For the first time since Outreach magazine has compiled its annual report of the largest churches in America, all 100 churches were listed with 7,000 weekend attendants or higher.
With seven churches reporting attendance averages of exactly 7,000, "The Outreach 100" this year included 103 churches.
Topping the fifth annual list again this year was Lakewood Church in Houston with 43,500 attendants, followed by Second Baptist Church in the same city with 23,659 and then North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Ga., with 22,557.
Overall, the combined attendance of all 103 churches was 1,128,451 which is an increase of 111,527 people from 2007.
While some of the most well-known churches still rank highest in the report, some showed a drop in attendance over the last year. Lakewood, led by Pastor Joel Osteen, saw a dip from 47,000 attendants in 2007. Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill., experienced a drop from 23,500 people to 22,500, placing the megachurch at No. 4 this year.
Also, Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., led by Pastor Rick Warren, went down from 22,000 weekend attendants to 19,414. Saddleback is ranked as No. 8 this year after ranking No. 4 in 2007.
The Outreach 100 is not a comprehensive and exhaustive list, the magazine pointed out. Rankings are based on self-reported surveys and not an independent investigation. Tens of thousands of churches were invited to participate in the survey in April and May. Of those that responded, the numbers were confirmed in the following months.
"Simply enough, it was just 'who qualified' for the lists," Ed Stetzer, who conducted the study, noted.
But this year, attendance numbers were up overall and churches were required to grow by at least 10 percent, compared to 7 percent in 2007, to qualify in Outreach's fastest-growing list.
"Those factors and just the increasing number of megachurches in America reveal that many churches are learning from each other, growing faster, and growing larger," said Stetzer, missiologist and director of LifeWay Research.
Among the top 100 fastest-growing churches in the country, Church of the Highlands in Birmingham, Ala., was ranked No. 1 with a growth of 72 percent – or 3,418 attendants – over the last year. The Bible Belt megachurch was also the youngest church to qualify in the largest churches list, standing at No. 71 with 8,168 attendants.
Elevation Church in Charlotte, N.C., ranked second in the fastest-growing report with a numeric growth of 2,094 and a percentage increase of 122. Triumph Church in Detroit, Mich., followed with a growth of 2,000 attendants, which was a 200 percent jump.
And with ever-expanding flocks, many have utilized the multi-site model – one church, multiple campuses – with some having as many as 11 campuses.
Rather than labeling it as a trend, Stetzer sees multi-site as "the new normal."
"I think more churches and pastors are familiar with it and have seen how helpful going to multiple sites has been for churches who wanted to manage their growth," he said.
The 103 largest churches had a combined total of 242 sites or campuses.
Among other findings reported by Outreach, megachurches were most likely to be nondenominational, Baptist, Southern Baptist, Assemblies of God, or Christian Church, respectively.
Outreach magazine "celebrates" and studies the country's largest and fastest-growing churches once a year. But it also recognizes that the average church in America is home to fewer than 100 people and stresses that "a passion for outreach is not defined by numbers alone."
"Our motivation in producing this annual report is not to provoke smaller churches to expend energy seeking to become megachurches," Outreach stated in its latest issue.
Stetzer, who had less than 100 attendants when starting a church two years ago and now preaches to a crowd of over 3,000, also highlighted, "As raw data, numbers mean little. What brings meaning to the numbers are the stories behind them – the changed lives and transformed communities."
Nevertheless, Stetzer pointed out that pastors can still learn from larger churches.
"Nothing can replace the work you do in your own church, your own community, among the lost in your own neighborhood," he said. "A pastor has to have a passion and a fire to reach, teach, and disciple those near. But we can also learn from others – many of whom were small churches themselves a few years ago. "
On the Web: Complete list of "The Outreach 100" at outreachmagazine.com