We recently reported on the latest list of the United Methodist Church’s largest, fastest-growing congregations in the United States.
In this renewed series, UMAction Director John Lomperis interviews the senior pastors of some of these congregations about what others, particularly other United Methodists, can learn from their successes.
The following interview is with the Rev. Shane Bishop, a graduate of Candler School of Theology, member of the Wesleyan Covenant Association’s governing Council, and since 1997, Senior Pastor at Christ Church in Fairview Heights, Illinois. Under his shepherding, the congregation has become multi-site, planting three extension locations as well as two “Biker Churches.”
John Lomperis: Please share about your congregation’s recent history with growth. To what do you attribute this growth?
Shane Bishop: We have grown for twenty-one consecutive years from 200 to over 2,300. We are laser focused on our mission of connecting people with Jesus Christ and direct all resources toward the mission. Our mission has given us language to negotiate change. We have also built to accommodate more people over the years, expanded to campuses and are now focusing on Facebook Live transmission of worship services and praying for the eventual development of house churches around the country and around the world.
JL: What are some of the major attitudes and practices you see hindering growth and causing decline within the UMC?
SB: The Gospel of Jesus Christ has far too much competition for our central theme and focus. We tend to be way too flexible with our theology and far too inflexible with our methodology. Our divisions are literally killing us. Our task is not to save an institution, it must be to reclaim our mission.
JL: In this Advent season, many churches are hoping to see a spike in attendance around Christmas, and hoping to draw some non-members who show up for Christmas Eve services to come back and check out the church in the new year. What advice would you offer for congregations seeking draw people in during this season?
SB: Equip your people to invite their friends and neighbors. Utilize social media and have your people “share” and check in every time they are at church. Have an incredible program, share the Gospel unapologetically and give people a chance to respond. Celebrate what your church has to offer at the service and give a shout out to your next series to get people back.
JL: What advice would you offer for pastors and others in declining United Methodist congregations who are feeling anxiety about losing people but don’t know how to reverse the trend?
SB: Find UMC’s that are growing and thriving in a similar context to yours or who are the next size bigger. Find out what they are doing, send a team to scout one of their services, interview their leadership and ask how they are dealing with the uncertainty surrounding us. Get refocused on your mission. Stop doing things that don’t bring people to Jesus and into your church. Dare to dream and risk. Finally, take your people deeply into Bible study. Root them in Jesus. Trees with good roots survive hurricanes.
JL: What encouraging word could you offer to a United Methodist who says “You know, it’s great that you are able to grow. But as a large church, you have so many more advantages, you have all kinds of resources and programs and connections you can offer to attract people to your church that a small congregation like mine simply does not have the bandwidth to offer. So what works to help your congregation grow could not possibly work for mine!” ?
SB: We still remember being a small congregation with limited resources. Growing a church is the same at any size: you have to make new Christians, turn them into disciples and send them out to make new Christians. My advice would be to invest in Sunday morning worship and improve the experience, focus on children’s ministries and run them, concurrently with church services, develop an evangelism plan, develop a discipleship pathway and offer invitations to Christ at every possible opportunity. Generate some “buzz” and you will get some visits. If people connect with what you are doing, you will get some members. Finally, begin an intentional ministry of prayer.
JL: What would you say to people who claim that it’s not that hard to grow a church in the South, “the Bible Belt,” and/or a culturally conservative region, but there are other locales where the culture is more secularized or the overall population is declining, and that this makes it impossible for churches in those areas to experience the kind of growth yours has?
SB: We are in the North Central Jurisdiction. Churches can grow anywhere Jesus is lifted up. Don’t make excuses. Just crack at it. If you don’t believe you can grow, you won’t. I am sure of that…
(For further statistical and website information about this congregation and others from this interview series, click here for my earlier report noting the dominance of evangelical pastors in the UMC’s largest and fastest-growing congregations.)