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 is President of LifeWay Research and LifeWay’s Missiologist in Residence. 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 of Sermon Central and Christianity Today’s Building Church Leaders, and is frequently cited or interviewed in news outlets such as USAToday and CNN.