In a recent Baptist Press column, Randall Adams, team leader of the Church Outreach Team for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, wrote, “Older, inherited churches must become young, pioneering churches once again in order to grow in evangelistic effectiveness.”
Here is a list of the top ten churches (based on average Sunday attendance) in America and the year they were founded:
Lakewood Church, Houston, TX – 1959
Saddleback Valley Community Church, Lake Forest, CA – 1980
Willow Creek Community Church, South Barrington, IL – 1975
Fellowship Church, Grapevine, TX – 1989
Southeast Christian Church, Louisville, KY – 1962
The Potter’s House, Dallas, TX – 1996
Calvary Chapel, Ft. Lauderdale, FL – 1985
New Birth Missionary Baptist, Lithonia, GA – 1939
Crenshaw Christian Center, Los Angeles, CA – 1973
Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa, Santa Ana, CA – 1965
Most of these churches have been founded fairly recently with none being over 70 years old. And of the churches that are older on this list, most have went through a recent, major reorganization prior to their growth explosion. They understood what Adams wrote about what an “inherited” church must become.
He compared churches with the list of the world’s wealthiest people. The majority of those on the list are self-made billionaires. Those that inherited family wealth do not usually increase it. He saw the same issues in the church. Those that are new are reaching more people compared to those that have “inherited” the church and have a foundation on which to work.
It has long been observed that most of the fastest growing and most effective evangelistic churches in America are new churches. New Baptist churches (less than three years old) in Oklahoma, where I serve, averaged nearly 10 baptisms last year, while our older churches averaged about 8.5. And the largest church in Oklahoma (not a Baptist church) is only 10 years old.
Older churches tend to get comfortable about who they are and what they are doing and fail to reach out to the communities surrounding them. Those that are able to change up their methodology while keeping their message in tact are able to break free from the inherited church curse, as those on the top 10 list have.
While I certainly do not endorse every church on the top 10 list and have some theological issues with several, I also understand that they are doing something right to be reaching so many people. Each has used new ways to spread their message to their community.
Sean MacNair dug through the numbers and found this:
Most of these churches, if they don�t have radio or television on their agenda, have a good grasp on the influence of the Internet. Of the top 50, only three don�t have websites; in the top 100, five; of the top 200 churches, 18 don�t have websites. The number increases as the attendance figures go down. 11 of the bottom 50, 20 of the bottom 100, and 45 of the bottom 200 don�t have a presence on the Web. Is there a connection? Of course there is.
I have no doubt that one church I know about personally will be on that list one day – Elevation Church. The church was founded in the summer of 2005. Today they have over 2,000 that attend services at their main campus and over 500 at a separate location they started only a few weeks ago.
They are purposeful about being creative and cutting edge with the methodology of spreading the message and with the worship experience. The lead pastor, who I went to college with, Steven Furtick, wrote about it on his blog, when detailing the three key decisions that were made when they started Elevation:
3. We will be over the top.
This is the one I really can�t explain. It�s harder to quantify.
All I can tell you is that when we�re trying to make a decision about which sound system to buy, we usually get the better one.
Because our worship experience is priority, and it has to rock very hard.
When Heather or Rachel need something for the children�s ministry, they get it. Even when it�s expensive.
Because children aren�t JV around here. They�re first round draft picks.
When we�re trying to make a decision about whether to dump either a jar or a wheelbarrow of Runts out on the stage for a sermon illustration, we go with the wheelbarrow.
(You had to be at Central campus yesterday. Very amazing. Very messy.)
Older churches do not have the luxury of churches such as Elevation, they cannot go back and found themselves on the principle of going “over the top.” But they can allow God to bring new growth to their congregation by using whatever works for them (within the confines of scripture).
Not every church can have thousands of members but they can, as Adams says, recapture the “young, pioneering” spirit that allows them to reach their communities and grow as best they can.