It’s become as anticipated among some pastors and ministry leaders as the annual U.S. News and World Report ranking of schools is to college and university presidents, the Forbes 500 is to CEOs, and the AP poll is to coaches and fans.
It is Outreach magazine’s annual listing of the 100 largest churches, and the 100 fastest-growing churches. For the record, this year the largest church in the United States is Lakewood Church in Houston, led by Joel Osteen (43,500 attendants), and the fastest-growing church was Church of the Highlands in Birmingham (up 72%, or 3,418 attendants).
A member of our staff stuck his head in my office, referenced the listing, and said, “Shouldn’t we have been in it?” Having already glanced at the list with undeniable curiosity, and making a few quick mental calculations, I already knew the answer. “Yes, we would have been on the fastest-growing list – and fairly high up…but I didn’t submit any of our numbers.”
I could see it on his face. “What were you thinking? You didn’t submit our numbers?” He knew that we are currently in the fastest-growing season in the history of the church. We have gone from three services to six, with a seventh planned for the spring, and are laying the groundwork for a major building expansion on our eighty-acre campus.
I found myself stumbling for the way to respond, but then it came out: “It just didn’t feel…clean.” There. I had finally said it, though I had felt it for a long time. The listing seemed dirty, competitive, dark…yes, for me, even sinful. Let me hasten to say “for me.” The darkness is entirely mine – my own long battle with competition, my own hot and cold embrace of a kingdom mindset, my constant temptation toward schadenfreude over the demise of others, all along with a good dose of ongoing pride. I had crowed about our own numbers too many times in the past in ways that did not honor God, but only honored me, and felt palpable shame. Like a man who battles lust finally giving in and openly poring over pornography on the internet or entering into an affair, for me to submit our numbers would feel like giving in openly to one of the more important spiritual battles in my life.
And I can’t help but feel it would contribute to one of the greater battles in the wider church world's life, which is envy. We say, “It’s all for the Kingdom,” and “we’re on the same team,” but few of us are saints enough to mean it. We want our churches to grow, and at our worst, others not to grow. We want to be the biggest and fastest – which means others be smaller and slower.
Irish writer Oscar Wilde once told a fictional tale about how the devil was crossing the Libyan desert. He came upon a spot where a small number of demons were tormenting a holy hermit. The sainted man easily shook off their evil suggestions. The devil watched as his lieutenants failed to sway the hermit, then he stepped forward to give them a lesson.
“What you do is too crude,” he said. “Permit me for one moment.”
He then whispered to the holy man, “Your brother has just been made Bishop of Alexandria.” Suddenly, a look of malignant envy clouded the once-serene face of the hermit. Then the devil turned to his imps and said, “That is the sort of thing which I should recommend.”
I am not trying to indict Outreach magazine, much less those who participated. I have no doubt they are good, well-intentioned folk who are attempting to serve the Kingdom through this compilation. This is confession, not admonition. To be sure, I have sensed the way the list (and others like it) has been used by those who, it would seem, share in my darkness. There are too many who are too quick to anoint the “next thing,” gloat over those with past success who are now experiencing decline, race to find the silver bullet of success, or take pride in their own success as if God has finally arrived.
But that only adds to my disgust as I see my own struggles manifest in others.
So each year, it has almost become a personal spiritual discipline. The form arrives, I start to fill it in, and then I ask myself, “Why?” It won’t advance the cause of our mission at Mecklenburg; it won’t help us reach lost people; it may open a few more doors of opportunity in terms of speaking platforms, but God can see to that in other ways if He so desires. The only motivation that I could find was self-serving; to be noticed and then acclaimed. And that felt dirty. For a long time I have been haunted by a single verse in the Old Testament that came from God through the prophet Jeremiah: “Should you then seek great things for yourself? Seek them not” (Jeremiah 45:5,NIV). Great things for God, yes; great things for myself, no. And the line between the two can often become conveniently blurred.
I love the church. I love the Kingdom of God. I want to see it expand. I love that churches around the world are growing. But to single them out in a way that draws attention to them simply for their numerical growth, and nothing else, does not seem entirely healthy to me as it offers a distorted view of success. Crowns in heaven will not be based on numerical attendance, growth, acres or even decisions. For pastors and churches, it will be based on faithfulness to the vision of the church as cast by the New Testament. God may use me, or someone else, to bear much fruit. But in the end, I suspect that a bi-vocational pastor in a small town of 5,000 with an average attendance of 50 may be the greatest pastor on the planet, with the largest crown in heaven.
You may see Meck’s numbers in future lists in Outreach Magazine, or you may not. We may not submit them, and even if we do, we may not warrant inclusion. But if you do, it could mean that I have either given in to my dark side…or somehow, risen above it. But what you will know for certain is that it means very little. It will not tell you whether we are turning attenders into disciples; it will not tell you whether we are creating a new culture in our city that honors Christ; it will not tell you whether we are attracting sheep from other churches, or truly reaching the radically unchurched. It will just tell you that we got even bigger than we already are, or at an even faster clip; and probably that we have way too big of a head about it.
James Emery White
Outreach Magazine’s “List” issue, including the 100 fastest-growing churches and the 100 largest churches, can be accessed on line at http://www.outreachmagazine.com/.
For a report on the article, including some of the findings (Outreach Magazine now charges for the article as a download), see Outreach 100: Largest and Fastest-Growing Churches in America by Lillian Kwon, The Christian Post, Saturday, September 27, 2008, at http://www.christianpost.com/article/20080927/outreach-100-largest-and-fastest-growing-churches-in-america.htm.
The story by Oscar Wilde has been adapted from Hesketh Pearson, Oscar Wilde: His Life and Wit (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1946), pp. 127-128.
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About Dr. James Emery White
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina; President of Serious Times, a ministry which explores the intersection of faith and culture (www.serioustimes.org); and ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture on the Charlotte campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Dr. White holds the B.S., M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees, along with additional work at Vanderbilt University and Oxford University. He is the author of over a dozen books.
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