Evangelicals Once Again Dominate List of Top-growing Large UM Congregations
In an era of mainline denominations declining in the United States, where is major church growth occurring in the United Methodist Church in this country and what can we learn from these congregations?
Earlier this year, Len Wilson, Creative Director at St. Andrew UMC in Plano, Texas published his yearly list of the fastest growing large United Methodist congregations in the U.S. To qualify for the list, a congregation must have had at least 1,000 in average weekly attendance by the end of 2016, the most recent year for which full data was available. The 25 churches on the list are ranked by their growth rate over the five years prior, from 2011 to 2016. Make no mistake, recent years have not been easy for large churches — of the 200 UMC congregations that average at least 1000 in worship, only 27 percent are currently growing, according to Wilson. He bases his measurements of growth or decline on each congregation’s reported average weekly worship attendance.
Wilson shares that the purpose of his list is “to celebrate hearts, lives and communities being changed through the ministries of congregations across the United States.” His hope is not to celebrate or push for church growth for its own sake, but rather that by looking at these churches we can learn about creativity and innovation there, outcomes of following a creative God. You can learn more about his methodology and vision for the project on his website.
Excitingly, this year’s list (once again!) features The Woodlands UMC, whose senior pastor, the Rev. Dr. Ed Robb, is a UMAction Advisory Board member. We are especially delighted to see them on this list as a sign of the abundant fruits of their labor.
Here is Len Wilson’s 2018 list:
|Rank||Church Name||City||State||Sr Pastor||2016 AWA||Rank by size||5 Yr Annual Growth||Last Year|
|1||Embrace||Sioux Falls||SD||Adam Weber||4,103||7||57.6%||1|
|2||Providence Church||Mt. Juliet||TN||Jacob Armstrong||1,407||76||18.2%||4|
|3||The Gathering||Saint Louis||MO||Matt Miofsky||1,297||85||17.5%||3|
|4||Community of Hope||Loxahatchee Groves||FL||Dale Locke||1,436||70||16.3%||2|
|7||St. Luke’s||Oklahoma City||OK||Bob Long||1,947||39||10.0%||14|
|8||Sun City Center||Sun City Center||FL||Charles Rentz||1,191||108||9.7%||8|
|9||Evangelical (EUM)||Greenville||OH||Jeff Harper||1,244||99||8.8%||7|
|10||New Covenant||The Villages||FL||Harold Hendren||2,464||20||8.7%||16|
|12||Christ||Fairview Heights||IL||Shane Bishop||2,218||28||6.8%||13|
|13||Calvary||East Brunswick||NJ||Sang Won Doh||1,020||151||6.6%||5|
|15||Gold Canyon||Gold Canyon||AZ||Fred Steinberg||1,355||81||5.5%||—|
|16||The Chapel||Brunswick||GA||Jay Hanson||1,147||115||5.2%||12|
|19||Good Shepherd||Charlotte||NC||Talbot Davis||2,022||33||4.2%||25|
|22||Korean Central||Irving||TX||Lee Sung-chul||2,011||37||4.0%||—|
|24||The Woodlands||The Woodlands||TX||Ed Robb||5,154||3||3.6%||—|
Though each of these churches is beautifully unique, we can observe some trends and draw some generalizations by examining them. What I found was in line with what John Lomperis has observed of Len’s Lists in 2017, 2016, and 2015.
One consistent trend that Wilson himself has noted is major growth occurring under senior pastors who are have been established there for several years. Of this year’s top 25, only Charles Rentz of Sun City Center took his position after 2011, replacing Warren Dexter Langer, Jr. in 2014. There is no ideal or magical length of tenure here—2018 top grower Embrace’s Adam Weber arrived in 2007 while Bob Long of St. Luke’s UMC took the pulpit there in 1991.
For all the energy and possibilities that a new pastor can bring, it appears that steady quality leadership is what large churches need to best serve and bring in more people from their communities year after year.
As John Lomperis observed in previous years, the churches on this list are again overwhelmingly Southern. Eleven of them are in the Southeastern Jurisdiction, a little short of half, another year of top representation from the most conservative of U.S. jurisdictions. Another six churches are located in the South Central Jurisdiction. So the two Southern jurisdictions account for over two-thirds (68 percent) of the UMC’s fastest-growing American megachurches. The liberal-leaning Northeastern Jurisdiction can claim only three, as can North Central Jurisdiction. Only one congregation, Gold Canyon UMC, hails from the very liberal, geographically huge but low-membership Western Jurisdiction that comprises every Pacific state as well as Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming.
Overall, the Western half of the USA is an area ripe for church growth and vibrancy. According to Outreach Magazine, this region is home to some of the fastest growing congregations in the country, including three of the top four of 2017. The way the Western Jurisdiction has prioritized LGBTQ activism and radically liberal theology in the name of inclusion and openness is not drawing people to church in major ways, even in its many progressive cities.
Conservative, evangelical bastion Asbury Theological Seminary continues to produce senior pastors of these rapidly-growing large churches at a much higher rate than any other school. The Kentucky-based institution trained nine of the pastors on this list, almost double that of Candler, which produced five. Three of these pastors studied at Perkins Theological Seminary, putting them third overall. Sewanee, Drew, Gammon, Oklahoma City University, Lexington, United, Union, Brite, Boston University, and Philips each have one alumnus on the list. Of the official American UMC seminaries, Claremont, Duke, Garrett, Iliff, Methodist Theological School in Ohio (MTSO), Saint Paul, and Wesley did not have a single graduate on this year’s list. (The seminaries attended by two of the senior pastors on this year’s list could not be readily discerned from their congregation’s websites or from direct inquiries by me.)
After examining the personal theologies and leaderships of these senior pastors, we found that it is a strongly orthodox and evangelical group as well. Seventeen (68 percent) of these top-growing United Methodist churches are led by a pastor known to come from a biblical, evangelical theological perspective. Several of them have done so publicly by signing manifestos like Faithful UMC and Methodist Crossroads, both of which called for keeping clergy accountable to biblical standards on sexual practice, or partnering with renewal groups such as the Wesleyan Covenant Association.
The remaining senior pastors of the remaining minority of congregations are a mix of theological moderates (by United Methodist standards) and ministers who are more theologically liberal, with slightly more of the former.
But as in previous years, it is notable that not one church on the list has formally established itself as a “Reconciling” congregation, a designation of affiliation with Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN) and a commitment to LGBTQ liberationist ideology in the church. Further, none of these senior pastors has signed RMN’s “Altar For All” declaration that promotes disobeying the denomination’s ban on conducting same-sex marriages. The proclamation of many progressive UM activists that liberalizing the church’s stances on sexuality, same-sex marriage, and ordination of gay and lesbian clergy are necessary for true vitality in today’s American culture is simply not backed up by evidence.
Olu Brown is perhaps the most prominently liberal pastor on the list. He shepherds Impact Church in Atlanta, GA. You can read here John Lomperis’s article on last year’s edition of Len’s List, which includes a summary of an interview he conducted with the Rev. Brown. Important to note is that Brown is a leader of the not-so-centrist Uniting Methodist caucus and that he promotes “total and complete rights for LGBTQ lay and clergy United Methodists.” But in his conversation with John, Brown set himself apart from many other liberal clergy in some notable ways.
Only one other pastor, Fred Steinberg of Gold Canyon UMC in Gold Canyon, Arizona has endorsed the Uniting Methodists manifesto calling for unity through liberalizing the UMC’s standards on human sexuality.
A third congregation on this list, The Gathering in St. Louis, is labeled as having a “clear” LGBTQ-affirming stance by the controversial “Church Clarity” website. Pastor Matt Miofsky has described The Gathering as “accept[ing] and affirm[ing] our LGBTQ community,” and under his leadership, the congregation has developed a large LGBTQ group which participates in local “pride” events.
Both Impact and The Gathering also made it on last year’s version of Len’s List. However, these three congregations (12 percent of the total) are somewhat theological outliers of this year’s list, in line with the dynamics observed in previous years.
I searched Len Wilson’s lists of the past four years to find the churches that made it three or all four times, and the findings again suggest the impact of keeping to traditional Christian values.
Five churches have made it onto Wilson’s list each of the past four years, demonstrating consistent high growth, and leading them are four pastors known as orthodox evangelicals and one known as more of a moderate. These churches are Crosspoint in Niceville, Florida, St. Luke’s of Oklahoma City, New Covenant in The Villages, Florida, Christ Church in Fairview Heights, Illinois, and Good Shepherd in Charlotte, North Carolina. Four of these five are in the South.
An additional ten churches have made Len’s list three of these past four years, with eight led by evangelical senior pastors and two by more theologically liberal ones.
Looking at these two groups together, these fifteen most frequent growers, nine are led by Asbury alums and 12 have evangelical senior pastors. Of the churches that made the list at least three times, none of them hail from the Western or Northeastern Jurisdictions, the two most liberal jurisdictions in the U.S.
How wonderful it is to see and learn from these churches where God is bringing in so many new souls to join in worship and fellowship. We should pray for their continued blessing and for the same to happen to more churches all across the country not for the sake of full pews or membership, but for the Gospel.