If you’re anywhere near San Diego this week, I encourage you to attend the National Outreach Convention, where the theme is Shine Bright. If you can’t get there, follow it live at http://www.nationaloutreachconvention.com/. Many good friends are speaking there, including Geoff Surratt and Greg Ligon doing a presentation from our recently released book, Multi-Site Church Roadtrip.
I try to read Outreach magazine cover to cover each issue because I need a lot of help, as do most church leaders, in reaching out with the life-changing good news about Jesus. It’s so much easier to think about my own needs than about those who have spiritual hunger, but haven’t found the path.
I especially enjoy the way Outreach magazine does an annual “top 100” issue, always probing for what kind of outreach these churches are doing that has fostered the growth that God has sent their way.
People have asked my take on the “top 100” so here it is. The relevant magazine articles (free) and actual lists (nominal cost) are both available at http://www.outreachmagazine.com.
1. Kudos on verifications. Ed Stetzer of LifeWay Research led a massive effort of contacting 8,000 churches, going to great lengths to confirm data self-reported by pastors, staff or church officers. In previous years some of the entries have had major problems, and this year’s promises a higher level of accuracy. Nice work, teams at LifeWay and Outreach!
2. Missing churches are the elephant in the room. Churches don’t participant in the list for various reasons: they didn’t open the survey or their response process fell through the cracks. Others do not like church ranking lists. Others don’t want to reveal attendance data. Too often when a church declines, they don’t want people to know about it so they avoid participating. (A few that decline come up instead with a new way of counting so that they’re still shown to be gaining.)
A helpful blog by Kent Shaffer at http://churchrelevance.com/100-largest-churches-in-america-for-2009/ compares “top 100” lists for recent years, highlighting churches that “disappeared” in various years. Many disappear simply because they didn’t participate that year. A couple had grossly over-reported their numbers and were caught doing so.
Even so, a bunch of large churches have never participated. Among those with attendances over 10,000 are:
• Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa, Santa Ana, CA, where Chuck Smith Sr. is pastor, www.calvarychapelcostamesa.org.
• Harvest Christian Fellowship, Riverside, CA, where Greg Laurie is pastor, www.harvest.org/church
• Cornerstone Church, San Antonio, TX, where John Hagee is pastor, www.sacornerstone.com
3. Church names tend to be unique and sound non-denominational. The first person to create a “top 100” list was Elmer Towns in 1968 (photo at right, still going strong at Liberty University), publishing it annually in Christian Life magazine, occasionally in the Sword of the Lord newspaper, and in various books he authored starting in 1969 with The Ten Largest Sunday Schools and What Makes Them Grow (Baker). Back then, Sunday school attendance was generally much higher than worship attendance, so the lists focused on Sunday school. (Church attendance overtook Sunday school attendance in about 1971.) Looking over those long-ago lists, it seems that every other church was named First Baptist, since 9 of the 10 in the first list were Baptist. Others in the lineup included churches with names like Second Presbyterian or Calvary Temple. All that to say, denominational labels were prominent and individualistic names were not.
In today’s line-up of large churches, most have distinctive names: Lakewood, LifeChurch, Willow Creek, North Point, Saddleback, Southeast Christian, and Woodlands, just to name a few.
Just a curiosity: There’s an Arkansas congregation that started in 1951, which began an incredible growth spurt under Pastor Shannon O’Dell beginning in 2003, and renaming itself in 2006 as Brand New Church. Question: with a name like that, will it rename itself after 10, 20 or 30 years? (Just kidding, Pastor Shannon O’Dell is doing a super job there, releasing a book in early 2010 named Transforming Church in Rural America.)
Plus only 15 of the Outreach 100 have a denominational tag in their church name, such as Baptist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, or Assemblies of God, although 53 of the 100 identify themselves as part of a denomination. Yet according to research I’ve done with Scott Thumma of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, available at www.leadnet.org/megachurch, two thirds of megachurches belong to a formational national denomination. As examples, Saddleback and Lake Pointe are Southern Baptist, and LifeChurch is part of the Evangelical Covenant Church denomination, even though none of them add their denomination to their church name.
4. Younger churches are the norm, but there are exceptions. In Outreach’s list of 100 largest churches, the average year founded is 1973. The oldest founding date in the list is 1872 for First A.M.E. Church Los Angeles; the youngest church on the list is Community of Faith, Cypress, TX, founded in 2002. According to Scott’s and my megachurch research, the average founding date for all megachurches is 1959 with the oldest being The Falls Church, just outside Washington, D.C., an Episcopal congregation started in 1734.
5. Multi-site popularity is growing, especially among larger churches. The leaders in terms of multiple locations are LifeChurch with 13, Seacoast with 12, City Church, Kirkland with 11, and Covenant Church Carrollton with 10. According to the “Changes in American Megachurches” document Scott Thumma and I co-wrote (available at www.leadnet.org/megachurch), the explosive growth of multi-site is especially so among the largest churches:
• 35% multi-site for attendances of 2,000-2,999
• 48% multisite attendances of 3,000-4,999
• 69% for multisite attendances of 5,000-7,999
• an amazing 86% for multisite attendances of 8,000 and larger.
Interestingly, the Outreach magazine top 100 church with the most sites (29) is Brentwood Baptist, Brentwood, TN, which has an amazing deaf congregation ministry, and it’s the deaf ministry that has all these sites [http://www.christiantelegraph.com/issue6882.html]. The parent church is just going to its second site in January 2010. Photo, left, shows special sanctuary where transducers were used for the floating floor and the seats to allow deaf worshippers to feel the vibration of the drum machine, the church's primary instrument of praise.
6. Finally an emphasis on outstanding culturally relevant music seems to positively influence a church’s growth. The Outreach write-ups noted the American Idol finalist who serves as worship leader in one fast-growing church. In fact, that’s not unusual. Lots of American Idol contestants are worship leaders in their churches. Further, some large-church senior pastors are terrific singers, some like Grammy winner Paul Morton at www.greaterststephenfgbc.org or Marvin Winans in Detroit [www.perfectingchurch.org/]. What would worship at Brooklyn Tabernacle be without its award-winning choir or at Lakewood without musicians Marcos Witt and Israel Houghton? Plus it’s wonderful to know that Dave Crowder, Chris Tomlin and many other popular musicians are worship leaders in their local churches. I strongly suspect such musicians add to a church’s attractional draw. It will be interesting to watch how fast the Atlanta church will grow when it launches shortly with leadership from Matt Redman, Chris Tomlin and Louie Giglio.
That’s my read of the list. What other trends do YOU notice in the “top 100” lists? Please add your comments below.
Warren Bird, Ph.D., is Research Director at Leadership Network, and co-author of 21 books on various aspects of church health and innovation.