Earlier this year, Len Wilson (who is now Creative Director at St. Andrew UMC in Plano, Texas) once again compiled a list of the fastest-growing large United Methodist congregations in the United States. He defines “large congregations” as those with at least 1,000 people in reported average weekly worship attendance (often abbreviated as “AWA”), and measures growth by the rate at which these congregations have increased in this metric from 2010 through the end of 2015 (the last year for which full statistics were available at the time of Wilson’s writing).
First, here is his 2017 list:
|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|
Wilson’s own website answers questions some may have about his methodology, and offers some worthwhile insights. Among things, Wilson has noted a common thread of rapid growth generally occurring under senior pastors who have been in place for a long time.
In this year’s list, in only three congregations was the senior pastor listed above in place for less than four years in the 2010-2015 period of Wilson’s measurements. Charles Rentz took the helm of Sun City Center UMC in 2014, while it was previously shepherded by Warren Dexter Langer, Jr. For First UMC in Coral Springs, Florida, the current senior pastor (listed above) took over only in 2016, but Alex Shanks was senior pastor for 2012-2016, while Sara Mckinley was senior pastor there before that. Patrick Sparks has only been senior pastor of St. Peter’s UMC in Katy Texas since 2013, taking the helm from Donald Alan Smith.
While this group of United Methodist congregations is certainly not monolithic, there are several noteworthy generalizations that can be made. These observations are consistent with what I found in analyzing Wilson’s similar lists he compiled in 2016 and in 2015.
First of all, this is an overwhelmingly Southern group of congregations. Of these 25 congregations, 13 of them (52 percent) are in the UMC’s Southeastern Jurisdiction, which is well-known as the most relatively conservative of our five U.S. jurisdictions. Another eight (32 percent) are in the South Central Jurisdiction. Three more (12 percent) are in the North Central Jurisdiction. Only one is in the liberal-leaning Northeastern Jurisdiction.
Not a single one is within the geographically huge Western Jurisdiction, which encompasses every state with a Pacific coastline in addition to Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho.
Western Jurisdiction leaders have defended their ineffectiveness with various claims about culture in their region being unreceptive to church-going. But such excuses do not hold water when we look beyond our denomination and see that this region is home to some of the fastest-growing congregations in the country. This makes clear that it is indeed quite possible to rapidly grow Christian churches in this region. And the track record of the Western Jurisdiction makes equally clear that the way that region’s leadership has NOT yielded great fruit from their decisions to prioritize advancement of militant LGBTQ activism over basic respect for Jesus Christ (if you think that’s too harsh, then PLEASE click here to read more), promote bizarrely post-Christian theologies of defending the alleged benefits of demon possession, and harshly marginalize faithful United Methodist pastors and congregations who want to actually follow the official, biblical doctrine of United Methodism.
Indeed, the great geographic imbalance of Wilson’s List corresponds to the wider trends I have documented of how our denomination’s U.S. membership, while declining overall, is shifting in a geographically imbalanced way, so that the remaining American United Methodists are becoming increasingly concentrated in the South, and more and more sparse in the North and especially the West.
Interestingly, the only Northeastern congregation in Wilson’s List this year, like the only one in his 2015 list, is an ethnic Korean congregation. (There were no Northeastern congregations in Wilson’s 2016 list.)
Secondly, there is great unevenness in where the senior pastors shepherding the rapid growth of these congregations went to seminary. (It should be kept in mind that a significant minority of pastors get multiple advanced seminary degrees, sometimes from different schools.)
As in previous versions of Wilson’s List, Asbury Theological Seminary, a bastion of evangelical Methodism, remains dominant. Of these 25 fastest-growing UMC congregations, 10 churches (40 percent) experienced this growth entirely under the senior pastorship of an Asbury alumnus.
That’s more than twice as many as any other school. In terms of those who served as senior pastors for the entirety of Wilson’s 2010-2015 period, the UMC’s Candler and Perkins Schools of Theology each have four graduates, while other seminaries (Duke Divinity School, Drew, Gammon, Sewanee, Oklahoma City University, and New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary) each have one graduate on the list.
Additional “partial credits” could be awarded for Duke graduates Warren Langer and Alex Shanks, Brite Divinity School graduate Patrick Sparks, Candler graduate Sara McKinley, and Charles Rentz (an alumnus of both Candler and Boston University School of Theology). As noted above, each of them served as senior pastors of a church on the list for part but not all of the five-year growth period measured by Wilson.
When we look directly at the theologies of the senior pastors of these congregations, we see even more imbalance. Professional decline managers in our denominational bureaucracy are fond of claiming that there is no relationship between the growth or decline of congregations and how orthodox/evangelical vs. liberal/revisionist the leadership’s spiritual teaching is. However, in at least a strong majority (at least 16 out of 25, or 64 percent) of these top United Methodist congregations, the rapid growth occurred under the shepherding of an evangelical senior pastor.
And a majority of these 16 evangelical senior pastors are individuals who have been prominently identified as evangelical leaders in our denomination, by speaking at events like the New Room Conference or renewal group events, publicly endorsing renewal-movement manifestos like Faithful UMC or Methodist Crossroads (both of which strongly called for restoring clergy accountability to biblical standards for sexual self-control), or otherwise strongly publicly identifying with the evangelical renewal movement.
(It should be acknowledged that one of these strongly evangelical congregations, The Orchard in Tupelo, Mississippi has sadly decided to leave our denomination. But this was a rather recent development, which occurred far beyond the timespan for Wilson’s latest study, and so it does not directly change any of the summaries made in this article.)
The theological leadership of the remaining nine congregations has ranged from perhaps moderately theologically conservative to genuinely centrist to varying degrees of theological liberalism, and with some of these pastors not being as easy to classify.
But in contrast to at least the majority of the strongly evangelical senior pastors in Wilson’s List, the more liberal pastors are generally not the sort of polarizing activists prominently associated with groups like the Methodist Federation for Social Action.
It is rather significant that not a single congregation on this list has formally identified itself as a “Reconciling” congregation committed to the cause of LGBTQ liberationist ideology.
Furthermore, in contrast to the many evangelical pastors on this list insisting on effective enforcement of our denomination’s ban on same-sex unions, not one pastor on this list has endorsed the Reconciling Ministries Network’s “Altar for All” declaration promoting disobeying this rule.
From all of Wilson’s List, perhaps the two senior pastors with the most prominent liberal caucus affiliations are Olu Brown of Impact Church in Atlanta and Adam Hamilton of Church of the Resurrection outside of Kansas City. Both have recently been outspoken in promoting their new caucus group called “Uniting Methodists.” I will have more to write about that group later. But for now, it’s objectively clear that this group has significant overlap with some extremely liberal leaders in the “Reconciling” movement. As far as I’ve seen, this new group’s only clearly expressed, concrete goal is promoting the same liberal policies on homosexual practice for which the other liberal caucuses have been agitating for years.
Since I was less familiar with Pastor Brown, I interviewed him by phone to give him a chance to tell me directly about his theological perspective. I had heard that he had some association with the Church Within A Church (CWAC) liberal caucus group, with his congregation hosting and himself speaking at a CWAC “extraordinary ordination” event a couple years ago. But Rev. Brown told me that neither he nor Impact Church otherwise had any “direct alignment” relationship with CWAC, beyond seeing them as fellow Christians. As for hosting this one-time event, he explained that that was less about supporting this particular caucus than about affirming the individual who was “extraordinarily ordained,” as she had been Brown’s assistant. When I asked Brown specifically about CWAC’s promoting an article defending prostitution as a means of “liberation” for impoverished teenagers, he made clear that he disagreed with that perspective.
He was, nevertheless, transparent in describing his theology and approach to Scripture as “liberal.” He specifically told me, “I’m in full favor of total and complete rights for LGBTQ lay and clergy United Methodists,” and that this is a value he promotes. Yet he made a point of quickly adding that “My position does not cause me to demean or to dehumanize one who takes the opposite position,” and that he was committed to both defending gay and lesbian individuals from marginalization and also to defending the rights of traditionalists.
Olu Brown’s distancing of himself from CWAC, his graciousness with me on the phone, and his unsolicited expression of his commitment to defending the humanity and rights of more orthodox believers are not exactly conservative credentials. But they do set him apart from a great many leaders and others in the UMC’s liberal caucus circles.
As for Adam Hamilton, both he and his congregation have in various ways marketed themselves as evangelical. Of course, it is worth asking tough questions about how honest such advertising is, particularly given how the word “evangelical” has little meaning if it includes Hamilton’s dismissing too-challenging sections of the Bible as “never ever reflect[ing] the heart and character of God.” But the fact is that Church of the Resurrection has not been clear in marketing itself as a “mainline liberal” or “post-evangelical” congregation. While that may be more honest, it would also make that congregation less likely to land a spot on Wilson’s List. Furthermore, COR’s website explicitly expresses “Our Limitations,” including a commitment to not “do anything in opposition to the spirit and intent of the United Methodist Book of Discipline.” This can easily be read as a subtle distancing from the few attention-seeking, militantly liberal congregations who have declared their willingness to defy the UMC Discipline’s prohibitions of congregations hosting same-sex unions.
Other than Hamilton himself, the only two pastors in Wilson’s 2017 list to have endorsed his 2014 “A Way Forward Plan” for the UMC to reward the bad behavior of covenant-breaking by adopting the same permissive policies on homosexual practice that split the Episcopal Church were Sara McKinley and Patrick Sparks—neither of whom, as noted above, can take full credit for the five years of growth.
Furthermore, in the case of First UMC of Coral Springs, the official record shows that the entirety of McKinley’s 2007-2012 tenure was actually one of decline in AWA, and that rapid growth occurred after Alex Shanks took over in 2012 (see here or here). Much of St. Peter’s UMC’s growth took place under Sparks’s predecessor, Donald Alan Smith. Neither Shanks nor Smith joined McKinley and Sparks in endorsing Hamilton’s “Way Forward.”
Some of the patterns noted above are even more clear when we look at Wilson’s shorter, top-ten list of the large congregations with most rapid AWA growth sustained over the course of ten years rather than just five.
Here’s that list, with the congregation’s name, location, current senior pastor, and the average AWA growth rate over ten years (presumably 2005-2015):
- 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, Mike Ramsdell, 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%
In terms of geography, these ten congregations include four each from the Southeastern and South Central Jurisdictions and one each from the North Central and Northeastern Jurisdictions.
As for the alma maters of the current senior pastors of these top-ten fastest-growing congregations, five
(half!) went to Asbury, while United, Brite, Eden, Candler, Erksine, and Perkins can each claim one graduate on this list.
Eight of these 10 congregations had the same senior pastor for the entirety of 2005-2015, while the other two were in place for a good majority of this period.
Interestingly, neither of the UMC’s most liberal official U.S. seminaries, Claremont and Iliff, have a single graduate on either list this year. Neither do several other official UMC seminaries: Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, the Methodist Theological School in Ohio, St. Paul School of Theology, and Wesley Theological Seminary.
Yet each of those schools receives much more automatic funding every year from the Ministerial Education fund than Asbury.
As for theology, NINE of these 10 senior pastors are known as biblically grounded evangelicals. At least seven have endorsed one of the aforementioned accountability petitions or otherwise publicly identified themselves with the renewal movement. The one (relative) outlier is known as more “middle of the road” in terms of hot-button controversies. But he neither speaks out nor crusades on such controversies, instead focusing on evangelism, Jesus-centered preaching, and inviting people every week to choose Him.
It is also worth mentioning that Jim Cowart, senior pastor of the Number 1 church on this list, works as a team with his wife, Jennifer, who serves beside him as executive pastor.
There is much to learn from how God is working in these congregations.