Reporting on the Fastest-Growing Churches in America

In recent weeks this year’s installment of The Fastest-Growing Churches in America has been published and met with fascinated interest by many church leaders across North America. The list designates the 100 fastest-growing churches (among those that actually filled out the survey), profiling the church name, senior leader, numbers by which weekend attendance has grown, and percentage of growth over the past 12 months. 

As I reviewed the report, I recognized the names of some friends I highly respect and whose churches seem very healthy, Bible-centered, and prayerful. Others on the list are notable as trendy, pragmatic, and fairly shallow.  In any case, I wanted to add a perspective to this church growth fascination that might be helpful, hopefully not harsh.

Who is Reporting?

The producers of the report are a very large para-church organization that sponsors high-profile events and publications largely focused on methodologies for outreach and church growth.  This report is a highly publicized tool for their purposes of promoting numerical growth among churches.

The individuals who complete the inquiries are pastors or staff members from each church. There is debatable consistency in how the numbers are reported and probably little verification on the quality of each report.  Be that as it may, these churches are unmistakably experiencing a surge in attendance, in some form and for a variety of reasons.

What Are They Reporting?

This is what we commonly call the “nickel and nose” count. It can be helpful but frequently superficial.  What is not reported are the actual spiritual health factors emphasized in the Scriptures.  Growth and health are not always the same.  A church can garner growth at the expense of health, and the fragility of that approach will eventually be exposed.  We all know of churches that have been led by dynamic speakers and fueled by multitudinous programs but were shocked to discover that their leadership had been living in sin for years.  I know because I was called many years ago to lead one of those churches after the fallout.

A church that pursues true New Testament health will grow – not based on the desire of the leaders to produce something big or the mere attraction of the various activities – but by the blessing of God and the power of the Spirit working among a united, prayerful, biblical, and mission-minded people.

We all agree that lost souls matter. Bringing non-believers to a transforming faith in Christ and a life of committed discipleship is our ambition.  I do rejoice that these churches are preaching the Gospel and that people are indeed coming to faith.

But, it is no secret that many churches grow as a result of a congregation across town going through some kind of fallout. Perhaps the surge is due to a new, highly-gifted leader.  Most megachurches grow at the expense of smaller churches that cannot offer the same multifaceted programs of a larger church.  In a consumer-oriented culture, programming and sizzle rule the day.  When you look at the massive decline of true Christ followers in our nation it is obvious that we are largely “recycling the saints” more than reaching people with the Gospel.

Why Are They Reporting?

I am not in a place to judge the purposes of the marketer of this report. It could be genuine passion for the glory of Christ and the accomplishment of the Great Commission.   

As to why a church would participate in this survey, I can only reflect on my journey. For many years, as a Sr. Pastor, I received the survey requesting our numbers.  There was actually one year when we would have likely been in the top tier of churches.  Yet, for various reasons, I could not bring myself to fill it out and send it in.  For me, the primary motive for doing so would have been suspect.  Braggadocio just did not seem appropriate.  I am sure there are higher motives in the hearts of some participants, but mine were ignoble.

I was reminded of Psalm 115:1 where it says, “Not to us. Not to us, but to your name be the glory.”  I find it interesting that the “not to us” is emphasized twice.  It is easy to sing, “To God be the glory” as long as I get a piece of the action.  Knowing the propensity of my own heart, I declined participation.

The Results of the Reporting?

In some ways the report might inspire hope by showing places where the Gospel is making an impact. By and large the result of these reports is an elevation of the places where the numbers have swelled and probably a bit of devaluing of the churches where this has not occurred.  It seems the net effect of the report is comparison, which is usually an unhealthy dynamic.  Paul said of this idea in 2 Corinthian 10:12, “For we dare not class ourselves or compare ourselves with those who commend themselves.  But they, measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise.”

A better comparison would be an accurate evaluation of the truly born-again believers in our nation vs. those who do not know Christ. This is the data that matters.  Incidentally, these statistics are not encouraging, in spite of the rapid growth of a handful of churches.  I would recommend the book The Great Evangelical Recession, as well as Jim Cymbala’s new book, Storm. Both document an actual percentage under 10% of those who are truly born-again, biblical Christians in America.  In basketball, it seems it would be hard to win if you spent your efforts focusing on the number of players on the bench, or even fans in the stands, rather than the actual scoreboard of the game.

The New Testament criteria by which we are to evaluate church is not numbers but fruit. The New Testament emphasizes the fruit of Spirit-controlled lives, genuine love, demonstrated unity, spiritually reproductive believers, a prayerful atmosphere, and the demonstration of honoring God’s word through accurate, Spirit-empowered teaching. No marketing firm can quantify these.  Only Christ, the Head of the Church, can make this evaluation.

I should also add that there is a subtle message in all of this: “Imitate the strategy of other churches.” This is a flawed and impossible ambition.  God works uniquely in each church.  We cannot wear someone else’s ministry clothes.  Jesus’ emphatic word to us is the same that He offered to all seven churches in Revelation: “Let Him who has ears hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”  The Spirit has a unique design for each church that will pray and hear His instructions.

The Final Report?

The reality is that the only scorecard that matters is the final one held by Christ in eternity. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 3:12–15, “Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is.  If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.” Commenting on this passage, my friend Jim Cymbala often says, “When we stand before Christ, He will not evaluate us on the SIZE of our ministry but the SORT and SUBSTANCE of ministry we led.” 

So, there it is – my take on the publicizing of the “Fastest-Growing Churches”. Perhaps my musings were helpful, perhaps not.  Now, I need to wrap up and go before the Lord to evaluate why I was even motivated to write this evaluation in the first place.  The Lord knows. 

Copyright © 2014 Daniel Henderson. All rights reserved.