A few years after planting One Harbor Church, we ran out of seats for the fourth time even with multiple services. We also ran out of parking and kids’ ministry space. Even if God had sent us more people, we had nowhere to put them.
Trying to find another building in our small town, including all of the money, energy and time it takes to move to another building, made us step back and think about what we really should be doing.
As we prayed and considered this together, we realized something. People were coming from far away. We had folks coming from an hour or more away in each direction. Was a bigger building really the right thing to do? What trajectory were we setting by just continuing to go bigger in one location? What did the “end” look like on this trajectory?
I grew increasingly uncomfortable with where we were heading for two reasons. The first reason I felt like we would eventually end up in a building that was so big we would be making the building the main thing. The second; I felt we were failing to truly help folks who were driving in from far away to really be on mission in their backyard. Unintentionally, we were making church about coming to a good experience, not putting the gospel on display in a compelling way that leads to people wanting to bring their friends.
Simultaneously, I had met some folks who were doing multisite and seeing God do amazing things through it. But I didn’t personally know anyone doing this in small towns like mine. I began to think of whether or not this would work in a small town. Eventually, we decided it was worth a try. We are currently about to start our fourth location and have another eleven we want to do after that.
Let me walk you through a bit of the pain and the privilege that we have experienced. I won’t be trying to wrestle through video or live teaching and this certainly doesn’t cover everything, but it will give you a taste of why we are so committed to this strategy.
We will get to the privilege, but let’s first deal with the pain.
The Pain of Doing Multisite in Small Towns
Finding Suitable Buildings Is a Challenge
I’m sure it’s a challenge everywhere, but in my opinion being in a small town means it is more of a challenge. Here’s why.
In a small town, there are not as many available vacant facilities that would work for a church. We found that one island we were on didn’t have city sewage and the small septic tanks kept us from finding a large enough building. We don’t have lots of warehouses that we can turn into a church. Existing churches often have two services on a Sunday morning and an evening meeting. Additionally, the idea of sharing space is something that many churches in small towns haven’t heard of and it feels threatening and wrong to even consider this.
We have, by God’s help, overcome each of these obstacles, but it has taken a lot of time, prayer and creativity. We started in a living room, moved into an abandoned gas station, and used a restaurant and a hookah lounge before our first building that remotely felt like a normal facility for a church. It was over seven years before we got into our own “large” facility that we could really make our own.
But as we continue to multiply, we face this challenge again and again in every new small town we go to. However, our faith builds as we look over our shoulder and see how faithful God has been each time.
People Will Probably think It’s a Church Split
Our first multisite location in Beaufort was close enough to our other location in Morehead that I could make the drive each Sunday between the two. I would preach at the 9:00AM & 11:00AM services in Morehead while driving to preach at the 10:00AM service in Beaufort. This worked pretty seamlessly for the first year except for a few occasions where the drawbridge between the two locations went up and stayed up long enough for me to contemplate pulling a “Dukes of Hazzard” jump for the sake of the gospel.
Eventually, we needed to go to two services at our Beaufort location and, for contextual reasons, we didn’t think video would work at this particular location. Thankfully, we had a very gifted preacher as the site lead pastor and after a year of getting his feet under him as a leader, he was ready to preach these services.
Even though I was preaching there every single Sunday for the first year and we had made a video explaining the purpose behind multisite with the two of us being one church, we still heard the rumor around town that this was a church split.
Tragically, I think the only time churches are used to multiplying in small towns is through splitting. As my good friend Jim Tomberlin points out, this, of course, isn’t multiplication; it’s division.
If you’re going to try multisite and, like us, no one around you is doing it yet, know that people will probably think this is a creative new way of spinning a church split to look like a good thing.
We overcame this eventually by constantly modeling love and respect for each location. We frequently shared the pulpit. We often spoke of the other location in honoring ways in Sunday services. We did lots of things together. Eventually people seemed to get it.
Then came other misunderstandings…
Some People Will Assume You’re Doing It for the Wrong Reasons
Change is hard and doing things differently usually means being interpreted as doing things wrong. I was worried from the beginning that this would not be seen as mission, but as imperialism. Imperialism is expansion for the glory of a country. I didn’t want our vision to fill Eastern North Carolina with more gospel-centered churches to be misunderstood as us trying to advance a brand called “One Harbor.”
Something I’ve realized is that there is no real way to stop people from assuming the worst so we will just have to keep clarifying this. This is not expansion for our glory, we want Jesus to be more glorified in our region through more disciples being made and church planting is the best way to make new disciples. Our region is dark and dominated by drug abuse and depression. The gospel is the solution and the best way to get the gospel out is by planting churches.
But people, by nature, will assume the worst and ignoring it won’t make that go away. We keep talking about the mission. We keep saying we aren’t the only show in town. We keep multiplying because Jesus said so.
The Privilege of Doing Multisite in Small Towns
New Leaders Come Out of the Woodwork
When you don’t need new leaders, you don’t see new leaders. A former pastor once told me that you have to relocate a large mature tree for the young emerging trees to have the space to grow. As we’ve multiplied again and again, we have sent out our best. It’s been extremely difficult to see them go, but each time, we have found new crops of leaders popping up.
People step up to the plate when there’s a need. Multiplication creates that need. If the mission is manageable with who you have now, good leaders will move on and new leaders won’t come through.
We Get the Benefits of Being Both Big and Small
As a church grows numerically it gets harder to have relational community like you do in a smaller church. It’s not impossible, but it does get harder. A large church, however, has many benefits as well like finances and momentum.
We have found with multisite, it helps us keep from becoming so “big” on a Sunday that people just act like consumers. Also, in our area like in many small towns, people don’t gather in massive groups a lot. Maybe occasionally you will be in a large crowd for a high school football game or a graduation. However, in these environments, you are not expecting to meet a bunch of new friends you can do life with.
We Get Fresh Faith Stories
Every time we multiply, it’s expensive, tiring and just plain ol’ hard work. But each time we see our God come through in new and beautiful ways. This builds our faith muscles bigger and bigger. We aren’t just thinking about the “good ol’ days” when God did such and such. We are freshly reminded that God was at work then and God is at work now!
More People Hear and Respond To The Gospel
This is THE reason to try multisite…because there are lost people who need Jesus. At each of our locations, our biggest joy is baptizing new believers. These are people that, for whatever reason, had not responded to the gospel until we started a location. Hearing their testimonies, seeing the change in their lives and helping them become missionaries to their friends makes it all worth it. It’s what keeps us multiplying again and again.
All of this leads to the following question as you consider multisite…
Will Multisite Work with Your Church In Your Small Town?
Many just say, “Sure it will! Multisite works everywhere!” That may be true, but I think the conversation is a little more complicated than that.
Why Might Multisite Not Work In Your Small Town?
A lot of it depends on your rationale is for doing multisite. If it’s for imperialistic reasons fueled by insecurity and pride, I hope it doesn’t work.
Another possible reason is your style of leadership. If you are more of a micromanager and are resistant to changing that, multisite might work for a moment, but not for long. Good leaders won’t stick around to be micromanaged. They will move on and start something on their own. Now, let me be clear, I LOVE church planting and I love doing multisite. But I think too often great leaders who love the church they are in and would love to help it multiply leave because they don’t have any room to actually lead.
How Do You Know If You Should Try Multisite?
If you’re so broken by the lostness all around you that you’re willing to try anything, multisite will probably work for you. If you are running out of space and see other towns or rural areas that you could deploy leaders and disciples into, multisite will probably work for you.
Here’s my advice. Just try. You never know until you try. But, give it a really good try! Plan, prepare and get good coaching from guys like Jim Tomberlin and Wade Burnette at Multisite Solutions.
Don’t try a multisite as your first multiplication experiment. The first step would probably be to try another service as an experiment. Add an additional morning service. Know that this will come with its own set of pushbacks. You will also be forcing yourself to multiply because now you need double the volunteers you needed before. Use this as a chance to multiply leaders at every level. As you grow, you will be building a narrative that you can use to show folks what multisite will feel like.
In conclusion, no one ever did multisite because it was easy. Frankly, it is easier and more self-gratifying to build taller than it is to build wider. But we are commanded to fill the earth with the gospel. That will require multiplication and multisite is a powerful strategy in that endeavor.