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Through the blizzard of articles I write, the issue of the church’s health in America is constantly at the forefront of my thoughts. Glancing across the landscape of Christianity in America, there sometimes appears to be little about which we can rejoice. But it is also clear that there are numerous exceptions where God is glorifying Himself in the ministry of local churches. This is one of the reasons I look forward each year to Outreach magazine and LifeWay Research’s report on the 100 Largest and Fastest-Growing Churches in America, as it provides us with examples of churches through which God is working. It’s also an opportunity to see things that benefit churches of every size, shape and location. We see what these churches have in common, what kinds of strategies God seems to be using across the board in getting the Gospel to unbelievers. Based on our findings, we identified four specific action points any church can follow.

1. Develop On-Ramps for Potential Leaders

Though some surmise that large or fast-growing churches have “outgrown their problems,” we found that they are not immune. One challenge mentioned by a number of churches on our lists was the recruitment and training of leaders.

Chris Surratt, pastor of ministries at Cross Point Church in Nashville, Tenn., (No. 6 Fastest-Growing) noted that “raising up enough leaders to keep up with growth” was a major challenge, adding that through Cross Point’s leadership pipeline, they encourage existing small group leaders to identify and mentor potential leaders within their groups. Surratt describes another “on-ramp for potential leaders”: their use of periodic, open meetings for anyone interested in leading a group. “These meetings give people the opportunity to explore what it means to be a group leader,” he says. “If they are still interested, we set up interviews and start the training process.”

2. Know Why and How You’re Going Multisite

A noticeable trend this year is that an overwhelming 75 of the 100 Largest  churches in the survey are utilizing a multisite approach to ministry. Of those 75 churches, 19 have two campuses, while the remaining 56 have three or more. Two of those 56 are doing ministry in more than 10 sites. Among the 100 Fastest-Growing churches, we found that 59 are multisite, with 38 churches on the list having three or more sites. Four in 10 of the Fastest-Growing churches are meeting in a single location. It appears that once churches reach a certain level of growth, they are choosing to expand via satellite campuses.

Cam Huxford, senior pastor of Savannah Christian Church in Georgia (No. 86 Largest, No. 95 Fastest-Growing), cites “the entropy of evangelism” as a motivating factor for choosing where Savannah Christian launches new campuses. He explains, “When people have to drive 30 miles to visit a church they’ve never attended, it’s hard to get them to respond to an invite.” As a result, Savannah Christian determines where satellites will be launched based on clusters of their home groups and the difficulty of the drive to the main campus. Their second satellite doubled from 500 to 1,000 in about four years, while their third doubled from 500 to 1,000 in a matter of months. The first satellite site started five years ago with around 100 college students and adults to reach the Savannah College of Art and Design campus. It now has an attendance of 800.

3. Becoming "Smaller" Is Key to Healthy Growth

Pastors of the Fastest-Growing churches also realize the need for relationships both in the church and with the community. Senior Pastor Mark McClelland of Willowbrook Baptist Church in Huntsville, Ala. (No. 76 Fastest-Growing) notes, “As we get bigger, we have to get smaller.” The way they do that is through small, biblical communities.

“Small groups are the way we encourage relationships between our members,” McClelland says. “Willowbrook emphasizes intimacy with God, the big group (worship), the small group, and individual accountability.” To reach the community, all of Willowbrook’s small groups are encouraged to “find a way to serve the city.”

4. Find Ways to Model and Foster Community Engagement

River Valley Church’s Rob Ketterling models the strategy of his Apple Valley, Minn., church for creating relationships with people in the community: He invites his neighbors. “My wife, my kids and I have lived in three different neighborhoods since we’ve been at River Valley,” he says. “In a recent service, I was able to ask three different families to stand, one from each of the subdivisions where we have lived. Then I said to the church, ‘We are modeling what we all need to be doing.’” In addition, each of River Valley’s campuses (and all the ones in the future) joins their local Rotary Club. The campuses also send someone from the church to every city meeting to which they are invited. The issue of connection is not just getting people onto a church campus, but getting believers into the heart of the city.

The churches on our Largest and Fastest-Growing lists are all engaging in various ministries. However, we are watching many of these congregations push themselves deeper in multisite ministry, small groups and serving the culture.

I am thankful for the many pastors and church leaders who have allowed us to take a look into their ministries through these lists. By doing so, we gain a unique perspective into some of the ways God is working through His church. I hope we will all continue to learn from one another as we seek to bear a witness for Christ in our cities and in our world. 

For more information on the Outreach 100, visit Outreachmagazine.com.

Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College and serves as Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center for EvangelismPreviously, he served as Executive Director of LifeWay Research. Ed recently started Mission Group in order to create unique and practical resources for church leaders. He has trained pastors and church planters on five continents, holds two masters degrees and two doctorates, and has written dozens of articles and books. Ed is a contributing editor for Christianity Today, a columnist for Outreach Magazine and Catalyst Monthly, serves on the advisory council Christianity Today's Building Church Leaders, and is frequently cited or interviewed in news outlets such as USAToday and CNN.

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Fernando Villegas

commented on Sep 19, 2011

I don't have any major problems with any of the four points mentioned. But I am somewhat uncomfortable with the stated assumption that God is working through and glorifying himself only through the churches that are the largest and fastest growing. Where in the Bible does it say that a local congregation (as opposed to the universal church) is meant to grow indefinitely large? Where in the Bible does it say that that growth has to be fast. On the contrary, when I read the Bible, I see God glorifying himself in the small, the weak, the marginalized. And in the ministry, I constantly see God glorifying himself in churches that will never be celebrated in any magazine or held up as examples in any report. It's not that there is anything inherently more "spiritual" in being small, weak, or marginalized. It's simply the fact that those who exhibit these characteristics are more likely (though, of course, this is no guarantee) to recognize their need to depend on God rather than on their own resources. I fear we are very much in danger of confusing American values with Biblical ones.

Chaplain Shawn Kennedy

commented on Sep 19, 2011

Well put, Fernando! God moves in more than just BIG ways. (Take note of the Macedonian church of 2nd Corinthians 8.)

Ron Hoffmann

commented on Sep 20, 2011

I agree, Fernando. Pastoring a small church can be very discouraging when we are constantly challenged to compare ourselves with "Large" and "Fastest Growing." I too wonder about the wisdom of using the American entrepreneurial approach as a template for working in the Kingdom of God.

Todd Theissen

commented on Sep 24, 2011

Fernando, "And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved." Is your church in an area where people are lost? Is it Gods will that any should perish? Can you add daily and remain small? We should strive to reach the lost daily.

Fernando Villegas

commented on Sep 25, 2011

Todd, it's obvious that you didn't take the time to understand what I was saying. I was specifically referring to the growth of a local congregation as opposed to the universal church. The text you quoted from Acts 2 clearly refers to the universal church ("all who believed" v. 42). But my question was where in the Bible does it say that a LOCAL CONGREGATION (which is what, in essence, is being discussed in the magazine and report) is supposed to grow indefinitely large? If you've got a text for that one, let me know. Of course, you won't find one, because in the early church, local congregations met in homes, as they had no "church buildings" that we think are so necessary, now. Once the home reached its limit, those whom the Lord added would meet in another home--another local congregation--and so forth. I believe that is the biblical pattern that should guide us in church growth, NOT the "bigger is better" values of North American consumerism. Once a church reaches a certain size (and what that size is God alone will determine), further growth must come from the multiplication of more churches. German church growth expert Christian Schwarz conducted an international, interdenominational study that demonstrated that, statistically, ten healthy churches of 100 members will combined win more converts in one year than one healthy church of 1000 members. And he's referring to raw numbers, not percentages. And guess what? Those ten churches will never be celebrated in any magazine or held up as examples in any report. They're too small. But the one "large" church will. I don't mind if you disagree with my point, but at least have the integrity to UNDERSTAND my point before you start spouting texts that have nothing to do with what I'm saying and implying things like that I don't care about reaching the lost. For those who DO want to reach the lost, I would ask, Why would you want to have one big church when--statistically--ten, twenty, or thirty small churches will reach MORE lost people combined than that one big church?

Fernando Villegas

commented on Sep 25, 2011

Todd, by the way, to answer your question simply: Yes, you can add daily and remain small. How? Planting new churches.

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