Book Review: Multi-site Churches by Scott McConnell

McConnell, S. (2009). Multi-site churches: Guidance for the movement’s next generation. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group.

Multisite churchesIntroduction

Through Lifeway research presented in Scott McConell’s work, Multi-site Churches: Guidance for the Movement’s Next Generation, two astonishing national trends emerged. First, just 46 percent – less than half – of Protestant congregants strongly agree that they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Jesus Christ with non-Christians (McConnell, p. 7). Despite this troubling statistic, Scripture clearly tells us that Christ left the church with a mission to “own” that responsibility. How can we expect churches to be advancing the Kingdom of God, when more than half of those sitting in the pews don’t believe they have been given that task? The second trend that McConnell identified from a 2007 survey of 1,005 pastors who affirmed the need for methods of evangelism and church growth often found in multi-site churches, 16 percent of these pastors were “seriously considering adding a worship service at one or more new locations or campuses in the next two years” (Ibid. p. 2).

In his book, McConnell sets out to transcend the debate for or against the multi-site movement, and focus very specifically on best practices. In his epilogue, McConnell excellently articulates the teaching of Christ to identify the good and bad, “For each tree is known by its fruit” (Luke 6:44). Throughout the multi-site movement, a consistent theme emerges that these churches are focused on growing the Kingdom of God in their local context, and God is blessing the evangelistic efforts of these churches. Just because God is blessing the good, doesn’t mean there isn’t room for criticism of the multi-site method, but in this work, McConnell makes two clear offerings. First, a truly helpful resource and guide book of best practices for churches considering multi-site, and second, an honest insight into the processes, successes and failures of the churches that have done it.

Summary of Contents

Multi-site Churches is a helpful resource that combines findings from Lifeway research including national surveys of pastors and congregants with detailed case studies and interviews with 52 pastors and staff members from 41 churches across the United States that are utilizing some form of multi-site strategy. Throughout the chapters, the reader will encounter first-person accounts from senior pastors, campus pastors, and executive pastors, sharing success stories and honest struggles to result in lessons learned that McConnell carefully organizes and articulates in order that they may prove helpful to what he identifies as the Movement’s next generation. Also throughout the book, McConnell includes easy to understand and helpful visual resources and organizational charts to illustrate effective leadership development and best administrative practices or successfully resources a multi-site church program.

The book is divided into 12 chapters that can easily be read successively as each idea builds upon previous ones to paint a picture of a successful multi-site church strategy; and the book is a fairly quick read, cover to cover. However, the chapters are clearly defined and well titled such that the reader could easily refer to any specific portion of the book to gather best practices associated with a given topic.

The first three chapters work together to establish the foundation for deciding if a church should consider multi-site. Perhaps the most significant idea in these first three chapters is the role that Kingdom growth plays in the life of churches that have successfully launched a multi-site strategy. The emphasis was not on church growth, but Kingdom growth. Moreover, these chapters provide clear warning for when conditions are such that multi-site is a bad idea. Churches that should not consider multi-site are churches that are not already growing. Churches for whom multi-site was a strategy to “turn it around,” almost never fared well. It takes serious resources, personnel, time and money to support a multi-site model. Not things that most struggling churches have in abundant supply.

The next three chapters move into a discussion about the first priorities and discussions that church needs to have once the decision to go multi-site is made. Establishing a clear vision for the identity of the church, its strategy to reach the lost locally, and the type of multi-site ministries that best support that strategy are paramount. Secondly, McConnell shifts to a lengthy discussion about getting the right person in place to lead the new location. The book cannot make this point more clear. When a new site has the right leader, success is possible. When it has the wrong leader, failure is all but inevitable. When considering the leader for the new site, churches can search externally and hire a person, but the book also indicates that raising up competent leadership from within the church is a common and best practice as well. Whether the ultimate staff member who leads the new site is raised up from within or hired from outside the church, successful multi-site churches have what McConnell identifies as a ‘leadership farm” where leaders are systematically raised, equipped, and edified. One reason, as identified in chapter six, is that a new site cannot have just one excellent leader, but a team of leaders, working together to see the vision executed with excellence.

The next two chapters involve a discussion about how to choose a multi-site location and best practices for how to communicate a multi-site strategy effectively to the church. The following two chapters deal realistically with the hard topic that once the decision to move to multi-site is made, changes will need to occur within the staff. Administratively, the staff will need to support the new program in significantly different capacities. This may require staff turnover, re-organization, and making more resources available for new personnel. McConnell reiterates the importance in leadership development in this section as well.

The final two chapters cover the importance of keeping the sites connected, promoting a sense of unity as one church in multiple locations. The book concludes with a listing of various types of multi-sites that have been successful.

Research Design

In his book, McConnell utilizes a mixture of study designs and data collection in order to provide a comprehensive and helpful overview of empirical evidence which suggests best practices of current multi-site churches. The book launches from a series of studies from Lifeway which articulate the need for innovated strategies among churches and the growing desire of pastors seriously considering multi-site. The book is, therefore, a timely and appropriate resource relevant to churches in the United States ministering in the second and third decades of the 21st Century.

From there, McConnell embarked on an impressive endeavor to interview churches across the nation that are successfully employing a multi-site strategy. The number of interview subjects, and the diversity of regions and ministry settings, included in this study make McConnell’s findings worthy of note and broadly applicable to pastors serving in just about any community context in the United States.

Findings

The book is comprehensive in its offering of best practices to churches considering multi-site. From the first questions a church must ask itself when considering multi-site, to the style of multi-site it should pursue, to leadership development, organizational models, staffing practices, internal and external communications, and ongoing ministry support models, all are included in the roughly 240 pages. The two themes that emerged most significantly – for this reader – is first the primacy placed on Kingdom growth, rather than church growth. Secondly, when reading interview after interview from all the churches, the theme of a dynamic, local strategy also emerged. Most effective multi-site churches include a clear international strategy to reach the nations with the Gospel, but they all have a sophisticated, well-articulated, and dynamic local strategy to reach their city. This is probably a characteristic that sets them apart from other churches in their same community context.

Most effective multi-site churches include a clear international strategy to reach the nations with the Gospel, but they all have a sophisticated, well-articulated, and dynamic local strategy to reach their city.

Conclusion

In this quick read, McConnell accomplishes his task of offering the reader a guide book of best practices when considering multi-site as well as an honest insight into the successes and failures of the “first generation” of the multi-site movement.

Strengths

The strengths of the book are found in the research design and comprehensive gathering of empirical evidence to support the best practices the author advocates. The book is comprehensive, while perhaps not exhaustive, in covering the issues related to a multi-site movement. The author writes in a very readable fashion and the book is well organized with a clear flow to the topics and chapters are organized.

Weaknesses

Perhaps most notably, the book doesn’t not include much conversation with churches that have experienced significant failure – such that result in closing locations, losing buildings, or even the closing of the church altogether. Perhaps there aren’t many who have experienced this type of failure. The book, it might be argued, also belabors the point about leadership development and selecting the right leader for the new site. Given the amount of pages dedicated to the topic, McConnell might have been able to take up others; such as current technologies being used, the costs associated with them, and amount of personnel support needed to operate them effectively.

Ministry Application

This book is an essential resource to any local church considering multi-site. Specifically to this reader’s context, there is a principle highlighted by McConnell that is particularly notable. It is the principle of saying yes to one thing and no to something else. As an associate pastor in a local church that is thriving and growing, and considering a building program to accommodate growth in an urban setting where land is a precious commodity, this is perhaps the hardest conversation that would come if considering multi-site. There are existing ministries and programs which would need to be gracefully ended if multi-site were seriously considered, and there are many ‘pet ministry projects’ and ‘sacred cows’ in every church. Perhaps this principle is the launching point from which a conversation about multi-site would either lift off, or collapse in most churches.