Chain churches

  • Article by: JEFF STRICKLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 8, 2008 - 11:17 PM

Twin Cities-area churches are part of a national trend in which individual places of worship are spinning off satellite locations to meet the varied needs of their ever-growing flocks.

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Worshipers at the Bethlehem Baptist Church satellite in Mounds View listened to a taped sermon by the Rev. John Piper during a recent Sunday service. The sermon was recorded during the previous evening’s service at the church’s main Minneapolis campus.

Photo: Joel Koyama, Star Tribune

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Last year, Brint Patrick and his family had to make a 45-minute round-trip from their home in New Brighton to Saturday evening services at Eagle Brook Church in Lino Lakes. Now, they go just 6 miles each way, and have gained some free time each weekend.

They didn't move, and they didn't change churches. They merely attend the church's new satellite site in Spring Lake Park. "Now my church community is part of my regular community," Patrick said. "I love it."

In the latest example of the mountain coming to Mohammed, Twin Cities churches are spinning off satellite campuses: second, third, fourth and, yes, sometimes even fifth worship sites where their far-flung members can attend services.

In the Twin Cities, 22 churches representing 13 denominations have more than one site. It's part of a nationwide phenomenon, with an estimated 15,000-plus multi-site churches in the country, said the Rev. John Mayer, executive director of City Vision, a Minneapolis organization that tracks religious demographics.

"It's a trend that is changing religion markedly," said the Rev. Brent Knox, whose Evergreen Community Church has five locations in Minneapolis and its suburbs. "Instead of thinking only in terms of bigger and bigger churches, people are starting to look at other options."

North Heights Lutheran Church in Roseville spun off a second location in 1986, the first such operation in the state. Since then, the idea has taken off locally and nationally. The Rev. Geoff Strait of Seacoast Church, which has sites in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, was one of three ministers who wrote a book titled "The Multi-Site Church Revolution" in 2006. They could hardly keep up.

"When we started work on the book, there were a handful," he said. "The next thing we knew, there were hundreds. Now there are thousands."

There is no single overriding reason why churches decide to go multi-site. Some do it to expand their membership base across a wider geographic area. Some do it instead of remodeling their buildings. Some do it because the centralized structure is a more economical way to start a church than planting one. And some do it because it enables them to narrowly focus services.

Nor is there a typical approach to the way they work. For instance, each of the Evergreen Church sites has an individualized approach that targets a specific demographic group, while all of the worshipers at the three Bethlehem Baptist Churches hear the same sermon -- delivered in person in one place and via video screens at the other two.

When North Heights Lutheran launched its second site in Arden Hills, members never dreamed that 20 years later Strait's book would single them out as trailblazers. Truth be told, they were just looking for a way to solve a parking problem at their Roseville facility.

"We'd run out of parking," recalled the Rev. Bob Cottingham. "We were busing people from a supermarket north of the campus. But we owned a K-through-8 school there, and we didn't want to sell that. So we started a second campus."

Having more than one site enables the church to offer different types of services simultaneously instead of having them stack up in a holding pattern. For instance, the Roseville church holds a contemporary service at the same time Arden Hills hosts a more traditional one.

"The members are free to go wherever they want, and they love that," Cottingham said. "I rotate [from week to week] so that I can preach at all the services."

Satellites vs. a teardown

A different type of space squeeze was behind Bethlehem Baptist Church's multi-campus expansion. Tucked into a corner of downtown Minneapolis bordered by the Metrodome, Hennepin County Medical Center and the Interstate 94-35W interchange, once the pews filled up there wasn't any way to get more room without razing the structure and building a new one with lots and lots of balconies.

"When we maxed out our facilities, we talked about a larger sanctuary downtown," said Jon Grano, Bethlehem's pastor of operations. "But that didn't seem like a good use of resources when the new building was only 10 years old."

Instead, they opted for two satellite churches, one in Mounds View and a newer one in Burnsville.

The newest satellite church in Minnesota is the third campus of Eagle Brook Church, the largest and fastest-growing congregation in the Twin Cities. With a home church in Lino Lakes, the campuses in White Bear Lake and Spring Lake Park enable all the members to plug into the same religious spirit.

"It's like shared DNA," Mayer said of this type of spinoff. "It's having a common vision. The members see it as one big church. And, as opposed to planting a church, you don't lose your leadership" by having staff members leave for the new congregations.

The Rev. Scott Anderson, executive pastor at Eagle Brook, agreed that having a centralized operation helps boost the quality of the workforce. "By being able to pool our talent across the sites, we're able to maintain a consistently high quality of talent in speakers, musicians and teachers," he said.

Serving different cultures

At the Evergreen churches, Knox likes that each facility has its own identity, but remains part of the bigger organization.

"We have the economy of scale of having one central office," he said. "Instead of five copying machines, we only need one. And there's a synergy" from being part of a group.

"But I like the intimacy that comes from smaller churches. Each of our churches has a different culture, if you will. The geographic areas are different, and the demographics are different. For instance, the church in the Uptown area targets young singles. That's certainly different from our original church [in Bloomington] that has a suburban feel."

The folks who monitor trends say that not only is the multi-site phenomenon here to say, it's just getting started.

"We're going see a lot of churches doing this in the next 10 to 15 years," Mayer predicted. And Strait agreed: "Once churches start interacting with other churches, these things tend to spread."

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392

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