If multi-site church was the big issue of the last five years, the general consensus is that the emergence of church mergers is the next big issue.
As I’ve often said, leading Mars Hill Church over the last fifteen years has been like being a kite in a hurricane. The amount of grace that God has poured out on us has been amazing and hard to keep up with at times.
In the last fifteen years, we’ve gone from a church comprising a handful of family members and friends in my living room to over 12,000 people meeting each Sunday at what will soon be fourteen different locations in four different states, with more on the horizon, Lord willing.
Most of the churches that comprise Mars Hill were the result of men who felt called to a specific area to plant a church. They approached the elders, explained where they felt God was leading them, and we all prayed and discussed the opportunity. The leaders went through a rigorous approval process to be installed as a pastor/elder, and only then were allowed to lead one of our churches.
Four of our churches, however, are a result of mergers.
Mars Hill Bellevue
In the mid-2000s, a Mars Hill elder planted church on the Eastside of the greater Seattle area called The Vine. This plant was led by a Mars Hill pastor at the time, Jesse Winkler. The Vine started with a small core group from Mars Hill and eventually grew to be somewhere between 100 to 200 people.
Many people from that area were still driving into Seattle to attend Mars Hill in Ballard, and the number of people grew so large that we decided to consider planting a church east of Seattle. We met with Winkler and asked him if he wanted to continue as an independent church with us planting another one far enough away from his church so as to not drain his people, or if he wanted to become a Mars Hill Church. He took some time to fast and pray, seeking God’s will, and was convinced God was asking him to partner with Mars Hill to lead one church made up of people from The Vine and Mars Hill. The Vine church became Mars Hill Eastside in 2008, which eventually became Mars Hill Bellevue.
After the merger, the church saw immediate growth, going from 200 people to over 500 people almost overnight. Some Sundays, men were asked to stand outside in the wet and cold of Seattle to listen via speaker because we couldn't fit everyone into the small funeral home in which the church met for the multiple services. Since then, there has been much fruit, as Mars Hill Downtown Bellevue just moved into a new building in the heart of Downtown Bellevue and is seeing over 2,000 people worship Jesus and serve the surrounding community, hundreds of which are a result of new Christians who met Jesus and were baptized at Mars Hill Bellevue.
Additionally, Mars Hill Bellevue, along with some other Acts 29 churches, helped fund Westview Church in San Diego, California, with Pastor Jesse spearheading that plant. And the church has sent a core group of a couple hundred over to our newest location, Mars Hill Sammamish (which I’ll talk about later in this post).
Mars Hill West Seattle
Mars Hill West Seattle was a result of conversations I had with Pastor Bill Clem, who now leads our Ballard church. Bill planted Doxa Fellowship in West Seattle after having served as the North American Director for Sonlife Ministries, a national discipleship ministry. The church was part of the Acts 29 network and running under 100 people when Bill and I began talking.
At the time, Bill’s wife was diagnosed with cancer, from which she eventually passed away. I called up Bill to offer support for the tough battle he and his wife were facing, and I also asked if he’d be open to letting us use Doxa’s building on Sunday mornings, as Doxa was only meeting on Sunday nights.
Eventually, as our church met in his building in the mornings, as we talked more and more, and as Bill’s wife faced a continuing and difficult battle with cancer, Doxa decided to merge with Mars Hill and become part of our church. We gave Bill many months off, paid him a full salary, and let him care for his dying wife and get a break from the exhausting work he’d undertaken in planting a church with an often bedridden wife. Her funeral was held in the church building that Pastor Bill had been given, and once he was ready, he started working for Mars Hill and is now our lead pastor at our biggest church, Mars Hill Ballard. Additionally, he has published the book Discipleship for us, and is the Northwest regional director for Acts 29.
The old church building we inherited needed a lot of work. So, the people of Mars Hill generously gave $1.8 million in one massive special offering to renovate it. It’s been a great transition over the last five years or so, with the church growing from less than 100 people to now well over 700 people coming together to worship Jesus and serve the West Seattle area, many of whom are new believers who’ve met Jesus and been baptized at Mars Hill West Seattle. Not only that, Mars Hill West Seattle has gone from being a church plant to planting churches, having planted Mars Hill Federal Way in 2009.
“As I look back in the rear view mirror,” says Pastor Bill, “I’d do it all over again. Because I see where we’re going and what [Doxa] was doing. That [Doxa] was following Jesus as [their] senior pastor.”
Mars Hill Albuquerque
In 2009, Pastor Dave Bruskas, planter and lead pastor of City on a Hill in Albuquerque, New Mexico, began talks with us on merging the church he’d pastored for over 10 years with Mars Hill Church and becoming our first out of state church.
At the time, City on a Hill was running over a 275 people, healthy, and doing good ministry in their city. There was lots of discussion as to whether the merger was the right move, but as Pastor Dave relates, “One question rose above all the others as most important: ‘Would more people meet Jesus if we went through with this?’ After months of deliberation, the leaders of both churches unanimously answered that question with a resounding ‘Yes!’”
The driving force behind the merger between Mars Hill Church and City on a Hill was one of shared mission. Our desire was to see as many people as possible in the city of Albuquerque meet Jesus, and we both felt strongly that this could be accomplished better together than apart.
God has been gracious to us. Today, Mars Hill Albuquerque has over 800 people meeting to worship together and serve their community each week. And we thank God that 250 people have met Jesus and been baptized at Mars Hill Albuquerque since the merger in 2009. Today, the church has outgrown its building and is officially replanting in a new larger building on December 11. Pastor Dave is now an executive elder at Mars Hill, the #2 ranking pastor in all of Mars Hill, and a tremendous gift to our church.
Mars Hill Sammamish
The newest church at Mars Hill is also the result of a merger between Evergreen Christian Fellowship in Sammamish, about 30 minutes east of Seattle, and Mars Hill. This is still breaking news, as it was announced just a few weeks ago and will be officially launched as Mars Hill Sammamish on January 15, 2012.
Evergreen Christian Fellowship (ECF) was a once larger church that was facing some financial difficulties as they had a newer building on over 10 acres on the plateau east of Bellevue, Washington. ECF was comprised about over 100 great, God-fearing, Bible-loving Christians who have a passion for the city of Sammamish and the surrounding area.
Facing some loses in leadership (they had no lead pastor) and some financial struggles, they reached out to us to see if a merger would be a possibility. It was a grace bomb that dropped out of nowhere for us.
Through our talks, we decided to merge, as we share the same biblical convictions and both share a commitment to the same mission of seeing as many people as possible on the Sammamish Plateau meet Jesus.
“Our ministry and our mission and vision statements have been very similar, so that’s why we pursued Mars Hill,” says Guy Dalrymple, who chaired ECF’s transition team. “We had other options, but the core principles and the core doctrine between our two churches were very similar, and that’s what was really enthusiastic and that’s what drew us to Mars Hill.”
We’ve not even launched yet, but the response has been amazing. Last Sunday, we installed the first roughly 100 members of Mars Hill Sammamish and nearly all of them were the former members of ECF. I preached there live, and we had 1,100 people! The church does not even launch officially until January 15, 2012, but it’s rocketing off to an amazing start thanks in part to the hundreds of people from Mars Hill Bellevue who live nearby and moved over to Mars Hill Sammamish.
“This could have been a really sad story, a good church forced to shut its doors,” says Sam DeLay, a Mars Hill leader who will serve on staff at the Sammamish location, “but God has redeemed that story. Together, we now have a great opportunity to serve this community for a long time.”
Why the negativity?
A lot of people are uncomfortable with the idea of church mergers. For many, it seems “too corporate,” “predatory,” or “imperialistic.” The usual story people have in mind is one larger church coming in and taking over a smaller church as if by force or coercion.
One major hurdle is the word “merger” itself. I can understand why many have a problem with this word, as in the business world a merger is often a stronger company coming in and engulfing a weaker, failing company, picking up all the good elements and assets and tossing aside all the broken elements and assets. These mergers in the business world are often messy, brutal, and devastating for many people as the larger company focuses on the bottom line for investors and shareholders.
On top of this, many church mergers in the past have had the same tenor. Generally, they’ve involved failing churches taken over by stronger churches—or even worse, two failing churches thinking that coming together will save them.
So, perhaps merger isn’t the best word to use. Unfortunately, it’s the only word that can be used that has some semblance of agreement for the time being. Though, I’d say that with today’s wave of church mergers, it’s been encouraging to see that rather than a business/corporate type merger, we’re seeing what is akin to more like an adoption or marriage, depending on the situation—which is apt since the Bible speaks so much of the Church as a body and a family (Romans 12:3-6, 8:15-17, 23; Galatians 4:5, Ephesians 1:22-23; 4:12, 16; 5:30; Colossians 1:18, 24; 1 Corinthians 12:12-13, 27).
The mergers we’ve been a part of at Mars Hill, and some of the mergers other churches in the Acts 29 network have been a part of, have by God’s grace been missionally focused mergers. By this I mean that they’ve been the result of two churches coming together to ask how they can work together to accomplish a shared mission, to see many people come to Jesus (Matthew 28:19-20). Underlying this is the belief that if Jesus' name is made much of in the building, then it does not much matter whose name is on the sign of the building.
Each of these mergers has had different details surrounding them. Sometimes there are financial struggles, such as with Sammamish. Other times, there is a devastating loss to the leadership, as with the case of Pastor Bill and his wife at Doxa. These mergers were akin to an adoption, where a hurting church in need was adopted by a healthy church to work together as brothers and sisters in Christ to the glory of God to accomplish his mission.
Sometimes there is simply a desire to be more effective and to have greater reach as a church, which leads healthy churches to join together to see greater impact for the gospel. Such was the case when we merged with City on a Hill in Albuquerque and with The Vine. These types of mergers are like marriages, in which two churches come together with strengths that complement each other to accomplish the mission of God. As within marriage, there is a leader in the merger, but unlike an adoption type merger, there is health on both sides.
Here’s the painful truth—the calls we are getting lately from churches we have not yet merged with are often cases where the senior leadership was disqualified because of sin, often sexual. Once the leadership leaves, often the best people remain and try to save their church, and a merger is a way to help such people save their church from death.
Other calls we are getting are from churches where the leadership has gotten off-track theologically and moved into false teaching and error. These churches are seeking help to right their ship.
And, sometimes the pastors of smaller churches are so burdened by the administration of running their organization that they want to merge with a bigger church like ours so that we can take those burdens off them and allow them to focus on serving people and making disciples, which is why they went into ministry in the first place.
Often times the whole story behind a merger is not told because of the painful circumstances that need not be made public. As a pastor who loves churches and God’s people, some of what I see and hear is heartbreaking, and if a merger can save a church from death and support godly people giving their all to keep yet another church from the grave, then I am certain it makes Jesus happy no matter what the critics may say.
In each case, the situation is never one of a larger church coming in to pick up the remains of a smaller church but rather of two churches wanting to be as faithful to God’s calling as possible.
These types of mergers are not unique to Mars Hill and are, in fact, growing around the country. Leadership Network research has indicated that 2 percent (6,000 churches) of US Protestant churches merge annually, and another 5 percent of churches (15,000) say they have already talked about merging in the future.
The good news is that a vast majority of churches that have merged with a shared mission in mind have experienced new vitality and growth, seeing their influence and ability to minister in the community grow exponentially. This is something we can attest to at Mars Hill and something I’ve personally seen in many churches across the country.
Granted, these mergers are never without their hardships and struggles, but by God’s grace they’re resulting in a great harvest.
Facing the Facts
The reality is that church mergers will only continue to grow. As the baby boomers begin retirement, there will be a growing decline in Protestant churches in attendance and a very real need for leadership at declining churches. Unfortunately, the upcoming generation is not only smaller in numbers demographically, but also less likely to be involved in church, and especially less likely to be involved in church leadership and the ministry as a vocation, according to some sources. This is creating and will continue to create a great crisis in which many long-standing, God-fearing, and Bible-loving churches who have a great heritage and a history of gospel work in their city, face the prospect of closing their doors for good—often selling their property to commercial interests or even other religious expressions. And once those churches close, the zoning changes and a church may never be able to reside in that community again.
The following are some sobering statistics from the upcoming book by Warren Bird and Jim Tomberlin of the Leadership Network, entitled Better Together: Making Church Mergers Work. I thank them for sending me an advance copy of the manuscript and encourage you to read the book when it comes out in April.
Roughly 80 percent of the three hundred thousand Protestant churches in the United States have plateaued or are declining, and many of them are in desperate need of a vibrant ministry.
Roughly three thousand of these declining churches (1 percent of all churches in America) will close their doors permanently nationwide in the next twelve months.
Among the 20 percent of growing congregations across the United States, many are in desperate need of space. These conditions present a potential win-win for forward-thinking church leaders who believe that “we can do better together than separate,” and it is revitalizing church topography.
Church foreclosures, virtually unheard of in the United States before the Great Recession of 2008, have recently increased in number. According to a Wall Street Journal report, nearly two hundred churches have had their properties foreclosed on by banks in 2008, 2009, and 2010, up from only eight foreclosures in the two years prior to that and none in the previous decade.
One recent study found that the percentage of congregations reporting some or serious financial difficulty more than doubled to nearly 20 percent since about 2000. From 2000 to 2008—before the recession’s toll was felt—congregations reporting “excellent financial health” had dropped from 31 percent to 19 percent. They dropped further to 14 percent in 2010. The recession only exacerbated their economic situations, according to survey compiler David Roozen, director of The Hartford Institute for Religion Research.
The biggest elephant in church boardrooms in the United States is the topic of senior pastor succession. It is a difficult conversation for most aging senior pastors to have with their boards and staff, so usually it is ignored until too late. Many are predicting a tsunami of church turnovers during the next decade as the aging baby boomers turn over the reins of U.S. churches to the next generation. According to William Vanderbloemen, founder and president of the Vanderbloemen Search Group, senior pastor succession “might be the biggest unspoken crisis the church in the US will face over the next twenty years.”
About 30 percent of churches going into a merger do so without pastors in both of the churches, according to the Leadership Network 2011 survey of church mergers.
At some point, the American church will have to face the facts that in order for many churches to survive and continue ministry and service to their community, it will take thinking differently about local churches working together and sometimes merging together.
It’s all about Jesus
Church mergers, when done right, are not about a larger church taking over a smaller church—that is the wrong story and a gross oversimplification. Rather it’s about two churches uniting to do more together than they could apart. It’s about putting aside personal agendas, and realizing that Jesus is the Senior Pastor of the Church and that we have one mission: to make disciples. Often, with today’s changing landscape, that mission is best accomplished together rather than apart, with churches whom God has seen to grow by his grace sharing leadership and resources with those churches that were faithful and did great gospel work in the past but today need help.
At Mars Hill, our motto is, “It’s all about Jesus.” He is the head of the church, our Senior Pastor, and the one who grows his church. As we, and other churches, move forward in ministry and mergers, our prayer is that it truly always is about Jesus and as many people meeting him as possible.
I have great hope for Jesus' church, specifically when it comes to this hot topic of mergers. If all parties involved can continually be reminded that the church has one mission to see people be saved by Jesus, it will make for an easier time working together to accomplish that mission, whether through mergers or strategic partnerships in a city.