Feb 2, 2017

From the Archives

Ten Lessons of Church Expansion

When Scripture introduces the Church in Acts 2, it paints a picture of a fervent congregation committed to their faith and devoted to their community. They also grew—quickly. “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). The definitions, goals and metrics of church growth have evolved in the centuries since, and today’s models of launching and growing churches take a plethora of forms: multiple campuses with a broadcast sermon, individual churches under an umbrella brand, parish model church plants and more. Barna Group and Cornerstone Knowledge Network (on behalf of Aspen Group and Fishhook) undertook research to learn more about the current culture and methods of planting and growing congregations. Based on this research, we’ve compiled the top ten findings from pastors and church leaders who have taken the plunge to expand their ministry.

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1. Church Expansion Takes Many Forms
The models and strategies of church reproduction are vast and distinct, representing the true diversity of the Body of Christ. Every church or campus has its own story and the models and strategies they employ represent their unique circumstances and mission. The extremes in Barna’s findings prove this to be true, making it very difficult to create models. But looking at the data, the clearest distinctions emerge between churches when we separate them by the number of locations, and whether they consider themselves to be multisite campuses (that are part of a single church) or church plants (separate churches intended to operate independently at some point). Based on this information, we identified five categories:

2. Geographical Outreach, Mission and Calling Motivate Expansion
Geographical outreach, mission and calling are the three primary reasons cited by most churches as motivation to pursue various expansion strategies. Facility constraints or accommodating growth barely register as primary reasons (just 4% among Planting Beginners). Even among the secondary reasons for adopting their particular model, these drivers are mentioned by only one-quarter or less of any group. There are some subtle differences between the groups that align with their expansion strategies. For example, Multisite Strategists (43%) are significantly more focused than Planting Strategists (23%) on geographical reach. They are also most likely to say tailoring to different demographics is an important secondary goal (38%).

3. Expansion Is Harder Than Anticipated
Few pastors report that launching a new congregation is easier than they anticipated. About one-third of leaders say it is harder than they expected. Those with a multisite strategy are most likely to feel the pain of expansion. This is because, as they expand into a network of five, six or more locations, the effort to coordinate and maintain consistency across campuses grows exponentially. At this point, some multisite churches evolve into a combination strategy of multiplication: spinning off some campuses or planting new semi-independent churches out of either the main church or daughter campuses. There may be a variety of drivers behind these different approaches, but the main idea is that complexity increases when churches exceed four locations.

4. Churches Part Ways for Many Reasons
Sometimes a church must close a campus. In other cases, they start a spinoff campus or church. One out of five churches has experienced a closing or cutting of ties with a campus. Low attendance is by far the most common reason for closing a campus, with 82 percent of those who have done so citing this reason. But other common challenges include leadership issues or turnover (32%) or financial problems (29% say the campus is expensive to maintain, 21% cite insufficient giving). When a church cuts ties with a campus, one common challenge is a campus’ vision diverting from that of the sending church (35%). However, a separation is most likely to occur due to success: 48 percent part ways after becoming self-sustaining and autonomous.

5. Branding Matters
One feature that often distinguishes a multisite from a church plant is its name or identity. More often than not, multisite churches maintain a strong brand affiliation with a mother church, while church plants tend to be more independent. Multisite Strategist (65%) and Multisite Beginner (58%) churches are much more likely to keep the same name or identity as the sending church—almost three times as likely as Planting Strategists (23%) and Planting Beginners (10%). Conversely, Planting Strategists, Planting Beginners and Location Partners tend to adopt their own identity, since these congregations often begin as separate entities. Whatever their choice, churches feel good about their approach, and most believe the benefits outweigh the challenges. The greatest benefit of developing individual branding, according to those who adopted this strategy, is giving leaders more ownership of their church or campus (72%), along with reflecting the local context (58%). For churches that share central branding, on the other hand, alignment (72%) and efficiencies (70%) are most important; about half believe name recognition of the sending church attracts new visitors (54%).

More than Multisite

6. Expansion Benefits the Community and Church Leadership
More than half of pastors say opening a new church or campus benefited the surrounding community. An additional one-third of pastors say the new church revitalized the congregation itself, an effect also mirrored in Barna’s in-depth conversations with leaders. Many leaders talk about the phenomenon of members growing disengaged or disconnected in larger churches. Yet, when these same members are activated to launch a new campus or church, they often feel a new sense of ownership and mission that serves to develop lay leadership and revitalizes the congregation as a whole. More than half also point to positive benefits for leadership development, something of particular relevance to Planting Strategy churches, which tend to plant based on their pipeline of church leaders. Three-quarters of church plant leaders, compared with just over half of multisite leaders, mention that launching a new location provided more opportunities for lay leader development.

7. Expansion Reveals Leadership Skill Gaps
Leadership is a key determinant of the pace of growth. Throughout the in-depth interviews, pastors explained how the emergence of a leader is often the catalyst for a new church plant or campus, often in a certain area where God is clearly calling that leader. But when it comes to the downsides of expansion, negative effects include a revelation of leadership gaps (23%) and burdening staff or volunteers (12%). One in eight also says the spread of their ministry created division within their congregation or made it difficult to maintain alignment on mission. While all of these effects are relatively consistent across multisite and church plant types, Multisite Beginners are more likely to mention division within the congregation, which suggests that the move to open a new campus can be emotionally challenging for a church that has only recently adopted a multisite expansion strategy.

8. Facility Priorities Can Be Tough to Balance
Most church leaders are clear on their mission and calling to minister in a new community. However, some are less prepared for the logistics of finding or building a suitable location or facility, and for the costs associated with this critical step in their mission. To understand their priorities, Barna asked church leaders to choose what is most important to invest in if they were to face budget constraints. The findings clearly reveal that children’s (and, to a lesser degree, youth) ministry areas are a top priority for all types of expanding churches. Barna also pressure tested facility-related choices to determine priorities. For instance, when it comes to functional design, as opposed to aesthetics, churches are reluctant to cut corners. Preference for good functional design is particularly strong among Multisite Beginners (74%).

9. Church Plants Are Mostly Self-Funding
Churches prepare financially for future growth by relying on a variety of strategies for raising needed funds. Church plants are most likely to be organically self-funding—that is, giving increases as they grow, and those funds cover increasing operational expenses. Nearly three-quarters of Planting Beginners (72%) say they primarily rely on this approach. Meanwhile, two-thirds of Planting Strategists (66%) also use this self-funding approach, but half (48%) say they also set aside a certain percentage of their operating budget for ongoing growth, since their expansion strategy specifically includes continued growth and regeneration. Roughly one-quarter of Planting Beginners report they raise funds when they need them (26%) or have capital campaigns (20%). Planting Strategists, on the other hand, are least likely to wait until funds are needed to begin raising them (14%).

10. Expansion Creates New Growth
Thirty percent say opening a new church or campus created new or increased growth, and 20 percent say it accelerated their pace of growth. About two in five church leaders believe launching a new church or campus attracted more unchurched people than they might have seen at their sending church (39%). This is an important dynamic that many church leaders cite as a key reason for adding a location, rather than just growing an existing one: Many believe a church that is new and local is far more likely to attract new unchurched visitors than one that has been around for years. Beyond numerical growth, researchers also looked at the spiritual growth of existing members. Many churches using various growth strategies confirm that launching a new location fostered increased discipleship. Slightly less than half of church planters (45% Strategists, 39% Beginners) observed growth in discipleship, while somewhat fewer multisite churches report growth in this area (21% Strategists, 32% Beginners). To get the fullest possible picture, Barna also asked if the effort of launching a new church hindered discipleship. Only 2 percent of churches report this effect.

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What the Research Means
“While the churches and leaders included in this study represent a wide variety of approaches to growth and reaching communities with the gospel,” says Brooke Hempell, vice president of research at Barna Group, “one thing is consistent: their calling and commitment to their vision. The diversity of these models and the communities in which they operate reflects the beautiful diversity of the universal Church itself.

“There are many ways of expanding or reproducing a congregation,” Hempell continues, “and this research suggests there is a time, place and situation to which each of these models is suited. The thing to know is that churches are growing, and there are many who desire to make Christ known in every corner of their world. Their energy and vision create opportunities for leadership development, which in turn create more opportunities for discipleship and evangelism—a multiplying effect that is foundational to the spread of the gospel.

“We are so encouraged by these findings and the vision of leaders who hear and heed the call to build something new, whether it is a congregation or a campus or a children’s ministry,” Hempell says. “The logistics of building on a vision and seeing it come to fruition can be more complicated or consuming than many leaders imagine. With insights from those who have gone before them and analysis of their successes, we hope pastors and other church leaders will find themselves better equipped to navigate critical, ministry-shaping decisions with awareness and understanding.”

About the Research
The data contained in this report originated through a research study conducted by Barna Group of Ventura, California. The study was commissioned by Cornerstone Knowledge Network on behalf of Aspen Group and Fishhook. Qualitative research for this study consisted of 31 individual interviews with church leaders of multisite and planting churches, including some consultants who have worked with numerous such churches over the years. These in-depth interviews were conducted either in-person at the 2015 Exponential West conference or via phone in October and November 2015.

The subsequent quantitative survey was administered online, March 7 to April 6, 2016, to leaders of churches that self-identify as one of the following:

  • A multisite church (one church with two or more geographical locations) classified as multisite
  • A “reproducing” church (duplicated campuses and / or church plants) classified as a church plant
  • A “multiplying” church (multiple campuses that have birthed campuses and / or church plants that have planted churches) classified as a church plant
  • A multisite church network (multiple campuses and affiliated churches) classified as multisite
  • A central organization responsible for supporting or managing a group of related churches classified as a church plant
  • An individual congregation that is part of a larger church classified as a location partner

In order to achieve a representative sample of multisite and planting churches, participants were invited from national lists of senior pastors and screened for inclusion based on their role in decisions about their church’s growth. A total of 222 church leaders were included in the survey portion of the study: 56 percent of whom are responsible for one location, and 44 percent of whom are responsible for multiple churches or campuses. The sampling error is plus or minus 6.6 percent with a 95-percent confidence interval. Any differences called out between the comparison groups (five models of churches) are significantly different at the 95-percent confidence level, such that even these small sample sizes point to actual trends or unique perspectives among the different church types.

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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