Responding to Your Vision of Church Expansion: An Aspen Podcast

By July 27, 2017 News No Comments
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If your church wants to expand to more locations, you must first know the questions to ask:  What does “going multisite” mean? And a “church plant” . . . is that the same thing? How do other churches make a decision to expand? How might it affect the leadership and operations within my church?

In Episode 1 of the Alignment Conference Podcast, Brooke Hempell, senior VP of research at Barna Group, shares what she learned when asking church leaders around the country these same questions—all compiled in the More Than Multisite research study.

And if you’re not a numbers person, don’t worry. In this conversation, Brooke helps make sense of the data in applying it to your vision of church expansion.


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Read the Full Transcript Below:

Evan McBroom: Welcome to the Aspen Group Alignment Conference podcast {series} where we’re talking about launching your next church. Whether you’re looking at multisite, or {church} planting, a merger or otherwise, this conference is for church leaders who are thinking strategically about expansion.

My name’s Evan McBroom, and it’s super fun for me that I get to emcee the Alignment Conference each year. And this year, it’s hosted at Thrive Christian Church in Westfield, Indiana—that’s a suburb north of Indianapolis—on October 17th. And if you haven’t been there yet, I would encourage you to go to AlignmentConference.com to learn more.

The conference is really Aspen Group’s conference to bring to churches once a year or more to really sit down and dive deep into the intersection of some really important things. Marian Liautaud, the director of marketing with Aspen Group, is here. What is that intersection, Marian?

Marian Liautaud: Hi, Evan. First of all, we love that you emcee for us every year. You bring the fun to Alignment!

Evan McBroom: Thanks.

Marian Liautaud: Alignment, what we do is we look at the intersection of Culture, Leadership, Ministry and Facilities. We do that in a number of ways, but those are the four pillars of alignment in our world.

Evan McBroom: Excellent. We’re joined today by Brooke Hempell, senior vice president of research with Barna Group. Brooke, how are you today?

Brooke Hempell: Hi. Good, thank you.

Evan McBroom: You said you just got out of a presentation—a couple hours presenting data—and that gets you jazzed up. Tell us about that. What is that in you that gets so excited when you think about data?

Brooke Hempell: It does. I just love getting to see all that I get to see happening in God’s Kingdom. My lens for doing that is through studies and research that we do. We get to work with some of the best ministries and churches and leaders in Christianity in this country and even overseas. It’s just my great pleasure to be a part of the work that God’s doing in that way.

What’s fun is when I get to conduct studies in different areas, so whether it’s on architecture and church leadership—as this study is—or it’s on trends in education—as I was just presenting on today—or world views of today’s teens. Then, you get to see crossover between those things. You get to see how one trend that you see in one study is showing up in another study in a different way and how these are real phenomenon that you’re observing in our culture and in our world and in our faith. It’s truly showing that God is at work, and there’s things moving with His Kingdom. It’s my real pleasure to be able to connect those dots and get to see all these different studies and see how God is moving in our world. 

Evan McBroom: I love that. As you talk about all this I think about … pastors and church leaders, everybody has a lot of feelings, “I feel this is going on, I feel, I …”, but to be able to go from feeling, hunch, intuition to data is really an important thing. That’s really cool.

Marian, give us a little history of this current research project that Aspen Group and Barna have brought together. 

Marian Liautaud: Yeah, so the most recent project we released with Barna was the More Than Multisite study. Brooke, we started working with you a couple of years ago now. First of all, one of the reasons we embarked on that study was at Aspen we started just seeing more and more churches tripping over the idea of how do we expand. They’ve got some good growth. Or, they’re really strategic in wanting to hit a geographic area, but they don’t really know how to do that well. There are all kinds of challenges associated with expanding. We wanted to really get some good data on it and find out what is the state of multisite and church expansion.

We had worked with Barna before on the Making Space for Millennials project and just had a great experience with Barna on that and learned a lot about cultural shifts that are happening. We felt that looking at what is happening in the world of church expansion and partnering with Barna again would be a great fit because they bring just a breadth of experience working with churches over decades. We just knew that they would have a good understanding of the church as a whole and wanted to draw from that. It was just great fun and really interesting to work with Brooke in developing the survey and helping do the qualitative interviews. It just was a really great process. We’ve learned a ton.

Evan McBroom: That’s awesome. Tell us, Brooke, a little bit about specifically your role on the More Than Multisite research project.

Brooke Hempell: Sure. Well, I head up all of our research studies at Barna. Again, that is my great pleasure. I get to work with wonderful clients and partners like Aspen, and it’s been awesome to be a part of Marian’s team for this work.

We worked with them to craft the research study and then specific surveys and questions that would help us to uncover some of the challenges that churches face when they’re considering going multisite or, what we learned in the process was, expanding in whatever way.

One of the things that we worked with Marian’s team in doing was to think about the language that was used and the strategy that was behind expansion. Multisite is quite a buzzword in some ways. I think a lot of churches hear it, and they think, “Oh, we should do that.” It’s the trend of the day in some cases. We were trying to dig into that. Well, what does that really mean? How does that take place? How does a church make a decision to do that—to expand to different locations? It was great to work with Marian’s team and hear what they had heard from different clients they’ve worked with about some of the strategic decisions they had to make, some of the impacts that this multisite strategy would’ve had on leadership or implications for leadership, tactical things like branding and naming, and how do you operationalize multiple locations.

We dug into all those things. But we also decided to pull back a little bit and say, “Well, it’s not just about multisite. It’s about expanding in a number of ways, and so let’s see if we can make this a more inclusive study that will give churches a bit of a sense of different models that exist for how to do this.” That’s what was fun is that we were able to take a broader look at multisite than just what you think of traditionally as this big, booming, large church that just needs more room.

We were able to see—again this is the fun part of my job is get to see God’s Kingdom at work. You’re able to see the many, many faces and types of churches that exist when people are expanding and when leaders are responding to a vision that they have for how they’re going to reach their city or how they’re going to reach their region. There are so many shapes and forms that takes, and so we were trying to capture that with this study and have that be a guidance for pastors and leaders who are thinking about different options that they have for expanding and growing.

Marian Liautaud: Brooke, I remember in doing the data one of our first early challenges was looking at the raw data and realizing, “Uh oh, there’s no one consistent way of doing this.” Really it was quite a feat to sift through. You guys really had your work cut out for you to figure out what are some handles we can provide the church for understanding here are some common ways that churches organize or figure out how to launch a new congregation. There’s so many hybrid variations.

Brooke Hempell: Yeah, yeah.

Marian Liautaud: Can you talk a little bit more about some of those key reasons why churches were launching or just one or two key findings that were like, “Oh wow, that’s interesting.”

Brooke Hempell: Yeah, it really was tricky. There is not a model or two models or three models. There were so many different ways that churches approach this because every situation was different. Every church’s local context is different and every church’s structural situation is different. Some of the themes that we heard … Again, we went in thinking, “Oh, this is a way of addressing the fact that we’re awkward in our facilities, a facility constraint kind of thing or growth issue kind of thing.” That was only true if we asked them their primary reason for going into an expansion mode—whether that’s multisite or planting churches—the primary reason, only 3% of churches said that.

If we spin and said, “Well, of any of the reasons why?”, and about a quarter of these churches said that was a reason why. Much more likely was that they had a very clear vision for their church to impact the region where they were—whether that’s a city or a broader region—that they want to geographically cover an area and be able to really impact the city. That’s a visionary thing. Especially from multisite, a lot of the churches who were engaging in that had a very clear vision for impacting a whole city and using all of these different sites to bring peace and change to a city in a really beautiful way.

One of the other very clear reasons why churches were expanding, and this was more true amongst church plants, was that pastors were very missional about a specific demographic or a specific type of church—a way of doing church—that connected with a certain group of people. It was not a reaction to a growth situation. It was broad. It was part of a broader mission or calling to bring a certain type of church to a community. What was wonderful about the confusing, messy, lack of model was that in every case it was God opening certain doors and giving certain leaders a vision, and then those leaders responding faithfully and navigating the challenges of this in a way that brought good and brought growth to the church.

Marian Liautaud: For me, learning that data point was such a hopeful indication for the church. You hear so much about churches in decline and the church is dying. To me, what surfaced in the study was that churches, leaders are using the multisite model or a church planting in really strategic ways, and it’s not just about megachurches running out of space. It’s truly a strategic move on their part.

Evan McBroom: For me it shifted the conversation that you often hear that one way is better than another. “Well, churches really should do this, or they really ought to do that.” It changed it to there really is going to be a very unique answer for each congregation—for each set of leaders.

Marian Liautaud: Yeah, that was a pretty cool thing. Brooke, I’m really interested too in what we learned from this study . . . could you see correlations at all that reflected cultural shifts based on other studies you guys have done at Barna looking at culture? Where are some correlations between cultural shifts and then multisites and church expansion?

Brooke Hempell: One of the shifts—and this ties together the study that we did with you earlier about Making Space for Millennials—one of those shifts is that Millennials are very much seeking more local, more personal connection with the church. That’s not to say that they won’t go to a megachurch, but that there is a bit of a movement happening of smaller, local, intentionally-communally-oriented churches where they’re trying to, again, reach and have an impact on a community. And that’s very engaging to a lot of Millennials that they can have a tangible impact.

That has to do a lot with the multisite or church planting model in that the idea is when we get to a certain size it’s harder for us to be meaningful and relevant in the lives of our people. And so we need to then be splitting this in certain ways or be more local and more intentional in creating more a neighborhood feel kind of churches. Because that’s a place where there’s a real sense of belonging and connection and accountability and mentorship and relationship that many Millennials really crave—especially those who didn’t get the spiritual grounding that they might feel that they really need and still desire in their lives today. We definitely see that trend of a desire for a more personal connection being a part of that expansion. And expansion, you think big but it also means disseminating in a way, so being more local, more relevant.

The other piece of it that was really interesting is that there’s an increasing concern in the church about how to do discipleship well. A lot of nonprofit organizations or churches or ministries come to us asking us for guidance on studies about discipleship. One of the things that we saw in this study was that when they planted a church or when they opened a new site, these expanding churches actually saw their congregation being discipled better. That was one of our concerns was that when you expand and when you open a new site, does that mean that you’re not able to feed the flock as well, that the discipleship isn’t happening as deeply and richly? And it was quite the opposite.

What it meant was in a big congregation it’s easier to sit back on one’s laurels and be served, but when you’ve all got to step up and pitch in and do a new thing together, that’s planting a new church or just functionally making church happen in a new site, that really calls people and their faith to step up as well. It stretches them in a way that most of the leaders we talked to said was extremely positive. We see this need in the church where a lot of ministries are coming to us saying, “Wow, there’s a real need for better discipleship.” Here’s an example of one thing that you wouldn’t have anticipated is having a great impact on discipleship of the flock.

Marian Liautaud: That’s really interesting. Brooke, you’re going to be our keynote speaker at Alignment this year, and so we’re really excited to take a second look at the study. David Kinnaman was with us last year when we released it. And this year we’re really hoping to dive in even a little bit deeper and look at some of the implications of the study. We’re really hoping to help leaders, help pastors and ministry leaders catch a vision for where God might be leading them in expanding their church and how to do that well. I’m curious, for you as a researcher, how can leaders use data to shape and inform a vision that they receive so they’re not just going off of emotion and all of that?

Brooke Hempell: Exactly, yeah. I think Evan set that up really well, which is, we actually find of all the groups that we tend to survey pastors are the least excited about numbers, which makes sense. They’re often theologically trained, and they love to study and look at history and all sorts of other disciplines. But numbers are not their favorite. Many are afraid of that or just not interested or drawn to the numbers in quite the same way. I would really encourage pastors to stop and look at the numbers. Not the numbers per se, but what does that mean.

A study like this, for example, what it does is give you a relative sense of things. It doesn’t matter if it was 4 percent or 5 percent who were building their multisite campus because of a facility need. What matters is that that was the least important reason to build. The most important reason was having a clear vision or calling to make an impact in that location they’re called to. What it suggests is, “Okay, let me rethink my priorities. Why are we doing this?” That’s just one example, when we open up a study and we look at it, what’s relative to each other is more important than the absolute.

Taking a study like this and saying, “What are the reasons that people have planted or what are the challenges they encounter when they did plant or what are the priorities they made on what that new facility would look like or what are the impacts that it had on leadership development or the gaps that it revealed in leadership development?” Those are all things that can help shape the way pastors are thinking about these really important decisions.

The other thing that we just have learned across many studies we’ve done with pastors, this study—also one about church planters and finances—and then also our State of Pastors study. Over the last three or so years we’ve done these big, monumental studies that all have come together and shown this picture of pastors don’t love numbers. They really don’t like finances, and they really don’t like all the operational sides of things. In fact, more and more we see executive pastors having a role either in an individual church or certainly in a church planting or multisite type of network. That alleviates some of the stress.

One of the things that became obvious to us is that pastors are trying to be all things, and they’re called to be all things in a lot of cases. But that is really, really hard on them. I would recommend to pastors to pick up some of these studies or some research on a certain topic and have encouragement knowing that they’re not alone. Knowing that other pastors are facing similar challenges, other leaders are struggling with certain things. It helps them not feel so lonely because they are in an incredibly lonely job. They are leading a flock, and there’s a lot of pressure on that. And they make a lot of sacrifices to do that well and to serve faithfully.

What we see when we survey pastors often is that we ask them how it’s going, and they’re like, “It’s great, it’s great. I’m so encouraged and I’m on this mission and I love it.” Then we start to ask them specific questions, and we realize this is really hard. And it’s having an impact on their life in a lot of ways. How do you square that circle? They’re very optimistic, but they’re also juggling a lot. To read a study about other churches can be extremely encouraging.

Marian Liautaud: Yeah.

Evan McBroom: Yeah.

Brooke Hempell: That you’re not alone and there’s others who are facing similar decision points as you.

Evan McBroom: I think that will also happen the day of the conference, that you come together and you’re shoulder to shoulder with maybe your team and then others from other churches, as well.

Marian Liautaud: Yeah, that’s exactly right. Evan, I’m curious from your perspective because Fishhook was a co-sponsor of the More Than Multisites study along with Aspen. I’m curious for you as a communications company, what did you glean from the study? Why was it important for you?

Evan McBroom: Sure. I think it reinforced some things that we would have guessed, and then there were some surprises, as well. I think for sure, right out of the gate, churches that are considering some sort of expansion there’s a big question just about your name. Will your name still represent you well in all the places that you’re going to go? If it’s a location name or maybe easily confused, if you go into another community, with something else. There’s a naming thing.

There’s a big issue about what will be centralized and what will be decentralized. I think, again, that applies to many areas of leadership, but from a communication standpoint what will be done and led corporately and what rights or liberties will be given to campus or location pastors or leaders? That then spills into staffing structures, funding and financing of the communication efforts and the materials. How do you promote church-wide events versus specific-location events. And as soon as you talk about event promotion, now you have very specific things to look at for the website. How will your website be structured differently?

Then social media is probably the biggest moving target because it is moving all the time and now you’re talking about multiple locations. Again, that’s a big thing. How will you give each campus pastor … Can you give them each their social media outlet to care for their flock without creating confusion or mixed messages with what you’re trying to do corporately. There’s a lot and that’s the four or five things off the top of my head.

Marian Liautaud: Yeah, that’s cool. One of the things I’m excited about with the Alignment Conference this year is along with unpacking the actual data, giving leaders a chance to just peer-to-peer share, “This is what’s working for us. Here’s what’s not working, or here’s where we’re challenged.” One of the great things about having just that day experience is you’ve got a little time and space carved out to just find out from each other, “What are you doing and how are you expanding?” Anyway, so I’m excited about that aspect of it.

Evan McBroom: Anything else as we start to wrap here, Brooke? Anything else, your hope for church leaders that day?

Brooke Hempell: Well, I think that’s a great observation you make Marian because one of the things that I love most about this research—even though the data is always intriguing to me—my favorite part was interviewing one-on-one a lot of the examples of multisite and church plants that we got to interview, leaders in this space. Like I said, they all had a different story, and it was so fascinating to hear the nuances of how this new church plant or new multisite church got started or how this network developed and then the choices they had to make. Just sharing those stories, there’s just so much to glean, wisdom to gain, ideas of how you could do things differently. How do we think differently about what are our assumptions of what church should even be physically? I think just having an opportunity to share stories is really, really inspiring and helpful as you’re thinking about creating vision and following vision for your church.

Evan McBroom: Awesome. Marian, anything else as we close?

Marian Liautaud: We’re just hoping to see a lot of pastors from around the country to join us at Alignment. They’ll hear Brooke, as well as many other speakers that day, and just really learn some great tips and best practices for expanding and launching your next church.

Evan McBroom: Excellent. Brooke and Marian, thanks so much for being a part of this today.

Marian Liautaud: Thanks Evan.

Evan McBroom: Grateful that you’re here. You bet. Again, that’s the 2017 Alignment Conference—Launching Your Next Church—October 17, 2017 at Thrive Christian Church in Westfield, Indiana. You can register and learn more at AlignmentConference.com.