By Cynthia Woolever
A new report suggests that 5,000 congregations are holding worship services at more than one location. This figure may actually be too low! According to the U.S. Congregational Life Survey results, about 4% of congregations nationally host services in multiple physical locations. Since there are around 330,000 congregations in the U.S., that means the number of multisite churches possibly exceeds 13,000.
Warren Bird, research director of Leadership Network, has tracked multisite church growth for more than a decade. Since 2001, according to his research, the number of such churches has grown from 200 to 5,000 today. That’s an increase of 2,400%! This phenomenal growth pattern outdistances the rapid growth of megachurches in the same period. There were approximately 600 megachurches in 2001 and 1,650 in 2012—an increase of 175%.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) today consists of 10,536 congregations. About 3% (or 421 churches) of these congregations report holding services in more than one location. Presbyterian churches founded in the past 20 years are twice as likely to be multisite congregations, with 6% of them reporting services in multiple locations. Table 1 compares the Presbyterian pattern to a national sample of congregations.
Warren Bird and a group of researchers recently discussed some of the key components of multisite ministries hoping to achieve agreement about language and definitions.
The group found common ground on answers to two questions.
When does a service or gathering become another site?
- The congregation holds another service(s) in a separate, physical location. Although many churches offer one or more worship services at the same location or offer multiple venues at one location, these ministries are not counted as multisite.
When does a gathering of believers become a church rather than a site?
- In situations where a group of worshipers is self-governing and has a self-supporting church structure, then it is a church. Sites are (a) under the direction and leadership of the main site; and (b) funded through a shared budget with the main site.
The next decade in religious life may further redefine the “large church”—from one giant venue to dozens of community sites to millions of virtual sites as worshipers attend services online. How will this movement impact your congregation?
 “Multisite churches are outpacing growth of megachurches,” Christian Century, September 19 (2012): 17.
 C. Kirk Hadaway and Penny Long Marler, “How Many Americans Attend Worship Each Week?” An Alternative Approach to Measurement,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 44, no. 3 (2005): 307-22.
 U.S. Congregational Life Survey (www.USCongregations.org), from a national sample of Presbyterian churches participating in the project in 2008/2009.
 Ed Stetzer, “Multisite, Churches, and Internet Campuses: How They Work and How to Study Them,” The LifeWay Research Blog (http://www.edstetzer.com/2012/08/multisite-and-church-planting.html), August 2, 2012.
 The U.S. Congregational Life Survey uses this definition as well. The Profile Survey, completed by a key informant in all participating congregations, contains this question: “Does this congregation hold services in more than one location (such as satellite locations)? (Do not include more than one worship space at the same location.)