Top 25 Fastest Growing Large United Methodist Churches, 2015 Edition

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I believe that the result of creative thinking is innovative practice, and the result of true innovation is growth. While not all growing churches are healthy churches, healthy churches grow, because growth isn’t the goal; it’s the outcome.

Because of this, I like to follow the practices of growing congregations. What innovations are happening in the fastest growing large congregations, and how might other churches learn from them?

In 2011 I published a list of the top 25 fastest growing large United Methodist churches. Here’s the updated list, and 25 of the most innovative churches in the United Methodist Church today.

While average worship attendance is an imperfect indicator, it remains one of the best we have to measure how we’re doing at telling the story of Jesus. While I currently serve in a Presbyterian church, my background is United Methodist, and the United Methodist Church is helpful for such statistical analysis because of its episcopal organizational structure and corporate record keeping.

To qualify as “large” for the sake of this analysis, a congregation must have had at least 1000 in weekly worship in 2013, the most recent full year of average weekly worship attendance records. With the benefit of more years of records since my previous post, I elected to rank the churches on a five-year trend (my previous list was on a 3 yr trend), as a five-year trend offers a more precise indicator of sustained growth.

Click on a header to sort by that row.

Rank Church Name City State Sr Pastor Pastor Since 2013 AWA Rank by size 5 Yr Growth
1 Faithbridge (*) Spring TX Ken Werlein 1998 3,276 9 108%
2 Harvest (*) Warner Robbins GA Jim Cowart 2001 2,443 18 69%
3 Christ (*) Fairview Heights IL Shane Bishop 1997 1,802 48 61%
4 White’s Chapel (*) Southlake TX John McKellar 1992 6,162 2 52%
5 Morning Star (*) O’Fallon MO Mike Schreiner 1999 2,122 30 52%
6 Cornerstone (*) Caledonia MI Bradley Kalajainen 1990 1,751 52 47%
7 First, Flushing (*) Flushing NY Joong Urn Kim 2011 1,520 63 40%
8 Korean Central Irving TX Sung Chul Lee 1990 2,005 36 39%
9 Apex Apex NC Gray Southern 2012 1,361 84 38%
10 Impact Atlanta GA Olu Brown 2007 1,381 83 38%
11 First, McKinney McKinney TX Thomas Brumett 2006 1,443 72 37%
12 Crosspoint Niceville FL Rurel Ausley, Jr 1998 2,689 15 36%
13 New Covenant (*) The Villages FL Harold Hendren 2011 2,034 35 35%
14 Cove Owens Cross Roads AL John Tanner 1997 1,406 76 34%
15 First, Mansfield Mansfield TX Mike Ramsdell / David Alexander 1995 2,305 23 33%
16 St. Luke’s Oklahoma City OK Bob Long 1991 1,464 69 31%
17 Covenant Wintersville NC Branson Sheets 2004 2,048 33 29%
18 Gulf Breeze Gulf Breeze FL Lester Spencer 2011 2,336 21 24%
19 Good Shepherd Charlotte NC Talbot Davis 1999 1,811 46 23%
20 Crossroads (*) Concord NC Lowell McNaney 1995 1,470 67 22%
21 Church of the Resurrection Leawood KS Adam Hamilton 1990 8,895 1 20%
22 Anona Largo FL Jack Stephenson 1993 1,553 62 20%
23 Grace Fellowship Katy TX James Leggett 1996 2,988 12 19%
24 Saint Timothy on the North Shore Mandeville LA James Mitchell 1994 2,170 26 19%
25 The Orchard Tupelo MS Bryan Collier 1997 2,164 27 18%

A few observations:

Nine churches remain from the 2011 list of growing churches.

This means they’ve had a pattern of continuous growth since at least 2006, which is remarkable. They are: Faithbridge, Harvest, Christ, Morning Star, First Flushing, New Covenant, Cornerstone, Crossroads and White’s Chapel. They’re indicated with an asterisk (*) above. Not coincidentally, 7 of these churches occupy the top 7 spots on the 2015 list.

Stable leadership continues to be key.

The average senior pastor’s tenure is over 15 years, and 19 of the 25 have served their churches over 10 years. The median and mode are both 17 years, which means that if you account for four recent changes in leadership, the length of leadership of these fast growing churches is even longer. Of course, a declining church can have a longtime leader as well, so this isn’t directly causal, but it demonstrates that one factor in growth is stability. As long term leaders move closer to retirement, succession will become an issue. First UMC, Mansfield, has recently made changes in its senior leadership to navigate this transition. William Vanderbloemen’s book Next provides further insight.

Most growing churches aren’t overnight sensations.

While perhaps the dream is explosive growth, such as my colleagues and I experienced during my tenure as creative / media director at Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church in the 1990s, when we grew from 1000 to 3000 in two years, such stories are the exception, not the rule. Most growing churches aren’t overnight sensations; they are the fruit of a long, steady climb in the same direction.

The bias is toward innovation in worship.

10 of the 25 are entirely “contemporary” or “modern” in worship style. 13 have a mix of “traditional” and modern services. Two serve primarily Korean communities, with distinct worship styles fit for their constituency. None are entirely traditional in worship style.

The “Bible Belt” still exists.

20 of the top 25 churches live in what is traditionally known as the “Bible Belt” – below the Mason Dixon line. 6 churches are in Texas (in three UM Annual Conferences), 4 in Florida, and 4 in North Carolina.

 

One last note is an “honorable mention” to New Story Church, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, pastored by Scott Osterberg. A church plant in 2012, they haven’t been around long enough to qualify for the list, but they’re already ranked 92nd in total United Methodist size, averaging over 1300 in weekly worship attendance by the end of 2013. [update: New Story’s worship attendance was mis-tabulated; they’re actually averaging 300 a week in worship.]

 

About the Author

Len Wilson

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Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director @peachtreepres. Tickle monster. Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon, 2015).

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36 Comments on “Top 25 Fastest Growing Large United Methodist Churches, 2015 Edition”

  1. TXHoosick

    Len,
    Great analysis. Means we need to be deliberate about programming, messaging, and use of social media. And taking a hard look at the demographics we are serving. Love to see a comparison in the same local areas with evangelical and Baptist churches to see where the flock is flocking…

  2. Dustin

    Very interesting list. Thanks for sharing this, Len! A couple things (that probably aren’t the most important observations) at quick glance at the main page on their websites:
    -most seem to highlight viewing services online
    -mix between those that emphasize denominational affiliation and those that don’t

    Also interesting to see Faithbridge using the “independent contractor” worship leader approach.

    1. Len Wilson

      Yea – Dustin, I also noticed a lot of online services on their websites, and +/- on the UM affiliation. The sites were all over the map. On a couple, I had a hard time finding worship information…

      1. Talbot Davis

        There is a lot of theological continuity as well. Not 100% by any means, but a majority for sure trend towards the conservative UMC side.

  3. David Alexander

    Hey Len, this is David Alexander from First Methodist Mansfield. Thanks for the shout out. We’re honored to be on the list.

    1. Len Wilson

      David, thanks for commenting. I’ve been to your church a few times – my wife and I served with Joe Carmichael at Community of Hope when it still met in the high school back in the early 2000s.

  4. William Bryan Davison

    I attend Harvest every weekend. I’ve been a member for quite a while, and serve as a children’s minister for our elementary kids. Personally, I can only attribute our accelerated growth to God alone. He provided the venue, the people, and the message. If you want to know more about how Harvest works, you can pick up a copy of Jim & Jennifer’s (our pastors) book called “Start this, Stop that”. It details out exactly how we do things, and why.

  5. Cheridy

    I grew up in whites chapel — when we joined there was about 30 members– and now I’m at first mckinney!! Love John mckellar at whites chapel and love Tommy Brumett and Doug fox the amazing staff and members at Mckinney

  6. TravelerMR

    I appreciate the points made about slow, sustainable growth and stable leadership. Note, though that this is fastest growing UM churches in America – I suspect faster growth is happening in parts of Africa and Asia.

  7. UMJeremy

    Len, thanks for this list. I appreciate good data and analysis. I’m curious if you would be able to quantify the fastest-growing churches that do not reflect the culture around them? The outliers who are growing (even at a moderate rate) who do so despite a mismatch with the culture around them?

    For example, evangelical churches growing in Texas is a reflection of the culture around them. Glide Memorial (not on the list) growing in San Francisco is a reflection of the culture around them. That’s what I mean by matching the church with the culture–little wonder the best ones are growing!

    I’d like to know who are the scrappy outliers who are growing in spite of not being a match. If you are not interested in such a list, how would you suggest someone goes about it?

    1. Len Wilson

      Interesting question. I guess the first thing would be to figure out variables to quantify cultural affinity. Perhaps an analysis of socio-economic demographics of the congregation and their immediate neighborhood.

      I think I see your point behind the question, but I am not sure – tell me if I am wrong – that there are many congregations who intentionally try to not minister to those in their community, no matter who they are.

    2. Len Wilson

      Interesting question. I guess the first thing would be to figure out variables to quantify cultural affinity. Perhaps an analysis of socio-economic demographics of the congregation and their immediate neighborhood.

      I think I see your point behind the question, but I am not sure – tell me if I am wrong – that there are many congregations who intentionally try to not minister to those in their community, no matter who they are.

  8. Holly Boardman

    I’m wondering why none of these churches have women senior pastors. As a woman who was ordained in 1981, I suspect it is primarily due to lingering gender-bias in appointment making. Or perhaps people just prefer male senior pastors. At any rate, I think it is sad. To quote the psalmist, “How long, O Lord, how long?”

    1. Beth Hopper

      I noticed, too, Holly. It’s disheartening, but as someone seeking ordination now and beginning seminary next year, I am grateful for the women who have gone before me, challenging the system and proving themselves as gifted, inspiring, brilliant pastors alongside their male counterparts. As for this list, I’d love to hear how these powerful, effective men at the heads of these churches are advocating for and empowering women to achieve success like they have.

  9. halehawk

    I’m wondering why none of these churches have women senior pastors. As a woman who was ordained in 1981, I suspect it is primarily due to lingering gender-bias in appointment making. Or perhaps people just prefer male senior pastors. At any rate, I think it is sad. To quote the psalmist, “How long, O Lord, how long?”

    1. SF

      Hi! I attend Apex UMC, and while our lead pastor is man, we have two female pastors across our four faith communities. They are both very special ladies! I hope this is what you were looking for!

      1. halehawk

        Sorry SF, it is NOT the same thing. Many churches have female clergy staff members. However, there seems to be a glass ceiling when it comes to the senior pastor position.

  10. UMHusker

    Dear Halehawk,
    I am sure that there are probably some equity issues that continue in the appointment process. But I find that people either make excuses or make their own way. As a 2006 ordained pastor who is also a woman, I have never waited on others to make or break me. There are founding pastors on this list of fastest growing churches who made the list through hard work and devotion, not because of their gender. Women can do the same. I want young women and men to realize that the list of “good” appointments is shrinking as the church declines. What will help the church is that attitude that we can be a part of growing it through working hard and committing ourselves to bring people closer to God. That decision is up to us. I imagine that people who wait for a large church appointment will never make this list. But, I am excited for my friends who are women and men who aren’t limited in their love for God and their love for others. They are making a real difference in the world.

  11. Kirk T.

    Three interesting questions (that might be really hard to track) would be:

    1. Is the church growing faster than the surrounding community? (somewhat addressed in a previous comment.

    2. How much of the growth comes from people new to the community and from people with long residences in the community?

    3. How much of the church’s growth comes from unchurched people, from de-churched people, from transfers from other denominations, and from transfers from within the denomination?

    For the transfers, do they find a deep spirituality that better connects them with God in the new church that wasn’t present in their old church?

    Some in-depth surveys in the growing churches could be helpful both for the churches that are growing and the long-established churches that are losing people to the new churches.

    Kirk

  12. mdseeker

    My father was a United Methodist ordained sr.pastor For over 25 years.
    In his retirement, he was the head of the agenda 21 program
    This program was started roughly 20 years ago. Its purpose was to determine why church membership is in steady decline and why it is extremely difficult to cultivate a steady stream of young clergy.

    Many things were discovered some of which has gotten better. Salary, owning your own home, level of responsibility and supervision , work hours.
    my church actually pays for the ministers membership to an expensive health club. While I find that ridiculous and think funds could be directed in more useful ways, I suppose it works for young clergy.

    This church has had 3 sr. Pastors in 9 years with a steady flux of members exiting. This shows such a lack of leadership , that frankly I’m shocked the district superintendent hasn’t been there working and addressing the problem constantly. In reality there is no presence at all.

    another factor that is not being addressed in relationship to many churches membership decline is the emerging prevalence of sport.
    travel team are gone and competing on sundays. Leagues and practices are routinely scheduled so that they almost alway conflict with church. This ranges from golf, soccer baseball etc..

  13. Scott Osterberg

    Hi Len! While at New Story Church we greatly appreciate your mentioning us, our attendance is nowhere near 1300. That was a misprint by the conference. Even though we have tried several times to get them to correct it, they haven’t. We are growing quickly, but our attendance is only about 300.

  14. Shannon

    Hi! I just recently read a somewhat persnickety (although truthful) article about how larger churches often get to keep their pastors longer and/or pastors of larger churches have more “pull” with their bishops, etc. Additionally, these churches tend to have more of the ability to select their own pastors in the UM system. I wonder if the causality of this is actually the reverse of what you are saying – could these churches have stability of leadership simply BECAUSE they are large?

    1. Len Wilson

      Shannon, since the story unfolds one year at a time, perhaps the truth is both – bishops are more likely to leave pastors in growing churches in the first few years, and every year they remain in place, their stability enhances their work.

  15. Danno

    Interesting data – but somewhat sad if I’m reading it correctly. Only 17 UM churches are growing more than 5% a year. I’m fascinated by all the ‘independent’ churches that seem to leap from zero to hero status in the same amount of time. In our community of 20,000 we have 3 UM churches with fairly stable attendance and have had 3 or 4 ‘new start’, non affiliated churches, who have equaled or exceeded our attendance. All organizations need to relook their overhead and determine relative value. In my corporate life, I’m regularly complaining about the ‘tax’ I pay for the minimal ‘support’ I receive. What is the value of our UM corp if our growth is so stagnate? What metrics are they measured by? Is our pastor shuffle just a ruse to share ineffective leaders. I’m not judging Godliness or effort, but I am measuring results. By the metrics above it would seem we are not doing very well. I don’t recall the attribution but like the saying “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

    1. Len Wilson

      Danno, thanks for posting. To some degree I share your sentiment, although it’s worth noting that these are the church above 1000 that are growing. I don’t have the exact percentage of churches who are above 1000 a weekend, but I know it’s small to begin with.

  16. An honest opinion

    I am a Methodist who stopped attending. The epiphany occured during an easter service when my wife asked me to turn around and look at the faces of those in attendance. Approximately 300 “joy-less” congregants going through the paces on what should be the most celebratory service of the year. The mainstream church has replaced revival with org charts, ministry with apportionments, and political correctness has replaced the book of discipline, Look at the fastest growing churches and they are unabashed in what they believe, alive with the holy spirit moving the staff and congregants, and mission-centered above all else. I have never posted before, but thought you all might enjoy the perspective.

  17. Matthew

    That’s rather amazing. 22 out of 25 are in the South-Central and Southeastern jurisdictions, though combined these jurisdictions only represent about 2/3 of the UMC’s membership and a little more than half of its average attendance.

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