Every year, Outreach® magazine publishes a special issue called The Outreach 100. This year, they focused on the 100 fastest-growing churches in America. It’s a fascinating look at the state of the church in the U.S. and it was great to see so many churches that we know and love on that list – churches that we’ve worked with and churches that we’ve been a part of in our personal lives.
If you’re in the church world, the whole issue is well worth reading. I know that I enjoyed it a great deal. As I read, I noticed some interesting trends and made some fascinating (and frankly encouraging) observations that I wanted to take a moment to share with you as we say goodbye to 2016 and start 2017.
1. Non-Denominational Dominates
When you take a look at the denominational breakdown of the 100 fastest growing churches in America, one thing jumps out right away. Out of these 100 churches, 42 of them are non-denominational or independent. That’s more than DOUBLE the number of the next largest segment, the Southern Baptists, who accounted for 20 churches. The growth of non-denominational and independent churches is a continuing trend in United States – they make up the second largest protestant group in America. What’s interesting is that while they trail the Southern Baptists nationwide in terms of numbers, there are growing far faster.
What accounts for this incredible growth? In a word, tradition. Or, to be precise, the lack thereof. Non-denominational churches are far less likely to cling to traditions for their own sake but, instead, move and flex with the culture. They’re not the only ones doing this, of course, but they are leading the charge. And, let’s be clear, when it comes to the fastest-growing non-denominational churches, they are certainly not watering down the gospel just because they’re not observing tradition. In fact, one of the biggest factors that these churches have in common is their single-minded focus on biblical, gospel truth.
Which brings us to the second thing that I learned…
“My greatest concern is that churches are hanging on to tradition and losing the power of the gospel. If you look at the list of the 100 fastest growing churches, very few are traditional in nature.”
Faith Promise Church, Knoxville, TN
2. Biblical Truth Builds Churches
By and large, the top 100 fastest growing churches are concerned about teaching biblical truth and values ahead of anything else. They’re willing to scrap tradition entirely if they have to and step on the toes of both Christian and popular culture in order to ensure that they and their congregations remain firmly grounded in biblical truth. They aren’t compromising the message for anyone.
As you read interviews with pastors from fast-growing churches, you hear time and time again that the most important factor for growth is not a great lighting set up or an awesome worship band or a killer children’s program but simply preaching and teaching God’s word. When people connect to the message of the gospel, they connect to a church, not the other way around. As Robert Morris from Gateway church here in the DFW metroplex said, “People are looking for real, authentic relationships, with God and others. They’re not interested in being entertained by a Sunday morning performance.”
“When we lean into the hardest topics without letting go of God’s Word, our numbers actually go up. People won’t put up with condescending, ‘think happy thoughts,’ it-will-all-work-out teaching.”
Flatirons Community Church, Lafayette, CO
3. Millenials Aren’t the Problem
We hear all the time about how the millennial generation is a bunch of spoiled, entitled, children. I see that message expressed over and over in articles, blogs, and all over my facebook feed every day. The prevailing opinion seems to be that millennials are going to wreck our country and watch it burn while wearing their bespoke scarves and drinking their ethically-sourced coffee. But when you ask pastors about millennials, you get a different reaction. They are, by and large, really excited about young christians stepping into leadership positions.
“I am most excited about young church planters who are going to the hardest places… God is raising up an amazing crop of young leaders.” – Steve Stroope, Lake Pointe Church, Rockwall, TX
“What excites me about the church today is the quality of young leaders that are starting to emerge. Many of them are exceptional communicators. Many are extremely creative, yet they retain a standard of holiness that is so badly needed.”
Valley Bible Fellowship, Bakersfield, CA
4. Transparency is Critical
Church leadership is hard. Balancing heavenly imperatives like prayer, guidance, and teaching with purely worldly needs like buildings, administration, payroll, and people management takes a toll. With all of their roles and responsibilities, pastors tend to put in 60+ hour weeks. And it doesn’t help things that, as the most public face of the church, pastors are generally the target of some of the church’s harshest critics. Learning how to deal with criticism is one of the most critical skills a pastor can learn. As Bob Merritt of Eagle Brook Church in St. Paul, MN says, “Someone is disappointed with me every single day, and that’s OK.” Many pastors learn early on that the best way to deal with criticism is to learn from it. As Steve Stroope of Lake Pointe Church in Rockwall, TX says, “I have found that there is usually a seed of truth even in the criticisms of your harshest critics.”
But learning to listen to criticism is only half of the equation. A church pastor needs to be accountable to other church leaders as well. This gives pastors a check-and-balance system that helps them understand and evaluate the validity and severity of criticism. It also keeps them above reproach. “I’ve learned to develop a strong accountability system. Your life must be an open book,” says Chris Stephens from Faith Promise Church in Knoxville, TN. Todd Wagner of Watermark Church, in Dallas, TX says that he has a group of church staff and elders that he trusts to keep him on track. “They know everything about my life, and they have permission (and responsibility) to admonish me when I’m unruly, encourage me when I am faint-hearted, and help me when I am weak.”
“Enjoy a personal life but not a private life. Satan and high stress lure us into a secret life. So, no addiction secrets, no immoral secrets, no secret sins because, in the end, you’re only as sick as your secrets. Build one or two ‘no secrets’ accountability relationships.”
Kevin Myers, 12Stone Church, Lawrenceville, GA
“Criticism is hard for everyone in ministry. You give your life for ministry and helping others only to have people say some very hurtful and cruel things.”
Northview Church, Carmel, IN
5. Technology is Changing the Mission Field
Churches get a bit of a bad rep for being behind the times when it comes to technology and culture. Maybe there’s a nugget of truth to that reputation but it’s far from universal and, when it comes to the 100 fastest-growing churches in America, it couldn’t be further from the reality. These churches are embracing and leveraging emerging technologies to create unique apps, location aware campus experiences, global home churches, and fully digital, online campuses. And they’re reaching whole new audiences in completely new ways. People aren’t engaging with churches the same way that they have in the past but that doesn’t mean that they won’t engage! “When I was a kid, weekly church attendance was a given,” says Jim Burgen from Flatirons Community Church in Lafayette, CO. ”In Colorado, we consider a person very active and involved when they attend one of our campuses two, maybe three, weekends out of the month. But podcasts, online participation, and even binge watching an entire series are now the norm.” The reach of the internet is immense. It allows a church to truly expand its message to be global in scope.
This is just a bare handful of observations. There are a lot more lessons to be learned from the 100 fastest-growing churches in America. Obviously, big, fast-growing churches don’t have the market cornered on deep insights and lessons learned. Obviously, church is about way more than numbers. Numbers are just one way – and maybe not even the best way – to measure the effectiveness of a church’s programs and outreach. That said, it’s hard to deny that these churches are clearly doing something that’s working. As we work with and talk to pastors and leaders of large and growing churches, we repeatedly find ourselves encountering men and women who are driven to do their very best with every tool at their disposal to bring the gospel message to the world. That’s encouraging and gives us reason to be optimistic about the future of the American Church.