Author, speaker, and former United Methodist Publishing House employee Len Wilson has done it again: he’s compiled a list of the 25 fastest-growing large United Methodist congregations in the United States.
Overall, we see senior pastors who are known as theologically orthodox evangelicals and/or alumni of Asbury Theological Seminary dramatically dominating the list.
Once again, Wilson measured growth in terms of reported average worship attendance (AWA), which is likely a better and relatively less inflated measurement than membership rolls. Once again, he looked at the last five years for which data is available (in this case, 2009 to 2014). And once again, he defined “large congregations” as those with at least 1,000 AWA in the last year of his study.
My analysis of a similar report from Wilson last year, along with appropriate caveats about such studies, can be read here.
In this year’s list, we see some continued overall trends, with some individual variations.
The theological leanings of the senior pastor of each church can be discerned by how they describe the church’s beliefs online, by which of the recent UMC manifestos they have recently endorsed (the majority have endorsed at least one the following: “Methodist Crossroads,” “Faithful UMC,” or Adam Hamilton’s “A Way Forward”), or by their local reputations. While some appear to be relatively theologically liberal or “moderate,” to some degree or another, a strong majority (15/25, which is 60 percent) are known to come from a strongly orthodox, evangelical theological perspective.
Not a single one of these 25 congregations is listed as a homosexuality-affirming “Reconciling congregation” or has a pastor who has signed the Reconciling Ministries Network’s clergy pledge to perform same-sex unions in open defiance of our denomination’s prohibition of them. And yet some of our bishops and general agencies believe that RMN is the one faction to which the whole denomination should especially pander.
There is also uneven geographic distribution of these 25 fastest-growing congregations. Twelve (nearly half) are located in the Southeastern Jurisdiction, eight are in the South Central Jurisdiction, four are in the North Central Jurisdiction, one is in the Western Jurisdiction. Not one is in the Northeastern Jurisdiction, although it is worth remembering that the unaccountable, liberal leadership of Bishop Peggy Johnson and other bishops recently helped drive out an evangelical congregation that was reportedly the fastest growing United Methodist church in that jurisdiction.
These theological and geographic imbalances are similar to what we found last year.
In terms of where the senior pastor of each congregation went to seminary, we see a striking imbalance: ten went to Asbury Theological Seminary (a bastion of evangelical Methodism), four went to Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, three went to Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, and two went to St. Paul School of Theology (which has campuses in the Kansas City area and in Oklahoma City). Other seminaries had one graduate each on this list: Duke Divinity School, Gammon Theological Seminary, United Theological Seminary, Wesley Theological Seminary, Oral Roberts University, Ashland Theological Seminary, Brite Divinity School, Erskine Theological Seminary, and New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. (For those of you counting, the numbers add up higher due to a couple of these pastors holding multiple degrees from different seminaries.)
Six of our denomination’s official United Methodist seminaries – Boston University School of Theology, Claremont School of Theology, Drew University Theological School, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Iliff School of Theology, and Methodist Theological School in Ohio – have not one graduate on this list. Coincidentally, these also happen to be the most theologically liberal of our official UMC seminaries. Only ten of these 25 top church-growing United Methodist pastors are alumni of official UMC seminaries.
Yet currently United Methodist congregations are forced to spend millions of dollars to prop up these seminaries, while Asbury and other seminaries doing so much to actually help enliven and grow our church receive no direct denominational funding. (Fellow delegates, maybe we should rethink this at General Conference.)
These trends are even more pronounced if we look at those who have been growth leaders beyond just this latest list.
Twelve congregations made it on both this year’s and last year’s lists of fastest-growing large United Methodist congregations. Theologically, eight (two-thirds) of these are shepherded by senior pastors known to be solidly orthodox evangelicals. Geographically, the majority (seven) are located in the Southeastern Jurisdiction, three are in the South Central Jurisdiction, two are in the North Central Jurisdiction, and none are in the West or Northeast. There is a perfect half-way split in the senior pastors’ education: six went to an official UMC seminary (one to Candler, one to Gammon, two only to Perkins, one only to St. Paul, and one to both of the latter two) and six went to Asbury.
Five congregations made Wilson’s fastest-growing UMC congregations lists in 2016, 2015 and in 2011. All of these congregations’ pastors are known as orthodox evangelicals. All of these pastors have been in place throughout the years of Wilson’s study, except Harold Hendren, who has led New Covenant UMC in Florida since 2011. Three of these men are Asbury alumni and the other two went to Candler. Two of these congregations are in the Southeastern Jurisdiction, two are in the North Central Jurisdiction, and one is in the South Central Jurisdiction.
Some may protest that it is unfair to highlight how many such fastest-growing congregations are in the Southern U.S. versus in the rest of the country, given how much United Methodist membership is already concentrated there. People who make such complaints typically do not complain about the militantly progressive Western Jurisdiction getting as many or greater key denominational leadership positions as relatively conservative Southern Jurisdictions, but I digress. Such complaints really beg the question of why is it that the more conservative jurisdictions have been so much more successful at attracting people and making new disciples of Jesus than theologically secularized, gay-pride-flag-flying, and excessively politicized congregations of the Western Jurisdiction. Indeed while the Western Jurisdiction’s membership is declining rapidly, its boundaries encompass some of the fastest-growing non-Methodist congregations and most dramatic overall population growth in the country. So their excuses really only go so far.
Trends like these are encouraging for the future of our denomination.
Wilson’s full list for 2016 can be reviewed here:
|Rank||Church Name||City||State||Sr Pastor||Pastor Since||2014 AWA||Rank by size||5 Yr Growth||Last Year|
|1||Embrace||Sioux Falls||SD||Adam Weber||2007||2,106||29||1437%||—|
|2||Community of Hope||Loxahatchee Groves||FL||Dale Locke||1999||1,050||147||173%||—|
|3||Evangelical (EUM)||Greenville||OH||Jeff Harper||2011||1,193||113||91%||—|
|4||Impact (*)||Atlanta||GA||Olu Brown||2007||1,699||55||84%||10|
|5||Faithbridge (**)||Spring||TX||Ken Werlein||1998||3,281||9||84%||1|
|7||Christ (**)||Fairview Heights||IL||Shane Bishop||1997||2,065||32||65%||3|
|8||St. Peters||Katy||TX||Pat Sparks||2013||1,391||79||63%||—|
|9||Crosspoint (*)||Niceville||FL||Rurel Ausley||1998||2,898||13||47%||12|
|10||Harvest (**)||Warner Robins||GA||Jim Cowart||2001||2,859||14||47%||2|
|11||First (*)||McKinney||TX||Thomas Brumett||2006||1,581||63||44%||11|
|13||St. Luke’s (*)||Oklahoma City||OK||Bob Long||1991||1,612||59||44%||16|
|14||The Orchard (*)||Tupelo||MS||Bryan Collier||1997||2,635||17||42%||25|
|15||First / Cathedral of the Rockies||Boise||ID||Duane Anders||2012||1,450||72||41%||—|
|16||New Covenant (**)||The Villages||FL||Harold Hendren||2011||2,138||27||38%||13|
|17||Cornerstone (**)||Caledonia||MI||Brad Kalajainen||1990||1,824||50||37%||6|
|18||Woodlawn||Panama City Beach||FL||Joe Lay||2011||1,234||103||30%||—|
|19||Live Oak||Watson||LA||Mark Crosby||1996||1,300||90||30%||—|
|20||Good Shepherd (*)||Charlotte||NC||Talbot Davis||1999||1,974||40||28%||19|
|21||Anona (*)||Largo||FL||Jack Stephenson||1993||1,559||66||24%||22|
|22||Memorial Drive||Houston||TX||Chuck Simmons||1998||1,948||41||23%||—|
|23||La Croix||Cape Girardeau||MO||Ron Watts||1988||2,200||24||21%||—|
|24||Highland Park||Dallas||TX||Paul Rasmussen||2013||4.932||4||21%||—|
* = was also on Wilson’s 2015 list
** = was also on Wilson’s 2015 and 2011 lists