(Photo: Lakewood Church)
The annual Outreach 100 list of the largest and fastest-growing churches in America is out but absent from the list is a number of megachurches that were documented in previous years.
The report is not a comprehensive list. Data is based on a self-reported survey and not an independent investigation. This year, however, several churches that once participated chose to opt out of the survey.
"From a research perspective, this nonparticipation is sad. But theologically speaking, the reasons many churches choose to not broadcast their numbers are quite noble," said Kent Shaffer on ChurchRelevance.com, which exists to help churches become more effective and efficient. "Many nonparticipating churches just don’t want to negatively affect other churches. And, of course others just forget to report their numbers to the researchers."
In recent years, the Outreach 100 list has drawn criticism for, among other things, feeding the ego of large church pastors and not recognizing some of the smaller healthy churches that are growing.
Churches with a weekend attendance of 1,000 or more make up only about 2 percent of America's 300,000 Protestant churches. And megachurches (with 2,000 or more attendees) comprise less than half a percent.
The smallest church featured in the Outreach largest churches list this year has an average weekend attendance of 5,500 and the fastest-growing list includes churches with an attendance greater than 1,000.
"Over the last seven years, there have been 18 top churches lists published," Shaffer noted. "Combined they make a great directory of churches worth studying, but the constant stream of lists can also occasionally become overbearing, nurture unhealthy competition, and create an imbalanced perspective of which ministry metrics are most important.
"Personally, I see no right or wrong answer as to whether a church should participate (as long as they have the right heart attitude)."
Outreach magazine acknowledged that some churches chose not to participate in the survey this year and the reasons listed were: they did not want to reveal attendance data, they did not have time to participate, the list didn't include online worship attendance, or they were concerned that this sort of survey promotes a numbers-based mentality above mission.
The magazine's editor, Lindy Lowry, made it clear, however, that the list is "not so much about numbers as it is the individuals those numbers represents – people who have found hope in Christ, and the churches pointing them toward to Him."
"If we glean insight from those churches and catch something of their passion for outreach, this special issue will have fulfilled its purpose."
For the 2010 list, Outreach increased the number of profiles from five to 15 and added more "stories behind the numbers" articles. Some of the features spotlight churches that are serving the community through what they call a "Dream Center."
"As we approached the 2010 Outreach 100, we knew we wanted to tell more stories of churches to truly reflect their impact and to get to the heart of why they’re growing," Lowry stated.
The fastest-growing church, according to Outreach 100, is 12Stone Church in Lawrenceville, Ga. The church experienced a 30 percent growth, adding more than 2,200 persons to its weekend worship attendance. Experience Life in Lubbock, Texas, and The Rock Church and World Outreach Center in San Bernardino, Calif., rounded out the top three.
Altogether, the top 100 fastest-growing churches have a total attendance of more than 641,000 and a total of 373 worship sites. The majority of the churches are nondenominational.
Lakewood Church in Houston, North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Ga., and Second Baptist Church in Houston were listed as the top three largest churches in America. Lakewood's attendance is at 43,500 and the other top two have a weekend attendance of just over 24,000.
Combined, the top 100 largest churches have a total attendance of 1,012,832.
The listings are based on February and March weekend attendance averages.
Among the largest churches, Brentwood Baptist Church in Tennessee was reported to have 27 worship sites, the most out of any other.
Notably, the average age of the church in the largest churches list is 46 years, and 33 years among the fastest-growing ones. The average tenure of the current senior pastor in the largest churches list is 18 years, and 14 years in the fastest-growing list.
The Outreach 100 lists were compiled by LifeWay Research and include only Protestant churches that opted to participate in the study. Outreach ran ads soliciting participation from more than 8,000 churches. They were invited by fax, e-mail, letter, phone and certified mail.