By Kent Fillinger
I’m excited to share key metrics and findings of 94 large churches (average weekly worship attendance of 500 to 999) from our recent church survey. The August issue of Christian Standard will provide an overview of the 88 medium-size churches surveyed. And if you missed the big picture snapshot of the 133 megachurches and emerging megachurches, check out the May issue online.
Growth & Attendance
The large churches we surveyed grew 4.3 percent last year, faster than any other segment of churches. Large churches have grown an average of 4.4 percent annually over the last three years. Megachurches, by comparison, grew an average of 2.7 percent each year during the same period.
Overall, 69 percent of the large churches surveyed grew in 2016. Again, this was the best for all sizes of churches. By comparison, 61 percent of megachurches (average worship attendance of 2,000 or more) and emerging megachurches (average attendance of 1,000 to 1,999) grew last year.
The three fastest-growing large churches last year were Rise City Church (Lakeside, California), which grew 87 percent; Christ’s Church (Effingham, Illinois), 35 percent; and Southern Hills Christian Church (Carrollton, Georgia), 31 percent.
While large churches grew the fastest, they had the lowest baptism ratios. Large churches averaged only 5.9 baptisms per 100 people in attendance last year. The three-year baptism ratio average for large churches (6.2) was also lower than both megachurches (7.6) and emerging megachurches (6.7). Large churches, on average, baptized 42 people last year.
The churches with the best baptism ratios last year were Jessamine Christian Church (Nicholasville, Kentucky), 43.2 baptisms per 100 in attendance; North Terrace Church of Christ (Zanesville, Ohio), 12.9; and Wentzville (Missouri) Christian Church, 12.5.
Large-church lead pastors had an average age of 49.7, slightly younger than their counterparts in emerging megachurches (50.9) and megachurches (52.3). That same pattern held when comparing average tenures among lead pastors: at large churches it is 11 years; emerging megachurches, 14 years; and megachurches, 15 years.
Lead pastors at large churches were more likely to be hired from outside the church than their larger church counterparts, but the churches they serve are less likely to have an emergency succession plan or a departure defined succession plan in place. Sixty-one percent of large churches don’t have any succession plans.
Worship Venues & Multisite
One in five large churches held worship services in multiple rooms on the same campus last year, compared with 66 percent of megachurches. Large churches were also far less likely to use a multisite model. Only 10 percent of large churches had more than one geographic location, while 62 percent of megachurches and 30 percent of emerging megachurches use a multisite approach. Despite the smaller percentage of multisite large churches, they had a similar percentage of people (76 percent) attending the original campus as did megachurches and emerging megachurches.
Giving & Debt
Average per person weekly giving in large churches was $30.49 last year. This was lower than both megachurches and emerging megachurches, but higher than medium-size churches (average weekly attendance of 250 to 499). The average general fund giving for large churches has been just over $1 million annually the last several years. Of the churches surveyed, the 59 percent of large churches in which giving exceeded budget last year was the highest among the various church-size categories.
Over the last two years, large churches gave an average of 14.4 percent of their budget to ministry outside the walls of the church. This figure trailed only the medium-size churches (14.7 percent). Large churches invested an average of 47 percent of their budgets on staff, with spending on staff increasing each of the last three years. Still, large churches spend a smaller percentage on staff than the average megachurch and emerging megachurch.
Last year, the average large church had $2 million in debt. This equates to about $2,800 of debt per person, based on average attendance. Twenty-one large churches were debt-free last year, and large churches had the second-lowest, per-person debt average among the churches surveyed. Megachurches have the least amount of debt per person ($1,895).
Churches in the survey were asked about their plans for 2017. From a wide variety of responses came a few common answers.
The most frequent response was a plan to increase the level of community service or local outreach. For example, Discovery Christian Church (Broomfield, Colorado) is going to develop its property to serve the needs of the city. After speaking to city leaders, Discovery decided to launch a counseling center, equine therapy, and affordable housing initiatives. Bright (Indiana) Christian Church is building a sports outreach center. And Libby (Montana) Christian Church is exploring ways to change its community through employment opportunities and sustainable jobs.
New worship services were also a recurring theme. Several churches are planning to launch additional services this year. An element that stands out is the number of churches planning to launch “niche” worship services.
For example, Newberg (Oregon) Christian Church launched a new service on Thursday nights that is identical to its weekend services. Harmony Christian Church (Georgetown, Kentucky) plans to continue to invest in its new Thursday-night service, as well as adding a vintage chapel service on Sundays. One church is focused on creating an ethnically diverse service, while another planned to launch a Hispanic service.
Large churches, and churches of all sizes, continue to focus on small group development and creating a better process for discipleship. At 71 percent, large churches were the most likely to use a combination of classes and small groups as their primary method for discipleship.
New building programs, expansion projects, and building renovations were mentioned by 10 churches. Seymour (Indiana) Christian Church is starting construction of a 1,000-seat worship center. And two newer churches will either purchase a permanent facility or start building a permanent facility this year.
Southern Hills Christian Church (Carrollton, Georgia) is building a community center called City Station that will include a restaurant, community meeting rooms, student housing for a nearby college, and more. Southern Hills plans to hold its worship services and ministry programming in the community center.
Kent E. Fillinger serves as president of 3:STRANDS Consulting and director of partnerships with CMF International, Indianapolis, Indiana. 3:STRANDS is on social media at facebook.com/3strandsconsulting; its website is www.3strandsconsulting.com.