There is no doubt 2020 was a defining year for the church globally, shaping and shaking our very understanding of what the church is and how we continue to plant, grow and multiply in the midst of a global pandemic. Over the past couple of decades technology has been a huge part of innovative and emerging church models and strategies, but to be fair, the church historically has been quite a slow adopter when it comes to embracing new practices and methods.
For better or worse, 2020 has fast-tracked the adoption process and forced churches (some kicking and screaming) into the digital era. But with this quick pivot, has come some structural and strategic whiplash that is now in need of a framework to help us move into the future with clarity and strength.
It’s important for us to acknowledge that the world is still in a highly volatile social climate with constantly changing government restrictions, health alerts, travel bans, lockdowns, hot spots, and more – because of this, churches are all in different phases of change, some are still operating solely online, some are gathering with restrictions, some have hybrid models, the list goes on. On top of this, even within our own movement, exists a broad spectrum of churches: mono and multi-site, attractional and missional, urban and rural.
The truth is churches all around the world have implemented brilliant and creative ways to cultivate and sustain healthy community in the digital space. What I don’t want to do here is be too specific or prescriptive in the way it should outwork in your context.
What I’d rather attempt to do is provide some guiding principles and a digital framework that will allow you to interpret and navigate the best strategic direction for you.
Before I dive into the principles, I’ll say this: when thinking through our digital strategy, I think it’s important we make decisions with a post-Covid view in mind. Although there will of course be decisions we need to make for the immediate season, as much as possible we should be trying to form a strategic direction that is looking beyond the current circumstances and without a crisis lens.
Here we go….
Principle #1: The world was already digital.
87% of the developed world’s population is online, over half the world’s population are now under 30 and considered “digital natives” and 50% of the world’s internet usage is now via mobile devices and rising rapidly.
What we must realise is we don’t have online people and offline people, we just have people, and the vast majority of them live in the physical and digital worlds simultaneously. Therefore our digital approach needs to be designed with all of our people in mind.
Principle #2: Digital needs to be a culture more than a team, department or location.
If you follow the evolution of new and emerging digital products that tech companies are producing, they have a clear goal – create products that integrate, not compete, with real life. In the same way, our digital strategy should complement our physical strategy, in fact, they shouldn’t be two different strategies at all. We need one strategy for our people that leverages the strengths of both digital and physical.
It’s not about creating a digital version of church; it’s about asking the question ‘how do we integrate the strengths of both digital and physical to help people engage even more with Christ and community?’ I would suggest avoiding the trap of delegating digital to become a silo within your structure, and instead integrate it as a core culture of your whole church and team.
Principle #3: The digital world plays by different rules.
One of the common trends that emerged as churches ventured into the digital space, is a trend that similarly occurred when broadcasters first transitioned from radio to television… instead of creating TV shows, they just filmed their existing radio show. What we end up doing is using new technology to keep doing an old thing – or in our language, we fill new wineskins with old wine.
What we need to do is start creating things that are made for the medium, not just copy and pasting from another context. We need to ruthlessly challenge old ways of thinking and old modes of operation, because suddenly the barriers of time and space, buildings and time slots, don’t exist.
Principle #4: Digital is public, very public.
A couple of years ago I travelled to Iceland, on every tourist’s to-do list is to swim in the thermal pools, but there’s something they don’t tell you on the brochure: before you’re allowed to swim, you have to strip down and shower naked in a room full of strangers to wash off any nasty oils on your skin, so you don’t contaminate the thousand-year-old natural spring. Needless to say, if you don’t want everyone watching, be very careful what pool you decide to swim in.
We need to take great care in knowing the purpose of our content, and where it should be placed. I like to categorise the purpose of digital content into two main pools: reaching and resourcing – defining our content’s purpose helps give us a better idea of what platform we position it on.
Principle #5: Digital is a crowded house.
Due to the borderless nature of the digital landscape, we need to guard against the temptation to try and reach everyone. The problem with trying to reach everyone is that we spread ourselves so thin that we end up reaching no one. The fact is hundreds of thousands of churches all around the world are trying to carve out their space in the digital world. Imagine every church in your city all meeting in the same venue, at the same time… it could get ugly.
As leaders, we must stay true to who God has called us to reach and build our digital strategy with them in mind.
I’m praying you’ll be filled again with the spirit of wisdom and revelation as you lead God’s church faithfully into the future.
There are probably as many approaches to doing multi-site as there are multi-site churches. Across this diversity, the location pastor role is always key, even if there are differences in the way the role operates. Despite the great variety of multi-site models, I believe that there are foundational characteristics for someone to be selected and to thrive as a location pastor, and we will focus upon those here.
Before we dive into these characteristics, we need to look at what makes a multi-site church.
A multi-site location is not just like the sending church – it is the sending church.
It’s the same church, but in a different geographical place. Whilst there are variations to this depending on the senior minister’s approach to multi-site, in most cases there is a desire to have one vision and one culture across all locations; to have the same look and feel, which may have some agreed allowances for contextualization. In most cases there is a uniform way of doing important things, some agreed practices across all locations, so that the multi-site church can multiply and not get bogged down in complexity that is neither scalable nor reproducible.
Characteristic 1: The Location Pastor is a Steward of Responsibility & Authority
The location pastor must have a highly developed understanding of what it means to steward responsibility and authority on behalf of someone else (in this case, the senior minister).
You may be thinking, “Isn’t this the same as with any leader who is under the authority of another leader?”, and that is true. However, it does seem to be more challenging in the multi-site scenario, as there is a degree of isolation due to being in another part of a city or even another nation. This ‘distance’ can create shifts in culture, practice, look and feel that, over time, result in a ‘different church’ and not another location of the first church. Indeed, this is such a recognized phenomenon that many multi-site churches will only use video preaching in an attempt to maintain one vision and culture. And so, the ability of the location pastor to understand and operate as a leader of delegated authority is paramount.
The location pastors must understand that for there to be one church, which is the church that Jesus has placed in the hands of the senior pastor,
each location pastor must be able to put the ‘team they are in’ above the ‘team they lead’.
They must be able to embrace and promote the priorities of the multi-site church as a whole above the particular location they are leading. This approach will bring great health to the multi-site church as it will avoid the creation of silos of culture and practice. It will circumvent the development of an ‘us and them’ mentality between the central team that serves all locations, and a team that is serving a particular location. It creates a great sense of alignment across the team, thus releasing creative energy and activity towards the health and growth of the multi-site church as a whole.
I’ve heard it said that the location pastor is not like an echo of the vision and values of the senior pastor, but rather an amplifier: there is no dilution of vision, values, look and feel, no matter how geographically isolated the location may be.
The importance of alignment on the multi-site team cannot be emphasized enough. This means that the Location Pastor is able to thrive in an environment where decisions are made where they may personally have a different preference or philosophy or approach. This requires a maturity from the Location Pastor where, after the discussion has been had, they are able to embrace and implement something which, if it was their church, they would do differently. A great Location Pastor realizes that the Location is not their church. It is the Senior Minister’s church and the Senior Minister is accountable before God for the calls they make as the leader. And the Location Pastor is under the authority of Christ which is earthed in their coming under the authority of the Senior Minister.
Characteristic 2: The Location Pastor Has High EQ and Communication Skill
One of the unique characteristics of a healthy multi-site church is that the central team, comprising all areas of ministry and operations that support all locations, is able to work effectively with each location team, and vice versa. This outcome is often assisted through the creation of a matrix structure that seeks to clarify the flow of authority and decision making. However, even if a clear matrix-structure is developed, there is always a need for high EQ and respectful discussions between the Location Pastor and the central team.
A location pastor needs to be skilled at having discussions that clarify and bring alignment.
It’s also worth noting that the central team need to be great at listening to location pastors, as aligned locations pastors will bring keen insight into how to best do multi-site church.
Characteristic 3: The Location Pastor is a Leader
Just about all models of multi-site church require the location pastor to demonstrate leadership, but the type of leadership that is necessary will be determined by the philosophy of ‘central leadership vs location leadership’.
If leadership is mostly vested in the central team, the role of a location pastor is to implement the vision, values, look, feel and practices that come from the senior pastor via the central team. In this case most decisions to do with leadership and ministry are made by the senior minister directly or via the central team. The location pastor must be a leader who can raise leaders and build the teams needed for Sunday services, but initiatives and ideas are not implemented independently in the location; rather, they are referred back to the central team for consideration for the whole multi-site church.
The person who will thrive as a location pastor in this style of multi-site is more wired to implement the vision and initiatives of another.
They are a leader, but are not entrepreneurial to the extent that they have a high need to implement all of their ideas and initiatives. They contribute ideas to how the church operates across all locations, but understand and are able to thrive when not all of their ideas are implemented.
If leadership is mostly vested in the location pastor, the role requires understanding of vision, culture and practice set by the senior pastor, but there is a lot left to the location pastor to lead and contextualize as they see fit for the location. It could be that the only things linking locations of this style are central governance, finances and a broad vision. Here the location pastor will determine preaching themes, song lists, outreach programs, team names and function – indeed, pretty well everything except for the few unifying areas required by the senior pastor.
And then there are multi-site churches where leadership is not vested only with the central team nor with the location pastor, but rather with both working together. In such multi-site churches, much on-the-ground leadership in a location is vested in the location pastor, but common vision, culture, look, feel and practices are determined and led by the central team. In these multi-site churches Location Pastors and the central team work together in a collegiate way to achieve the vision and culture of the church. Authority may flow through the location pastor and influence through the central team, but they work together on everything, submitting one to another. This requires a great deal of personal strength around areas of security and identity, and the ability to have respectful discussions and resolve differences.
Ultimately, the location pastor needs to know and be at peace with the understanding that they are not the senior minister of the location.
This enables them to handle those moments of philosophical difference and to thrive. If this is not truly understood, there will always be a measure of frustration and conflict.
The location pastor role is based upon the particular approach taken to multi-site church. This determines the leadership, ministry and management that a location pastor will need to undertake, and the wiring and training that will enable them to do that well. Identification and development of location pastors therefore flow from clarity around these fundamentals.
World best-practice around identifying and developing location pastors usually comes down to having a leadership pathway which provides systemic opportunity for visibility and development of leaders. This is where multi-site gets very exciting:
Rather than not having enough opportunity for development and release of leaders, which may be the case in a mono-site church, with lots of people on the bench waiting to have a go, in a multi-site church there is no bench. Everyone is in the game at some level.
Connect leaders are releasing new connect leaders. Connect leaders are being developed into connect coaches. Team leaders are identifying new team leaders. Every department, whether kids, youth, music, service production, pathway, whatever… are all identifying, developing and releasing leaders. Eventually these leaders are overseeing departments at a location, and location pastors can be hands-on in mentoring the next group of location pastors for the new locations that will be started. Together with the central department heads, they develop the new location team overseers. There are leaders popping out everywhere, as leadership development is a culture and everyone is identifying, developing and releasing. The development of a leadership pathway or pipeline is a whole topic in itself. Needless to say, a good one will intentionally produce new location pastors who have the characteristics to thrive in the approach to multi-site adopted by your church.
This blog is part of our online church planting resource base. To find out more, ask your senior pastor for access to Xpress.