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%||—|
|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|
|10||Evangelical (EUM)||Greenville||OH||Jeff Harper||1,249||92||8.1%||9|
|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%||—|
|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.