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Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Texas

Numbers racket

Religion | Survey results on megachurch growth do not add up

Issue: "Not angry anymore," Dec. 1, 2007

Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Texas, was experiencing explosive growth, according to Outreach magazine, which ranks the "100 Fastest-Growing U.S. Churches." The 2007 list, out this month, put the church at number 15, with 30 percent growth.

There's a problem, though. The numbers don't add up. Outreach magazine's other list, of the largest churches in America, shows Fellowship Church had over 18,000 in weekly attendance in 2006, but only 13,000 in 2007. According to these numbers, the church experienced an almost 30 percent decline, not 30 percent growth.

What gives?

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"It was a mistake," said John Vaughan, who helped compile the 2006 list.

A huge mistake, and by no means the only mistake on the list. A comparison of the lists published in 2006 and 2007 shows that of the 19 churches that appear on both lists of largest churches, and on the 2007 list of fastest-growing churches, 12 of them have significant discrepancies. The 2007 list was so badly flawed that publisher Lynne Marian said the California-based magazine would republish the lists in a special section that would be "poly-bagged" with an upcoming issue. The revised list is already on the magazine's website.

While the new lists correct sorting and ranking errors, they do not revise the erroneous information given to the magazine by the churches themselves. Dan Gilgoff covers the evangelical movement for U.S. News & World Report and is the author of The Jesus Machine. He told WORLD that in his experience, megachurch pastors "notoriously inflate membership" numbers. The reasons? "Media attention, political influence, and money," Gilgoff said.

Gilgoff did not want to comment on Outreach magazine's lists or methodology, but he said he was not surprised the magazine would not scrutinize the churches' numbers: "Journalists have long been guilty of taking these numbers at face value."

Nonetheless, Alan Freitag, associate chair of communication studies at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, called the lists "seriously flawed" and questioned the very reason for their existence. "I wonder what the point of these surveys is," Freitag said. "The methodology is badly flawed, so you don't get information that very closely resembles the truth. Using numbers to measure the effectiveness of a church seems a questionable measure in the first place, and when you compound that with flawed numbers, you have to wonder why such lists exist."

Publisher Lynne Marian had a ready answer to that question. She said the lists "get us attention. It's the most high-profile issue we do." She admitted the discrepancies on the list, but said, "It's not about the numbers. It's about taking a look at what God is doing."

Michael Horton, professor of theology and apologetics at Westminster Seminary California, said if growth alone is a sign of what God is doing, then AIDS and Islam could share a claim for God's blessing. "If numerical growth is invariably a measure of God's blessing," Horton said, "then you can't pick and choose which growing numbers are from God and which are not."

For its part, Outreach has severed its relationship with John Vaughan, who had compiled the list since its inception. The magazine now works with Lifeway Christian Resources, a part of the Southern Baptist Convention and a major advertiser with the magazine. But Ed Stetzer, Lifeway's director of research, has no plans to change fundamentally the methodology. "We're doing a survey, not an investigation," Stetzer told WORLD. "We have accurately reported the numbers as we have received them."

Seeking but not finding

The mother church of the seeker movement has a mid-life crisis

Willow Creek Church in suburban Chicago has been the epicenter of the "seeker" movement for three decades. During that time, Willow Creek has grown from start-up to around 20,000 in regular attendance. The influential Willow Creek Association has taught its 12,000 member churches-including many that do not share the mother church's evangelical theology-how to grow.

That's why founder Bill Hybels' recent confession that the church's brand of ministry has been a "mistake" came as a shock to the evangelical world's system.

The confession came in the wake of a book published by Willow Creek. Reveal: Where Are You? was co-written by Willow Creek Executive Pastor Greg Hawkins and Callie Parkinson, who leads Willow Creek's Reveal ministry. Reveal, and the book that bears the ministry's name, promote the results of a multi-year study on the state of the American church. The study suggests what many critics have said for years: Most churches are not doing a good job of true disciple-building.

"We made a mistake," Hybels said at Willow Creek's annual Leadership Summit, where the results of the survey were presented. "When people crossed the line of faith and become Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become 'self feeders.' We should have gotten people, taught people, how to read their Bible between service, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own."

Hybels' words have been reported on several blog sites (including townhall.com). According to Callie Parkinson, the online conversations have generated a flood of inquiries to Willow Creek and a response by Hawkins on the Reveal website. Parkinson told WORLD that the Reveal study would result in a "broadening of the movement. There's been a breakthrough in our understanding." But she reiterated that Willow Creek remains not just "seeker-focused. We are seeker-obsessed."

That means, according to Michael Horton, a professor at Westminster Seminary California, that American evangelicalism is likely to see "more of the same" from Willow Creek. "In the 'seeker' view, evangelism and outreach are spiritual technologies that must be made more efficient," Horton said. "Having a survey tell you that you need to add 'discipleship' to the list of technologies that we're trying to make more efficient doesn't solve the fundamental problem."

Is the use of surveys as a replacement for true spiritual discernment among evangelical church leaders at the core of the problem facing the modern church? Horton criticizes the idea of church, worship, or the gospel as "product," and lost sinners as "consumers." People, he said, "are not consumers who need to be satisfied. They're sinners who need to be justified. Preaching is not a technology. It is a means of grace."

The problems go beyond Willow Creek: Parkinson said the study included 30 churches that "were not all Willow Creek clones. The findings in the study are true of all churches." Horton agrees with that: "The state of the church in America today is poor, and it's a condition that you can't blame on Willow Creek alone. It's increasingly difficult to swim against the tide of materialism, consumerism, and narcissism in the culture."

Warren Cole Smith
Warren Cole Smith

Warren, who lives in Charlotte, N.C., is vice president of WORLD News Group and the host of the radio program Listening In. Follow Warren on Twitter @WarrenColeSmith.

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