Ten years ago, I wrote a trend story for Religion News Service on the rise of megachurches with satellite locations:
OKLAHOMA CITY — Most weekends, Pastor Craig Groeschel preaches at 23 services in five church locations across Oklahoma.
His schedule isn’t quite as busy as it sounds, though. The founder of LifeChurch.tv, a nontraditional church, Groeschel delivers only five of the messages in person. Technology takes care of the rest.
Welcome to the electronic church, live via satellite.
In the reality TV age, perhaps it’s no surprise that fast-growth churches increasingly use cameras to put their pastors in two places — or three or four or more — at the same time.
A decade later, multisite churches remain a fertile topic for Godbeat attention.
So this headline from the Philadelphia Inquirer this week caught my attention:
On Sundays, the members of Keystone Fellowship church attend services together and apart, in one building and in several, hearing the same message, but differently.
Keystone is a multisite congregation: one church with a centralized leadership but a congregation that meets in more than one location. It hosts services in three Montgomery County towns - Montgomeryville, Fort Washington, and Skippack - with a fourth in the works.
"Instead of being one megasite of 2,000, we'd rather be four churches with 500 - and be active in those communities," Pastor John Cope said.
More than 5,000 multisite congregations have opened their doors in the United States since the 1980s, when fewer than 100 existed, according to the Leadership Network, a Dallas-based church-growth think tank. One of the nation's largest multisite churches - LifeChurch in Oklahoma - boasts 24 sites in seven states.
Most of the growth occurred in the last decade.
I feel for the reporter who wrote the story. The piece ran about 930 words — not a bad length for a typical newspaper feature, granted, but still not a lot of space to delve into the intricacies of the subject matter.
Thus, there's a lot of generalization:
Multisite brethren might meet in schools or movie theaters, and listen to sermons from big screens through live-stream or from in-person pastors working from an outline followed by all church clergy. They may worship to the same music played that day in other branches, but performed by a site-based band.
"The multisite church is totally transforming how we do and think of church," said the Rev. Jim Tomberlin, who helped pioneer the church-growth strategy as a pastor in Colorado and who now works as a church consultant.
It's not"a fix-it strategy" for a struggling congregation, Tomberlin said, but, rather, a vehicle to accommodate a growing church.
Typically, multisite churches have more than 1,000 members who pack the pews (and the aisles) each Sunday. Many also offer charismatic leaders, contemporary worship, small-group weekday meetings, and a service-oriented church culture that appeals to millennials, studies show.
Given more space, I would love to have seen more specific details on:
• Whether the trend involves mainly non-denominational, independent-type churches vs. denominational congregations.
• How the experience of watching a satellite pastor differs from the approach of using a common outline by in-person pastors at multisite locations.
• What church growth experts say about whether the multisite approach works better than, say, starting new, totally autonomous congregations.
But overall, this is a neat little feature on an ongoing trend.
Undoubtedly, many Inquirer readers enjoyed reading it and learned something new.