By Diana Chandler
NewSpring Church in Anderson, S.C., tops SBC churches in both categories, ranking as the second fastest-growing and the fourth largest church in the nation among all denominations, Outreach reported in a special edition released in mid-September. With eight locations, NewSpring Church recorded an average 2012 attendance of 23,055. Its increase of 7,072 in attendance merited a growth rate of 44 percent.
The three largest churches in the U.S., according to Outreach, are Lakewood Church in Houston, North Point Ministries in Alpharetta, Ga., and Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill., respectively, all nondenominational congregations.
While the lists rank size and numerical growth, rather than spiritual growth among individual members, the numbers are instructive to pastors, LifeWay Research President Ed Stetzer wrote in Outreach.
“People seem to eagerly await the lists so they can learn from these churches about what God is doing to build His Kingdom across the United States,” Stetzer wrote. “On the other hand, there are those who complain about the lists. They seem to think this is a way of exalting ‘big churches’ in an effort to make them look better than the churches that are not on the list, when nothing could be further from the truth.
“These lists feed our hunger to learn, as we study the churches on them to learn more about the ways God is working,” Stetzer wrote. “I hope these lists encourage you and challenge you. I hope, like me, you read them and celebrate the ways God is working. I hope they challenge you to think through your own strategy to reach your community with the Gospel.”
The annual lists rank churches by attendance rather than membership rolls and are based on a self-reported survey, not an independent investigation, Outreach reported. The lists are neither comprehensive nor exhaustive, but are based on information which LifeWay sought to verify as reported by pastors, church officers or staff members, Outreach reported.
Other top ranking Southern Baptist churches on the 100 largest list are sixth-ranked Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif.; 11th-ranked Second Baptist Church in Houston; and 15th-ranked Woodlands Church in The Woodlands, Texas, Outreach reported.
Joining NewSpring among the 100 fastest-growing churches are Southern Baptist-affiliated First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, N.C., ranked 14th; Elevation Church in Matthews, N.C., ranked 15th; and 20th-ranked theChurch.at in Broken Arrow, Okla.
Senior pastor Perry Noble, who began NewSpring Church 13 years ago with only 15 members, said God intends for the church to be a movement rather than an institution.
“A movement is focused on moving forward. To move the church forward means not holding onto the past,” Noble said in a question-and-answer article in Outreach. “We desire progress. We want the numbers to go up. When some people object, ‘It’s not about the numbers,’ I say, ‘Hey man, why don’t you empty out our checking account and give me all our money if it’s not about the numbers?’
“The numbers matter to God because people far from Him are of far greater value than money,” Noble said. “I also believe a movement helps people in your church take their next steps in their walk with Christ. The church can’t move forward unless the people are moving forward in their love for God.”
Noble also promotes community as vital to church health and Christian growth.
“Did you know that the phrase ‘one another’ appears more than 50 times in the New Testament alone? So either God has a stuttering problem or He’s trying to emphasize a point,” Noble wrote in an excerpt Outreach printed from his book, “Unleash!: Breaking Free From Normalcy.”
“We need one another in order to live the unleashed life,” Noble wrote.
Top-ranked churches tended to have multiple campuses, Outreach noted. Among the 100 largest, only 12 have a single campus, and among the 100 fastest-growing, 42 have single campuses, Outreach reported.
The magazine is available at Outreachmagazine.com.
Diana Chandler is Baptist Press’ staff writer. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).