Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Satellite Church Campuses: The Next Great Model, Or The Latest In Consumer Capitulation?

One of the growing trends in the evangelical world today is the satellite campus. When a church grows too much for its surroundings, or it feels it needs to expand in some significant way but cannot build, it may decide to start a cloned campus of itself.

I want to thank Steve for the link to the story in Christianity Today and his thoughts on the matter. He addresses what is an interesting twist in this trend-what of small rural areas that may not be able to hire a pastor? Would it be beneficial for them if they were part of a satellite campus network? I encourage you to visit his post.

For the uninitiated, a satellite church is a second (or third, fourth…) campus under the auspices of a single church in which the services are a mixture of live and video feed worship and/or sermon. The satellite campus serves another part of a community, but maintains the name, the character and the senior pastor of the main campus. The CT story notes that the Willow Creek satellite campuses are made to look and feel as much like the main campus as possible-like a franchise. The pastor there overseeing the satellite campuses notes:

Even the parking lot directors wear the same orange jackets—so that when people drive up, they immediately feel like they are at Willow. [Jim] Tomberlin says, "We do the same things same way you would do at Starbucks or a McDonald's or a brand name that works."

So what are we to make of this trend? As a church planter, I must admit a bit of a knee-jerk reaction to the whole thing. Isn’t a satellite church a little self-centered? Isn’t it a bit too much of an extension of a pastor’s or pastoral staff’s ego? What you find with most churches with satellite campuses is that they are large-up into the tens of thousands many times. Is it really all that hard to plant a sovereign church with all those resources and let them grow in a community themselves? Wouldn’t a church plant be better able to know and meet the needs of a specific community better than a video feed from across town?

Many satellite churches, and the ones mentioned in the article, try to meet those challenges by having pastors who oversee the ministry of the satellite campus and are physically there much the same way a typical pastoral staff would be at the main campus.

After reading the article and reflecting a bit, I have to say that I see some potential positives to this trend.

First, as noted by Steve, there may be ways to make this useful to churches and communities that cannot support a full-time pastor, or who have a hard time finding pastors who will stay for more than a couple of years. Steve also notes, though, that this situation has serious drawbacks as well such as the lack of connection between the “pastor” and the church and the relevance of the pulpit ministry. But if those can be overcome, is there a way to extend the ministry of a large church with many resources to a community that cannot enjoy some of those perks?

Secondly, there simply are things a large church can provide that small churches cannot. I have ministered in both, and see advantages in both sizes, and the advantages in a large church have a lot to do with budget.

Jim Tomberlin notes in the CT article that they have found that if parishioners drive more than 30 minutes to church, they are less likely to be involved or to invite friends. So the satellite, for them, helps to mitigate those problems. If they can drive 10 minutes to the “same” church, they are much more likely to invite friends and be involved. Not a bad result.

But there are other critiques that may go deeper than the results of involvement and franchised convenience. This post is getting long, so those will be developed later…

What are your reactions to this phenomena?


Brian said...


I was in the Springs a couple years ago and attended a church there that had a satellite church. It was a bit different.

I am not sure that the situation with the community supporting the full-time pastor is not a valid reason because most of these churches could easily support a full time pastor. In most cases the larger church has some super-star preacher that attracts people and so the are replicating him and the atmosphere of the largely successful already.

Could you discuss the church planting model that you apply?



Phil Steiger said...

Brian-Thanks for your thoughts. I tend to agree that rural churches would be bad places for this model to be applied. It would be as if the latest and greatest mega-pastor was able to stick another notch on their Bible and add to "their numbers."

As for our model, it is much like a typical Calvary Chapel model. Our focus in service is two-fold: Worship & The Word. My focus as a pastor is also two-fold: Maturity and Mission.

Tim Van Tongeren said...

Why not just find the most popular preachers in America, then everyone can attend the satellite church for those preachers? In fact, people don't need to drive at all, because we can broadcast the sermon to their television sets. We could probably have an entire television channel with just preachers, so people could attend these sermons whenever they want. I think we're really on to something... :)

Phil Steiger said...

That all seems very logical to me-and it would eliminate the need for plucky start-up churches to haul sound system and nursery equipment around every week!

Bob Robinson said...


Thanks for starting this conversation. I read that CT article with great interest, both because I once started a church plant myself in my family room and felt the struggles and anxieities that only church planting pastors feel (you know what I mean!!), and also because the church we have been attending in the last year is a megachurch (2,000+) that is starting a "satellite" campus in the city near them (they are an affluent suburban church, and they are placing the satellite in the high school of a small, blue-collar city near them).

I keep going back and forth on the issue. The city they are satelliting to has no church that offers the quality of worship and the "Christian services" that this church can offer through a satellite--thus attracting some who would not normally go to church. This is a good thing--a church seeking to reach a community with offering its excellent ministry.

But I'm troubled by the start-up campaign: It is all about making the Sunday worship event successful--nothing really about creating Christian community. They need greeters, worship leaders, communion servers, Sunday school teachers, etc.

The reason I bring that up is this: Satellite churches are in danger of making the Sunday worship event so central to ecclesiology that they miss becoming a transformative kingdom community. It's all about seeing a good show--excellent worship, a first-class sermon shown via DVD, an excellent children's program.

I'm afraid of the church becoming a show where many come to watch, but few come to mature. I'm afraid of a church where the pastor is nothing more than a speaker, worship is nothing more than a concert, and church is nothing more than the building where you go watch this stuff.

Bob Robinson said...

At vanguardchurch,

What do you think of Satellite Churches?

Phil Steiger (over at Every Thought Captive) has started a good conversation on Satellite Churches.

In a recent Christianity Today article (High-Tech Circuit Riders: Satellite churches are discovering a new way to grow the body of Christ), Bob Smietana writes that there is

almost 1,000 U.S. churches [are embracing] a multisite approach, according to the Leadership Network. Sometimes called a "satellite" or "franchise" model, going multisite is seen by advocates as one of the leading innovations of the 21st century and by critics as a sign that the church has sold out to consumerism—becoming just another big-box retailer, selling salvation with convenient hours and a discount price. The answer, as usual, lies somewhere in between."

If the answer lies somewhere in between, what is it?

Phil Steiger said...

Bob-I find this phraseology fascinating and insightful: "Satellite churches are in danger of making the Sunday worship event...central to ecclesiology"

I think that is a good way into this discussion. What are we trying to produce in the life of the believer through the activity and life of the church anyway? Like you said, is it a concert-like, franchise experience? Is there a way to "franchise" a church service without turning it into that kind of event?

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Anonymous said...

I don't see anything wrong with a large church reaching out with its vast resources to an unreached community. The problem that I have is with the method. I don't like the control that the larger church has on the smaller satellite church. Im not sure that we need to follow the McDonalds method to replicate churches. The model that I have witnessed that works and has worked over time is that the larger church supports the upstart church, financially, with leadership, and tallent. Then gradually removes itself so that the new church will stand on its own with its own leadership and style. After the church is under its own pastor and leadership then the larger church is completely removed from any leadership or financial assistance. I think this model better represents biblical discipleship.

ken said...

A video venue speaks one of two things;

1. The pastor is so freakin' egotistical that he wants his face everywhere on a big screen, or ...

2. The church is not about the 'pastor' at all and people who show up on a Sun. do so to experience God's presence, not to experience the pastor's presence.

The latter is probably true the majority of the time, at least I hope. I once spoke ill of video venues, expressing that if I were going to watch a video at a church, I'd just stay home and watch my fav TV preacher. Then I reminded myself, i go to experience God, not to see the color or style of shirt the messenger is wearing. Is our greatest concern that we have a physical, reachable preacher in our midst or that we know a resurrected, redeeming Savior to glorify in corporate worship.

Just a thought.


Anonymous said...

Hi Phil,

I don't necessarily believe that satellite campuses should be standard for all churches. I have come across a few that would have been better off just sending a Pastor to plant a church. That said, there are several reasons that I believe validate the need for satellite campuses. Sometimes, there are no workers willing to go out and plant a church or there simply are none. Also, sometimes sadly people do go to a church for a particular preacher and the Pastor's attempts at planting churches has fallen flat because these people refuse to go to a church that he is not there, rather than turn people away, the Pastor tries to remedy the overcrowding by creating satellites in areas where these people can attend. I know of both cases personally. I believe that had the apostles had the ability to do so, they would have used this means of ministering. Unfortunately, the flip side is that these satellites can also be an extension for Pastors who are not necessarily teaching truth and sadly their reach is extended by the ability to be in several different places. However, God created the technology and He will use it. As long as the true purpose is to glorify Him, I believe it is a good means to reach people. Thanks for the article.

Phil Steiger said...


Over the years since I wrote this post, I have had plenty of time and reasons to think this issue through, and while I am still weary of the problem of "ego-casting" I am probably a lot more sympathetic to conditions where some kind of satellite would be the best situation.

I grow sympathetic to the idea, then I meed an ego-caster, and then down I go...

Anonymous said...

I'm from Bristol, England. We have a church near near the city which has two satellite congregations, one in the heart of the city and the other on the outskirts. We don't use the video broadcasting arrangement but our pastor preaches at each church on a rota basis, we follow the same bible series and meet at our respective congregations in the morning and altogether in the evening. This has produced fruit which we are grateful to God for, but it has also caused identity issues, in that the 'sending' congregation doesn't feel it has a clear vision for gospel work. Steps have been and are being taken to rectify this through surveying the congregation and implementing a mission statement to establish a vision for the sending congregation. However, one of the issues that I believe lies at the heart of the problem is, it is not clear how the sending church's vision will remain separate from the satellite congregations', when we are all supposed to be one church and some of the ministries involve members from all 3 congregations.
Does anyone else have a similar setup? If so, have you any advice?