really think through how it does make sense to sacrifice here so we can give more away. And there is something exciting about coming together as a body of believers outside."