Sundays are not exactly a day of rest for Paul Robie, lead pastor of the South Mountain Community Church.
Because the church has campuses in both Draper and the Daybreak development in South Jordan (not to mention a third campus in St. George), Robie has set the times for weekly worship services to allow him to preach at both northern Utah campuses: a 9:30 a.m. service in Draper, followed by a 10:30 service at Daybreak, then back to the Draper campus for an 11:15 service.
Oh, and in Draper there’s a 6 p.m. service on Saturday, as well.
“It’s all scheduled so I can be there,” he said during a recent interview in his office in the year-old Draper church. “We’re eventually going to add another campus in Utah County. We may have to adjust the schedule then. I don’t know. But for now this works for us.”
Making worship work in a multi-unit ministry is part of a growing trend in the United States Christian community, as pastors and their respective congregations consider what pastor/author/motivational speaker Ed Stetzer calls “a shift in ministry methodology.”
“The megachurch has been a topic of interest for years,” Stetzer wrote in a blog posted recently at Christianity Today. “There are more every year and their growth rate is increasing. In other words, it’s not just that there are more, their rate of increase is growing.”
Throughout the country there are dozens of churches that have grown so large they no longer qualify as mere megachurches — they are called gigachurches. Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston, for example, draws an estimated weekly congregation of more than 43,500 followers. The Hartford Institute for Religion Research lists 92 churches from all around the country with an average weekly attendance of more than 10,000 people.
But rather than continue to build more and larger facilities for mega- and gigachurch populations, Stetzer observes that “many of the largest churches have begun to favor multisite expansion or church planting partnerships.”
“While the large, larger and largest churches continue to grow ever larger,” he said, “they do not require larger spaces in the process — just more spaces.”
Utah doesn’t have any gigasize churches — although there are some who think The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ 20,000-seat Conference Center qualifies during LDS general conferences in April and October — but it does have a number of large churches, including thriving examples of all three types of megchurches Stetzer noted: the traditional large one-site church, the multisite expansion church and the church that focuses on planting new church partnerships.
‘The big guy’
“This is really just a philosophical decision,” said veteran Pastor Myke Crowder of the Layton Christian Life Center, one of the largest single-site churches in Utah, with an average weekly attendance of up to 1,100 people (which Crowder refers to as being “comfortably full”).
“Whether or not you want to limit to the one-location format, or to be more geographically relevant, it’s simply a philosophical decision that you have to make,” he said, adding that it is a complex decision because “you have to have the right people in place to make any one of the operational options work.”
He recalled attending church during a recent visit to his hometown of Joplin, Mo. “It was one of those churches where the small church was tied in to a bigger church,” he said. “So you had the local pastor there, and then you had the big guy on TV.”
At the Layton Christian Life Center, Crowder is “the big guy,” and he has been since he was spiritually impressed to minister in Utah in 1986. The Center shares space with the Layton Christian Academy, a fact that mandates a large, functional facility that can meet the various needs of both a dynamic megasize church as well as a fully accredited school with some 600 kindergarten through 12th-grade students.
“One of the big challenges faced by many megachurches is that it seems like a waste to build such large structures only to have them sit empty most of the time,” Crowder said. “We don’t have that problem. This place is a seven-day-a-week operation. Practically every square inch of this building is used all the time, and there are times when we have two or three things going on at the same time.”
And the fiery, energetic church leader wouldn’t have it any other way. In fact, he said, as the church and school have expanded through the years, the facility has been enlarged to accommodate additional needs as well as to provide ample space that could be used for community events.
“We aren’t just a church,” Crowder said. “We are also a school and a community center.”
That fact, he said, has helped both the school and the church survive the ebb and flow of economic realities through the years.
“A number of Christian schools closed down during the recession,” said Crowder, who noted that his college business degree has come in handy during such times. “We’ve weathered the economic storms because we had the school and the church and neither was on its own. We’ve been able to split costs and share expenses in a way that has been beneficial to both.”
Through it all, the church has continued to grow as the spiritual home for what is now more than 2,000 regular attenders.
“We started small,” Crowder said, referring to his early days when a full house meant 50 or 60 people at the old church building on Layton’s Golden Avenue. “We grew quickly at first, like an old revival breakout. Since then we’ve maintained as a healthy, growing church, but we haven’t had the manpower to facilitate the establishment of additional campuses or churches.”
And that’s OK, the pastor said, because “we’re comfortable with who and where and what we are.”
For Pastor Paul Robie at South Mountain Community Church, the decision to go with the multisite concept was a way to harness the advantages of a large congregation while still maintaining the intimacy and warmth of a smaller church.
“The only people who love a huge crowd (are) the band and the preacher,” he said, chuckling as he leaned back in his office chair. “Everyone else likes a more intimate feel. People like to know their leader, their pastor. And that just isn’t possible when a church gets so big.”
That’s part of the reason Robie travels back and forth from church to church most Sundays.
“In most multisite churches, the pastor is on a big screen — that’s the No. 1 way that multisite churches do their preaching,” he said. “But we have chosen not to go that way. We live in such an impersonal world, and I think people are looking for the personal touch at church. So that’s what we give them.”
He is also concerned about members of his congregation who have come to South Mountain Community Church after leaving their previous church as a result of a crisis of faith.
“A crisis of faith is often manifest as a crisis of trust,” he said. “We don’t want anyone to walk into our services and have someone say to them, ‘You’ll probably never meet that guy on the screen, but you can trust him.’ So that’s why we don’t go that way.”
Instead, Robie does most of the Sunday preaching, while campus pastors, freed from the weekly tyranny of having to prepare sermons, spend their time in hands-on ministry to the people who attend church at their respective campuses.
The local campus church also gives more people a chance to be involved in the work of the church.
“If you just have one location with hundreds, maybe thousands, of people, you have a lot of people just sitting on the sidelines and not getting involved,” Robie said. “The more sites that you have, the more people you can get in the game. Every single person needs something to do, and with the campus churches you have way more opportunities for involvement.”
That involvement, he added, enhances individual opportunities for connecting with other like-minded believers. To demonstrate, he holds his cellphone in the air.
“It’s like this cellphone,” he says. “Right now it’s searching for a connection. We’re the same way. We’re wired by God to search for and connect with other people. We’re wired to seek out and respond to authentic communication, which can only happen when people know each other and are known by each other.
“That’s the secret sauce,” he said, smiling and leaning back in his chair again. “People can search the Internet and find every sermon I give done better and more effectively by other pastors than what I could do. But they come here because of that connection. And that happens best in the smaller, campus congregations.”
Pastor Bill Young of The Rock Church also believes in the spiritual advantages of smaller, community-based churches, although he makes it clear he is “not opposed to the idea of a megachurch.”
“There’s nothing wrong with a bigger church,” said Young, whose ministry at The Rock Church includes locations in Salt Lake City, Sandy and Provo. “I would take a megachurch, no problem. But I would plant other churches out of it.”
Which is the type of megachurch Young finds himself drawn to: one that plants other churches or sends its members out to establish other independent churches in other locations.
“It’s in my DNA,” Young said, referring to his early days as a Christian, when he left his engineering career and home in Iowa to help plant new churches in Colorado. The establishment of The Rock Church in Salt Lake City was itself a planting effort from that Colorado church, featuring a core group of six families (“about 35 people, counting the dogs,” he joked as he sipped coffee in a Sandy bagel shop) in 1999 that has now grown to just under a thousand congregants at the three locations.
“This is what I know — we plant churches,” he said. “Statistically, you can reach more people by starting new churches than by just growing really big. But the main thing to me is how it feeds the spiritual hunger of those who accept the call to plant a church. There’s just something about looking at your congregation and saying, ‘We’re going to plant a new church. Who wants to go?’"
For example, right now The Rock has a church plant ready to launch in Romania.
“I’ve got three families who are ready to go plant that church,” Young said. “I have to keep holding them back because we’re not quite ready for them to go yet.”
Still, he said, “it just really strengthens you to watch as people apply their faith. I always want to be a part of that.”
Like South Mountain Community Church, each of the three locations of The Rock Church has its own pastor. And also like South Mountain, The Rock features live preaching at Sunday services, although the four pastors share preaching duties.
“We teach about Jesus,” Young said. “Our goal, our mission is to bring people to Christ, to strengthen them in the faith and then to send them out to follow where the Lord leads them.”
That can be scary, the pastor said. But he embraces English writer and theologian G.K. Chesterton’s observation that “the more I consider Christianity, the more I found that while it had established a rule and order, the chief aim of that order was to give room for good things to run wild.”
“The organization of the church is just the platform we use to see what God can do,” Young said. “We introduce people to Jesus, and then we wait to see what happens when good things run wild.”
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company