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Ed Stetzer
Ed Stetzer

Learning from America’s Largest and Fastest-Growing Churches

Dr. Ed Stetzer

LifeWay Research
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Article Highlights

While churches are getting larger, attendees are often not unified in one location..

Contextualization for your church and community is key.

Christ calls each of us to seek out fresh ways to contextualize the Gospel for a dying world.

 

What do OUTREACH 100 churches have in common? Why have they grown so rapidly? What innovations are they embracing that account for their adaptability and health?

Dichotomies seem to be the order of the day. Anywhere you look, people have the latest and coolest gadgets, yet at the same time, they hunger for simpler lives. So it should come as no surprise that the current church landscape reflects the rest of our lives and culture.

As we talked with churches and gathered the information for the OUTREACH 100 Largest and Fastest-Growing Churches in America, we saw several dichotomies, including the one developing between small and large churches. If current trends continue, the number of medium-sized churches will continue to decrease, and the bulk of U.S. churches will tend to be very large or very small. While most churches have always been small, large churches getting larger.

This year’s Largest list reflects this trend. For the first time, all 100 churches on that list averaged at least 7,000 people. (In contrast, last year’s list included churches of 6,376 or more.) That doesn’t mean more churches are meeting in larger groups at one time in one place; the opposite may be true. While churches are getting larger, attendees are often not unified in one location as more megachurches add satellite sites.

Growth Catalysts

New sites, new buildings, regional population increases, and even new leadership served as growth catalysts for many of the churches on both lists. In many cases, these factors contributed to rapid growth. On the following pages, we explore these trends and look at some of the churches on the list representing these growth factors.

We aren’t advocating that other churches and leaders mimic or seek to duplicate these congregations. Contextualization for your church and community is key. Nor are we indicting any churches that aren’t currently growing or aren’t on these lists. Just as many factors converge to ignite rapid growth, and multiple issues can also limit growth. Remember that ultimately, all healthy church growth is ordered by God; He causes the church to grow (2 Cor. 3:6).

As we talked with leaders for this report, we heard stories of how God had indeed grown their churches. Behind the numbers on these lists are stories of changed lives, renewed churches and transformed communities—an impact felt not only locally but also globally. As we look at some of the ways today’s U.S. congregations are growing, we hope this report inspires and challenges you to renew your commitment to the Great Commission task we are all called to pursue.

Digital Connections

As the world continues to explore the potential of the virtual world, churches have followed suit. Large and growing congregations like LifeChurch.tv (No. 5 Largest), Flamingo Road Church (No. 73 Largest) and many others have discovered that digital connections allow them to make inroads with the unchurched. Northland, A Church Distributed (No. 67 Fastest-Growing, No. 62 Largest) has become prolific at using online technology as a Great Commission strategy. Last year, the Longwood, FL. church’s attendance grew by nearly 1,200 people at its physical sites and saw even greater growth in the virtual world. Morepeople now “attend” the church’s online worship portal, InSite, than any of its individual services. On a given weekend, InSite has 3,000 or more participants.

Northland’s Senior Pastor Joel Hunter, 60, quickly acknowledges that his generation grew up in theater-style worship. But for the coming generations, he says, the computer screen will be their primary connection. Northland is not interested in replacing physical togetherness with a virtual experience, Hunter says. ”Although the screen offers some degree of intimacy, it should never replace–and should actually generate–geography-based togetherness. We are trying to use a virtual community to create a local community, so that people develop actual physical Christian relationships where they live.”

Internet campuses are not without their flaws and unique set of issues that often raise red flags of concern. However, our team found an increasing interest in online approaches to outreach and ministry, with more churches showing the viability of digital connections.

Multisite Risks

Over the past decade, the term “multisite” has gradually worked its way into the Church’s vocabulary. Today, it is one of the best-known strategies for church growth and expansion. In 2000, only 5% of all U.S. megachurches had multiple locations. In 2007, 25% of all megachurches had more than one site, and experts predict that by 2010, 50% of all megachurches will be multisite (MultisiteChurchRevolution.com). In his forthcoming book, Multi-Site Churches: Guidance for the Movement’s Next Generation (B&H), LifeWay Research Associate Director Scott McConnell reports that 16% of all U.S. churches—approximately 48,000—say they are seriously considering multisites as a ministry option.

As the trend continues to gain momentum, a closer look at today’s effective multisite churches reveals leaders and congregations who are willing to take risks and make sacrifices to multiply and ultimately reach new people for Christ. Our team heard story after story of churches that have let go of church members to “seed” the new congregation—a potentially painful and difficult process.

From the very beginning, Andy [Stanley] gave everyone a phrase to think about,” says David McDaniel, Director of Campus Expansion for North Point Ministries, affiliated with North Point Community Church (No.41 Fastest-Growing; No. 3 Largest). “He said, ‘We don’t get any credit for who we keep; it’s who we reach.’” When North Point considers building new facilities for one of its campuses or adding another site, the church uses an empty chair icon to represent its ultimate goal. “What we’re doing is providing empty chairs for people to come and worship during optimal hours,” McDaniel says. “No one thinks about it as ‘splitting up the church.’ Instead, we’re doubling our capacity, giving more people an opportunity to come to church. This keeps us on mission.”

Church for All Ages

While last year we highlighted a growing interest in churches on the lists becoming multicultural, this year we found a heightened interest in churches becoming multigenerational. As Baby Boomers age and the number of senior adults in America reaches record highs, leaders are recognizing the need to be a church for all ages.
Both older and younger generations are drawn to ten-year-old Heartland Community Church (No. 35 Fastest-Growing). On a recent weekend at the Rockford, IL church, about 10% of the people baptized were aged 65 and older. “The beauty of what God is doing at Heartland is almost a perfect representation of the demographics of Rockford and the surrounding area,” Directional Leader Mark Bankord says, adding that the multigenerational congregation has been a big surprise. “We really thought, even ten years ago when we started, that our church would resonate with primarily Baby Boomers and under and maybe even tip a little bit toward a younger crowd,” Bankord explains. This multigenerational effect, though not intentionally planned, has caused Heartland to become relevant to its community.

Community Bible Church in Stockbridge, GA (No. 78 Fastest-Growing) is just the opposite. For it, becoming a multigenerational congregation is intentional. The church offers multiple types of worship services designed to reach certain target groups of people, says Lead Pastor Beau Adams. ”But we feel it is essential that everyone fellowship with people from all backgrounds and all generations.” Beyond the church service, Community Bible Church fosters multigenerational relationships in other ways with intergenerational outreaches and activities.

The church fills a void prominent throughout Western culture where the families often live a significant distance from grandparents. By connecting senior adults with the children of Community Bible, attendees are forming non-blood-related families as the young and old join together in activities like fishing. While many churches today focus their efforts and resources on drawing and keeping young families, churches like Heartland and Community Bible have discovered that engaging and connecting all generations leads to both attendance and spiritual growth.

20-Something Intentionality

While we saw this growing multigenerational focus, the pendulum swung wide, indicating a concerted effort to reach the often-elusive generation of 20-somethings. Much has been written about why the younger generation is rejecting the megachurch, and those observations and findings should not be discounted or ignored. However, despite the apparent general rejection of megachurches, we found that a significant number of young adults across the country embrace megachurches, especially when these large churches are intentional about reaching them.

Engaging 20-somethings has required quite a learning curve for Community Bible Church in San Antonio, Texas (No. 24 Fastest-Growing, No. 26 Largest). Because the church is not defined by a particular location or time slot, Community Bible effectively reaches this unique generation. The church’s most intentional and effective environment is people’s living rooms, explains Scott Austin, pastor of the church’s Next Gen Ministries. “We have tried to create a system where our small group leaders recruit and train others with a vision to turn around and go to their friends in their community,” he says. “[They] bring them into their apartments, use curriculum—usually video-based—then sit down and talk to them and start to wrestle with these different questions about God and faith.”

The approach is strategic. “These adults hang out with their friends all of the time,” Austin says. “They won’t make time to come to church on Sunday morning, but they will sit down in somebody’s living room. So we asked ourselves, ‘Well, is there a way to take that community and infuse it with purpose?’ And what we decided was that for people in their 20s, it was a lot more relaxing and comfortable and an easier entry point to our church to sit with a community of Christians in somebody’s home, people with whom they’ve eaten a meal (and) are hanging out. It is this sort of instant fellowship with a purpose that works as opposed to trying to get them to come through the doors of our church.”

Matt Chandler and I recently talked about why his Dallas-area congregation, The Village Church (No. 23 Fastest-Growing), is reaching so many young adults. Over the last five years, the church has grown from 200 to 4,500, primarily young adults. Says Chandler: “Most of the people we reach are not anti-megachurch; they are just anti-phoniness.” Clearly, the idea that all young adults are abandoning the megachurch is a myth. Many are, but a great number are not and, instead, are finding Christ through a large local church.

 

Ultimately, that outcome—introducing Jesus to those who don’t yet know Him—is the end goal of these new approaches, whether people meet Him via the Internet, at a satellite site or as the result of a church thinking generationally. Churches today are being intentional about their mission and, in many of the churches referenced in this article and those profiled in this issue, attendance growth is often a by-product of that intentionality—and their innovation.

Regardless of your church’s size or shape, Christ calls each of us to seek out fresh ways to contextualize the Gospel for a dying world. I pray that we never lose sight of that call or the people waiting to meet their Savior in or through our churches.

 

Ed Stetzer (Ph.D.) is author of Breaking the Missional Code, Comeback Churches: How 300 Churches Turned Around and Yours Can Too and Planting Missional Churches. For the second consecutive year, the LifeWay Research team led by Dr. Stetzer has contacted churches, gathered data and produced the OUTREACH 100 lists. Stetzer’s upcoming book, Lost and Found: The Younger Unchurched and Churches that Reach Them (B&H), tackles the 20-something trend he explores in this report. He currently serves as the President of LifeWay Research. You can interact concerning this article at www.edstetzer.com.

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