Beyond the Walls
Seacoast Church, based in Mount Pleasant, S.C., just outside Charleston, has more than doubled in size in the past few years. But Seacoast hasn't grown to 7,500 weekend attendees by going on a building binge. Instead, it has planted eight satellite locationsone in nearby Savannah, Ga., and the rest spread across the Palmetto State. Senior Pastor Greg Surratt records his sermon on Saturday nights, and the local -pastors at each location download it from the Web and, on Sunday mornings, play the sermon in their churches on large video screens.
"So much work goes into the preparation of the weekend message. Our team is so talented and they create work of great value," says Shawn Wood, Seacoast's creative communications pastor. "The more you can use that, the more you get out of it, the better." Establishing satellite campuses in shopping centers and underused retail space is a cost-effective way of meeting demand. "We can plant a church for under six figures," says Wood. "We pride ourselves on leveraging technology without spending a bunch of money."
Each Seacoast campus has its own pastor, and live music, but the idea is that they are all part of a network. "We struggle to keep the 'one church, many locations' mentality," says Wood, adding that new tools such as weblogs and podcasts are useful in that effort. "We get the advantages of a megachurch, things like a bulletin and Web site that a small church might not be able to match, but we give people that sense of community." The arrangement also allowed Seacoast to grow rapidly while decreasing Surratt's weekend load from five services to three.
Seacoast's satellite strategy puts it at the forefront of an emerging trend. As big churches grow even larger, offsite growth is a way to accommodate increasing scale while furthering their mission. "The wave of the future is not megabuildings that hold 100,000 people, the wave is taking the message to the people in their communities," says Pastor Bernard. His church has already spawned a daughter church in Syracuse, N.Y., and he plans to launch video-supported satellites in the future.
Troy Page, communications pastor at Fellowship Church, says the addition of three satellite campuses (in Plano, downtown Dallas, and near Fort Worth) during the past year has enabled the church to increase attendance by 4,000 people. "We could spend megamillions to build bigger buildings, and lose intimacy in the process, or we can leverage technology to move out into the community and provide the same experience," he says. Tapes of Senior Pastor Ed Young's weekend message are distributed to each of the new facilities, each of which is outfitted with three video screens: one in the center that shows a life-size, static shot of Young preaching, while the two on either side of it provide close-ups and cutaways. Like Seacoast, each campus has its own pastor and live music. Eventually, says Page, there could be more satellites in the Dallas area, and beyond.
Some megachurches broaden their reach even further by creating associations of hundreds, even thousands, of other churches across the country and around the world. About 1,000 churches pay $250 per year to be part of the Fellowship Connection, which gets them discounts on the big church's educational resources and conferences, and even document templates for back-office functions such as human resources. "We have a huge heart to help churches that look to us as a model," says Storch, Fellowship's former technology pastor. "This way, they don't have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to things like children's church, or hiring practices."
Fellowship uses the Web, including a special site called CreativePastors.com, to connect with its association members and with other interested pastorsabout 10,000 in alland to distribute material to them. "We could not accomplish this without the technology component," Storch says. "With e-mail, blogs, podcasts and streaming video, you never have to darken our door to get the benefit of what we are doing."
Willow Creek has 11,500 member churches in its Willow Creek Association, each paying dues of $249 per year. When Hurricane Katrina hit, the megachurch was able to lead a relief effort that built on the technology infrastructure used to support the association: Willow Creek used its IP telephony, and its robust Web presence, to coordinate volunteers and take in donations of almost $865,000. The megachurch also runs as many as 40 events each year, and relies on satellite feeds and webcasts to broaden its audience. Its Leadership Summit, held last August, drew 7,000 people to the Illinois campus and was seen via satellite by another 47,000 people at 110 churches across the U.S. and Canada. A global version of the conference used DVDs, with translation into several languages, to reach another 12,000 people. "The association has a symbiotic relationship with the church," says Communications Director Paul Braoudakis. "It has given the church an international platform. Willow Creek is the laboratory, we take what we do here and disseminate it around the world."
At a time when traditional Protestant denominations are losing members to unaffiliated churches, including many of the megachurches, the satellite campuses and associations provide a measure of support and organization for pastors who may not be affiliated with a formal group. But the megachurches are careful to say that they are not creating new denominations of their own. "We don't think in terms of denominations," says Fellowship's Troy Page. "It's more like a network of like-minded leaders." Still, these expansion strategies show the impact megachurches are having on religious organizations. "Churches today talk about brand and personality," says software vendor Jeff Hook. "The satellites and associations are ways of extending the brand, but they may also step on some toes. If you start a church that instantly draws 1,000 people, you are stepping on some local churches. If you have an association that acts as a supply chain to churches across the country, you may cannibalize some of the things traditionally done by established denominations."
The wired megachurch raises other issues as well. One is that not everyone has access to the Web, or feels comfortable with technology. In Brooklyn, Pastor Bernard says the digital divide is something his church must confront. "This is very real in communities of color, so we train people, and we plan to create cybercafes in our community to help get past it." Fellowship's Storch says, "The small groups will always matter. You have to build the personal relationships; you need a certain level of comfort before an e-mail is effective."
And some question the cost of technology investments. "I tell people that, in the past, a big pipe organ could cost a lot of money, and for this generation of large churches, $3 million for sight and sound technologies has about the same relative cost," says Leadership Network's Travis. "Churches are spending on technology backbones and infrastructure, which makes them more efficient and able to do more with less."
At North Carolina's Westover Church, Pastor Don Miller says he weighs cost and mission carefully. "If it's just to be flashy, then forget about it," he says. "But as long as it doesn't control us, as long as we're not worshipping it . . . . In the book of Nehemiah, Ezra built a platform so the Book of the Law could be read and heard more effectively. If that's what technology is all about, then, within some financial constraints, let's go for it."