Len Wilson helpfully took the time to compile a list of the 25 fastest-growing large U.S. United Methodist congregations.
Growth was measured in terms of changes in average worship attendance from 2008 to 2013, the last year for which such statistics he found readily available. For Wilson’s purposes he was only focused on “large congregations,” defined as those having at least 1000 people in average weekly attendance (AWA).
Focusing on any one metric is always open to the critique of not painting a completely full picture. But as Wilson notes: “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.” Furthermore, attendance statistics are arguably more accurate than membership statistics in measuring how many people are actively a part of a congregation, given the problem of people inflating the latter.
Here is Wilson’s list:
|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%|
The churches who made the list are certainly no monolith, and defy easy characterization. The senior pastors in the list are white, black, and Asian.
Nevertheless, a number of potentially revealing summary observations can be made.
In the vast majority of cases, the senior pastor of these fast-growing congregations have been in place for much longer than what other United Methodist congregations typically experience. What might that tell us about our making our pastors play “musical chairs” with congregations as frequently as they generally do?
I am privileged to know several of the senior pastors on the list personally. Many others are well-known throughout our denomination.
At least 17 (68 percent) of the congregations are led by senior pastors known by reputation, personal connection, or by their public outspokenness as theologically traditionalist or evangelical. No more than four (16 percent) are led by senior pastors known to have publicly promoted a liberal stance with regard to biblical standards for sexual self-control. The rest are known to be at least theologically “moderate,” if not better.
The disproportion is even more dramatic when we look at the seven who also made Wilson’s 2011 list of fastest-growing large United Methodist congregations, and who have had the same senior pastoral leadership in the time periods for both lists, marked on this list with an asterix (*). Six of these seven are shepherded by a senior pastor who is very strongly evangelical, while only one (White’s Chapel UMC in Southlake, Texas) is pastored by someone coming from a more theologically liberal perspective (as indicated by his endorsement of Adam Hamilton’s “Way Forward” plan to Episcopalianize the UMC).
Twelve (nearly half) of these 25 senior pastors signed at least one of the “Faithful UMC” statements appealing to our bishops to stand strong in enforcing our denomination’s biblical marriage standards challenged by the “disobedience” movement and/or were among the original signers of the Methodist Crossroads “Integrity and Unity” declaration last year.
In terms of geographic distribution, there is a rather direct relationship between the relative theological conservatism of a United Methodist jurisdiction and where it ranks in how many of these fastest-growing congregations it includes. Twelve are located in the Southeastern Jurisdiction, ten in South Central, two in North Central, one in the Northeast, and ZERO in the geographically huge Western Jurisdiction, despite the explosive growth of the latter region’s overall population. In our denomination, no congregation is a complete island, but is significantly impacted, for good or for ill, by the structures and bishops of the regional UMC jurisdiction in which it is located. It appears that the more orthodox-leaning a jurisdiction is, the more effective the regional structure is in helping, or at least not hurting, such congregations in reaching new people for Jesus Christ.
Not one of the radicalized Western Jurisdiction’s annual conferences has as high worship attendance as the over 60 thousand who worship at these 25 congregations. These 25 churches’ attendance is more than the combined attendance of all churches in half of the Western annual conferences (Alaska + Desert-Southwest + Oregon-Idaho + Pacific-Northwest). And yet the apportionments taken from these 25 fast-growing congregations, all outside of the Western Jurisdiction, are used to prop up the uniquely privileged Western Jurisdiction’s missionally and financially unjustifiable over-supply of bishops and corresponding denominational clout.
Even the small, more liberal minority in this group do not appear to come from the most aggressively and consistently “progressive” camp of United Methodism. It is doubtful that any of them would have had as much growth if this was the case. Not one of these 25 congregations is affiliated with the Reconciling Ministries Network.
Adam Hamilton and his congregation, at #21 on this list, represents an interesting (and IMHO, tragic) case study. His theological journey has certainly taken the Oral Roberts University graduate a long distance. He now openly denies biblical teaching on homosexual practice, and even (rather non-humbly) claims the authority to declare that parts of Scripture he personally finds too challenging or too contrary to his culture have “never reflected God’s heart and will.” This puts him well outside the boundaries of any belief system that can be called evangelical, in any meaningful, intellectually honest sense of the term, regardless of how he may self-identify. But (at least for now) Hamilton still professes a historically creedal view of the Trinity (which the liberal caucus crowd has long dismissively treated as unnecessary or somehow “patriarchal”) and still exhibits some significant differences from at least a couple key parts of the liberal caucus agenda.
Overall, the rest of our denomination could learn much from these 25 fastest-growing congregations.
Perhaps more of our bishops and general-agency leaders could spend less time debating how far backwards to bend over in pandering to, granting a privileged platform to, and rewarding the tactics of Amy DeLong and her Love Bullies gang, so that they can instead listen to the pastors and members of these congregations about how to do effective ministry, and how our denominational structure can help and not hinder it. Perhaps the bishop-heavy Connectional Table could stop trying to impose greater financial burdens on these effective congregations, but instead cut its own minimally accountable, already bloated denominational-bureaucracy budgets to free up more resources for the disciple-making and life-changing ministry God is doing through these congregations. Perhaps more of our bishops could begin having the courage, individually or collectively, to offer the sort of leadership many of these effective, faithful pastors have respectfully and prophetically called for in the “Integrity and Unity” and “Faithful UMC” statements. Perhaps the Council of Bishops could take some responsibility and publicly apologize for how in their actions, including their choices of people for key leadership roles, they collectively failed all of our congregations (with some notable exceptions of individual bishops) by choosing to allow the last General Conference to become so dysfunctional that the one legislative committee devoted to “local church” concerns was not even given a chance to present its report to the full General Conference plenary session.
Now THAT would truly be “A Way Forward” for our denomination!