Churches in the Southeast and with Orthodox Pastors Lead Top-growing Large United Methodist Congregations

on December 24, 2019

As 2019 draws to a close, UM Action once again is asking, “Where is major church growth occurring in the United Methodist Church (UMC) in this country, and what can we learn from these congregations in this era of declining mainline denominations?” In a year that has been dominated by conversations full of both discord and hope surrounding the UMC’s divide surrounding human sexuality and underlying theological questions, it is beneficial to look at where the church is flourishing.

Once again, Len Wilson, Creative Director at St. Andrew UMC in Plano, Texas has published his yearly list of the fastest growing large United Methodist churches in the US. To qualify for the list, a congregation must have had at least 1,000 in average weekly attendance by the end of 2017, the most recent year for which full data is available. They also cannot have experienced decline from one year to another in the previous two years. The 25 churches on the list are ranked by their growth rate over the last five years on record, from 2013 to 2017.

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 to learn about innovation and creativity happening in ministry there, outcomes of following a creative God. You can learn more about his methodology and vision for the project on his website.

Here’s his 2019 list:


Rank Church Name City State Sr Pastor 2017 AWA Rank by size 5 Yr Annualized Growth Last Year
1 Community of Hope Loxahatchee Groves FL Dale Locke 1,646 51 20.7% 4
2 Providence Church Mt. Juliet TN Jacob Armstrong 1,578 58 15.3% 2
3 The Gathering Saint Louis MO Matt Miofsky 1,316 78 13.1% 3
4 Mt. Horeb Lexington SC Jeff Kersey 2,879 12 12.8%
5 Impact Atlanta GA Olu Brown 2,350 25 12.2% 5
6 Sun City Center Sun City Center FL Charles Rentz 1,274 86 10.1% 8
7 St. Luke’s Oklahoma City OK Bob Long 2,015 37 9.0% 7
8 Crosspoint Niceville FL Rurel Ausley 3,806 8 9.0% 6
9 Covenant Dothan AL Hays McKay 1,600 56 8.2% 18
10 Evangelical (EUM) Greenville OH Jeff Harper 1,249 92 8.1% 9
11 Cokesbury Knoxville TN Stephen Defur 4,326 6 7.7% 11
12 The Chapel Brunswick GA Jay Hanson 1,335 75 7.7% 16
13 The Korean Church Atlanta Duluth GA William Sei-Hwan Kim 2,087 34 7.2%
14 Christ Fairview Heights IL Shane Bishop 2,396 22 6.8% 12
15 New Covenant The Villages FL Harold Hendren 2,630 14 6.8% 10
16 First Jonesboro Jonesboro AR John Miles 1,361 74 5.9%
17 St. Luke’s Houston TX Tom Pace 2,370 23 5.3%
18 Belin Memorial Murrells Inlet SC Mike Alexander 1,182 108 5.0%
19 Edenton Street Raleigh NC Bob Bauman 1,510 62 3.8%
20 Cornerstone Caledonia MI Brad Kalajainen 1,972 40 3.5% 20
21 Peachtree Road Atlanta GA Bill Britt 1,794 46 3.4%
22 St. Timothy North Shore Mandeville LA James Mitchell 2,415 17 3.2%
23 First Clermont Clermont FL Doug Kokx 1,038 140 3.1%
24 St. Paul’s Joplin MO Aaron Brown 1,010 147 2.9%
25 Good Shepherd Charlotte NC Talbot Davis 2,040 35 2.6% 19


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 and I have found in 2018, 2017, 2016, and 2015.

Once again, churches that make the list are predominantly those that have had the same lead pastor for several years. Of this year’s top 25, all but three congregations are shepherded by pastors who have been there for five or more years. There is no prime or best length of tenure here—EUM’s Jeff Harper arrived at his church in 2011 while Bob Long of St. Luke’s took the pulpit in Oklahoma City in 1991.

For all the creativity and fresh direction that a new pastor can bring, the data shows that steady quality leadership is one thing large churches apparently need to best serve and bring in more people from their communities year after year.

In line with recent years, this list is dominated by churches from the South, particularly the UMC’s Southeastern Jurisdiction. A whopping 19 of them came from the Southeastern Jurisdiction, over three quarters of the total. Another four churches are located in the South Central Jurisdiction. The North Central Jurisdiction is home to only two churches that made Wilson’s list this year. In contrast to last year, no churches from either the liberal-leaning Northeastern Jurisdiction or the small-membership and extremely liberal Western Jurisdiction, which contains every Pacific state as well as Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming.

As it does most years, conservative, evangelical stronghold Asbury Theological Seminary continues to produce senior pastors of these rapidly-growing large churches at a much higher rate than any other school. The Wilmore, Kentucky-based school trained eight of the pastors on this list, down just one from last year. Candler School of Theology, like last year, is the alma mater of the second-most pastors, this year totaling an impressive seven. Perkins School of Theology and United Theological Seminary each trained two of these lead pastors, and Sewanee School of Theology, Drew Theological School, Gammon School of Theology, Oklahoma City University, Duke Divinity School, Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, Saint Paul School of Theology, Boston University, and Iliff School of Theology can claim to having trained one on the list.

Four of the 13 denominational seminaries that are heavily subsidized by the UMC did not have a single alumnus on this year’s list: Claremont School of Theology, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Methodist Theological School in Ohio, and Wesley Theological Seminary.

After examining the personal theologies and leaderships of these senior pastors, we found that it is a strongly orthodox and evangelical group as well. Sixteen of these top-growing United Methodist churches are led by a pastor known to be theologically orthodox. A number 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.

Notably, this year holds with all the previous lists in that not one church that appears has formally established itself as a “Reconciling” congregation, a label of connection with Reconciling Ministries Network and a commitment to LGBTQ liberationist ideology. The false narrative espoused by many progressive United Methodist activists that liberalizing the denomination’s stances on sexuality, same-sex marriage, and ordination of gay and lesbian clergy are necessary for sustained growth and vibrancy is clearly not backed up by empirical evidence.

A slightly higher number of theologically liberal or progressive-leaning pastors made Wilson’s top growers list this year. One prominent one is Rev. Olu Brown, who leads Impact Church in Atlanta, Georgia, which has appeared on the list now four times. Rev. Brown is an outspoken member of the not-so-centrist Uniting Methodist caucus that championed the so-called “One Church Plan” for the 2019 General Conference in St. Louis. Two other pastors on this year’s listed signed their names in support of the Uniting Methodist movement as well, Rev. Bill Britt of Peachtree Road UMC in Atlanta and Rev. Mike Alexander of Belin Memorial UMC in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina. There was also one pastor who did not fit neatly into either the traditionalist or progressive camp.

Churches led by pastors with traditional, orthodox beliefs are also the overwhelming majority among the churches that made Wilson’s list this year and have repeatedly made it on the past five years. Five churches are distinguished by being top-25 growers in every edition of this list since 2015: Crosspoint in Niceville, Florida, Christ in Fairview Heights, Illinois, St. Luke’s in Oklahoma City, Good Shepherd in Charlotte, and New Covenant in The Villages, Florida. Four of these churches have pastors with a traditional theological perspective, while just one is relatively more liberal (and some may say more of a moderate). For seminary, two went to Asbury, two to Candler, and one went to Perkins as well as Oklahoma City University. Three are in the Southeastern Jurisdiction, one in the North Central Jurisdiction, and one in the South Central Jurisdiction.

Of the ten churches that appeared all but one year since 2015, just two have theologically progressive senior pastors, while the other eight have orthodox ones. Notably, five of these pastors went to Asbury Theological Seminary, and three went to Candler, another sign that these two seminaries are setting up future pastors for success.  Six of these ten churches are in the Southeastern Jurisdiction, three in the North Central Jurisdiction, and just one in the South Central Jurisdiction.

Four additional churches on the 2019 list have appeared twice before, giving fourteen churches to look at. This adds just one more progressively-led church, meaning that 11 out of the 14, or just under 80 percent, have been led by theologically traditional-leaning pastors. Nine of these 14 are located in the Southeastern Jurisdiction, three in North Central, and two South Central. No congregation in either of the UMC’s more liberal-dominated Western and Northeastern Jurisdictions has appeared on this list more than once.  Six of these 14 churches are led by pastors who went to Asbury, and five are led by Candler alums. No other seminary is represented more than once in this collection of 14 consistent rapid growers.

In a time in which so much about the future of the church is uncertain, it is encouraging to know that there are churches that are gathering multitudes to share the Gospel and make disciples of Jesus Christ. We should all pray for these churches, not only that their pews would continue to fill, but that everyone who steps through their doors or is touched by their ministries would grow closer to God. We should also pray that congregations big and small across the global United Methodist Church would blessed as these ones have by the Lord.

  1. Comment by Pastor R. David Reynolds on December 24, 2019 at 11:57 am

    I have only one comment, “AMEN, AND PRAISE THE LORD!!!”

  2. Comment by Brad Pope on December 24, 2019 at 1:42 pm

    A clear flaw in this- I am a member of #21 & our attendance, budget and membership has dropped significantly over the past years. We are also NOT traditional in theology just in ceremony as we are a declared part of the UMCNext movement that has sworn to fight against the traditional Book of discipline. If we are showing an increase I would question the reporting or maybe it’s just an increase as a bounce off the bottom. My theory from observing is the more secular we become, the less competitive/different we are with other options on Sunday. The non-denominational churches that are unapologetically bringing the gospel & preaching scriptural authority of busting at the seams

  3. Comment by Lee D. Cary on December 31, 2019 at 7:16 am

    Brad, you, sir, are describing the genuine growth edge of the Protestant Church in America. Thank you.

  4. Comment by td on December 24, 2019 at 6:31 pm

    Given the size of these churches and the generally long tenures of the senior pastors, i am not sure that this list means much beyond that they are all probably headed by a person that is very charismatic- and that the bishops make sure that these churches get quality staff that fits their congregations well.

    Although i would like to support the connection with theology, i don’t think that the info from 25 very large umc churches extrapolates well to the rest of the denomination.

    I certainly would prefer a church hierarchy that invests in neighborhood and community churches instead of suburban mega churches.

  5. Comment by David on December 25, 2019 at 7:16 am

    It has long been a gripe that mega churches get to keep their pastors for extended periods while others have to deal with itinerancy on a regular basis.

  6. Comment by td on December 25, 2019 at 2:26 pm

    Yup. It all comes down to power. And the very real truth that most very large congregations mostly revolve around the personality of their founders. I don’t think it’s the theology that is driving these large churches – it’s their leader. The risk of moving one of these leaders is that once that person is gone the congregation will fade.

  7. Comment by JR on December 27, 2019 at 11:17 am

    Well said. I’d also add that these churches (on quick view) seem to be in growing population areas – that adds to the growth factor. Being big helps to stay big, being in a growing area helps to add to your congregation.
    I live where there are literally 6 small-to-medium UMC churches that I could ride a bike to on Sunday morning. None are bursting at the seams, yet I would think that closing half of them would help the others out. But nobody wants to have ‘their’ church on the cut list.

  8. Comment by Brad Pope on December 28, 2019 at 3:51 pm

    Your contention is certainly supported anecdotally by the success of Adam Hamilton‘s church for example, however the overall trend is unmistakable and is not around personality but theology; traditional is either growing or declining less and progressive theology is in material decline practically across-the-board. Look no further than PCA & PCUSA. Progressive Methodists keep finding ways to rationalize away the declining numbers for progressive congregations. These congregants that leave because of theology just quietly start participating in other more Bible-based worship opportunities. Unfortunately there are no exit interviews to inform church leaders. I have seen it play out with dozens of people (multiple admin board chairs, lay leaders, etc) in my own church strictly for theological reasons once our congregation actively began a public left theological turn. I am hopeful the UMCnext crowd will leave quickly before they do more spiritual & relational damage. Truly sad to think the amount of damage so many genuinely good people are doing for a cause that is “right in their own eyes”.

  9. Comment by Lee D. Cary on December 31, 2019 at 7:30 am

    “These congregants that leave because of theology just quietly start participating in other more Bible-based worship opportunities.”

    My six grandchildren, whose mothers grew up in UMC’s, now all attend “more Bible-based worship opportunities”.

    No apportionments. No D.S.’s & Bishops. No hierarchy of bureaucrats. No rigid liturgy. No un-singable dull hymns. No social justice warriors in the pulpits. No robed clerics.

    The church worm has turned, and continues to.

  10. Comment by Charles Whatley on January 30, 2020 at 8:30 pm

    If moving the pastor causes the church to decline; that pastor did a poor job… our job is to move our people closer to self-sufficiency. It’s much like the parent who keeps the children children instead of helping them grow into adulthood.

  11. Comment by Lee D. Cary on December 31, 2019 at 7:20 am

    You can mourn the loss of the old, mom-n-pop,corner drug stores but that ain’t going to bring them back.

  12. Comment by David on January 5, 2020 at 9:39 am

    Hymn singing is part of the Methodist tradition, though now out of style. There was a time when people liked group singing be it around the campfire, in movie theaters, or in churches. Today people prefer to stand in silence and wave their arms in the air. Methodist pastors did not wear robes until the 1940s-50s. This was apparently an attempt to appear more respectable compared to other denominations. The use of brass crosses and candles can rarely be found before about 1920. In this same period, Methodists changed their church architecture from the pulpit-centered meeting house style, sometimes with galleries and semicircular seating, to the altar-centered church style with a central aisle.

  13. Comment by Pouncer on December 24, 2019 at 9:33 pm

    The UMC boasts of a tradition in women pastors. Which of the large or growing UMC congregations exemplifies the virtue of such a tradition?

  14. Comment by td on December 24, 2019 at 11:29 pm

    In the list above, it appears that none of them have senior pastors that are women.

  15. Comment by Lee D. Cary on December 31, 2019 at 7:21 am

    You can’t call a few decades a “tradition”.

  16. Comment by Gary Bebop on December 26, 2019 at 3:30 pm

    There will be great speculation in the new year regarding the impact of this intriguing constellation of growing churches and their pastors. In the PNW, a couple of orthodox pastors are notable as contrarians in an overwhelmingly and increasingly militant progressive conference. Will their tribe increase?

  17. Comment by Lee D. Cary on December 31, 2019 at 7:33 am

    Their “tribe” will increase if their congregation overwhelmingly votes to disengage from the UMC. And if they have entrepreneurial and talented clerical leadership.

  18. Comment by K Card on December 28, 2019 at 8:36 am

    I am in New England. As a retired pastor from the VA conference, I have been at a small church for 18 months. The average attendance had dipped to under 20 and we are now seeing 50-60. I am an old women pastor trained at WTS in DC, second career, orthodox, with a theology that is based on the biblical truth that all of humanity is created in God’s image. We have lost 3 families that were either extremely conservative or liberal. They each wanted me to preach “Biblical” truths, which I have come to realize is “reading Scripture the way they did.” My “Orthodox” understanding of Scripture and my call is that it is all right to wrestle with Scripture. My only real deal breaker is when the conservative woman accused me of peaching untruth when I said people are all born on God’s image. I actually wept when o thought that she believed some people were created to be damned. Our small church is active in the community, involved in Interfaith activities and listening to everyone. We do not assume we know better than everyone else, we love deeply and we listen to our brothers and sisters with whom we do not always agree. We do not want to grow in numbers, we want to grow in faith.

  19. Comment by Donald on January 28, 2020 at 6:53 pm

    “We have lost 3 families that were either extremely conservative or liberal. They each wanted me to preach “Biblical” truths, which I have come to realize is “reading Scripture the way they did.””

    Right on target. After all, as Will Rogers said, a reasonable person is one who agrees with me.

    ” We do not want to grow in numbers, we want to grow in faith.”

    Again, spot on. We do not need more from God we need more OF God!

    “Gosh offerings collections are down! We need to get more people!”

    That sound you hear is me banging my head against the wall.

  20. Comment by Glen Kissel on December 29, 2019 at 3:51 pm

    Which of these churches have predominantly traditional services?

  21. Comment by Gary Sweeten on January 3, 2020 at 8:43 pm

    Interesting information. One thought, the growing churches have conservative leadership for sure. I wonder if the members are not also more engaged in outreach. In a growing church the sheep bringing sheep is very important.

  22. Comment by Greg M on January 4, 2020 at 8:32 pm

    Guessing many of these churches have more contemporary services. Attend a large UMC Church in Fairfax Va-the traditional and contemporary services draw the same amount of folk with the contemporary services having a lot younger crowd.

The work of IRD is made possible by your generous contributions.

Receive expert analysis in your inbox.