For decades, bigger was better as megachurches became not only centers of worship but also essentially small towns with everything from coffee shops to basketball leagues.
But the latest trend in worship reverses that course by creating a kind of spiritual sprawl with more and more churches spinning off satellite campuses to remote locations.
"Our goal is to create one church in multiple locations," said Justin McCarty, assistant pastor of Lexington's Quest Community Church, which created a satellite campus in Frankfort about 18 months ago.
When Central Kentucky's largest church, Southland Christian, in Jessamine County, announced plans to buy the old Lexington Mall on Richmond Road, it fell in line with a growing number of megachurches.
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The 49,000-square-foot, $30 million satellite building at the mall site would hold as many as 2,800 people. An additional 61,000 square feet would be left for expansion, and a parking lot would hold 1,800 cars.
Southland leaders, who plan to update fund-raising efforts this weekend, hope to create five satellite campuses — there already is one in Danville —that eventually will draw 10,000 people, effectively doubling the size of the congregation.
The growth of satellite campuses has been accelerating during the past decade.
Fifteen years ago, fewer than 3 percent of megachurches — defined as having more than 2,000 members — had satellite campuses. Today, about 30 percent offer satellite campuses, according to research from the Hartford Institute of Religious Research.
Satellite churches are different from church "planting," in which the goal is for members from one congregation to create a like-minded but independent church in another location.
Satellite churches are an extension of the main church's brand, often down to offering an identical Sunday message from the senior pastor.
The size and draw of megachurches actually contributes to this kind of spiritual downsizing, said Scott Thumma, a researcher and a co-author of Beyond Megachurch Myths: What We Can Learn From America's Largest Churches.
Megachurches often attract people from a wide geographic area who drive up to an hour to attend weekly services, Thumma said. (In the process, they drive by dozens of other churches on their way.) But that distance can keep those same people from being fully involved in the church, he said. The longer the commute, the less likely a person is to participate in activities outside of a weekly service.
"I think the gist of it is that where our campus is right now we can only reach a certain number of people," said Brad DeVries, chairman of the board of elders at another huge Kentucky church, Southeast Christian in Louisville.
In some cases, people are intimidated by the size of Southeast's worship-service crowd, which can top 6,000 at the main campus in eastern Jefferson County.
Other times, he said, the distance keeps people from being as involved in the church as they would like or, just as important, inviting friends and family to try Southeast for themselves.
"It's kind of hard to invite your friends to come to church when it's 35 miles away," he said.
McCarty said Quest, like Southeast, was looking for a way to better serve a number of people who lived in Frankfort but were drawn to the high-energy message at Quest's home campus in Lexington.
Quest even experimented with sort of a "church within a church," having a small area set aside during services for people who didn't want to be part of the large crowd in the main sanctuary.
He said as the process of setting up the Frankfort campus has moved forward, church leaders recognized the importance of having people who live and work in a community where a church is based. To that end, he said, several families have moved to Frankfort to help establish roots for the campus there.
The average megachurch surveyed by Thumma had two satellite locations and offered four services each weekend. At the extreme, 5 percent of churches surveyed had six or more locations and offered 12 to 24 weekend services.
Louisville's Southeast has had an Indiana campus for a little more than a year and is working on renovating a grocery store in Oldham County into another satellite church. DeVries said that locations are being considered "but we don't have a number."
In considering locations, he said, church leaders look for areas where there are a number of "unchurched" people, or folks who haven't found a spiritual home.
Old-fashioned evangelical spirit is at the core of these satellites but technology makes them possible, Thumma said. There is no one template for how to conduct a remote service, but nearly all involve some sort of digital reproduction of the service at the home church.
For Southeast, a DVD is made of Saturday night's service and replayed Sunday at the Indiana satellite.
"Instead of someone getting into the pulpit, they cue up the DVD and they are off," DeVries said.
For Quest, McCarty said, some elements are replicated in Frankfort. A live band might kick off the service, or the congregation might watch a video message that dovetails with the week's spiritual theme. There is a pastor assigned to the church, but when the main sermon starts, he said, it is a pre-recorded video of the lead pastor, Pete Hise, speaking in Lexington.
"With technology you can use your teacher in lots of different spots," McCarty said.
Thumma said he has seen many variations on the digital theme, including one church where the screen was so large it looked like the stage in the main sanctuary. When the video began, he said, it looked as if the pastor was actually walking back and forth on the stage.
Thumma said he has heard criticism that this digital devotion takes away from the meaning of the sermons. Big screens are standard in a megachurch sanctuary, he said, and more times than not, people end up watching the pastor on screen anyway, much like you might watch the Jumbotron at a live sporting event.
Thumma said satellite churches offer an opportunity to cut back on some expenses by consolidating administrative costs. And, he said, they offer more opportunities for members to fill leadership positions that are key to feeling invested in the growth and prosperity of a church.
But, church leaders stress, although there might be different locations, satellites are just a variation on a theme.
"Each campus is going to be just a little different," Southeast's DeVries said. "just like two adult Sunday school classes side by side."
But, he said, "it's really critical that you have somebody (on staff) there who understands the DNA of the church, what our culture is and what our church is all about" when creating a satellite campus.
McCarty of Quest said creating a satellite campus is a long, complex process that required a lot of research.
"I don't think it would be something for churches to step into lightly," he said.