United Methodists Add Strength to Large Churches

WASHINGTON – Some 300 pastors and leaders from the largest United Methodist churches gathered in Washington, D.C., this week to network, fellowship, and learn best practices from one another.

The annual Large Church Initiative Conference featured hundreds of workshops and plenary sessions aimed at strengthening UMC-related churches that have an average weekly attendance of at least 250 members.

According to Bob Pierson, chair of the Large Church Initiative, over 3,000 churches fit into the category and represent the majority of the denomination’s eight million members.

“We have about 3,000 to 3,500 churches on our mailing list, and they are all part of our loosely put-together association,” Pierson explained.

The Large Church Initiative began in 1990 as part of a church-wide program operated by the denomination’s board of discipleship. Through time, however, the leadership was moved directly to the pastors of large churches who were able to determine the networking and resourcing needs of their ministry based on their own experiences.

“The basic premise behind our initiative is that it is ‘pure ministry,’ and we are helping each other out,” said Pierson. “The people who know how to build strong growing churches are the ones who are doing it.”

United Methodist churches account for only five percent of the nation’s megachurches – churches with an average weekly attendance of at least 2,000. However, “large churches” account for the majority of the membership in the mammoth United Methodist Church.

Figures from the United Methodist Board of Discipleship show that of the 35,000-plus churches in the denomination only 11,000 have at least 200 members. However, these churches house 76 percent of United Methodist members and provide the vast majority of the denomination’s financial resources.

The majority of our strength and the majority of our members are in large churches in the United Methodist Church,” said Pierson.

According to Pierson, there are cultural factors that can explain why large churches continue to grow.

“It’s simple and it’s all part of the American culture,” said Pierson, whose own church in Tulsa, Okla., grew from 200 to 1,900 under his ministry. “We want more church with better quality, and larger churches can provide that.”

“Out of more people coming together, they mobilize resources so they can provide better services,” he said. “Just because it has more strength to provide more resources, the larger churches keep growing.”

This year’s large church initiative conference featured several bishops, pastors, and directors from the UMC who covered a wide range of topics from evangelism to financial stewardship and family counseling. It was held Apr. 18-20.