A few weeks ago, I came across the 2016 edition of top 25 fastest growing large United Methodist churches in the U.S. One thing, in particular, stood out when I reviewed the list:
These churches are bucking the trend of their denomination as a whole — still experiencing growth while much of the denomination is in steep decline.
I have relationships with four of the churches on this list through the work of The Unstuck Group. We’re honored to work with churches that are stepping out to truly reach their communities. I reached out to those four pastors to get their take on why their churches are growing despite the trend that many fellow UMC churches are seeing.
I should add — I first met Jesus in a United Methodist Church, and my heart is always to help, not criticize the denomination. I thought these pastors’ stories might encourage other UMC pastors, as well as those in other mainline denominations experiencing a season of decline. Here’s the first of four:
The Orchard in Tupelo, Mississippi
Pastor Bryan Collier
TONY: Studies show that even committed Christians are attending worship less frequently, and yet your church has seen a strong growth trend over the last five years. What are some of your observations on why your church is seeing a different trend?
BRYAN: Well, we are actually seeing the trend of committed Christians attending less, too. But, we’re still seeing growth because we keep pushing our people to use a Sunday when they won’t be at church to build relationships in their community. We challenge them to related and connect with God’s purposes in mind, wherever they are.
Because that principle is getting through, they are inviting more people to church, and overall attendance continues to grow despite the frequency trend.
TONY: How does your church try to measure church health?
BRYAN: Average worship attendance is an indicator, but it’s not the indicator. We also measure small group participation, giving and missional engagement. The last one is the hardest to measure, obviously, but we make an intentional effort to track it. We ask questions. We get mostly stories, not numbers, and we use small groups to ask for those stories.
Another thing we’re trying: We’ve asked people to shoot a short video telling a story of how God has allowed them to join in what He’s doing in the community. Our perspective is that you can’t change the world if you are never in it. We try not to overschedule. We want people to worship, be discipled and give their lives away. We tell them we’d rather they coach a Little League team than attend another study.
TONY: How would you encourage pastors who are experiencing a trend of lower average worship attendance?
BRYAN: Pastors often choose how to do ministry in an area and don’t regularly vet things. At The Orchard, we have worked hard to create a culture of regular evaluation and change. One of our mantras is “Don’t fall in love with how it’s getting done. It’s going to change.” So, I would encourage pastors to be willing to take an honest look at things, invite some outside wisdom if necessary, and try something new. If you don’t, you’ll see the decline continue.
TONY: What other church trends are you sensing pastors should be paying attention to?
BRYAN: We’ve got to be figuring out multiple delivery systems for the Good News — podcasts, short videos, better social media, etc. How can we engage people for 10 min. before work? Or on their commute between work and home? Or in the carpool line? They’re listening to something.
The church has been fixated on very few delivery systems. We’re not capturing people in the gaps the way our current culture and technology can allow us to. That’s something my team and I are are putting energy towards right now.