In 1989 popular author Ken Follett wrote a riveting best-selling novel Pillars of the Earth about the factors impacting the building of cathedrals in the Middle Ages. Those factors influenced church construction and facility use for nearly a millennium. Today there are new factors that are dramatically shifting the way we build and utilize church facilities. We believe that the most relevant shifts in the use and development of ministry spaces can be summarized in six new pillars.
Pillar 1: The Technological Revolution
Technology affects church locality. When I (Jim) came to my church in Colorado in 1991 the latest technology was the overhead projector. Today we have personal computers, digital video, Wi-Fi, smartphones, cloud computing, social media, and Internet campuses. Typically the first impression people have of a church is a virtual one on Facebook, a website, or online campus. People no longer need to place their feet on your specific church location to begin to form their opinions about your congregation.
During the Middle Ages, church leaders taught the illiterate masses biblical content through images made of colored stained glass in the church windows. Now we teach biblical content with images on video screens. Historically, the vast majority of people heard God’s Word proclaimed in a church building. Then there was radio. Then TV. Then cassette tapes and CDs. Then podcasts. Today all we need is a smart phone to stream a message.
This technological revolution is making the ministry of a local church less facility-centric. While the primary ministry of a church is local, it doesn¹t have to be limited to a geographical location or tied to a facility. Cloud computing makes the universal church more… universal. Any local congregation can deliver a message anytime, anywhere on the planet.
New Rule: The technological revolution has extended church impact beyond the walls of a building and geographic location.
Pillar 2: The Multisite Church Revolution
Churches are no longer limited to one location. All of these technological breakthroughs have had a profound impact on how we build, develop, and utilize church facilities today. They also have laid the foundation for the multisite church revolution. In the last quarter of the twentieth century growing churches had only one option, expand through buying more land and building larger facilities. Many of these churches became megachurches of 2,000+ people in weekend attendance through a series of steps.
Many of these churches bought large tracts of land in suburban communities and built large worship centers with corresponding children and youth spaces. Their parking lots are bigger than the local mall. They added multiple worship services on multiple days (Saturdays and Sundays). Eventually many of these churches became landlocked or restricted by zoning laws that prevented further expansion on their campus. To accommodate and accelerate growth they created closed-circuit television overflow rooms in fellowship halls, gymnasiums, chapels, and student centers on the existing church campus. With the advent of digital technology these “overflow” settings eventually evolved into high quality video venues. It was inevitable that these video venues on the existing campus would evolve into video venues off campus, giving birth to the multisite church revolution. Now churches have an alternative to buying land and building bigger buildings in one location. They can grow through multiple locations. They don’t have to put all their resources into one location.
New Rule: The multisite revolution liberated churches from overbuilding unsustainable mega-campuses.
Pillar 3: The Economic Recession
Before the multisite revolution we often bought large tracts of land and built huge facilities because we could. Today the economic reality has changed the equation. Growing a church through multiple sites made reasonable sense in prosperous times, but during the economic recession of 2008-2010 it became the primary way growing churches were
accommodating their growth and extending their reach. New church construction dramatically dropped off during the recession while adding sites dramatically increased. Few multisite churches buy land and build new facilities. Instead they tend to rent or purchase existing facilities and retrofit them. Half of all multisite campuses start in a school, ten percent begin in theaters, and a third come through a church merger or acquisition. Eventually most multisite campuses rent or purchase a long-term 24/7 facility.
Even as the economy slowly recovers, there will be less appetite for purchasing enormous tracts of land and spending millions of dollars on one location when you can multisite for a fraction of the cost. The average cost of launching a multisite campus in a school or theater is between $250,000 and $500,000. The cost of retrofitting an existing commercial building costs between $750,000 and $1.5 million, depending on the size, scope, and location of the project. While adding sites is not cheap, it is much less expensive than buying more land or building larger buildings. This financial reason is why the majority of megachurches have multiple campuses. Adding sites allows churches to reach more people better, faster, and cheaper than by building a massive church campus in one location.
New Rule: The economic recession liberated churches from excessively expensive building campaigns.
Pillar 4: The Decline in Church Attendance
There are many pundits today who suggest the church in America is dying, but to paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of the church’s death have been greatly exaggerated. In the 1950s, a greater proportion of Americans went to church, or at least, they said they went to church because the culture valued it more. Though there are many biblically-centered, vibrant, and growing churches in America today, there has been a clear shift away from the value of church attendance. Biblical Christianity is growing in America, cultural Christianity is in decline. Most Americans declare themselves spiritual but not religious. Today less than 20% of Americans attend church regularly.
The church building was once seen as a key asset in the community. Today, these same buildings can be viewed as a liability. In the eyes of people who do not value church attendance, church buildings reduce potential tax revenue, cause traffic headaches, and create noise pollution. As a result there is an increasing community resistance to churches buying land and building facilities, especially large facilities. To win the hearts of the secular community church buildings will have to be multi-purpose facilities that not only serve the church family but also the broader local community.
New Rule: The decline in church attendance is forcing churches to build community-centric, multi-purpose, and environmentally-friendly facilities.
Pillar 5: The Church Planting Resurgence
The church heroes of the Boomer generation were the megachurch pastors. Today they are the church planters. When I started thinking about multisite churches in the early-1990s, I thought it would be like church-planting. So I went and bought all the church-planting books available (all three of them). Not only were there not many books about church planting, the few that were available were either written by researchers who had never started a church themselves or by individuals who were successful church planters in the 1950s. Today there are about three books a month published about church planting from successful practitioners. Starting new churches is popular, and that’s a good thing!
In the past local churches gave money to their denominations or networks, and their denomination or network started churches. Today local churches still give money to their denominations and networks, but increasingly local churches are planting churches as well. Local pastors and churches are passionately embracing the responsibility of starting new congregations. A few of them are creating networks of reproducing churches through multiple sites and church planting. Some of them are becoming movements that are driven by a local church instead of a national denominational headquarters.
These new church planters are less inclined towards building mega campuses. Rather, they tend to repurpose existing buildings in the community. When they do build facilities, they will be smaller (under 1,500 seats) and multi-purpose with multiple venues that are community and environmentally friendly.
New Rule: The church planting resurgence is retro-fitting existing commercial facilities and will build smaller church facilities with multiple venues.
Pillar 6: The Church Merger Trend
Roughly 80 percent of the 350,000 Protestant churches in the United States have plateaued or are declining. Many of these churches have empty facilities in desperate need of a vibrant ministry. Among the 20 percent of growing, vibrant congregations across the United States, many are in desperate need of space. This reality is generating a new kind of mission-driven merger that is recycling old church buildings. Already one out of three multisite campuses is the result of a church merger. I co-authored Better Together: Making Church Mergers Work with Warren Bird to help churches maximize this option.
In addition, there is a pastor succession tidal wave coming because so many Protestant pastors are approaching retirement. The next ten years will see an annual mass exodus of senior pastors retiring or leaving their position to pursue other ministry options. Who will fill these pulpits? The multisite model will play an increasing role in this process. I predict that we will see more senior pastors coming from campus pastors and through church mergers in the next decade.
The merger and succession trends present an opportunity to recycle and redeem a huge inventory of existing church buildings to meet the expectations of church goers today. The church buildings of the twenty-first century will require more high-tech and intimate worship settings, high quantity and quality community gathering spaces, and cutting-edge children’s environments that are open, colorful, and secure.
New Rule: The church merger trend is redeeming and recycling existing church buildings for renewed use.
Church leaders, church architects, and church building companies who can embrace these shifts will survive and thrive. Those who cannot will go the way of the dinosaur.
Jim Tomberlin began his multisite church journey in the mid-1990s when he was the senior pastor at Woodman Valley Chapel in Colorado Springs, CO. In 2000 he went on to pioneer the multisite model at Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago. Since 2005 he has been coaching churches in developing and implementing multi-campus strategies.
As Founder and Senior Strategist of Multisite Solutions, Jim leads a seasoned team of practitioner specialists in assisting churches in maximizing their redemptive potential through intensive and insightful multisite and church merger consultation. Jim is the author of 125 Tips for Multisite Churches and co-author with Warren Bird of Better Together: Making Church Mergers Work.
Tim Cool has assisted more than 350 churches (over 4 million square feet) throughout the United States with their facility needs. He has collaborated with churches in the areas of facility needs analysis, design coordination, pre-construction coordination, construction management and lifecycle planning/facility management.
Tim is the author of the book, Successful Master Planning: More Than Pretty Pictures and Why Church Buildings Matter. Tim is married to his best friend, Lisa, and resides in Charlotte, NC with their teenage triplets.