When Outreach magazine and LifeWay Research released their annual 100 Largest and 100 Fastest-Growing U.S. Churches lists this month, they knew it would generate some heat.
But amid some of the criticisms, the team that compiled the lists wants readers to view it not as purely numbers but as stories on how churches are reaching people.
"[W]e ask you not to miss the stories behind the lists because the real-life examples of what God is doing in and through the local church are the best part," said Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research, in an article accompanying the lists. "We believe pastors and leaders of churches of all sizes can learn from these examples. We have."
Every year, Outreach magazine publishes an issue on the largest and fastest growing churches based on weekend attendance and profiles some of the listed churches. The Outreach 100 is not a comprehensive and exhaustive list. Rankings are based on self-reported surveys and not an independent investigation. The magazine began partnering with LifeWay in 2007.
Stetzer and Lizette Beard, who is also part of the LifeWay Research team, addressed some of the most common criticisms that have been directed toward the lists in this year's issue.
Responding to critics who say the lists feed the ego of featured pastors, the LifeWay team said the intent is not to elevate the churches and pastors but to learn from them.
Moreover, many of the pastors they have spoken with have directed all the glory to God.
Dwight Mason, lead pastor at NewPointe Community Church in Dover, Ohio, (No. 67 Fastest-Growing), told the research team, "I believe that the favor of God is key. It wasn't wisdom or a formed strategy. I attribute it to the favor of God. That's why it's so humbling.
"I don't have a story for you that says, 'We're just pushing the right buttons.' Believe me, there have been enough buttons that weren't pushed right to know this is bigger than who we are or who I am."
The LifeWay team also refuted claims that the featured megachurches are just "swapping sheep."
"I can honestly say that most of the pastors we talked to in this study are strategically focused on reaching out to those disconnected from faith and church and helping them learn about God," Stetzer attested. "They seek to connect them to the community of believers."
At Central Christian Church in Las Vegas (No. 11 Largest, No. 31 Fastest-Growing), leaders there encourage attendees to pray for and build an intentional relationship with at least one person.
"And then they should be prepared to journey with that person and invite them to come hear a life-changing message of radical grace," said Mike Bodine, the church's senior leader, according to Outreach.
Regarding smaller, yet still healthy and growing churches that will likely never make the Outreach lists, the team said the lists are not meant to diminish or take away from the great work many of those churches are doing.
Stetzer said he knows of many churches that are reaching the lost, seeing lives transformed and reaching out to their communities but some don't make the lists because they are regularly sending people out to plant churches. And though some churches have a higher percentage growth than those on the list, they do not qualify for the Fastest-Growing list because their weekend attendance is less than 1,000.
But Stetzer posed, "If a church doesn't make the list, I have to ask, 'So what?'"
"At the end of the day, these are just lists," he stressed. "Lists are tools used by people to organize the world they live in. Our goal is to help you find some churches, discover their stories and hear about some great work that God is doing in and through them. But they are just lists – not a declaration that one church is better than others. And certainly not a dismissal of all the terrific churches out there that are not listed here."
This year, the fastest-growing church is New Life Church, Conway, Ark., and the largest church is Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas.