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. Jeff Harper, a graduate of Asbury Theological Seminary and since 2011, Senior Pastor of Evangelical United Methodist Church in Greenville, Ohio. This congregation describes itself as one that “Passionately pursues a relationship with Jesus; Radically invests in the next generation; Compassionately serves our community; and Graciously extends hope to the poor.”
John Lomperis: Please share about your congregation’s recent history with growth. To what do you attribute this growth?
Jeff Harper: EUM Church began to rapidly grow between 2001 and 2006 under the leadership of the former pastor, Bill Lyle. The growth began when Bill started a contemporary service. In 1996 they averaged 115 people in worship attendance and realized that if they did not reach out to the community and offer relevant worship opportunities they would die. The church grew steadily to 2006, when they decided to purchase land to build a new worship center. Immediately after building the worship center, worship attendance jumped from 400 to 700 and continued to grow. I arrived in 2011. There was much concern about changing pastors in the midst of wild growth, but the growth continued as the church leadership realized that God was in the change. Since I have been at EUM we added another contemporary worship service and attendance is now over 1200. We offer 5 services every weekend.
All our sermons are focused on Scripture and we never shy away from the truth of God’s word or delicate issues. We preach and teach truth filled with God’s grace. People are hungry for truth. The church has failed miserably in providing truth to people for fear of losing attendance. We are in the place we are because pastors have failed to address issues around human sexuality from the pulpit. Instead of receiving the truth from the church, people heard lies from the world through our education system and entertainment. The church must become experts in teaching truth wrapped in grace. More than any other thing I hear from people in my church is just how much they love hearing the truth. Even though it steps on their toes at times, they have no doubt as to what God thinks about how we live our lives, and they know that no matter what they decide to do, people at EUM church will love them and walk with them through the craziness of life.
If we are faithful to God is declaring his truth, he will draw people to our churches. EUM is the most loving church I’ve served and God’s grace is heavily experienced. People who attend EUM continue to invite their friends, family, and co-workers. I honestly believe that God allowed this growth because he trusts EUM to love his people. Our focus at EUM is loving God and loving others and the church does a great job reaching out to the community.
Most recently, EUM has leveled off in our growth. In part because we desperately need more space and the growing concerns with progressive theology within the UMC. Our largest givers have stopped giving because they do not want their gifts going to the general church to support ungodly causes and renegade bishops and annual conferences. Our annual worship attendance will very likely be close to last year’s.
JL: What are some of the major attitudes and practices you see hindering growth and causing decline within the UMC?
JH: The lack of accountability within our leadership, the open defiance of our rules without consequence, and the focus on social issues void of the Gospel hinder the work of God in our denomination. God does not trust our denomination to care for his people and so he is not drawing them to our churches. The church must focus on only what the church can do. We are the only organization that holds the truth to lead people into relationship with God. Anyone can do social justice; only the church can offer salvation.
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?
JH: Be creative in your approach to advent. We use catchy billboards and sermon series titles to appeal to the lost. Get your congregation excited about what God will do through your obedience and they will spread the word. For the last two years we offered a huge outreach after each Christmas Eve service where we delivered donut holes to people who had to work on Christmas Eve. Families grabbed bags of donut holes from our lobby and delivered them on their way home. People want to get out and serve Jesus, so we help them by providing these kind of outreaches. This year we are delivering unwrapped gifts after the Christmas Eve services. The title of our sermon series is, “Unwrapped.”
JL: What advice would you offer for pastors and others of declining United Methodist congregations who are feeling anxiety about losing people but don’t know how to reverse the trend?
JH: The only advice I have for pastors and others in declining UM congregations is to keep your eyes on Jesus. Focus on him instead of the negative happenings in the church. Be faithful to Jesus; love his people; proclaim freedom in his name; teach the truth, and God will do the rest.
(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.)Google+