When I first heard about multisite churches, also known as franchise or satellite churches , I got a little nervous.

The subtitle of this this Chicago Tribune piece didn't help. "It worked for burgers, now churches try franchising" didn't help. Do you want fries with that sermon? How about our supersize communion cup?

After spending several months talking to multisite church pastors, some of my apprehension eased, as you can tell from a this story in the latest Christianity Today.

One thing that changed my mind was cost. Starting a satellite location of an existing church can cost from $70,000 to $1.5 million--which is peanuts compared to the cost of building or expanding a megachurch. Joel Olsteen's church in the Compaq Center cost more than $100 million dollars; the Willow Creek expanion reportedly cost $70 million. One of the churches I spoke to in Oklahoma opened a new site, using sermons via satellite, for just over a million dollars, and already draws 2,000 people each weekend. Building a 2,000 seat arena would have cost ten or twenty times that much.

The other factor that made me reconsider multisites was this: the satellite church model is not new.

Here's the section of the CT piece on that topic:

Roger Finke, a Penn State sociologist and coauthor of The Churching of America, 1776-1990: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy, sees a parallel between the multisite or franchise approach and the Methodist circuit riders of the 19th century.

"The Methodist circuit rider was basically the pastor for multiple satellite churches," Finke told CT. "They tried to start up satellite congregations as quickly and as cheaply as possible. When the circuit rider was not there during the week, the satellite had a class leader or layperson who kept things going. Then the circuit rider would come in every once in a while and fire people up."

Methodists used that approach to become one of the largest religious groups in the United States, moving from "less than 2.5 percent of church adherents in 1776 to more than 34.2 percent in 1850," Finke wrote in a 2004 article for the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

Finke says multisite churches can draw on the methods used by Wesleyans and other denominations—a core set of teachings and a standard model of doing church—and still claim to be doing something new because of their innovative practices. "One of the problems with mainline churches now is that the brand or core teaching has changed, while at the same time church bureaucracy has strangled innovation," he says.

There seems to be more to this multisite idea than meets the eye.


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