The midmorning service at Epikos Church on Milwaukee's east side is just rocking on this Sunday.
It's a packed house, with worshippers spilling out of the main sanctuary and up the stairs to the second floor. The bass-heavy praise band has the faithful on their feet, priming them for the Word soon to be delivered by Epikos' popular young pastor, the Rev. Danny Parmelee.
It's a typical turnout for this evangelical, nondenominational Christian church that began in the Parmelees' two-bedroom flat off the bohemian Brady St. in 2004.
The growing church now hopes to replicate that success in West Allis, where Epikos is embracing a growing trend in the world of church development - and saving a landmark building in the process.
"It would have been horrible to take a wrecking ball to it," Parmelee said of the former Paradise Theater, near S. 62nd St. and W. Greenfield Ave., which is being transformed into a satellite site for the growing church.
"We want to be a gathering place in West Allis," he said. "We want to be part of the city's revitalization."
Epikos, which is investing nearly $2 million in the project, will launch its second location with a special service June 10.
It is thought to be among the first churches in the Milwaukee area to adopt what's called the multi-site model, in which a growing congregation offers multiple locations - often with the help of video technology - rather than move to a larger building or spin off sister churches.
Advocates tout what they see as the benefits: a continuity of message, shared staffing and economies of scale. For Epikos, which stresses small-group Bible study and other discussions, it fits with Parmelee's vision of "growing big, but staying small."
"Someone will be able to go to any location, any service, and it will be the same message," said Parmelee, who will preach live or via video at the two sites depending on the day and time.
"We'll retain that intimacy by taking that message into smaller groups during the week, sitting in each other's living rooms talking about what is going on in our lives," he said.
Multi-site churches grow
The multi-site concept isn't new. A handful of megachurches began doing it in the 1980s. But the numbers have soared over the past decade from about 150 in 2001 to more than 3,000 today - now twice the number of megachurches, according to Greg Ligon of the Dallas-based Leadership Network and co-author of "The Multi-Site Church Revolution" and "The Multi-Site Church Road Trip."
A growing body of research suggests the model works to put people in the pews. A 2010 survey by the Leadership Network found that nearly half of the churches that went multi-site reported a 50% increase in attendance and membership in the first year.
The most successful, said Ligon, are those that combine multi-site with traditional church planting. Epikos is among them: Late last month, it helped launch the new, fully autonomous Waukesha City Church.
Critics have called the multi-site concept "idolatry," saying the branding of a particular pastor breeds pride, competition and the potential for turning churches into cults of personality.
That's a criticism of the wider church in general, notes Ligon. And Parmelee said Epikos is taking steps to counter those concerns.
It's hired a separate pastor for the West Allis site, 36-year-old Paul Stevens, who will also preach live and via video. And the second site, they say, will open more opportunities for lay leadership.
"You always have to keep that in the forefront, so it isn't about you; it's about Jesus," Parmelee said.
Epikos, which owns and worships at the former Westminster Presbyterian Church at 2308 E. Belleview Place in Milwaukee, began exploring the multi-site option about two years ago.
The church, which began as a magnet for college students and twentysomethings, has seen an explosion in growth. Today it's an eclectic mix of teens and twentysomethings, empty-nesters and grandparents, and young families from around the metro area - and of every variety from the button-down to the tattooed and pierced.
About 70 members are moving to the West Allis church to get that site up and running, including Jordan and Steve Ng of Wauwatosa, who are drawn, Jordan says, by the authenticity of the Epikos message and experience.
"The pastors do a great job relating the Gospel to our everyday lives," she said.
Extensive renovations at the old Paradise Theater include the addition of a children's area and a 3,500-square-foot nonprofit coffee shop, whose proceeds Parmelee says will be pumped back into ministry and the local community.
At a recent Sunday service, Parmelee gave the east side congregation its first look at the video screen that will rise out of the floor to carry his sermons. The reaction has been mostly positive, but some are uncertain.
"For me, I'd rather see Danny preach live," said Toby Britton, who drives in Sundays from West Bend with his wife, Sadie, and newborn triplets. "But he'll be reaching a lot more people, so I'm OK either way."
Those who just can't warm up to it probably will move to one of Epikos' other live Sunday services.
"You always have some resistance, especially in the beginning," Parmelee said.
"You'll always have some people who will just not be able to handle it. But that's the risk you take."
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