Multiplication Through Campuses or Church Plants? It’s Both

July 27, 2009

It’s been a while since my last post.  Hopefully, I’m choosing quality over quantity, but that may well be just my illusion.  You decide.

I spoke recently with some of the most kingdom minded guys I have ever met about their plans for growing their church.  They had admittedly jumped a little impulsively into multi-site and were now thinking the best solution was simply to plant as many independent churches as possible.  And they were making this decision from a very humble position.  That is, they didn’t want it to be about them or their church, they wanted it to be about the kingdom.

Absolutely admirable.  In practice however, I think this thinking may be flawed.  In order to be the center of a great church planting network, I think you have to set a great example of how to grow.  By grow, I mean grow the maturity and number of believers in your vicinity, whether through attractional or missional or other means.  And, if you grow, sooner or later one site may not hold you.  If one site does not hold you, then you can continually multiply in to independent entities or you can multiply into a multi-site entity.

Growing through the same entity enables you to better preserve the very DNA of your church which has presumably allowed it to prevail.  If you choose the multi-site path, you can still plant independent churches.  In fact, you should.  And, importantly, you can now show them how to grow effectively through your own multi-site efforts.  Granted, I am biased.  It is what we at North Point have decided to do.

For more on our strategy to pursue both multi-site AND church planting, see the Downloads section of this blog.  You can download a talk I did at our conference, Drive ’09, about this.


Your Career Path to Nowhere

March 6, 2009

For many years, in church world, the career path for pastors has been pretty darn predictable. The path may vary slightly from denomination to denomination; however, it really looks very much the same.

path-to-nowhere1You graduate from seminary or bible college and you take your first job as a student pastor. Maybe it’s at a smaller church where you’re responsible for both middle school and high school. Maybe it’s at a larger church where you’re more of an assistant or you have responsibility for only middle school. Your ministry is incredibly relevant because, unlike adults, kids will actually leave if you’re not relevant. Your ministry is very focused (because students are not). You have loud music. You get to speak to believers and non-believers at the same time. You recruit the best adult leaders in the whole church to volunteer in your ministry because you can cast vision for it in your sleep. You get even the most skeptical kids into meaningful small groups. Life change happens. All of this nonsense is strangely condoned at your church, even though it’s so different from what the adults do. After all, your exploits are keeping their kids off the streets.

But you’re an ambitious person and need to move on. Problem is, the time-honored path is to take a Director of Christian Education (DCE) job or Associate Pastor job at a bigger church, perhaps in a larger town. Then, if you do that well, you get the coveted job of Senior Pastor at a church established early in the 1900’s, maybe in a smaller town. Then, if you live through that, you may ascend to a Senior Pastor position in a church in the capital city of your state. Sad thing is, after the student ministry job, you totally disagree with the way ministry is being done in every subsequent step along this career path. And you’re pretty much powerless to change it.

You cannot shake the fact that the last time you saw real ministry happen was in your student ministry. On one hand you cannot sit on the floor and eat pizza and hang out with 10th graders the rest of your life. On the other hand, you cannot sell your soul, compromise your ministry philosophy, “grow up”, and take the next step on an increasingly irrelevant career path to nowhere.

What worked with students was focus, relevance, believers and non-believers together, recruiting incredible lay leaders, and meaningful small groups. In your gut, you know that very same approach works with adults too. Both students and adults are, after all, just people.

You’d love to start a church where you could change the way adult ministry is done to make it really work. It would be a place where life change regularly happened. Where believers and non-believers would regularly mix together. But you cannot dream like that, dang it. You have 2 kids in diapers and a mortgage.

You cannot afford to dream like that because you have your God in a very small box. He couldn’t possibly overcome these obstacles merely to see His Church move forward, could He? Or maybe, just maybe, that’s precisely the business He’s in.

Go to this site to learn about 20 churches started by guys who jumped off the career path to nowhere. If you ask any of them if it was scary, they’ll tell you yes. If you ask them if they’d do it again, they’ll tell you yes.

Be sure to check out the FAQ section.

Church Planting and Conquering the Learning Curve

February 18, 2009

There’s a much repeated saying in the church planting world that goes something like this,

“We are going to be a church plant that has church-planting in our DNA so that, as soon as we are able, we’ll plant another church. And that church will plant another church, and so on..”

Man, I love the kingdom vision of this way of thinking. I’d love to add a few caveats which do not change the vision but rather speak to the strategy.

The Classic S-Shaped Learning Curve

The Classic S-Shaped Learning Curve

My strategy question is this: Exactly who is doing the coaching for the new church plant?  The Learning Curve for church planting is steep, meaning you learn a ton in the first few years.  I think, in church planting world, that learning probably begins to plateau in about 5 years.  It’s probably not coincidental that’s about 10,000 hours, the amount of time Malcolm Gladwell says it takes to develop expertise in his excellent new book, Outliers.

But, if a 2-year church planter is coaching a 1-yr church planter who is coaching a newly minted church planter, I think you have a big problem.  You’re working precisely the wrong end of the Learning Curve, the Slow beginning.  In so doing, you’re propagating all sorts of ignorance by learning from people with less than optimal experience.  I know this first-hand.  There are church planters out there who have forgotten more than I’ll ever know about church planting.  But I am so much more knowledgeable than I was 5 years ago when I first began this.  And yet I was out there coaching away in all my glorious ignorance.

So, how do you conquer the Learning Curve?  Here are some thoughts:

  • Elicit the support of people who have 5 years or more experience in planting churches.  General business people are helpful.  General pastoral or church experience is also helpful.  But even those folks, as knowledgeable as they are, are at the base of the Church Planting Learning Curve.
  • If at all possible, have that support come from people who  have specific experience in the model of church you are planting.  “I’m not planting according to some model!,” you say.  Oh, your church will have a model, whether you declare it or not.  Don’t be naive.  Find someone with your model, declared or not, with 5 years experience.
  • Find a  group of peers who are planting churches at the same stage and with the same church model.  Meet or conference call with them often.  Yes, they’re subject to early mistakes because they’re also rookies at the bottom of the Learning Curve; however, if you learn from them, the tuition is less than if you make their same mistakes.  Kind of morbid, but your chances of getting through the minefield are better if others are taking the risky steps with you.

A successful church plant is extremely challenging.  Talk to anyone who has done it for 3 to 5 years.  One of the biggest challenges is the Learning Curve.  How are you going to conquer it?

A Simple Church Facility Strategy

February 4, 2009

This post won’t tell you how to attract crowds to your church. Sorry. That’s your problem opportunity. It will tell you how to think about your facility strategy while you’re growing.

At the risk of sounding obvious, your church facility strategy should progress from the simplest choices to more complex choices. Though it’s obvious, you’d be amazed how often these steps are taken out of order.

Ready? Here they are. I’ll go ahead and warn you; you’re going to need to utilize video.

1. Maximize Service Offerings – As your crowd increases, maximize your capacity by utilizing multiple services in your current auditorium. Do this until your Seat Turns (total weekend adults in worship divided by auditorium seat capacity) is 2.0 or more.

For example, you have an auditorium capacity of 400. Your 11am service has 300 and your 9am service has 200. Your Seat Turns are (300+200)/400 = 1.25. You haven’t grown in 6 months. You listen to church growth people who say that, at 75%, your auditorium is functionally full. That’s why you aren’t growing. You start a capital campaign to go buy land. YOU’RE DEAD WRONG. Exciting churches have standing room only at their 11am services. Make your church more irresistible and consider as many as 4 services on Sunday. An attendance pattern for a church that has 3 services (a 9am, an 11am, and a 6pm service) might be 60%, 110%, and 60% respectively. That’s 2.3 seat turns.

2. Maximize Single-site Auditorium Size – Can you building a bigger auditorium on the same site? Can you build another auditorium on the same site? North Point Community Church built a second auditorium on the same site just as big as the original auditorium. Why this emphasis on single-site? Don’t I care about lost people on the other side of the city? You have way more relational connections and lost people right where you are. Bloom where you’re planted.

3. Go with a Multi-site Strategy – Readers of my blog will know that my bias is for fewer, larger, closer sites in high density locations. Again, the idea is simple first; complex later. Here are links to past posts that cover these topics.

In order to maximize service offerings and ultimately to go to multi-site you’ll need to develop a significant prowess in video. Check this post for further information on why.

All of this seems obvious. Yet, time after time I see:

  • Churches buying land because their 11am service is 70% full.
  • Churches not going to multiple services because they cannot recruit volunteers or, worse, “Everyone will not be able to see each other on Sunday.”
  • Churches adding 4 or 5 really small campuses relative to the size of their original auditorium. This is an extremely complex way to grow and a recipe for disaster.
  • Churches growing to a predetermined “maximum” size of, say 300 or so, and then going multi-site or splitting in half by planting a new church.
  • Churches going multi-site simply because another church “surrendered” to them forcing them to go multi-site before other, much simpler, strategies were pursued.

In summary:

  1. Maximize service offerings
  2. Maximize single-site auditorium size
  3. Go to multi-site, pursuing as simple a strategy as possible

Virtual Community with TokBox

January 19, 2009
Bobby Jones (Auburn Church, Auburn), Chad Clemons (Anthem Church, Gainesville)

Top: me, Donald Wise (North Point), Chris Brown (Ridge Church, Charlotte) Bottom: Bobby Jones (Auburn Church, Auburn), Chad Clemons (Anthem Church, Gainesville)

Disrupting the Time/Space Continuum – Do you have the need to meet occasionally with people who do not work next to you? Why do you insist everybody get together in the same place? Every month, we have a conference call with teams of our Strategic Partner churches. There are 15 of them around the US and Canada. We meet in groups of 3 churches at a time. Historically, that occurred as an audio conference call. Recently, we have switched to TokBox, a free video conferencing system. The early results are very good.

Consider using this idea for training volunteers, for brainstorming, for accountability sessions.  It could even be used for small group sessions.  Maybe this idea will keep you from having to attend the family reunion in Branson, MO…  I realize it’s inferior to meeting together in the same room; however, its convenience may dramatically improve the frequency of everybody being able to meet.

Structured Conversations – Rather than a free-flow conversation, we try instead to have a structured conversation. Prior to each call, each Lead Pastor presents the Top 3 issues they’d like to discuss. In the call, we spend a little time talking about vital statistics and most of the time talking about the Top 3 issues they’re facing. Here’s how 1:30 call breaks is organized:

  • 0:00-0:20 – Vital statistics – Each of the 3 participants will share, at a minimum, the following stats:
    • Income – both regular giving and fundraising (about 7 minutes each participant)
    • Expenses
    • NOI, or Cash Flow
    • Cash balance
    • Attendance trends
    • Groups participation
  • 0:20 – 0:40 – Each participant will present Top 3, Item 1. (about 7 minutes each)
  • 0:40 – 1:00 – Each participant will present Top 3, Item 2. (about 7 minutes each)
  • 1:00 – 1:20 – Each participant will present Top 3, Item 3. (about 7 minutes each)
  • 1:20 – 1:30 – Wrap-up

TokBox Hints – Here are some helpful hints for using TokBox:

  • If your laptop does not have a built-in camera, you can order a USB plug-in camera for $10 from a supplier like Newegg.
  • Plug simple iPod-type headphones into your computer. Otherwise there’s a lot of reverb from your computer’s speakers back into your computer’s mic.
  • Be in a quiet place. Calling from outside or a Starbucks won’t work well because of all the ambient noise your computer’s microphone will pick up.
  • If possible, try to use an ethernet or actual line connection to your network. The bandwidth or “throughput” speed on those is generally a good bit faster than what you’ll get via a wifi connection.

How can you use TokBox and the idea of Structured Conversations in your meetings?

Real Estate and the Growing Church

January 4, 2009

Owning Church Real Estate – Smashing a tired paradigm

Monopoly, unlike the real world, rewards aggressive real estate aquisition

Monopoly, unlike the real world, rewards aggressive real estate acquisition

During my years in the real estate business, I repeatedly saw fast growing companies decide to own the real estate they occupied. 99.9% of the time it was a BAD idea. Why did they do it? Maybe they played too much Monopoly as a kid. But I suspect another culprit. There’s a horrible old mindset that goes something like this: “Why should we pay rent when we can make debt service payments and build equity?” That expression is so naive and ridiculous that you should wash your mouth out with soap if you have ever uttered it.

Very smart companies like Kroger, Walgreens, and Wal-mart lease their stores. Haven’t they ever heard the mindless platitude above? Why aren’t they choosing to “build equity”? Possibly they have better things to do with their precious capital.

Consider this:

  • The fundamental value in almost all church real estate is the underlying land. The improvements on that land add very little, if any, value. The land and buildings that cost you $10 million 4 years ago to construct ain’t worth $10 million. Disagree? Put a for sale sign on it and see.
  • Any fast growing entity should put a very high value on flexibility. Real estate ownership is rarely flexible.

OK, maybe sometimes churches should own

I had to get that first section off my chest to challenge the mindless bias of churches owning their real estate. There are 2 reasons I can think of for churches to own their real estate:

  1. Suitable for-lease properties are not available
  2. In some jurisdictions, churches get a property tax exemption by owning that they cannot receive when they lease. Further, the benefit for a church owing vs. leasing is substantial due to high area real estate taxes.

Types of Church Real Estate Usage

Rent-by-the-day – The church simply rents auditoriums and meeting rooms on the day the church needs them and not the other days of the week. While you may picture a small church renting a movie theater; consider this: National Community Church in Washington DC is a very large church with 3 locations in movie theaters and will continue to grow simply by adding more movie theaters. They may never own.

24/7 Lease – The church leases real estate 24/7 for a short period of time, say 6 months, or a long period of time, say 20 years. A fast-growing church might start with a Rent-by-the-day location and then move to a 24/7 Lease location later. Buckhead Church moved into the ballroom of the Buckhead Doubletree Hotel in 2002 as a Rent-by-the day facility then into a 4-year 24/7 Lease in a renovated Harris-Teeter grocery store in 2003. During this time, Buckhead’s adult attendance grew from 400 to 3,000. Owning during this rampant growth period would have put shackles on the church. The great thing about a 24/7 lease is that a church only has to raise capital for leasehold improvements, not for a building shell and land. To grow from 400 to 3,000, Buckhead only had to raise $3 million dollars. That’s a lot of money, but not nearly as much as we would have had to raise to buy land and build a building.

Owning – At some point, for the 2 reasons listed above, it may make sense for the church to own real estate. And please note, there are a million hybrid combinations. Buckhead Church owns its current building with a 3,000 seat auditorium and 350 parking spaces. You heard me; 350. We have a long-term lease agreement for the Sunday use of a ton of parking spaces in an adjacent office building garage.

So, why the church real estate ownership rant? I have seen way too many young churches start looking for land once they grow to 200 people. More often than not, that’s a huge mistake.

Multi-site Campuses Vs. Church Planting

December 29, 2008

As a strategy for growth, some churches turn to church planting and some turn to establishing multi-site campuses that are part of the same church legal entity. Even more confusing, some churches both plant churches and establish campuses. There are lots of reasons to do either or to do both. I can only shed a little light on why we do both at North Point.

Buckhead Church, a North Point Campus

Buckhead Church, a North Point Campus

Campuses – We are, first and foremost, a local church. Further, we are committed to a model that, if successful, will grow continually (and homogeneously at all existing campuses). Accordingly, we have to plan for that growth. A previous post, Multi-site Churches – Infectious Disease and Cannibalism, speaks about how and where we plant our campuses which are part of our same church legal entity. In a nutshell, we plant them very close to existing crowded campuses. Further, we plant them large so as to make a large dent in existing campus occupancy. We plant them with all of our ministry environments present on Day 1. It’s not a scale-it-later proposition. Campuses, for us, do not at all look like church plants. How can we take such a risk and plant new campuses so large? By taking incrementally larger risks over the years, we have learned people will attend and life change happens in these large video church campuses. Large campuses, when planted close together, are not as risky as you might think.

Athens Church, a North Point Church Plant

Athens Church, a North Point Church Plant

Church Plants – We also plant churches. We call them Strategic Partners. Because we are committed to planting our campuses close to existing campuses, that leaves a lot of remaining territory for church plants, even in the Atlanta MSA. Strategic Partners are independent churches with the same mission, vision, strategy, core values and beliefs as North Point. They start with limited ministry environments in rent-by-the-day facilities and add more North Point environments as they are able to do so. The FAQ section of the Strategic Partner site answers a lot of questions about our church planting program. It is our opinion these churches should ultimately be governed by local elders.

A Coordinated Strategy – It is very important to us to do both. To be true to our model and to be a church worth following, we must grow. In order to intentionally cannibalize our existing campuses, all of these campuses should be under the same elder body for fluid transfer of staff and resources amongst the campuses. Let’s face it; it’s not cool to intentionally cannibalize a separate church. Further, the elder body is, by definition, in close proximity to all the campuses.

We also desire to equip great leaders who, for whatever reason, identify with our particular church model by helping them plant churches. Great leaders attract the necessary leadership and monetary resources to grow without much help from us. Quite possibly, one day these churches will also have multi-site campuses. Perhaps our history with multi-site will make us helpful coaches for them.