Effective United Methodist Churches

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October 6, 2017

Fastest-Growing UMC Congregations Led by Evangelical, Southern, Asbury-Educated Pastors

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%
6 Impact Atlanta GA Olu Brown 2006 2,250 26 107% 4
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%
9 Faithbridge Spring TX Ken Werlein 1999 3,314 9 73% 5
10 Crosspoint Niceville FL Rurel  Ausley 1998 3,264 10 61% 9
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
15 First McKinney TX Thomas Brumett 2008 1,787 50 50% 11
16 New Covenant The Villages FL Harold Hendren 2011 2,289 24 48% 16
17 Cokesbury Knoxville TN Stephen Defur 1998 4,157 7 48% 12
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
21 Christ Memphis TN Shane Stanford 2011 1,911 44 40% 25
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):

  1. Harvest, Warner Robins GA, Jim Cowart, 12.2% annual growth
  2. The Chapel, Brunswick, GA, Jay Hanson, 11.9%
  3. Faithbridge, Spring TX, Ken Werlein, 10.4%
  4. Crossroads, Oakdale PA, Steve Cordle, 10.2%
  5. First, Mansfield TX, Mike Ramsdell, 10.2%
  6. Morning Star, O’Fallon MO, Mike Schreiner, 9.8%
  7. Commuity of Hope Loxahatchee FL, Dale Locke, 9.8%
  8. Christ, Fairview Heights IL, Shane Bishop, 9.6%
  9. Covenant, Greenville SC, Darren Hook, 8.4%
  10. 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.

Stay tuned for further interviews with some of these senior pastors.

 

 

 


20 Responses to Fastest-Growing UMC Congregations Led by Evangelical, Southern, Asbury-Educated Pastors

  1. Robert Hunt says:

    Based on 2 Timothy 4:3 its always difficult to know what is at work in church growth. After all, Joel Olsteen and the prosperity “gospel” preachers are much bigger and faster growing. If the UMC wanted to give money for pastors who can grow churches it would need to look at schools of media relations and entertainment, not theology of any Christian sort. Regionally of course with one exception all these churches are in the Midwest or South, most in the South. All in areas of population growth and good economies. How are Asbury grads doing in inner cities, the rust belt, and up in the highly secularized northeast or California? One might also mention that just because a large school produces some winners doesn’t mean it doesn’t produce a lot of losers in the church growth race. Can you demonstrate that Asbury is across all it graduates a better school for church growth? Because that is a more realistic measure. Assuming that church growth is itself a measure of fidelity to the gospel – which gets us back to 2 Timothy and Matthew 7:21-23. It has been said that there are lies, damn lies, and statistics. This is statistics for sure.

    • Bill Payne says:

      Robert, we are both aware of the sociological studies that show the causative relationship between liberalism and membership decline. How a congregation or denomination navigates negative contextual factors is a critical factor in determining if it will grow or decline in a given social milieu. Certainly, the spirit of secularism mitigates church growth. Strangely, many liberal congregations identify with it. The issue of mainline decline is playing out across the denominational spectrum in America. For starters, churches that do not emphasize evangelism do not grow. Since I have written extensively on the growth and decline of the American Methodism, I will not engage all that information in this short blurb. I do suggest that you review my finding in American Methodism: Past and Future Growth (2013).

  2. Richard Cheatham says:

    When you factor in the reality of the amazing growth of such preachers as Joel Olsteen you must realize that rapid growth does not necessarily reflect good theology. IT may come from a preacher who tells the people what why want to hear.

  3. April User says:

    The findings of this report are not surprising given that numerous Annual Conferences have voted to not endorse Asbury seminarians for clergy appointment within their conference. The UMC slogan “Open Doors…”, should allow for ALL voices within the UMC. The historical witness of the church has been brushed aside in lieu of new and novel approaches to Scripture.

  4. Charlie says:

    God is so good…

  5. Bates Estabrooks says:

    John notes: “there are several noteworthy generalizations that can be made.” But he has missed one other, very obvious, “generalization”: there are no women on the list of 25. Why is this?

  6. J says:

    I’d rather be part of a church that is small and faithful. None of these churches have females in the role of senior pastor which is fairly telling. Most of these churches probably shy away from the name United Methodism, much like the Orchard (Tupelo, MS) did from day one. It would be interesting to see what the percentages of members to actual attendance is in these churches. Just because a church is a megachurch and has lots and lots of people does not mean that it is vital in ministry, discipleship, and even community.

  7. Ramona Nicholsen says:

    We are blessed that our present sr pastor is an Asbury grad
    as is our previous pastor. Under their leasership, our church is growing and learning how to reach the neighborhoods around us.

  8. Terry Lee says:

    I served as youth pastor under Sara McKinley. She had nothing whatsoever to do with the growth at First Coral Springs. When she came there it was a church of 750 and when she’s left it was around 500. She presided over a bitter massive departure of members of her own making. Mentioning her in this article as having any part in the growth disrespects the work of Rev. Alex Shanks who really turned that church around.

    • It would be grossly unfair if Sara McKinley was not included in this assessment of growing congregations. She did a lot of the hard work, for which Alex reaped the benefits. Those who are actually involved in leading congregations know that sometimes house-cleaning is done, and structures are changed in order to effect growth. Everyone makes mistakes, but she laid much of the foundation for the growth which continues to take place–not to mention investing in the lives of many prospective pastors and seminarians.

  9. Bobbye Kassing says:

    . Pray for our UMChurches. We are letting our theology be taken over and rewritten by people that are more concerned about the gay agendas than about saving souls for Jesus. What will we UMethodist say to the Lord when HE asks us on Judgement day “did you follow My teachings in the Bible or did you water it down and not defend MY teachings? For me and my house we will follow the Bibles’ word and are against UM pastors marrying gays or gays being in leadership roles in the church.

  10. Tom says:

    One of the most hopeful, positive changes in the Methodist Church has been the growing influence of Asbury graduates. The remarks above dismissing the obvious lessons the bulk of growing churches teach us is, well, sad and a triumph of ideology over experience. The evangelical preachers, far from teaching an easy, cheap Gospel, focus on the Savior and his high expectations of us and for us. Surely, too, the sex of the minister is secondary to his/her zeal for the Gospel and the preaching of it. We can understand a lot about the bases for the incredible shrinking church from the resistance of weak annual conferences to the acceptance of Asburians.

  11. Grandma June says:

    It is so sad to see so much conflict in this country on all fronts.
    I love my UM church in so many ways, but I am disturbed by the reconciling movement. Simply put, following the great commandment, we can love gays, but if we love God don’t we need to follow His will?

  12. Will Willimon says:

    Interesting article. Thanks for listing these churches. Years ago, my mentor, Bob Wilson, fine sociologist of religion, devised a list of seminaries whose graduates were the most successful at making new Christians. This was part of a study funded by one of the general boards of the UMC. He was prohibited from publishing those findings!

    I confess that I was a bit chagrined that in the conference where I was bishop, nearly two-thirds of our new church starts were being led by Asbury Seminary grads.

    I doubt that these grads were so successful at new church starts because their theology was “conservative” or “evangelical,” but rather they they all had a theology for GROWTH.

    Asbury then had something like six courses to train people how to start churches. (My seminary has no such courses.) Moreover, Asbury had been successful in imbuing all these pastors with a conviction that Christ expects us to keep reaching out and growing.

    When I was serving a church a few years ago, after I ceased being bishop, I had a consultant in to study us and to help us have a future. After studying us the consultant said, “You don’t have a single staff member who has the skills to grow this congregation. Worse, everyone of those clergy has a theology for why that’s OK!”
    Then, to add insult to injury, he said, “Furthermore, everyone of those staff members is a recent graduate of Duke Divinity School.”
    Ouch.
    As you can imagine, the consultant’s report was ignored and the congregation’s decline continued.

    • Robert Kanary says:

      Brother Will, you wrote “I doubt that these grads were so successful at new church starts because their theology was ‘conservative’ or ‘evangelical,’ but rather they all had a theology for GROWTH. ”

      Could you please give a short description, or a short listing of axioms and principles that are foundational to a theology of GROWTH? Does such a theology differ from classic Nicene and Wesleyan (Standard Sermons) theology? If not, where does it veer?

    • John Lomperis says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Bishop. We have reposted your comment separately on our website!

  13. Lester Hemphill says:

    Among the 25 fastest growing United Methodist churches, apparently none of them have a woman senior pastor, according to first names.

  14. Lester Hemphill says:

    A New Jersey United Methodist church, that I formerly worshipped with, once had a student youth minister who was at Drew seminary for only one year. He concluded that Drew is too liberal, and he transferred to Asbury seminary. Because Asbury is in a distant location, he left the New Jersey church.

  15. J.D. Greene says:

    John, I appreciate your graciousness with Olu Brown. I attended the Uniting Methodists Conference in Atlanta, and I was both pleasantly surprised, as well as disappointed. Some RMN folks showed up, and were shaming those of us who would be more traditional. There is a moderate wing of the evangelical movement; theologically orthodox and socially moderate. I’m not sure how large or small this faction is, but they have far more in common with other evangelicals than with the RMN folks

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