Good news: the bar for church growth is rising. This year, as 6 new churches join my annual top 25 list of fastest growing large United Methodist churches, the minimum growth percentage is 30% over the last 5 years. When I started this list, 19% would have landed a church in the top 25. It seems that an increased focus on church planting and renewal is working.
How do churches grow? The best way to know the answer to this question may be to look very closely at churches that are growing the best. One of the benefits to tracking congregational growth is to learn the latest in effective techniques for ministry. For example, this article names some best practices from my 2016 list, and coming soon, I will do an analysis of the latest website trends for these churches.
Learning from other good ideas, or what George Day of the Harvard Business Review calls the incremental improvements of “Small I” innovation, can result in solid annual growth. As church leaders, we can all improve our ministry by adopting new methods – even those of us who have been fighting the good fight for decades.
But on the other hand, Small I is usually not what drives the kind of growth that lands a church on this list. That kind of growth comes from “Big I” innovation – the proverbial game changer creative thinking and application.
Moreover, Big I isn’t just Small I on steroids. According to Day’s research, Small I does not lead to Big I. In fact, Small I often drains energy from Big I. Perhaps the truly best practice is for churches to intentionally pursue both, but to see them as separate activities with separate resources and timelines.
However you do it, innovation – the applied practice of creative thinking – is an essential part of our calling to create disciples for the transformation of the world, and the churches on this list are doing it as well as anyone right now.
I’ll be posting more on church innovation in the future here.
About the Methodology
This list is ordered on a 5-year trend according to self-reporting attendance numbers as recorded by the General Council of Finance and Administration office of the United Methodist Church. To qualify, a congregation must have had at least 1000 in AWA at the end of 2015, which is the most recent full year of official records, and cannot have experienced year-to-year decline in the last two years.
The chart may be difficult to read on smaller mobile devices and is best viewed on a desktop browser. Here are links to previous editions of this same list for the 2016 edition, the 2015 edition and the 2011 edition.
Click on a header to sort by that row.
|Rank||Church Name||City||State||Sr Pastor||Pastor Since||2015 AWA||Rank by size||5 Yr Growth||Last Year|
|1||Embrace||Sioux Falls||SD||Adam Weber||2007||3,082||12||1042%||1|
|2||Community of Hope||Loxahatchee Groves||FL||Dale Locke||1996||1,276||91||228%||2|
|3||The Gathering||Saint Louis||MO||Matt Miofsky||2006||1,100||140||134%||—|
|4||Providence Church||Mt. Juliet||TN||Jacob Armstrong||2008||1,060||151||128%||—|
|5||Calvary||East Brunswick||NJ||Sang Won Doh||2010||1019||161||126%||—|
|7||Evangelical (EUM)||Greenville||OH||Jeff Harper||2011||1,214||107||82%||3|
|8||Sun City Center||Sun City Center||FL||Charles Rentz||2014||1,126||134||80%||—|
|11||First||Coral Springs||FL||Vance Rains||2016||1,085||145||58%||—|
|12||The Chapel||Brunswick||GA||Jay Hanson||2004||1,076||147||55%||—|
|13||Christ||Fairview Heights||IL||Shane Bishop||1997||2,145||33||53%||7|
|14||St. Luke’s||Oklahoma City||OK||Bob Long||1991||1,722||55||52%||13|
|16||New Covenant||The Villages||FL||Harold Hendren||2011||2,289||24||48%||16|
|18||Live Oak||Watson||LA||Mark Crosby||1996||1,437||73||47%||19|
|19||St. Peter’s||Katy||TX||Patrick Sparks||2013||1,453||71||43%||8|
|20||The Orchard||Tupelo||MS||Bryan Collier||1998||2,711||15||42%||14|
|22||Church of the Resurrection||Leawood||KS||Adam Hamilton||1990||9,441||1||39%||—|
|23||Woodlawn||Panama City Beach||FL||Joe Lay||2011||1,271||93||34%||18|
|24||Good Shepherd||Cypress||TX||Bill Haygood||1993||1,036||159||33%||—|
|25||Good Shepherd||Charlotte||NC||Talbot Davis||1999||1,998||40||30%||20|
About the Top 25 Churches
6 churches on the list are new this year (7 were new last year). 9 churches have been on the list for the last 3 years. Additionally, 3 churches on the top 25 list – Faithbridge, Christ, and New Covenant – have appeared on every edition, including the 2011 list, which means they’ve been both large and growing at a steady rate for at least 10 years. More on sustained growth below.
Plants and Turnarounds
5 of the churches on the list are new church plants within the last 10 years, including 4 of the top 6 – Embrace, The Gathering, Providence and Impact.
5 churches are turnarounds, which I have defined as recovery from a loss of at least 10% AWA in the past ten years, including two of the top 8 – Calvary and EUM. A few of these turnaround stories are dramatic – to appear on this list, a church often has to not only grow as from scratch, but to overcome forces of stasis and decline. For example, within the last 10 years, Calvary in East Brunswick NJ declined from almost 1300 to 450 but has now recovered to over 1000 AWA, which is quite unusual.
The remaining 15 churches on the list are notable for their steady growth. This begs the question, what sort of rate should a growing church expect?
Among the top 200 churches in overall size, the average annual growth rate is under 1%; among the top 100, it is 3%.
While the top 25 chart is based on a 5-year trend, here’s a short list of the top 10 churches with the highest annual growth over a 10-year period:
- Harvest, Warner Robins GA, Jim Cowart, 12.2% annual growth
- The Chapel, Brunswick, GA, Jay Hanson, 11.9%
- Faithbridge, Spring TX, Ken Werlein, 10.4%
- Crossroads, Oakdale PA, Steve Cordle, 10.2%
- First, Mansfield TX, David Alexander, 10.2%
- Morning Star, O’Fallon MO, Mike Schreiner, 9.8%
- Commuity of Hope Loxahatchee FL, Dale Locke, 9.8%
- Christ, Fairview Heights IL, Shane Bishop, 9.6%
- Covenant, Greenville SC, Darren Hook, 8.4%
- First, McKinney TX, Thomas Brumett, 7.2%
When analyzed on an annual basis over a 10-year period, it’s clear how incredibly difficult it is to maintain a sustained high annual growth rate. Only 5 churches in American United Methodism have been able to maintain a 10% or higher annual growth rate over the past decade. Hats off to these remarkable congregations.
The average leadership tenure among the top 25 is 13 years, which is the same as last year. Five senior pastors have been at their churches at least 20 years and five from 15-20 years. The most common first year of pastoral leadership among the top 25 churches is 2011.
In last year’s comments several people asked about women in leadership. While none of this year’s top 25 churches are led by women, if you expand the list to the top 40 fastest growing churches, which includes all churches who have grown by a total of at least 10% over the last five years, the list includes two churches currently led by women: Mary Jan Davis of Central in Fayetteville, AR, and Linda Harker of McFarlin Memorial in Norman, OK. Further, among the top 100 churches in United Methodism, four are led by women – Davis; Jennifer Stiles-Williams at St Luke’s in Orlando; Robyn Miller at Woods Chapel in Lee’s Summit, MO; and Jessica Moffatt at First in Tulsa.
At their current trajectory, five churches will crack next year’s list: The Gathering Place in Moody, AL; Destin in Pensacola, FL; Community in Fruitland Park, FL; St. John’s in Aiken, SC; and Heritage in Van Buren, AR. The latter four haven’t reached the 1000 AWA plateau to make the list, and the The Gathering Place is already at 1410 in AWA but isn’t yet 5 years old. At its current rate of growth, The Gathering Place will debut in the top 5 next year.
About the top 200 churches
In the course of tracking growing churches, I’ve now accumulated 10 years of attendance data for the largest 250 American United Methodist churches (as some churches rise and fall from the list over time). The additional data reveals some interesting insights.
The Midpoint of the top 200
Here are some median statistics for the top 200 churches.
- Average pastor tenure: 10 years
- Weekly worship attendance: 1233
- Annual budget: $2,745,000
- Annual growth (10-years): 1.5%
The Biggest Churches
A megachurch is generally considered a congregation that averages at least 2000 in average weekly worship. By this measure, 39 United Methodist congregations are megachurches, with a few more that are very close. 10 years ago, there were only 31 United Methodist megachurches.
Further, ten years ago, the average weekly worship of the top 100 United Methodist churches was 1976. Now, it is 2104.
Seven of the 10 largest overall churches, and 13 of 25, grew last year.
A postscript: I post this data because I believe its helpful for my tribe, United Methodism, to use it in order to better live out our collective calling to make disciples. My calling is to help churches communicate the gospel more effectively (Click here to read more on my strategies for growing churches.) The bulk of this blog focuses on two specific strategies for growth: creative expression and storytelling. My hope is that the church will fully comprehend the power of creativity and story in sharing the story of Jesus with the world.
This list first appeared at lenwilson.us/top-25-fastest-growing-large-umc-2017/