By Brian Blackwell, Message Staff Writer
STERLINGTON – Early 2011 was a critical time for Fairbanks Baptist Church in Sterlington.
Faced with the reality of not having enough young families to sustain, the congregation reached out to First West Monroe for help in surviving in one of the fastest growing areas of the state. The result was a merger in January 2012 to form a multi-site campus known as First West Fairbanks.
“Those long-term members who took a leadership role at Fairbanks were so bold, so clear that their area did not need one less church,” said Chad Merrell, campus pastor of First West Fairbanks. “They have set aside preferences and even history to ensure that the next generations in the Sterlington/Fairbanks area can be reached with the Gospel of Christ.”
The launch team of 70 made up of remaining members of Fairbanks Baptist and some from First West Monroe grew during its first meeting at Sterlington High School’s auxiliary gym to 150 by the end of its first year. Today, the church averages 250 for its Sunday morning services and draws 200 for its Wednesday evening activities.
The church has since moved into the original Fairbanks Baptist campus, turning the former sanctuary in a children’s worship center and transforming the gym into a multi-purpose worship center. Merrell said First West Fairbanks, which moved to the renovated space on March 30, is stronger because of the multi-site relationship.
“A lot of what we have been able to do – large scale VBS, missions partnerships, kids ministry, equipment for portable church, renovations to the former Fairbanks campus – would not have been possible so soon, if we were a church plant, or a stand-alone church of 250,” Merrell said. “Multi-site has been good for us as a church. We are reaching a new area of our parish, and by sharing resources and strengths and leadership, we are maximizing effect of our investment in the ministry at First West Fairbanks.”
For those wanting to know more about churches like First West Fairbanks, two Louisiana Baptist Multi-Site Church Roundtables are offering this year. Scheduled for Istrouma Baptist on May 13 and North Monroe Baptist on Aug. 21, the roundtables will feature discussion of the makeup of multi-site churches and how churches can partner with churches seeking to become one. More information is located at louisianabaptists.org/multisite14.
The roundtables are free and funded by the Cooperative Program and Georgia Barnette State Missions Offering.
Multi-site church development is a fast growing trend in North America. According to a recent article by Warren Bird of the Leadership Network, Dallas-based evangelical think tank that researches new innovations in church life and ministry, 5 million people worship at one of the more than 8,000 multi-site churches.
The group surveyed surveyed 500 churches of different denominations nationwide and found among other things that 85 percent of multi-site churches are growing at a rate of 14 percent annually, 47 percent have a campus in a small town or rural area and campus viability starts anywhere between 75 and 350 people depending on the model.
Lane Corley, church planting strategist for the Louisiana Baptist Convention, is excited about the multi-site movement picking up steam in Louisiana. Ten multi-site churches are Louisiana Baptist-affiliated and he said others are strategizing to start even more new campuses in the near future.
“It can be a healthy solution for churches that are at max capacity in current facilities, for churches that have spacious facilities but declining attendance, and for churches with a desire to revitalize by partnering with a stronger congregation in their region,” Corley said. “It’s our desire is to help fuel the conversation about this movement for Louisiana Baptist churches and associations for church health and growth.”
Mike Walker, pastor of The Bayou Church in Lafayette, said starting a multi-site church brings a great sense of fulfillment in following the Great Commission. His congregation in 2010 started a campus in Youngsville, a community at the heart of a large development of residential and commercial property.
“You not only reach people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ but you get to train future ministers who will one day hold the baton you pass on,” Walker said of starting a multi-site campus. “Just like any effective ministry you do, multi sites have their own sets of challenges. Yet, the fruit of the ministry far outweighs the efforts it requires.”
Around 100 members from the Lafayette campus helped start the Youngsville campus, though 75 percent of those have since returned. By the end of January 2013 average attendance had increased by 14 percent to 227 people. Twenty-six of its members at the Youngsville campus were baptized in 2013.
Walker said there is not one right way to start and carry out a multi-site campus, as they have learned valuable lessons in the four years that the Youngsville site launched.
“One must find what exactly works for their church and do it well,” Walker said. “Fortunately there are great conferences to attend and a multitude of resources we did not have five years ago while we were in the planning stage
“I am thrilled about launching multi sites,” he continued. “They certainly are formidable tools for getting the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a culture that is in dire need of a Savior.”