By Cathy Lynn Grossman, USA TODAY
The October issue of Outreach magazine is all about growth. It lists the 100 largest U.S. churches, based on attendance statistics gathered by LifeWay Research, Nashville.
Leading the list, as in 2008, is Joel Osteen's Lakewood Church, Houston; 43,500 attend weekend worship.
Lakewood could almost swallow the second and third place megachurches in one gulp.
But the newest trend in church growth is exemplified by the No. 2 ranked church's cross-country reach. Lifechurch.tv transmits pastor Craig Groeschel's worship services from the church's studio home in Edmond, Okla., to 13 locations, reaching 26,776 people in average weekend worship attendance.
"Multiple sites are the new normal for fast-growing and large churches. Lakewood is the exception. The next 10 all have multiple sites," says Ed Stetzer, director of LifeWay. "They're contemporary, aggressively evangelistic and evangelical and they're moving beyond the 'big box' megachurch model. The best churches have very intentional systems to move people from sitting in rows to sitting in circles (in small groups) to going out and making a difference in the world."
But the third edition of the Faith Communities Today Study of 2,527 U.S. congregations, released last week, finds overall the nation's congregations — Catholic, Protestant and other world religions — are suffering. Only 19% say they are in excellent financial health, down from 31% in 2000.Less than half (48%) could report at least 2% growth in worship attendance, down from 58% in 2005.
The study was conducted by a multi-faith coalition hosted by the Hartford Seminary's Hartford Institute for Religion Research in Hartford, Conn. Institute Director David Roozen sees a "slow downward trickle" in measures of "spiritual vitality" such as participation in devotional practices, church attendance and satisfaction with the quality of worship.
The congregations that do well, Roozen says, are participatory, involve lay leadership, and have a "strong, clear sense of their purpose."
And drums. Churches with contemporary worship music grew while those with traditional music stalled.