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. Jay Hanson, a graduate of Asbury Theological Seminary and the founding pastor of The Chapel UMC in Brunswick, Georgia. From its humble beginnings in Hanson’s basement, this congregation has grown to have four locations and over a thousand people in average worship attendance.
John Lomperis: Please share about your congregation’s recent history with growth. To what do you attribute this growth?
Jay Hanson: I am hesitant to attribute it to anyone thing. We are not in a large metropolitan area and we are not in an area that is experience a lot of population growth. So it is probably more of an internal reason than circumstantial or external. I will take a stab at highlighting a few possibilities:
- Relevant teaching – by “relevant” I mean contextualizing biblical truths to real life.
- Authentic community – we are not overly polished or produced. We are pretty raw and real and I think people connect with that.
- Passionate worship – we unashamedly worship. Worship is the engine that drives everything that we do. It creates the movement and momentum that leads us to live lives in service to God.
- Partners, not Members – we don’t have “members” we have partners. In our culture “membership” has privileges whereas partnership conveys responsibility and shared ownership. So anyone who comes belongs. Nothing is really expected of them. We love them and accept them right where they are. BUT for those who fell called by God to partner with us in ministry to our community we have high expectations. I think acceptance of people where they are but loving them enough to help them not stay there is a big part of people’s lives being changed and I think I congregation is growing because lives are being changed here.
JL: What are some of the major attitudes and practices you see hindering growth and causing decline within the UMC?
- Internally focused
- Resistance or at least too slow to change
- Confusing meetings with ministry
- Too little passion for the lost
- Lack of Leaders who will pay the price of leading.
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 the best you, you can be. Don’t do a bait and switch. Sometimes churches do this massive thing to draw people in but that is not what they do week to week. So you set this level of expectation for those that come and then totally disappoint them when they come back. So I am not saying don’t go BIG. Go as BIG as you can doing what it is that you do. Be the best you you can be on BIG days but be ready to keep it up.
Follow up with those that show up.
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: Look, people leaving hurts. I don’t care if your church is growing or not, when people leave it hurts. My best friends have left our church and it killed me. But I tell people all the time to “Listen to God and do whatever He says.” So if they feel God is telling them to go, then I better be okay with them going. So as much as it hurts I don’t spend too much time chasing after people who feel called to leave. Now if I have hurt someone and they are leaving because of some way we failed them, I will certainly try to bring reconciliation there.
I try to invest most of my energy with the people who God is bringing to me. So I would say focus on who is there and pour your life into them. When some leave, go to your office and cry and then come out and love those that are there.
JL: Some may look at the great fruit you’re bearing and say something like: “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!” What encouraging word could you offer to United Methodists who may feel this way?
JH: I actually hear that a lot and I totally get it. I also understand that no matter how hard I try to explain that the principles do apply or I started with only seven people in the basement of my house, I haven’t been in their place. I haven’t served their church. I haven’t had to work with their people. So I try to be graceful in my response and admit that I don’t know what will and won’t work in their context. This I do know though, no matter where you put me I am going to do whatever it takes to reach people for Christ and it will either work or they will get so fed up with me that they will fire me. I am not saying that is what anyone else should do, it is just what I would do. I will tell them to “Listen to God, and do WHATEVER He says.”
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?
JH: I would say you might be right. I suspect that there are unique challenges and obstacles in every culture and in each community. Equally there are opportunities and advantages in each setting. Typically I find that the light shines the brightest in the dark. So while we are in the South, we tend to get the most traction with unchurched, nonreligious people that are discovering that the shifting cultural norms of our world often leaving them craving something more.
(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.)