Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog and Commentary

What Subway Can Teach the Church

  • Dr. James Emery White

    James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theologyand culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he…

  • 2011 Mar 28

The Subway sandwich chain has surpassed McDonald’s Corporation as the world’s largest restaurant chain in terms of units. At the end of 2010, Subway had 33,749 restaurants worldwide to McDonald’s 32,737.

What is even more impressive is that Subway didn’t open its first international restaurant, where growth has been most explosive for chains such as McDonald’s, Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin-Robbins, until 1984. But by 2020, Subway expects its number of international restaurants to exceed its domestic ones.

How did they do it?

Subway has opened outlets in non-traditional locations such as an automobile showroom in California, an appliance store in Brazil, a ferry terminal in Seattle, a riverboat in Germany, a zoo in Taiwan, a Goodwill  store in South Carolina, a high school in Detroit and a church in Buffalo, New York.

“We’re continually looking at just about any opportunity for someone to buy a sandwich, wherever that might be,” says Don Fertman, Subway’s Chief Development Officer. ”The closer we can get to the customer, the better.”

Consider that a lesson, church.

And before you start in on the bigger isn’t always better, and quality trumps quantity, and numbers aren’t everything, and that the church isn’t in the sandwich business, re-read Fertman’s words, and substitute the gospel:

“We’re continually looking at just about any opportunity for someone to be introduced to Christ, wherever that might be.  The closer we can get to an unchurched person, the better.”

Kind of sounds like Paul in I Corinthians 9 writing about becoming all things to all people in order to reach them, doesn’t it?

So how might the church take a cue from Subway and expand its reach?

It’s very common for churches to offer multiple services at varying times.

It’s becoming increasingly common to offer those multiple services over multiple days.

Now, the frontier that needs to be explored is offering multiple services over multiple days through multiple locations.

Meck has become a multi-site church, which simply means one church with multiple locations. We currently have five campuses with a total of seventeen services each week. Three of these campuses are physical locations in our immediate area; one is an internet “campus,” and one is international serving expatriates in the United Arab Emirates. The Charlotte Observer ran a front-page story this past weekend featuring our efforts.

We have plans to launch two more Charlotte campuses by February of 2012, and are open to additional international opportunities (Our staff has already prayed and are convinced that it’s God’s will to start one in the U.K.; they’ve also all volunteered to be on the launch team.).

Why is this a worthwhile strategy? It’s simple. If someone has to drive more than 15 or 20 minutes as a first-time guest, chances are, they won’t. You might say, “Well, if that’s their attitude, they should just be more committed!” Quick reminder: these people aren’t even Christians yet. Rumor has it that it’s our job to go to them. Same to those who say, “You’re just trying to make it easy on folks to attend.” Yes, that’s kind of the point. 

When you go to multiple sites you go to where the people are, tearing down any and all geographic barriers to attend, and opening up the ability to offer vast numbers of services at optimal times. And most importantly of all, you are making it easy for anyone and everyone, no matter where they live, to invite their friends.

Due to breakthroughs in technology, including video and simulcast, in ten years, this will probably be the new normal. It will be as common for churches to be multi-site as it is now for churches to have multiple service times. It’s already exploding:  In 2008, 37% of all churches averaging 2,000 or more people per week were multi-site. In 2009, over five million people attended a multi-site church in the United States and Canada.

Geoff Surratt draws an analogy from World War II in regard to the multi-site approach to reaching a city: 

Some 300,000 troops were pinned by Hitler at Dunkirk with their backs to the sea.  The only way out was to retreat across the water.  But how do you move 300,000 people by water?  There isn’t a single boat big enough to carry that many people.  So the call went out to anyone with a boat to rescue them.  One thousand boats arrived, and over the course of ten days, all of the troops were evacuated.

They couldn’t build a boat big enough to move 300,000 people, but 1,000 little boats could do the job.  No single church with a single location can fully reach your city.  But a single church in multiple locations can.

Hear my heart:  partner with other churches where and when you can; plant new churches wherever it makes sense; but also multiply your current church wherever possible.

At the very least, think about it the next time you eat at Subway.

James Emery White


“Subway Runs Past McDonald’s Chain,” Julie Jargon, Wall Street Journal, March 8, 2011.  Read online.

“Satellite sanctuaries a hot trend,” Tim Funk, The Charlotte Observer, Sunday, March 27, 2011, p. 1A and 4A.  Read online.

Geoff Surratt, Greg Ligon and Warren Bird, The Multi-Site Church Revolution (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006).

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