The Multi-Site Solution: Is it Right For You?

In Uncategorizedby tfwm

We’ve all learned by now that there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution for anything. There will always be exceptions to every rule for what works in a given scenario.

Let’s face it; in regards to increasing house of worship growth (ie: attendance), not every strategy is going to turn out a success. There is, of course, something to be said for trying new things and implementing innovations that aim to pump new lifeblood back into a dwindling congregation. However, if an idea’s only foundation is that it is being implemented because “a bigger, more successful church is doing it”, then some warning signals should be going off.

As with anything else, a house of worship needs to establish an endgame, or at the very least a tiered set of connected goals, before moving forward with a costly technology implementation, no matter what it is. Otherwise, the project will probably have very considerable flaws right from the start.
Take MultiSite as a concept, for example. It’s a buzz term going around a fair amount these days. The same thing happened with the term “line array”, and also “LED”. The similarity here is that many of these watchwords find their way into popular vernacular, and are subsequently lionized. The problem is, these terms refer to technical solutions that are, although perhaps new and sexy, perhaps not appropriate for every scenario.

Some churches may want to “do multi-site” but they don’t have a clear idea why. If your house of worship is talking about implementing a multi-site solution as a method to increase attendance, then you need to think very carefully about the approach. This article will aim to set up a foundation for considerations you should discuss with your teams and techs about your multisite approach in general.

Multisite: A Brief Definition
For those who may not be aware of what multisite is, a simple explanation is that it refers to the process of establishing a separate, additional building or campus to serve as an extension of the main worship facility.

What gets a little confusing is that multisite can manifest itself in several different ways. For example, an online campus developed by a church is essentially doing multisite. This article focuses on the style of multisite that involves physical brick and mortar structures.

Generally speaking, a multisite model that represents the connection of two physical facilities, can be classified into two categories: the recorded model and the live model. On closer inspection, from a technical perspective, there are dozens of sub-categories referring to the many ways in which both the live and recorded model can be implemented.

The recorded model, for example, could consist of recording a service, and then physically transporting that recording to a remote location to play back. Some churches do this in a “same-day” scenario, meaning that a recording or a service done at the main campus (which could potentially be in any variety of formats, depending on the church’s setup) is delivered to a remote location to play later that day. Or, a church may decide to play a recording of last week’s service at their remote location to allow them time to edit the content. Some churches do this with Saturday night services to play back at remote locations on Sunday morning. While the recorded model may lack the spontaneity of a live broadcast, its strengths rest on the relative simplicity of its implementation and practice.

The live model gets a fair amount more complicated. In the live model, you combat with pressures and potential for mishaps between multiple facilities in some cases, seeing as you are working from the same content in “real-time”. Thus, in essence, you would have a pastor doing a sermon in a one building, and simultaneously that sermon is being delivered to a remote location via some type of transfer method, be it over an Internet Protocol system, a fiber optic network, a “traditional” broadcast method, or otherwise. It is easy to see how the live method has its own set of inherent challenges and potential complications. Considerations before implementing a live model solution need to be clearly understood with regards to the development of the physical infrastructure, bandwidth requirements, timing/synching, capture and delivery formats that make this model possible… the list of considerations is rather long. Then again, the benefit is that everyone in the main building and remote location(s) is receiving “fresh” content. Ideally, that content will serve to connect the multiple congregations into a larger worship community that shares the same spontaneous worship experience.

Basically, there is no right or wrong way to conduct a multisite scenario. Both the live and the recorded model can be effective ways to reach out to new people. That being said, there are some fundamental planning pitfalls that you should try to avoid before making the leap into multisite, no matter what approach you are going to take.

It’s Always About the People
Even though there are many ways to implement a multisite scenario, some basic principles apply to making each method a success.

For starters, the people involved with the project have to be in the right (or at least similar) frame of mind. Everyone who is involved in your team either from a leadership or technical perspective needs to be aware of the overall goal and vision for the approach. Along this line, you need to seriously consider assigning dedicated resources, both human and monetary, to making your multisite solution work.

“The big failure that I see from churches that have done [multisite] unsuccessfully, is that there is not a person (or persons) assigned to waking up every day and making it their sole devotion to see that church succeed,” says Brad Weston, President of Renewed Vision (creator of ProVideoSync, a product made specifically for remote church campus venues) and a volunteer video director at North Point Community Church in Alpharetta Georgia. He has been privy to North Point’s expansion from their main facility into their three current satellite campuses that has taken place over the last several years. “What happens is that a church will take existing staff and tell them: ‘Part of your job will be to manage this other campus.’”

It is the “part-time mentality” that should set off a red flag. The multisite facility should be regarded as needing the same care and attention as the main facility. “In order for a church to succeed, you need for the congregation to feel like they are actually going to the church.” Weston says. “If your multi-campus church in any way makes the people who are going to one of the satellites feel like second-class citizens, then that’s not really the point you want to get across. I think there needs to be at least a campus director on each one of those satellite locations, who wakes up, lives, eats and breathes that particular church.”

In essence, you don’t want people to feel like they are just overflow or an afterthought.

Voicing agreement, George Clark of Clark, (formerly Clark ProMedia) an installation and design company based outside of Atlanta, Georgia suggests, “The way the organization runs, the personnel– it needs to operate as a wholly independent church with a separate campus staff. That has been the most successful model we’ve seen, and that we’ve been a part of.”

Another important reason to consider dedicated staff for the remote facility is that the needs and requirements of the community in the remote location may differ from those of the community surrounding the main facility. This is especially true if one location is in a suburban area and the other is in the downtown section of a major city. The staff assigned to making the remote facility work would ideally be dialed-in to the needs and the character of the community surrounding it.

“In the case of North Point,” explains Weston, “We’re down in Buckhead (downtown Atlanta area), and Buckhead is a very different culture than Browns Bridge, which is 40 miles north of Atlanta. These are not exact numbers, but it’s essentially this: down in Buckhead you’ve got 75% single population attendees, but in Cumming you have 75% married with families, so it’s the exact opposite.” In regards to the difference in culture required to accommodate the community in either location, the buildings may as well be on different continents.

Multisite is certainly about people, but it is also about technical excellence. Striving for excellence cannot stop at the people tasked with managing a multisite solution. It has to filter down into the technical systems that inhabit the satellite facility. If the members of the congregation notice that the A/V system for the satellite facility is put to shame by their own home entertainment system, you may have a problem convincing them that you are serious about making it work.

Again, it is important to remember that you should not be providing a “lesser” experience for people because there is not enough room at your main building. People who make the commitment to attend your satellite facility should not have to experience “Your Church Lite”.

“The churches that fail at satellite campuses,” says Weston, “Are the ones that think you only need to record your service, take the video tape to the satellite campus and press play. The quality of the experience, both technical and relational, has a lot to do with creating an environment that people are comfortable going to.” Considerations regarding content, satellite location, local community and technical staff bring multisite models to fruition.

Ask the Question Why
Multisite should not be a strategy for growth per se. If your problem is attendance, then start with the grassroots- try asking or poling the people in your congregation about what they feel would improve your outreach capacities and your ability to connect with a wider audience. Beginning from your own congregation, you could learn some pretty interesting things about what people like or dislike about the way you are doing church.

Do you know what it is about your church that makes it successful? Is it the band, or the Pastor, or the coffee? Do you have many new visitors that seldom become repeat visitors? What is the age demographic of your congregation? Do you conduct multiple services with blended styles of worship? Which ones are more successful and why? These questions, and others, should form a pragmatic needs assessment that you should study before you consider using multisite as a growth strategy.

“We are very concerned about churches leveraging multi-site as a growth strategy,” says Houston Clark of Clark. “We see it more applicably as a response to growth. The first question is really ‘Why are you doing this?’ If you are doing this because you think it will help you grow, we really want to talk through why you’re not growing where you are. We’ve seen many locations that are not optimal that are just exploding, and that’s because they’re offering something that’s unique and meaningful to people, and people are willing to go out of their way to be part of it.”

“If your church campus is busting at the seams, look at where people are traveling from,” suggests Brad Weston. “It’s great that you have a dedicated church audience, but if your church wants to disciple believers, then your church needs to empower individuals, to give them all the tools they can to invite their un-churched friends and neighbors to come. You need to erase barriers and create empty seats at optimal times, and do everything in your power to create an experience where people feel comfortable coming and will want to come back.”

As you go through the process of determining new strategies for attaining increased attendance, even though it seems elementary, there are age-old adages that still hold true if you decide to endeavor into a multisite solution. 1) Have a clear goal in mind. 2) Consider very carefully how you will allocate resources, funds and people to develop your approach. 3) Think about and thoroughly research the community in which you are planning to expand. 4) Spend time speaking to your staff, volunteers and congregation members at your main facility to determine what your strengths and weaknesses are. And, very importantly, 5) Talk to other churches about what their experiences have been with multisite scenarios. What ends justified what means? What works, and what does not?

As with anything else, make sure you do the proper research to ascertain whether a multisite solution will work for your scenario. The forefront planning and aerial view type discussions need to happen with all your key players before you start getting into decisions involving gear, formats, timing logistics… Many of these questions will be addressed in future articles as we continue to look into multisite solutions for houses of worship.

It is important to ensure that you’re not considering doing multisite just because bigger churches are doing it and it works for them. There is more to the story than that, of course. If you wind up at the other end of the research phase and things still seem to be a good fit, it may turn out that multisite may be just what the doctor ordered.