Growing a Healthy Church at Any Size

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Researcher Ed Stetzer on what we can all learn from America’s Largest and Fastest-Growing Churches

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 and the influence of the church in general, there sometimes appears to be little about which we can rejoice. Falling rates of conversions, tearing of the cultural moral fabric and declining church attendance provide little for which believers can celebrate and much over which we sorrow. While this is true across the country as a whole, 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 that I look forward each year to the Outreach 100 report LifeWay Research does in association with Outreach magazine. That report provides us with examples of churches through which God is working and some of the ways by which He has chosen to do so.

Why We Do the Lists

Some still mistakenly believe this annual profile is just a celebration of size as if this were some kind of “Let’s highlight the big boys and make everyone else feel inadequate” effort. Actually the reverse is true. This is an opportunity to see things that benefit churches of every size, shape and location, since all churches share some basic similarities. It’s also helpful for us to 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.

The annual profiles of the Largest and Fastest-Growing churches should cause us to worship Christ because He is performing ministry through His people. New churches appear on the Fastest-Growing list each year, which means that God is at work making large, fast-growing churches out of small and medium-sized churches all the time.

Leadership Development

Though some surmise that large or fast-growing churches have “outgrown their problems,” we find that they are not immune. Large churches deal with the same issues as small and medium-sized churches, particularly related to Sunday school and/or small groups. One challenge mentioned by a number of churches on our lists was the recruitment and training of leaders. Randy Cochran, executive pastor of community at Gateway Church in Southlake, Texas, (No. 13 Largest, No. 7 Fastest-Growing) responded that the biggest challenge is “recruiting leaders.” Chris Surratt, pastor of ministries at Cross Point Church in Nashville, Tenn., (No. 6 Fastest-Growing) agreed, noting that “raising up enough leaders to keep up with growth” was a challenge.

“One strategy is our leadership pipeline, through which existing small group leaders identify and mentor potential leaders within the group,” he says. “Opportunities to lead in that context help prepare them to lead on their own.” Surratt also describes another “on-ramp for potential leaders”: their use of periodic, open meetings for anyone interested in leading a group. “These meetings give them the opportunity to explore what it means to be a group leader. If they are still interested, we set up interviews and start the training process,” he says.

Multisite Still on the Rise

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 campuses. 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. The reasons vary: being landlocked, not wanting to build larger facilities on the existing campus, or members living far from the main campus.

“We have instituted a strategy called 20/20,” said Chris Gunnare, operations director at the Lutheran Church of Hope in West Des Moines, Iowa (No. 48 Largest, No. 32 Fastest-Growing). “Our goal is to have 20 satellite campuses by 2020. Our first was in 2003, our second in 2008, and our third is launching in September 2011.” Why did they choose the multisite route? “We had maxed out our main campus,” Gunnare says. “We did a church demographic study and found that more than 300 members were driving from Ankeny, which is 45 minutes from West Des Moines. That might be OK for the families who’ve been coming for a long time, but it makes it very hard to invite neighbors to church. So our first satellite campus was started with many of those families.”

Savannah Christian Church in Georgia (No. 86 Largest, No. 95 Fastest-Growing) is moving to multisite for similar reasons. Senior Pastor Cam Huxford 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.

Not all satellite campuses are launched because of distance driven or inconvenience of getting to the main campus. The first satellite being launched by The Avenue Church in Waxahachie, Texas, (No. 36 Fastest-Growing) is only 15 miles away. The Avenue Church, formerly known as Ferris Avenue Baptist Church, is a 68-year-old church, led the last 21 years by Pastor David Brown, who has shepherded its growth from around 120 to more than 1,192 on this year’s list. The Avenue also is adopting a multisite model. Executive Pastor Jason Bankhead says: “Although a new facility has recently been completed on our 70-acre campus, The Avenue is looking to launch a satellite campus 15 miles away in Ennis, beginning Easter 2012. We chose Ennis for two reasons. First, Pastor David came to Waxahachie from Ennis, and second, because there is a different culture there.” To ensure good relations with the churches in Ennis, leaders from The Avenue met with church leaders near the would-be satellite site to verify that ministry efforts were not being duplicated.

River Valley Church in Apple Valley, Minn., (No. 17 Fastest-Growing) initially became a multisite church without planning to do so. River Valley is an Assemblies of God church, and a denominational supervisor approached Senior Pastor Rob Ketterling about “taking over” a struggling church that was holding on with an attendance of 40 people. It became River Valley’s first satellite location. The second location was a church that had dwindled to only 12 people. River Valley’s multisite plan is now twofold: to continue rebirthing dying churches and to start three local satellites within 20 minutes of the current main campus. Ketterling fully expects one of the three to overtake the main campus in attendance.

The Push to be “Smaller”

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.” For Willowbrook, the way to do that is through small, biblical communities.

“Small groups are the way that 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 our small groups are encouraged to ‘find a way to serve the city.’” Earlier in 2011, the city where their first satellite campus is located—Madison, Ala.—was hit by a tornado. Because the church members care about one another and look for ways to minister through relationships, McClelland says, “Three months later our members are still repairing roofs of homeowners in the community.” As a result of their ongoing involvement in the Huntsville and Madison communities, unbelievers respond positively to invitations from church members to attend.

Savannah Christian in Georgia facilitates relationships and outreach to the community through small groups as well. “Small group ministry is the relational matrix of our church,” Huxford says. “Through small groups and ministry teams, our members are challenged to go into the community where they have touched the homeless, the military base in nearby Hinesville, as well as our Lighthouse Ministry, which gives away 1,000 bags of groceries each month.”

Connecting to Community

River Valley Church’s Ketterling models his church’s strategy 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 of which had been 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.

If you Google “Victory Church Lancaster PA” looking for the church led by Curt Seaburg, you will find “A Church Focused on Community” on the results page. In addition to the normal website information, Victory Church (No. 52 Fastest-Growing) has a “Community Forum” on its website. The church’s story of moving from portable church to “one church in two locations” is filled with expressions of community.

As God continues to work in these churches in building authentic relationships inside the body, it is resulting in expressions of service to those in the surrounding community.

Continuing to Learn

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 the areas highlighted in this article: multisite ministry, small groups and serving the culture. The issue of multisite specifically demands careful observation in the years ahead. It is a trend that is being utilized by church plants right out of the gate and by churches that already have attendance of thousands.

I am thankful for the many pastors and church leaders that have allowed us to take a look into their ministries through these lists. By doing so, all of us gain a unique perspective into some of the ways God is working through His church. I hope that 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.

Ed Stetzer is president of LifeWay Research, which partners with Outreach magazine for the Outreach 100 Special Report of America’s Largest and Fastest-Growing Churches. He is also an Outreach magazine contributing editor. He is the co-author (with Warren Bird) of Viral Churches: Helping Church Planters Become Movement Makers (Jossey-Bass). His latest book, Transformational Church: Creating a New Standard for Congregations (B&H), co-written by Thom Rainer, was released in June 2010.

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