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%|
|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%|
|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%|
|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.]