I recently had a chance to hear Len Wilson speak. Like seemingly most people who speak at religious conferences, he has written a lot of books. At least he’s realistic about the outcome.
“Studies have found the average pastor buys 12 books a year and reads three,” Wilson said.
Wilson started out as a media guy at a healthy, large but not enormous church. When he joined the staff of Ginghamsburg UMC in Ohio he saw the church grow from 1,000 members to 3,000 members in two years.
“I thought that was normal,” Wilson said.
He has since learned that this experience wasn’t average – it was more like the fastest on-site growth of any congregation in the United Methodist Church. And the growth kept going. The church now averages 5,000 people in worship in week.
Wilson is now famous (Methodist-famous at least) for putting out a list every year of the fastest growing United Methodist churches. In order for the list not to be topped by twoperson churches increasing in membership to 10, he arbitrarily set a baseline of 1,000 in attendance then looks at growth percentages. Missouri churches like Morning Star in O’Fallon and LaCroix in Cape Girardeau have made the list. The Gathering in St. Louis was third on the 2018 list.
As the one guy who is crunching the numbers nationwide on United Methodist Churches every year, Wilson has noticed a few things.
“Every large church was once a small church,” Wilson said. “Why are they growing when other churches aren’t? They are missional, lay driven and focused on small gatherings. Declining churches are the exact opposite: institutional, clergy driven and focused on large gatherings.”
Wilson believes those fast-growing churches are adhering closer to the Methodist roots, even if most of them don’t have United Methodist as part of their name. He prefers the pre-1968 Methodist mission “Spread scriptural holiness throughout the land” to the present mission “Make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” primarily because of verb choice.
“With make, you make a product, then you’re finished. With spread, the process keeps going,” Wilson said.
Like John Wesley, Wilson believes growing churches pay attention to the community, and communicate things that make sense to their community. He breaks it down into four seeds:
- Message – Have a clear, shareable messages about life change. The No. 1 reason people go to church is the quality of sermon. Move a message from clutter to clarity. Narrow your focus and broaden your reach.
- Mission – Shareable messages care for the community. Reframe marketing as strategic caring. New churches built for specific communities and specific needs. Later new people bring different assumptions and needs, and a church can lose sight of its purpose. The key is to understand the origin story.
- Method – Shareable messages relate to the experience of the community. Draw on metaphors and look to the culture and personal experience.
- Meeting – Plan messages with the people of the community in mind. The message should go through the community, not to the community.