Reaching Out With the Word -- and Technology

McLean Bible Church is one of the largest in the country and has launched a campaign to create a
McLean Bible Church is one of the largest in the country and has launched a campaign to create a "spiritual beltway" with satellite churches in the D.C. area. Above, Angelica Mendoza and John Van Auken attend a Rosslyn service. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
By Jacqueline L. Salmon and Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, February 4, 2007

With 13,000 worshipers, a $93 million campus and multimillion-dollar budget, can McLean Bible Church -- the Christian colossus in Tysons Corner -- possibly get any bigger?

Yes, it can.

The evangelical megachurch, one of the country's largest and fastest growing, is launching an ambitious expansion. It plans to build a "spiritual beltway" around the D.C. region by opening nine satellite locations to bring tens of thousands more into its fold. Through televised broadcasts, congregants at each location would see and hear portions of the same service at the same time.

The church is hunting for space in the District and in Prince George's, Montgomery, Loudoun and Prince William counties -- as well as farther north in Maryland and south in Virginia.

Two weeks ago, the first satellite church was launched, with a regular Monday night service aimed at young adults, in leased space at the Rosslyn Spectrum after holding three preview services there in the fall.

McLean is on the vanguard of churches in the Washington area that employ this new growth strategy. Unlike the traditional church-growth strategy, where houses of worship spun off -- or "planted" -- independent entities, an increasing number of large churches in the Washington area are growing by opening multiple locations under the same name and considering themselves one church.

If successful, senior pastor Lon Solomon told worshipers in a sermon last month, "we can keep expanding our impact for the Lord Jesus in this town until we have touched the entire town for Christ."

Often using technology to beam in worship services from a central location, multisite churches are spreading their "brand" to new congregations that are many miles, or even several states, away. Sometimes the branches add their own touches, such as live music, a local pastor and on-site religious education.

"The culture has changed now," said the Rev. Deron Cloud, founder of the Soul Factory, a Forestville church, who now preaches to his 4,000-member flock via a satellite hookup from a new Soul Factory branch in Atlanta. He has raised $1 million and plans to open sites in North Carolina and Alabama this year.

"People used to talk on the telephone and meet in person, but now the culture is satisfied with e-mails and BlackBerries," Cloud said. "We as a congregation made a decision that if we are going to embrace people, we must leave the four walls of the church."

Nationwide, one in four megachurches, those with more than 2,000 worshipers, hold services at satellite locations, up from 5 percent in 2000. The number of megachurches with multiple sites is expected to double in the next few years, according to Scott Thumma, a professor of the sociology of religion at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.

The growth is part of the reality for contemporary churches, say church leaders and church consultants.

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