On a Sunday morning in a rural area nine miles north of Atmore, congregants packed into a small makeshift chapel at the City Hope Church campus in town to sing praise and worship songs and hear a message from pastor Jerry Taylor. The message is broadcast to each of City Hope’s six Alabama campuses and two overseas locations.
At this particular campus, the message is heard solely by men living in the Holman Correctional Facility, a state prison home to more than 1,000 prisoners, many of whom are either on death row or facing a life sentence. Holman is the place where all of the state’s executions are conducted and was the site of a large-scale prison riot in March. A recent MSNBC documentary, “Lockup: Holman Extended Stay,” painted a bleak picture of the facility, where men with lengthy, sometimes unending sentences face lives of intolerable Southern heat, danger from prison gangs and overcrowded cells.
But on this particular Sunday, a handful of those inmates are smiling, dancing and raising their hands while City Hope’s worship band plays a Hillsong United song called “Glorious Ruins.” The church believes reaching into the prison system is part of its core mission to spread the gospel of Christ to all corners of the Earth.
“It is amazing to see guys at Holman who have really bought into the message,” City Hope Mobile campus pastor Josh Sullivan said. “We have guys who tithe regularly and give back to the church based on their in-prison income from making license plates. It is amazing. We’ve had guys get baptized, and they invite other inmates to church.”
With multiple campuses open today, an additional location coming to Saraland and plans to expand into other correctional facilities, City Hope is one of a handful of multisite churches broadening their reach in Mobile and Baldwin counties in the face of a national downward trend in church attendance figures.
“The new megachurch”
As mainline Protestant and evangelical denominations have experienced steep declines in membership in the last few years, churches with multiple campuses seem to be flourishing in coastal Alabama.
University of Mobile professor Dr. Jay Robertson said churches in Mobile and Baldwin counties are part of a nationwide trend over the last 10 to 15 years. Robertson, pastor at Crawford Baptist Church in Semmes, said over the past 15 years more than 8,000 multisite churches with 5 million worshippers have been founded in the United States.
“Multisite is the new megachurch,” Robertson said. “The mentality in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s was to build these huge, cavernous churches for people. Then you would basically ask people to come fill these buildings once or twice a week. Some nationwide megachurches could serve 9,000 people in a weekend. But the trend today is for churches to expand with multiple sites and stream the Sunday message online.”
While multisite churches appear to be on the rise, a 2015 Pew Research Center survey of more than 35,000 adults indicated the Christian share of the nation’s population fell from 78.4 percent to 70.6 percent from 2007 to 2014.
During the same period, the evangelical Protestant population — Southern Baptist Convention, Assemblies of God, Churches of Christ, Presbyterian Church in America, et cetera — fell from 26.3 percent to 25.4 percent, and the mainline Protestant population — United Methodist Church, American Baptist Churches USA, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church (USA) and Episcopal Church — fell at a more drastic rate, from 18.1 percent to 14.7 percent.
In keeping with the Pew study’s findings, last month LifeWay Christian Resources released its annual church statistics, which showed a steep decline in membership in Southern Baptist Convention churches, traditionally the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. The study showed the SBC’s total membership fell by more than 200,000 in the last year.
While the SBC defended the numbers, saying roughly 8 percent of its churches did not report membership figures last year, Robertson said there is evidence to back up the study’s results.
“I think a lot of mainline, traditional evangelical denominations are at best stagnant,” Robertson said. “I’ve seen studies that show 85 to 90 percent of churches in America have plateaued, meaning they are either barely seeing membership increase or they are decreasing. I also know there are some mainline, traditional churches that report they have not baptized anyone new since the 1990s.”
According to Robertson, multisite churches such as City Hope and 3Circle Church, which are expanding their reach on both sides of Mobile Bay and beyond, are thriving because their methods — considered unconventional by some mainline Christians — reach young people who may have been drawn away from the church after leaving home for college and those who are considered “unchurched.” Robertson said studies show 75 to 80 percent of Mobile County’s population is largely “unchurched,” so many evangelical churches consider it a mission field.
“There is hope in the multisite vision,” Robertson said. “There are a lot of younger people who are looking for a church that stands out and has solid, Gospel-driven preaching. If they are going to go to church, they want to go somewhere that is making a difference in the community. These churches are doing that.”
For 3Circle Church pastor Chris Bell, the multisite vision is based in biblical values. With campuses in Fairhope, Daphne, Midtown, Semmes and Thomasville, 3Circle Church considers the Mobile area and Alabama Gulf Coast part of its “local circle.” The church takes its name name from Acts 1:8, which calls Christians to preach the Gospel to “the ends of the Earth.”
Bell said the multisite church vision may be considered a new idea today, but it is founded on the way the church spread in the New Testament.
“If you look at what the apostles did in the New Testament, it was essentially the first ‘multisite’ church,” Bell said. “It may appear to be this new, progressive idea but we believe the multisite idea is rooted in the Bible.”
3Circle Church was founded 16 years ago as the Church on the Eastern Shore. In 2013, it changed its name to reflect its multisite vision. Five years ago, the church opened a second campus in Thomasville. Since then, the 3Circle has expanded and now has five locations. Besides its home base near the intersection of state highways 181 and 104 in Fairhope, 3Circle has campuses in Daphne, Thomasville, Semmes and Midtown Mobile in the former Sage Avenue Baptist Church building.
“Locally, our circle encompasses Mobile and Baldwin counties,” Bell said. “If our goal is to impact the entire community around us, not just one city in Baldwin County, we had to make a choice. We could build a huge campus in one place and ask everyone to come to us, or we could go to the places we say we want to reach.”
Each campus has its own church staff with a local pastor and praise and worship band. Bell’s message originates at the Fairhope campus and is streamed live at the other campuses 80 percent of the time. At other times the message is delivered live by a campus pastor. Bell said because he delivers most of the Sunday messages, campus pastors are free to spend more time in their respective communities.
“We are not out there trying to expand our brand or anything like that,” Bell said. “We aren’t a franchise. We are not a McDonald’s. We are trying to create and plant life-giving churches in our communities.”
While some have criticized multisite churches for their perceived inability to offer proper pastoral care to congregants at each campus and delivery of an impersonal sermon on Sundays, Bell said every 3Circle campus pastor has a duty to love and serve the community they are in.
“Our campuses each have a local staff and they are all different. We believe they are reflective of the community they are in,” Bell said. “Our campus pastors are enabled to disciple and lead people in the church. They can devote time to serving the campus and the community they are placed in. Because I take most of the weight of pastoring, they are free to be out in the community, which is our mission.”
“Healthy churches grow”
“Just like healthy plants and healthy people grow, healthy churches also grow,” Sullivan said. “I think they will continue to grow as long as they preach the message of the Gospel. I thank God for big churches with big buildings because I believe God calls people to that. But I’m also thankful there are churches out there willing to expand and reach people in more than one place.”
Taylor founded City Hope at the intersection of Interstate 10 and State Highway 181 in Malbis as Bay Community Church 18 years ago. Six years ago, the Malbis location experienced rapid grown, and roughly 250 people were driving from Mobile to the Malbis campus.
“We looked at those 250 people who took the Bayway every Sunday for the service and realized that they should be able to be planted where they are,” Sullivan said. “They shouldn’t have to drive 30 or 40 minutes to church, when they could have the same City Hope experience in their own neighborhood. That way it would be easier to invite their neighbors to church and to really be involved in the community.”
City Hope’s Mobile campus started with those 250 members in the Hollywood Theater building and has since moved to a location on Airport Boulevard. While Sullivan would not discuss overall attendance figures, the church has since expanded to become one of the largest multisite churches in the area, opening campuses in Malbis, Mobile, Foley and Bay Minette. City Hope plans to open a campus in Saraland soon.
The church has also expanded internationally, with campuses planted in Honduras and an unspecified location in Asia.
Similar to other multisite churches, City Hope has campus pastors and staff at each location. Sullivan is the campus pastor in Mobile. Taylor delivers the Sunday message in Malbis, and that message is then broadcast to other campuses.
“We want to reach people. Christians are supposed to make a positive impact on the community around them,” Sullivan said, recalling a passage from the book of Matthew. “Jesus called us to be salt and light in the world. Having multiple sites enables us to do that in an effective way.”
Local churches bucking national trends
“I think the idea of ‘traditional vs. nontraditional’ is subjective and I think that what people see as ‘traditional’ today is not necessarily rooted in church history,” Bell said. “A hundred years ago people thought the idea of Sunday school was crazy and ‘nontraditional.’”
Bell believes the wave of multisite churches is partly the result of changes in modern technology, which allows 3Circle and other multisite churches to live stream their Sunday sermon to multiple campuses.
According to Bell, in the last century churches were wary of broadcasting their message on the radio, but today any number of church services can be heard on radio stations nationwide on Sunday morning.
“Churches should take advantage of all of the tools at our disposal,” Bell said. “God gave us this technology and we need to use it to glorify him. Sure, multisite is a trend right now, but 100 years ago church radio broadcasts were probably considered a trend. Multisite is effective if done right and it is cost efficient. The technology has allowed us to reach many more people for Christ than we could without it.”
Robertson said the Mobile area is in line with declining national church attendance numbers, but recent reporting in national news media on those numbers often ignores the growth of churches at the local level.
According to Bell, mainline evangelical churches are collapsing because they have abandoned their orthodoxy.
“The churches that are surviving and growing today are the ones that are truly serving their community,” Bell said. “As a church we dearly and deeply love the communities we are in because Christ loves those communities. That’s what we are passionate about. You have to love the city you are in before you can reach it.”
Robertson’s church, Crawford Baptist Church in Semmes, numbered just 140 members eight years ago. Today its membership has swelled to more than 400 with multiple active ministries. If the opportunity arises, Robertson said he is open to a multisite approach. For now, he said, the church’s future lies in planting churches in other states. He said there is potential to plant a church in Las Vegas, Nevada.
“I’m a professor and I always give my students a syllabus outlining the things I expect them to learn and do during the semester,” Robertson said. “Jesus gave us a syllabus, and it told us to go and make disciples, and if we aren’t reaching and baptizing people in the name of Christ, we are failing our basic mission as Christians. I think a lot of our churches have become too comfortable in doing the same things over and over again.”