...almost 1,000 U.S. churches [have embraced] a multisite approach, according to the Leadership Network (www.leadnet.org). Sometimes called a "satellite" or "franchise" model, going multisite is seen by advocates as one of the leading innovations of the 21st century and by critics as a sign that the church has sold out to consumerism—becoming just another big-box retailer, selling salvation with convenient hours and a discount price. The answer, as usual, lies somewhere in between.
The article profiles several different churches' satellite operations. One of the more intrigueing models is that of Life Church in Oklahoma City. Life Church has a combined attendance of 14,000, but splits the congregation up into five seperate locations. Their pastor, Craig Groeschel, explains;
"People like the options and quality of megachurches, yet crave the intimacy of smaller churches," Groeschel told CT. "This model gives you both. You can go to an experience that may have 200 people and dive into deep biblical community with them, and at the same time, you have the option of going on any one of 25 different mission trips during the year. So you get the benefits of a smaller community with the benefits of a megachurch."
Along with New Life, Smietana profiles Seacoast Church of South Carolina, Bayside Church in California, and two Chicagoland churches; Harvest Bible Chapel and Willow Creek Community Church.
Willow Creek started its Wheaton satellite campus in 2001 as a response to "the 30-minute problem." Jim Tomberlin, who oversees Willow's three satellite campuses, says that once people drive more than 30 minutes one way to church, their involvement drops off dramatically. More than one-third of Willow attendees were driving that far—and as a result, were not joining small groups or inviting their friends to church. That was undermining Willow's whole model, Tomberlin told CT.
Roger Finke, a sociologist from Penn State, notes an interesting historical parallel between the satellite movement and the very successful model employed by the Methodist circuit riders of the 19th century.
"The Methodist circuit rider was basically the pastor for multiple satellite churches," Finke told CT. "They tried to start up satellite congregations as quickly and as cheaply as possible. When the circuit rider was not there during the week, the satellite had a class leader or layperson who kept things going. Then the circuit rider would come in every once in a while and fire people up."
Methodists used that approach to become one of the largest religious groups in the United States, moving from "less than 2.5 percent of church adherents in 1776 to more than 34.2 percent in 1850," Finke wrote in a 2004 article for the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.