East Valley Bible Church was already a megachurch. Praxis Church was headed in the same direction. But last year, pastors Tyler Johnson and Justin Anderson agreed to merge their thriving congregations in order to better reach the Phoenix area.
Today attendance at four campuses of Redemption Church—which accepted a third partner in January—is nearly 4,800, a 14 percent increase over pre-merger days for all three churches combined.
"This was born out of the idea of having a city church, like the church at Ephesus or the church at Philippi," said Anderson, Redemption's lead pastor. "We asked, 'What would be the advantage of 100 churches in Phoenix partnering together for church planting, sharing staff … and [providing] lay training?' "
A new report from Leadership Network verifies that such mission-driven church mergers are a growing trend. Two percent of churches have merged in the last two years and five percent are likely to by 2013.
Jim Tomberlin and Warren Bird, who surveyed more than 400 churches earlier this year, say mergers have been on the rise in the U.S. and Canada for 20 years. Mergers have combined churches of different sizes, denominations, and ethnicities. Last October, an African American congregation in Missouri merged with a fading white church, preserving the latter's name.
Traditional survival-based mergers by dwindling churches often see the combined congregation ultimately shrink again. But the mission-driven model spurs additional growth, said Tomberlin, a multi-site consultant from Scottsdale, Arizona.
"The new merger math is one and one equals ten," he said. "There's a synergy about it."
Multi-site churches are a key part of this movement, with one in three originating from a merger. However, Bird says the new trend has more significance and the potential to affect far more churches.
"The multi-side model is a tool for the 20 percent of healthy, growing churches in America," said Bird, research director at Leadership Network. "The merger model is a tool for them and the remaining 80 percent of stuck or declining churches."
The October 2010 merger of Washington Heights Church in Ogden, Utah, and suburban Salt Lake City's Bountiful Baptist has proved beneficial to both, said lead pastor Roy Gruber. Not only has Washington Heights' attendance jumped more than 10 percent, attendance at Bountiful had nearly quadrupled by mid-summer.
"[Bountiful] had a heart for their community since the 1960s but were struggling," said Gruber. "There's an opportunity to reach more people through this."
Growth isn't a given. Mosaic Church of Central Arkansas remains at 600 worshipers three years after merging with a Hispanic church. However, it has since started a campus in nearby Conway. Last February, it also brought a struggling church from Durham, North Carolina, into the fold.
Directional leader Mark DeYmaz said the merged operation offers increased credibility, a broader identity, and financial efficiency.
"It's giving more people a chance to see our vision," DeYmaz said. "We're interested in helping churches and in expanding the multiethnic church movement."
Mergers can present challenges. Although Eagle Brook Church has seen considerable growth since its December 2007 merger with a fading church in suburban Minneapolis, discussions with two dozen other potential partners fizzled.
"Merger—when it works—is a great option," said executive pastor Scott Anderson. "But I do think people are a little naïve about what's involved. It's easier to raise money [for a new church] than to blend two cultures. It's a challenge."
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Previous articles on multisite churches and church life include:
Multi-Site Churches Go Interstate | Megachurches expand across state lines. (June 27, 2011)
Should Multisite Campuses Be Church Plants Instead? | Church leaders and observers weigh in on a current debate. (September 29, 2011)
The Art of Cyber Church | Joel Hunter is known by many as part of President Obama's inner circle of pastors. Fewer know him as one of America's most innovative church planters. (September 16, 2009)
High-Tech Circuit Riders | Satellite churches are discovering a new way to grow the body of Christ. (October 31, 2005)
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