HGTV or Lifestyles of the Megachurchy?
When it comes to reality television, I like “HGTV” shows more than “Real Housewives of…” or “Lifestyles of…” shows.
I think it is because many HGTV shows how anyone can make their homes better or flip their house into more marketable properties. In contrast, the Real Housewives or Lifestyles television series only show how the people who are “out of reach” of most ordinary people live, depicting their practices and habits that reflect their place at the top of society. On HGTV, anyone can reclaim trash and turn it into a treasure or a centerpiece of a room with a little ingenuity.
Coincidentally, I also have a problem with rankings that focus only on the top 1% of The United Methodist Church. Particularly when the same process could be used to benefit a much larger percentage of United Methodism.
2018 is the new 2016
Two years ago, we took a look at Len Wilson’s long-running ranking of the “Top 25 Fastest Growing United Methodist Churches.” While neat to see what churches are doing innovative things on a massive scale, there were three significant critiques that we had on the list.
- Of the 51 churches who made the first five years of lists, 86% of them reside in the South and Bible Belt culture, which questions the relevance of their successful methods in secular cultures outside the Bible Belt.
- The churches who made the lists often reflected their own political culture (ie. the churches that are growing are overwhelmingly conservative evangelical and are overwhelmingly located in conservative areas of the country). 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.
- The churches that made the list are in areas of affluence and with high concentrations of white Americans. While the churches themselves are racially diverse as they draw from beyond their zip codes, an affluent ZIP code is a privilege of growth.
Sadly, none of the critiques have been resolved in the following two years to date:
- Out of the 61 churches that made the seven years of lists (2011, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018), 89% are located in the South and Bible Belt. Here’s the PDF list.
- Following up on #1, as the rest of the country becomes more secular, mostly the cultures that are already predominantly Christian are yielding more megachurch attendees.
- This year, instead of measuring ethnicity of the ZIP codes of the Top 10 as we did in 2016, one friend of the blog started counting non-clergy staff members of the Top 10. Excluding the dominant ethnic congregation, he determined they mostly employ young white people, with a total of less than a dozen ethnic non-white staff people among over 200 total staff, less than 5%. So not only are they located in primarily white ZIP codes, but no matter how diverse their congregations, their staff reflect that same whiteness.
For integrity, I have to apply the same critiques to my church in downtown Seattle. My median income is lower than any church on the Top 10 in 2016, but the ZIP code is 84% white, which is high while being in the Top 10% of ZIP codes for Asian ethnicity. My church staff to serve this context is 28% persons of color, and similar amounts of other forms of diversity.
In short, seven years of Len Wilson’s research has continued to name the same truths about these growing megachurches: they are in white, affluent regions of the South and Bible Belt and reflect the political flavor of where they are planted. Which is fine, everyone needs Jesus, but that makes them less relevant to the rest of United Methodists which are not often in these similar locations.
Is there a better way?
The sad thing is that it looks like Len Wilson’s process could be used for much greater good.
Drawing on the research Rev. Taylor Watson Burton-Edwards did for Discipleship Ministries, churches that worship an average of 1000+ people on Sundays reach 17% of United Methodists. The upper 1% of United Methodist churches actually reach 17% of United Methodists each Sunday. What a reach these large churches have!
It makes sense for Len Wilson to focus on the 1% because you get the most return on your work. A small number of churches studied reach 17% of United Methodists. So by that measure, Len Wilson’s list has a lot of impact by naming what is happening in 1% of churches.
Or does it? I wonder how the same approach would fare if Len focused on churches that don’t constitute the 1%. Who could be bettered by expanding the scope of Len Wilson’s work?
17% reach misses 83%
It turns out…quite a lot! According to twbe’s research (Seeing Where the People Are… and Aren’t), 49% of United Methodists attend the top 7% of churches, which are churches that worship over 300 attendees on a Sunday. Therefore, a focus on 300-1000 worship churches would be focusing on 32% of Methodism. That’s nearly double the reach of the 1%!
Likewise, a focus on the 100-299 attendance bracket would benefit 42% of attendees or 2.5x Len Wilson’s reach.
In short, Len Wilson’s list may benefit 17% of Methodism, but its repetition of the same churches, regions, and lack of branching out to other attendance brackets doesn’t help 74% of Methodism whose scale and context is different. And yet, whatever model Len has could do just that, in two manageable segments!
This article reflects the large segments of Christianity that are hesitant about megachurches. Another example of this trend is a recent survey of best church websites that excluded Megachurches altogether: The Best Church Websites of 2018, Non-Megachurch Edition. People recognize that megachurches operate differently than the rest of us, and sometimes lifting up the success stories closer to our attendance brackets yields more accessible inspiration with similar resources.
That’s not to say I am not thankful for the 1% of churches. They reach an incredible number of United Methodists and visitors each Sunday. We rightly ask why they are growing and seek to understand them. Some are relevant success stories: Embrace in South Dakota and The Gathering in St. Louis increased into their statuses from recent church plants. McFarlin in Norman, Oklahoma, is a turnaround success after years of decline and is the only church out of 61 to be led by a clergywoman, Rev. Linda Harker. We can all draw inspiration from these stories in particular. My critiques are not with the individual churches, as several of their pastors commented on the 2016 article how they don’t fit the broad brush strokes. I’m glad for them.
But I believe the people who are in our attendance brackets who are doing well might have even more to teach us and are in a diversity of cultures beyond affluence and whiteness.
I’m not sure if my suspicions are correct: such work hasn’t been done yet since non-megachurches are outside Len Wilson’s usual clientele of the 1% (his church employer worships over 1700). But the simple math shows that type of Top 25 list would do more for inspiring larger portions of Methodism beyond the 1%, and I hope someone does it, even without benefit to themselves.
Inspiration comes from the top, but it also comes from the side. The success of reality television in the last decade has shown seeing average Joes and Janes prevail and succeed inspires us in a way that golden foyers do not–and the Church would be wise to tap into that.
May we lift up the whole of United Methodism in their successes and measure them in appropriate ways.
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