Multisite isn’t a new movement. A lot of people think it’s an outgrowth of the megachurch movement of the 1980s, but it’s much older. When the Church first started, missionaries from Jerusalem went out to the rest of the Roman world. They’d found churches (which were an outgrowth of the main Church in Jerusalem), raise up leaders, and then move on. The churches communicated primarily through letters and it wasn’t unusual for a letter from Paul, Peter, or John to be read out loud in front of the whole church as a sermon.
Those letters, if they seemed to really touch people, were usually copied and sent out to other churches. Some people think that certain letters we have in the New Testament were written generally, the church name was changed, and the greetings to people in that church were added on the end.
When you think about each church in the first century as a part of the main church in Jerusalem and sermons circulating from one to another, how is this all that different from multisite churches today? We use video with is a different medium from the first century, but the act is essentially the same.
The Roman Catholic church continued this model by founding churches all over the world, but keeping the central leadership and authority of the Pope. This organizational model is much more similar to multisite churches than it is to churches with a loosely connected, confederated structure.
That’s really the strength of a multisite church. The vision and organization of all the campuses is much more similar than if the main church birthed a daughter church.
In 2063, I expect we’ll see the results of two aspects of what the Church is doing. Since there are so many controversial subjects, I expect new denominations to form. I don’t think the Roman Catholics, Southern Baptists, and United Methodists will have the power in the future that they have today. Part of this is because of the controversial stands each has taken. We will likely see splinter groups form that have similar ideas to the original, but have a distinctive that shapes them.
I also think that denominations that emphasize the sins of others aren’t destined for growth. It might not be their desire to make people feel like they’re being judged by “holier than thou” church folk, but any emphasis on a particular sin that’s not accompanied by a greater emphasis on the sins of the people within that church will come across as judgmental.
Let’s look a contemporary example. Westboro Baptist Church is a group that emphasizes its hatred of homosexuality. This emphasis is demonstrated in their picketing or not only homosexual events, but also of anything that can be loosely tied to the American government (like soldiers’ funerals) or to the culture (like ComiCon). They were prominent in the national spotlight for years before it became clear that the reason behind their hatred is simply that they have an extreme Calvinist view that God hates everyone. Like a fire and brimstone preacher, they’re telling everyone they’re going to Hell. Because they never admit their own brokenness, this comes across as Pharisaical and hypocritical. I don’t imagine that we’ll still hear about their picketing in fifty years. Unchanged, their hatred will drive more and more people away from them, and sadly away from the Church in general.
Contrast this with churches that start by talking about the sins of the leaders, not flaunting them, but humbly confessing them. Imagine that you have a part of your life that you know was outside of God’s plan. Imagine that when you interact with a church, you’re given forgiveness and acceptance because the people offering it talke about their own struggles. Feeling accepted isn’t the same as feeling judged and often it’s a subtle difference that changes one to the other.
I think these embracing churches will continue to spread in a multisite format. I do think the medium may change again, though. If motion capture or hologram technologies continue to increase, it might get more and more difficult to tell the difference between a main and satellite campus. As delivery of rich content either with android or hologram proxies for the pastor becomes reliable over the internet, it could be possible that you wouldn’t know whether you’re in a satellite or main campus.
The advantage of this is clear. Like the Roman Catholic approach, doctrine teaching would remain the same in many locations and to many more people.
The opposite trend is also possible as people get more and more technology in their homes, small house churches could form with “sermon surfing” being the norm. This is a trend I think will develop as media availability increases. I first discovered the seed of this thought when I first subscribed to Netflix. Since all the movies and television shows are available for me to watch at any time and I don’t pay any more for watching twelve movies than for watching one, I felt no compunction about switching from a show I didn’t like at any time. When I rented a movie, even for just a dollar, I felt I should continue to watch it to “get my money’s worth.” With Netflix, this is removed from the calculation.
I do this with books now, too. I carry my Kindle with me everywhere I go. If I have a minute, I can start reading a book. If I find I’m not in the mood for a book on WordPress, I can go to a book on writing. If I don’t want fiction, I can read nonfiction. Since there’s no cost to me to carry my whole library with me at all times, I do. Since my Kindle holds so many books, I can swap between them at any time.
I think that we might see this more with church. We’re in a trend of community, but that won’t last forever. I think it will swing back toward individuality soon. That means that the individual might consider it his right and duty to piece together a belief system out of all the media available to him. In the past, this led to church shopping. I think church surfing and sermon surfing are next. I already hear people sometimes say, “I like the music here, but the preaching there.” I can imagine this trend increasing.
People may form groups in their homes where they create the “perfect” church. They’ll watch music from one church and the sermon from another and if they don’t like the sermon, they’ll just watch it from the third. If two churches have comparable sermons, maybe the shorter one will win.
This doesn’t automatically mean that they’ll choose easy messages that are consumer-focused. Some will. Others will always choose challenging messages because they think they should or because they have an agenda for personal growth and change.
As the trend toward multisite increases, you’ll likely see branches or franchises of large national or international churches meeting in more and more locations. People will see “going out to church” like “going out to eat.” Some will do it regularly, to their favorite place, but many more will have a group of favorites.
This presents a challenge to churches that build sermons and services in large series. If you miss weeks 2-5, but are there for week 1 and 6, will you get what you need out of the church or will these two be so disjointed that they’re like stand-alone weeks?
Will churches begin to pander to the crowds like websites sometimes do. Maybe relationship series are more popular. Will your church do more of those since you don’t have as much “stickiness” as you did in the past? Maybe financial series cause smaller crowds. Will your church do fewer of them?
Many churches won’t, but some will. Hopefully, the ones who challenge will outweigh the ones who don’t. We’ll see what the future holds.