Average attendance numbers aren’t an exact science, but last year the two largest churches in the Missouri Conference logged an average weekly attendance that was exactly the same: 1,943. The churches were Morning Star UMC in O’Fallon and La Croix UMC in Cape Girardeau. Coming in third was Lee’s Summit UMC, with an average attendance of 1,396. These three churches have something in common: all three made a list of the 25 fastest growing large congregations in the United Methodist Church. In fact, they were all in the top 15.
Only one Conference, Florida, had more churches on the list, with five. The Texas Conference tied Missouri, with three churches on the list.
La Croix UMC has been a new church start success story since it was founded about 23 years ago. The same could certainly be said of Morning Star, which is only about 12 years old. Of the 25 churches on the list, 18 were founded in the last 60 years, and eight of those are less than 20 years old.
Lee’s Summit UMC was founded in 1867.
Most churches with Lee’s Summit’s history have elderly people in the pews who can remember the glory days of the church when it was twice as big. Not so at Lee’s Summit.
“We’ve never been bigger than we are right now,” said Rev. Jim Preisig, who’s been pastor at Lee’s Summit for nine years. “God’s doing amazing things here and it’s exciting to be a part of it. Things take a lot longer than you expect, but then when you look back you’re amazed at everything that has happened.”
Preisig credits the historic church’s uncharacteristic growth to the people at the church who make things happen.
“We have an incredible staff and amazing members, and they are doing awesome work,” he said.
The growth in the church has been steady, but not necessarily every year.
“We might hit a plateau or even fall back a little in a year, but then we’ll step back and focus on our purpose and get back on track,” he said. “We realize that this is a journey.”
Lee’s Summit UMC is built around three ideas:
Vibrant, exciting worship.
Spiritual development and formation.
Commitment to missional engagement.
The church has many mission opportunities available throughout the year. This month 37 people from the church went to Nicaragua to build homes. The church has also been offering smaller, weekend mission trips for people who are not able to commit to a longer mission experience.
The church is currently located on three acres.
“The studies say you can’t grow in a location like this, but we’ve been doing it,” Preisig said.
The church has purchased 43 acres, and will be relocating to a major north/south thoroughfare when it sells its current property. Even during the recession, giving at Lee’s Summit has been increasing at a rate of about 5 percent per year.
Most of the new people coming to Lee’s Summit have had a previous negative experience in church, and have been away from church for several years.
“They come here because someone invites them, they begin to experience and explore worship, become engaged and involved in activities, and hearts change,” he said.
Len Wilson, author of the top 25 list, is the senior leadership editor at Abingdon Press, the main imprint of the United Methodist Publishing House. The list looks at the most recent complete four years of average weekly worship attendance data (2006- 2009). A congregation had to have at least 1000 in weekly worship in 2009 to qualify for the list.
Ron Watts, pastor of La Croix UMC, is also part of the Missouri Conference Congregational Development Team, so he has an informed perspective on the top three churches, as well as other growing churches in the Conference.
“Each of these three congregations attempts to engage the culture that they live in with fresh, new methods,” Watts said. “They each have lively, vibrant worship experiences that are compelling with their music and spoken word.”
In a comment on the blog about the 25 fastest growing large congregations, a reader took the same data but looked at 2007-2009 instead of going back to 2006. In this list, Wood’s Chapel UMC ranked 23 on the list. That’s Wood’s Chapel in Lee’s Summit, only about six miles from Lee’s Summit UMC.
“Wood’s Chapel does amazing work, and that’s only good for us,” said Rev. Jim Preisig. “Jeremy Vickers at Grace and Brent Mustoe at Aldersgate round out the concentration of four vibrant, growing United Methodist churches in Lee’s Summit. I think the spirit of effectiveness can be contagious.”
Last year Morning Star in O’Fallon grew by 408 people, by far the largest attendance growth in the Missouri Conference. Second was SunRise UMC, which grew by 168. That’s SunRise UMC in O’Fallon, the church that started Morning Star. The two churches are about three miles apart.