The Online Resource for Christian Leaders

July 2005 Online Issue

Top 50 Most Influential Churches

The 2005 survey was sent to 2,000 church leaders

The 2005 survey was sent to 2,000 church leaders with the goal of ranking the nation’s fastest growing churches and churches with more than 2,000 weekend attendance. The 127 churches nominated for the 50 Most Influential Churches survey were located in 32 states and represented 27 affiliation groups and/or denominations. The term affiliation is used to include networks of unaffiliated, independent churches.

1. Saddleback, 2. Willow Creek Church



Saddleback Church,launched in a home in 1980 with one family, is now listed as the nation’s most influential American congregation. That’s according to the 50 Most Influential Churches 2005 Survey, conducted by The Church Report.

The Lake Forest, CA congregation is one of the three largest churches in the nation with weekend attendance of more than 23,000 people, more than 50,000 members and more than 9,200 new believers baptized during the past seven years. The church has started 34 daughter churches, sent more than 4,000 of its members on mission projects around the world and reports more than 250,000 pastors and church leaders from over 125 nations have attended Purpose-Driven Church seminars in 18 languages.

Pastor Rick Warren’s previous book, The Purpose-Driven Church, has sold over a million copies in 20 languages. His 2002 follow-up, The Purpose-Driven Life, has sold more than 23 million copies and is reported to be the fastest-selling non-fiction book of all time. He no longer receives a salary and is reported to have actually returned his previously received salary to the church due to generous sales from his books. This is at his own initiative.

Willow Creek Community Church is the second most frequently referenced congregation in the survey. Pastor Bill Hybels began the church in 1975 with 125 people, meeting at the Willow Creek Theater in Palatine, IL. Attendance reached 2,000 by year three when the church bought 90 acres of farmland in South Barrington. Construction of a new worship center was completed in 1981; attendance doubled in capacity as the church soon expanded to 155 acres. Willow Creek ranks among the six largest U.S. churches with nearly 22,000 weekend attendance, has more than 100 ministries and schedules 35,000 events on its properties annually. The church launched the Willow Creek Association in 1992 to provide networking with interested churches to share training and resources. The Association now includes 10,500 member churches from 90 denominations and 35 countries.

Half of all recommendations centered around the two most frequently named churches: Saddleback Church and Willow Creek Community Church. More than 75 percent of all participant recommendations centered around the top five churches: Saddleback; Willow Creek; North Point Community Church (Alpharetta, GA); Fellowship Church (Grapevine, TX); and Lakewood Church (Houston, TX). Almost half of the top 50 churches, and seven of the top 10, are still led by the founding pastor.

Regionally, California led with 21 churches, followed by Texas with 13 churches and Georgia with nine churches. More than half of all the churches (84 churches) average 2,000 or more in weekend attendance, and 48 of those churches average 5,000 or more in attendance.

 

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Baptists represented one-fourth of all churches recommended among the non-affiliated and the 27 affiliation and/or denominations. The major Baptist cluster (75 percent) consisted of Southern Baptist Convention churches. The second largest group in the survey was Independent non- Charismatic churches (15 percent). Pentecostal and/or non-affiliated Charismatic churches also made up 15 percent of all the survey churches. Only nine of the top 50 churches belong to older mainline denominations (Episcopal, Evangelical Lutheran Church, United Methodist, Presbyterian Church USA, Reformed).

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Among the top 50 churches with known ages, the church count was fairly evenly distributed among the periods: pre-1900 (15 percent), 1990-1949 (20 percent), 1950-1979 (26 percent), 1980s (17 percent) and 1990s (22 percent). Among the top five churches receiving more than 75 percent of all recommendations, the age range of their pastors include two in their thirties, two in their forties and one in his fifties.

Observations

Churches receiving the highest number of recommendations tend to be churches that offer conferences that share leadership, organizational, staffing and ministry principles, priorities and procedures with other church leaders. Eighteen of the 20 most frequently listed churches have at least one annual conference. While some of the churches only share their own practices and procedures, others share their own while also allowing emerging churches to participate as contributors at their conferences.

One of the most influential churches that went unmentioned, even though it reaches thousands, is First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, FL. Led by Dr. Jerry Vines, this church averages more than 8,000 in attendance each weekend and is the second largest church in Florida.

Another church receiving no mention is the First Baptist Church of Hammond, IN, led by Dr. Jack Schaap, son-in-law of former pastor Dr. Jack Hyles. The Independent Baptist congregation averages more than 10,000 in attendance. It has just dedicated a new 7,500 seat worship center, is reported to be home for the world’s largest Sunday school, and its annual Pastor’s School has registered as many as 5,000 pastors and church leaders from all 50 states and foreign countries for more than a decade. This should be a source of encouragement for other churches that are high-impact churches but are not included among the top 50 church rankings from this survey.

Selected Churches Among the Top 50

Lakewood Church is located in one of the poorest areas of northeast Houston. Dr. John Osteen, father of current pastor Joel, started the church in a feed store. A model of that former meeting place was displayed in the main entrance of the 7,000-seat worship center eventually built by the congregation.

Joel became pastor of the church when his father died in 1999. In several God-size steps, Joel led the church to begin a second, then third and fourth worship service. Attendance doubled from 11,000 in 1999 to 22,000 one year later. In early 2004, Lakewood was listed as both the largest and the fastest growing church in the nation when attendance reached 25,000. By early 2005, the church became the first in the U.S. to exceed 32,000 average weekend attendance.

Houston’s COMPAC Center and arena, former home for the Houston Rockets, was redesigned by Morris Architects (designers of the Astro-Dome) in the summer of 2005 as the new home for Lakewood Church. The 16,000-seat center promises to allow the church to potentially exceed 50,000 attendance during its first season at the new site.

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Two of the top 10 church leaders share the same name and are father and son. Ed Young, Sr., is pastor of Second Baptist Church of Houston (22,000-plus attendance) and his son and namesake birthed Fellowship Church (18,000-plus attendance) in metro Dallas-Fort Worth. Ed Young, Jr., in his early forties, is one of the youngest pastors among the 50 churches. Fellowship began with 150 members in 1990, 10 years after Saddleback Church began, and today averages more than 18,000 each weekend.

Another father and son among the top 50 are Charles and Andy Stanley, both leading multi-campus churches. Dr. Charles Stanley is pastor of First Baptist Church (more than 6,000 attendance) of Atlanta and Andy is pastor of North Point Community Church (more than 18,000 attendance) in Alpharetta, a far north suburb of Atlanta. Both sons conduct major annual conferences that have become magnets for younger emerging leaders with high impact potential.

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Brooklyn Tabernacle, led by Jim and Carol Cymbala, had only 15-20 people attending when they arrived in 1972. The church was literally birthed out of a prayer meeting. Carol started a choir a year later with only nine people; today, the choir exceeds 250 members and is internationally famous. In 1998, the church purchased a 1918 structure for a 54- month renovation of New York City’s fourth-largest theatrical auditorium. The new 3,300 seat worship center was completed in 2002 and weekend attendance immediately jumped to 10,000, with people being turned away at the door.

Calvary Chapel of Ft. Lauderdale, FL, was started by a converted Las Vegas high-end drug addict and dealer active in popular music culture. Bob Coy was mentored by Pastor Chuck Smith of Calvary Chapel-Costa Mesa, CA; he later began the Ft Lauderdale church in a corporate warehouse district with only four people in 1985. By 2005, the church had swapped properties with a Fortune 500 company that was downsizing. Attendance exceeded 18,000, making Calvary Chapel the largest church in Florida.

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TOP 50 QUICK FACTS:

AFFILIATION:

14% Southern Baptist
12% Independent (charismatic)
12% Independent (non-charismatic)
10% Other Baptist 8% United Methodist
6% Episcopalian
38% Other: Independent Christian, Foursquare, Assemblies of God, COGIC, and Calvary Chapel

SIZE (Attendance):

36% 10,000+
72% 5,000+
90% 2,000+

THEOLOGY:

22% Charismatic/Pentecostal
78% Non Charismatic/Pentecostal
22% Mainline Denomination

The vision of Adam Hamilton, pastor of The United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, KS, includes the rebuilding and replanting of mainline churches back into the center-cities of America. Started in 1990 with 138 people, this church now averages more than 8,000 attendees on a weekend. Nearly 2,000 visitors attend each week in this church, which plans to reach 20,000 in metro Kansas City. Its annual Leadership Institute for Mainline Churches was launched in 2000 with more than 600 registered attenders; 1200 attended in 2004.

Brad Powell became pastor of the formerly great Temple Baptist Church of Detroit in 1990. Birthed in 1921, the church had seen better days. It was listed in 1969 as having one of the nation’s 10 largest Sunday schools, but even then, the church had been in decline for more than two decades. The auditorium was two-thirds empty every Sunday morning. Powell led what had become one of the greatest transition-turnaround stories in U.S. church history. The church finally relocated to nearby Plymouth and today averages more than 9,000 in attendance each week. An annual conference led by the church helps pastors who lead declining and often discouraged churches to understand what serious transitioning is all about.

This top 50 list is full of churches that have helped change their cities and lead our nation against great obstacles. Only in the book to follow this article can we begin to tell the amazing stories of these deserving churches adequately.

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Selected Survey Churches Not Listed Among the Top 50

We close with a brief word about some of the churches recommended for this survey that were not among the top 50. They represent the tens of thousands of churches of all sizes known to God and the millions of lives changed because of their faithfulness to their call from God to serve believers and reach out to the unreached. Among the really great high-impact churches not included among the top 50 are: Mariner’s Church (Irvine, CA); West Ridge Church (Hiram, GA); Bayside Community Church (Granite Bay, CA); First Baptist Church (Daytona Beach, FL); Granger Community Church (Granger, IN); Shepherd of the Hills Church (Porter Ranch, CA); Cascade Hills Church (Columbus, GA); and Discovery Church (Orlando, FL). There are others. It is a high privilege to be able to share these few ministries as examples of faithful churches committed to making a Great Commission kind of difference in today’s world.

To all churches: be faithful to that special place where God has put you. We are all called to be God’s lighthouses during this pathetic hour of great need in our world.

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