Effective United Methodist Churches

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March 30, 2015

Evangelicals Dominate Fastest-Growing Large United Methodist Churches

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%
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%

 

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!


29 Responses to Evangelicals Dominate Fastest-Growing Large United Methodist Churches

  1. bostic says:

    I love his last paragraph— Is it coincidence that God is blessing these churches that worry more about the good news than political correctness?

  2. Mick Maj says:

    glad you mentioned Adam Hamilton, an * at best would be required to put him still in the evangelical column

  3. Duane Anders says:

    Actually at least two congregations in the west have more in worship than churches on this list: Glide and Cathedral of the Rockies.

    • Dennis Shaw says:

      Duane: his point isn’t about AWA per se but AWA as a start point and then look at attendance change.

      Rocky Mountain has two churches with 1k in attendance but not the growth from 2008 to 2013.

      John does keep returning to apportionment and Rocky paid 96% in 2013 and 100% in 2014. I think Oregon-Idaho and Desert Southwest also paid 100% in 2014.

      I do share concerns on growth and theological outlook. Not to the same degree as John but he has some good points. Both of Rocky churches largest are pretty progressive.

      • And while Desert-SW may have paid 100% of the apportionments it was assigned to pay, my point there is that if we grant that conference it’s own bishop, and 100% of its assigned apportionments aren’t enough to pay for that bishop, then that conference isn’t being assigned to pay as much apportionments as it ought to.

    • As Dennis says, the point of this article is not just about size, but about growth. In AWA, Glide in San Francisco has more than some on this list but less than others. But it’s lost nearly 1/3 of its attendance, according to this: http://www.umc.org/how-we-serve/vitalsign-dashboard

      • Duane Anders says:

        Thanks John. I get that AWA was not the point. But here in the “radicalized West my point was that some of the progressive churches are growing. Boise First(cathedral of the Rockies. From 1032 in 2010 to 1450 in 2014.

  4. the_enemy_hates_clarity says:

    Duane, I may have misunderstood your comment, but this article is not about the largest churches but the ones with the greatest percentage increase.

    In Christ,

    The enemy hates clarity

    • Duane Anders says:

      “For Wilson’s purposes he was only focused on “large congregations,” defined as those having at least 1000 people in average weekly attendance (AWA).”

      You may have missed this in the first paragraph. So the enemy might have hated your last post.

  5. Dennis Shaw says:

    John: if I concede on the issue of Episcopal clout and given your attendance critique contra membership, will you concede that some conferences, Oklahoma comes to mind, get General Conference clout inconsistent with actual vitality??

    We in Rocky with about 1% of total national attendance we are levied 1.3% of the national apportionment. Expenses drive that. But the WJ is not a monolith.

    I do believe the issues of national level costs warrant considerable discussion and review. Considerable. I do wonder if paying 100% to this infrastructure is necessarily good. It does model to local churches what we ask them to do.

    • Thanks for your comment, Dennis. I’m not sure what you mean specifically about Oklahoma. But I agree that neither generally orthodox nor generally progressive regions of our denominations are theologically monolithic. But the WJ bishops do say openly that they are of one mind, the general leadership of the WJ is indeed monolithic, and some in the WJ leadership seem interested in purging to make the entire region more thoroughly monolithic with no room for United Methodists who actually believe in UMC doctrinal standards.
      With WJ apportionments, the issue remains that the WJ is uniquely privileged with more bishops than it pays for itself, and so relies on subsidies from the rest of us for its proportionate over-supply of bishops.

      • Dennis Shaw says:

        My point, is that constitutionally, we give vote at GC based on membership. There are conferences where their attendance is pretty weak in relation to their reported membership — i.e. Oklahoma but they are not alone, and they get “clout” — even if every four year “clout” — that transcends their actual, true “vitality” (and I know that is a subjective term.)

        I don’t know why but in the WJ, or at least in the RMC, there is this wide spread view that “membership” must be an accurate representation of the vitality of the church. That is not true in many other places, ergo, an 11,000 member church with an attendance of 800.

        I concede that proportionate over-supply of bishops if you look at attendance. I do think others need to concede over-representation at GC if you look at attendance. We do have enormous distances and space here. Enormous.

        I know this is a Constitutional Issue and not fixable, or probably not fixable.

        • FWIW, I submitted petitions to the last GC to try to cut down on the inflation of membership stats that is so widespread (e.g., congregations claiming memberships many times their attendance, based on never removing people who have left years ago). But alas, they were shot down!

  6. It’s kind of sad that we continue using the term ‘evangelical’ in the American political sense, rather than in the ‘introducing people to Jesus sense.’

  7. Keith Crosby says:

    As a former United Methodist, I know it is unlikely that the denomination can survive on its current trajectory, particularly as it embraces the Sciorri-Jeffords model of the Episcopal Church, with plural truth, church “tradition” and other substitutes for teaching the Bible as God’s Word, which is exactly what the Bible is. The “baptist light” iterations of Methodist Churches in this article have more in common with churches outside the denomination than inside.

  8. eric pone says:

    The bulk of the data simply indicates that growth is happening in the SE US. The rest of the country is in decline. The boost could just as easily be a cultural thing that wouldn’t work in other parts of the country. We can test this though. Take Metro area any one will do. Close the underperforming parishes and consolidate into large parishes. Use the exact formula that the Southern performing churches use. If they fail.(I think they will) We now know the UMC is a regional church and no longer of national relevance. If it succeeds the Bishops and GC need to take that long hard look at Seminaries and talent.

  9. Dan Held says:

    No mention made of West Ohio Ginghamsburg UMC @ 5k plus in weekend worship. There Mike Slaughter remains after 40 year appointment as a biblical conservative and social liberal. Quite common among the emerging church where Hamilton and Slaughter, Bell, Jones, McLaren, Compolo, and hundreds of others preach the Gospel of Jesus quite apart from the American fundamentalism of the 19th century conservatives.

  10. D Gene says:

    Of the 25 growing UMCs in this presentation, what is the gender of the each senior pastor? Forgive me for asking a terribly politically incorrect question.

  11. Child of God says:

    Praise God! Well said. Thank you…

  12. Keith Jenkins says:

    “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.”

    So, let me see if got this right. Traditionalists and evangelicals are identified as simply that. No extra qualifiers added or pejorative comments made. But liberal pastors are identified as liberal “with regard to biblical standards for
    sexual self-control.” You apparently can’t even be honest enough to come right out and state your point clearly, but instead hide behind euphemisms (one which you use frequently, so I’m guessing it’s coded language). What exactly is “sexual self-control”? Not having too much intercourse? Or maybe the ability to delay orgasm? Oh wait, maybe you aren’t talking about married heterosexual? You must be talking about your favorite obsession: those creepy, yucky, icky LGBTQ people.

    But that’s not the most heinously hypocritical part of your statement. Twelve conservative, godly, tower-of-strength-type preachers and four queer-loving liberals. That leaves nine. Nine who “are known to be at least theologically ‘moderate’ if not better.” IF NOT BETTER??? Did you really say that, you pusillanimous little twerp?

    You and your buddies are precisely what is wrong with the United Methodist Church. You don’t see people who disagree with you as fellow Christians who hold a different view from your own. You rank them in terms of your own heartless and soul-killing moral hierarchy. Traditionalists and evangelical are at the top, of course. And God loves them the most. Liberals are all at the bottom, with the “queer lovers” at the very bottom of the barrel. Moderates are in that vague, undefined middle, unless they really lean toward the conservative end of the spectrum. But thank God they’re at least theologically “moderate” . . . if not better!

    It reminds me of those product rankings that label different choices as good, better, best, except you’ve added “bad” at the bottom of the scale. So it ends up looking something like this:
    Liberal=Bad
    At Least Moderate=Good (but probably more like just OK)
    Not quite conservative enough to one of the Chosen, but still pretty close to the truth=Better
    Conservative, Traditionalist, Evangelical, Agrees with John=Best.

    Woe to you hypocrites who believe you can place a value on God’s children. All the “queer-loving” Liberals will enter the Kingdom of God ahead of you.

  13. cegr76 says:

    FWIW…This headline could just as easily read “Whites dominate Fastest Growing…” Or “McDonald’s Eaters Dominate…” or “Right handed people dominate…”

  14. Jeremy Scott says:

    Because it’s friday and I’m board I decided to see what would happen if you look at 2014 numbers instead of 2013 which they used in the article. If you do that you’ll see that between 2012-2014 nine of the 25 listed saw zero growth or decline. Four of those seeing double digit decline over those two years.

    If I were a “theologically traditionalist or evangelical” I would being asking how the canary is doing in our coal mine? The mission field in America is changing fast and this is not the time I would be doubling down on strategies or expectations of “what works” from even 5-10 years ago.

    I would also like to point out that some of the actual fastest growing churches, like Embrace Sioux Falls, aren’t on the list because the aren’t even yet 5 years old.

  15. Sven says:

    “And lo, Jesus said upon them, ‘Bigger is better.'” – 1 Americans 4:19

    • Charles Spickard says:

      “It is a detailed exegesis of scripture related to homosexuality.” In other words it is a book of total disbelief authored by a disciple of Satan?
      Charles E. Spickard Knoxville, TN

  16. Joe Miller says:

    I think your presupposition that Homosexuality is sin based on scripture is incorrect.

    • Charles Spickard says:

      In other words you are showing disbelief in The Word Of God. How then can you call yourself a believer? Unbelievers cannot enter the Kingdom Of God.
      Charles E. Spickard Knoxville, TN

  17. Philip Harding says:

    Fundamentalism is fundamentally wrong. One piece for the ultimate truth, presume knowledge of God’s Will, tell followers they don’t really need to understand scripture to be blessed, prey on the lonely and weak…I could go on, including fundamentalists who want to destroy our democracy with Biblical law, the very thing our Pilgrims came to this land to escape! I suggest you read the commandants of the Lord Jesus again. The viciousness and hypocrisy of evangelicals are alarming and a security threat to our beloved United States.

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