When we lift up the growing churches in our denomination, what are we actually celebrating?
Top 25 Fastest Growing UMCs
I am a data nerd, striving to be the Nate Silver of United Methodism, so I absolutely appreciate fellow data nerds who do the work.
For this reason, I’ve read Len Wilson’s blog for years, and I pay close attention to the posts that deal with numbers and the church. We’ve both been on the same data trail at times, sniffing out the relationship between membership and attendance (here’s mine) among the Annual Conferences in The United Methodist Church. I appreciate his work even if I disagree with his analysis at times.
Earlier this year, Len released the latest update to his long-running series of the “Top 25 Fastest Growing United Methodist Churches.” Here’s 2016, 2015, and 2011 lists. It got enough pull on social media and my friends’ shares that I felt it merited further critical reflection.
Len is very self-critical and reflective about his analysis, which I appreciate. Nonetheless, I’ve identified three problems with these lists that I think bear reflection by other data nerds.
#1 – Relevancy Beyond the Bible Belt?
In the 75 potential slots across 3 lists over 5 years of data, Len has only named 51 churches (PDF of analysis) as some have been on 2-3 lists! That’s tremendous growth for those churches and it reveals that growth is self-perpetuating: once you are growing and you adapt well, you will keep growing.
But the problem is where these 51 churches are located. From the list (and map above), we see that a huge percentage of them are from the South. In Methodist regional terms, 18 are from the SCJ and 26 are from the SEJ, leaving the other three jurisdictions with only 7 among the three of them. (EDIT to the map: Alabama should have the number 4, not 2…sorry)
With 86% of the churches that are fastest-growing coming from the South, the problem then becomes what can churches that are NOT in Bible Belt culture learn from these churches? Yes, we can learn worship styles or assimilation techniques or preaching bullet points, and I hope we do. But we do not learn how to connect with secular cultures outside the Bible Belt. And that’s a problem for a missional church that is looking to grow beyond the Bible Belt, and doesn’t seem to offer help to those areas of the country (like mine) where secularism is growing the fastest.
#2 – Witness to or Reflection of Culture?
Back in the 2015 list, I asked the following question of Len:
I’m curious if you would be able to quantify the fastest-growing churches that do not reflect the culture around them? The outliers who are growing (even at a moderate rate) who do so despite a mismatch with the culture around them?
For example, evangelical churches growing in Texas is a reflection of the culture around them. Glide Memorial (not on the list) growing in San Francisco is a reflection of the culture around them. That’s what I mean by matching the church with the culture–little wonder the best ones are growing!
I’d like to know who are the scrappy outliers who are growing in spite of not being a match.
I think it’s still a valuable question. As we see from their location, the churches that are growing are overwhelmingly conservative evangelical and are overwhelmingly located in conservative areas of the country. The churches, I would assume, reflect the culture around them more than they don’t. That doesn’t mean they don’t rally against some parts of culture (gambling, poverty, etc), but that demographically they agree on far more than they don’t.
I think this is important because I’ve served churches that were a good pair with their culture, and churches that were the loyal opposition to the culture around them. As secularism spreads across the country, we would be wise to lift up those who are thriving in opposition to culture, not growing hand-in-hand with it.
#3 – The Problem of Wealth and Whiteness
John Feagins, one of the commentators on Len’s blog (and another data nerd…yes!), looked at the Top 10 of 2016 list and shared this data:
Time for some context…
1. Embrace… ZIP Code 57108…. 95% White / 2% Hispanic…. Median income $88,734
2. Community of Hope…33470….79% White….19% Non-Hispanic….Median income $73,306
3. EUM…45331…97% white / 2% Hispanic….Median Income $36,713
4. Impact. 30344… 73% Black / 12% Non Hispanic… Median Income $37,324
5. Faithbridge 77379….75% White / 16% Hispanic… Median Income $97,864
6. Covenant… 29650…82% White / 8% Hispanic …. Median Income $67,939
7. Christ …. 62208… 66% White / 22% Black / 3% Non Hispanic… Median Income $59,704
8. St. Peters Katy 77450 75% White / 18 % Hispanic … .Median Income $99,732
9. Crosspoint 32578 89% White / 5% Hispanic …. Median Income $73,139
10. Harvest 31008 76% White / 19% Black / 4% Hispanic … Median Income $52,466
Context matters. Two of these are actually in economically challenged areas. God bless them. The rest are in affluent areas. Hope they pay their apportionments in full. All are in areas where the fastest growing demographic (Hispanic) is largely absent. What this table tells me is that as a culture, the UMC invests most and grows most in areas outside the fastest growing demographic (Hispanic).
John has an excellent point, and one I suspect is shared among most of the 51 churches: they are in affluent pockets of the country. Whether or not they draw their congregation from that zip code is less important than the fact that they are in areas with a lot of money and a lot of white people which means more resources. While these churches are surely racially diverse as they draw from beyond their ZIP code, the list doesn’t help the rest of us who are not in the same shared demographic of incredible resources.
Little Help for the None Zone
Year after year, these type of lists come up and I shake my head–not because they are wrong, but because they are irrelevant to me and others outside of rich white conservative areas of the Bible Belt. We can learn some things from these churches, surely, but the cultural disconnection and the lack of the same resources yield more discouragement than encouragement.
Since I moved from the Bible Belt to the None Zone, I’ve asked the question: what is The United Methodist Church doing to deal with the creeping secularism outside of the Bible Belt? We seem to not do well about drawing out authors from the secular north and west (1, 2), we are considering removing the West as a distinct region entirely (1), and we assume nothing good can come from it (1).
My hope is that other churches look at these lists and learn some technical changes from these thriving churches. But my hope is also that the data nerds expand our footprint and start drawing out the scrappy outliers who are living out truly adaptive change to creeping secularism. Only by empowering those adaptive churches now will we have a chance when secularism washes fully against Bible Belt doorsteps.