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Multi-Site Megachurches Multiply in America

J.D. Greear, senior pastor of Summit Church in Durham, NC., prays during Sunday service at Summit Church, (File)

J.D. Greear, senior pastor of Summit Church in Durham, NC., prays during Sunday service at Summit Church, (File)

Many young Evangelical Protestant Christians shun the expansive form of worship that drew their parents to so-called megachurches and opt instead for a more intimate religious experience. But one congregation may have found a way to have both size and intimacy.

The way to church leads through turnstiles, into a ballpark.

It comes with a friendly greeting ... a concert ... and crowd-revving antics.

All a warm-up to the main act - Pastor J.D. Greear. "Here Jesus says this question is of the utmost importance, one that literally your entire eternity hangs upon!" he said.

Thousands of people came for this Church in the Ballpark event. But it is far from what this congregation looks like most of the time.

“The Summit Church is not a traditional megachurch. The main service is normally held in this chapel. And the pastor's sermon is simulcast from this stage behind me."

It goes out to satellite campuses that serve many neighborhoods.

Greear says it started when his congregation outgrew the school it used for services. "So we said why don't we see about putting congregations - rather than multiplying services or building one big, huge, multimillion dollar building - what if we multiplied congregations in the place where we are and took use of technology, and kind of had the best of both worlds - the best of a smaller congregation and the best of a larger congregation," he stated.

The stadium event brought all the campuses together for one day, showing how successful the multi-site model has become.

Most of the estimated 3,000 multi-site churches in the United States were started in the past decade, as attendance at the so-called megachurches plateaued.

"People got a little burned on megachurches because it was an audience. One of the things we believe the New Testament teaches is that church is not supposed to be a consumer event where you come you get a religious pep talk, sing some cool songs, and go home," Greear explained.

The music is part of the appeal. So are the mass baptisms.

But the different campuses have their own staffs who provide the personal pastoral care that might be missing at a megachurch.

Scott Thumma is an expert on congregations at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, and sees multi-site churches having some advantages over megachurches. "It allows them to still be a big church, to have a large budget, to have a major mega-presence," he said. "But it also allows them to get their people involved and to be in smaller venues as well."

And it allows them to be led by a celebrity-like pastor.

"Yeah, there's a little rock star status," Greear acknowledges. "I think that some of that is just the nature of the game. And it's definitely one of the things we're trying to discourage."

This rock star does get his feet wet - when his own daughter takes the plunge of faith.