By Warren Bird, Ph.D.
The best way to learn about large or growing churches is to visit one, participating in a worship service either in person or via the internet. The larger the church, the more likely it is to host an online campus with opportunities for online participants to interact rather than merely view it.
The second-best approach is to read about them. To me the most inspiring, practical, and engaging books are those about specific churches. My bookshelf is full of these profiles. Perhaps the best-known is Rick Warren’s Purpose-Driven Church, which tells the story of Saddleback Church, but lots of other large-church pastors have written books that include the story of the church they serve.
My latest co-authored book is one of those profiles, titled Liquid Church: Six Powerful Currents to Saturate Your City for Christ. The lead author is Pastor Tim Lucas, who planted a church that grew in 12 years to 5,000 people, had 2,400 baptisms, and has had amazing community impact. (And yes, Liquid Church is an ECFA-accredited member, as are about half of America’s 100-largest churches.)
I’ve learned much from reading various “how God built this” stories, including historic ones. On my nightstand, for example, is the autobiography of America’s best-known pastor of the late 1800s, T. De Witt Talmage, pastor of the world’s biggest Protestant church—in 1892. Fascinating. Another book I co-authored profiled the first American megachurch to grow largely by small groups: On-Purpose Leadership: Multiplying Your Ministry by Becoming a Leader of Leaders by Dale Galloway with Warren Bird. (Megachurches are congregations with weekly worship attendance of 2,000 and more including children.)
If you wanted a baker’s dozen of other books profiling U.S. megachurches, here’s a list in no particular order:
• The Journey of T.D. Jakes, by Richard Young
• The Rise of Joel Osteen and Lakewood Church, by Richard Young
• The Blessed Life, by Robert Morris
• When God Builds a Church, by Bob Russell
• The Church that Never Sleeps, by Matthew Barnett
• The Old Church Downtown: An Incomplete History of The First Baptist Church of Hammond, Indiana, by Jack Hyles
• Jerry Falwell: His Life and Legacy, by Macel Falwell
• Goliath: The Life of Robert Schuller, by James Penner
• Exponential: How You and Your Friends Can Start a Missional Church Movement, by Dave and Jon Ferguson (Community Christian Church)
• Harvest: The Amazing Story of Calvary Chapel, by Chuck Smith and Tal Brooke (Calvary Chapel, Costa Mesa)
• Vision Lost and Found: Story of a Church that Got Stuck but Didn’t Stay There, by Tim Stevens (Granger Community Church)
• Go BIG: Lead Your Church to Explosive Growth, by Bill Easum and Bil Cornelius
In addition, there are many books about how a church grows from smaller to larger, such as How to Break Growth Barriers by Carl George and Warren Bird. See also Tony Morgan's Unstuck Church, Mac Lake's Multiplication Effect, Gary McIntosh's One Size Doesn't Fit All, and Dave Ferguson's Hero Maker.
Bigger Story Is Overseas
The world’s largest-attendance churches, by far, are overseas, as a “Global Megachurch” list that I managed for years at Leadership Network demonstrates (see leadnet.org/world). As with U.S. churches, there are many English-language books about individual churches, such as More than Numbers by Paul Yonggi Cho and Growing the World’s Largest Church by Karen Hurston.
One of the more recent ones is an overview titled Ten of the Largest Church Ministries Aggressively Touching the World, by Elmer Towns. Dr. Towns co-founded Jerry Falwell’s megachurch, Thomas Road Baptist Church, and also Liberty University. He is one of our nation’s earliest and most prolific writers about large, growing churches and Sunday schools (in most churches the Sunday school had a larger attendance than the worship service until the 1960s).
An ECFA Contribution: Better Church Boards
I sense a growing interest among larger churches in how to better utilize their main church board. On the negative side, nearly every headline-making problem in a large church circles back, at some point, to the question, “Why didn’t the board help prevent this disaster?” On the positive side, I haven’t yet found a thriving larger church where the board wasn’t healthy and meaningfully supporting the pastoral staff.
One of ECFA’s specialties is governance, stemming from our commitment to excellence, integrity and appropriate transparency in leadership. In recent months we’ve released new tools for governance, applicable to any size of church, but especially needed in larger churches.
While our website provides many governance resources, let me mention two books and a board-assessment diagnostic:
1. Lessons from the Church Boardroom: 40 Insights for Exceptional Governance. Imagine saying to a board member, “Pick one of the short lessons in this book on how we can become a better board, and at our next board meeting take 5 minutes to teach it, and then we’ll discuss it.” If you do that meeting after meeting, your board will increasingly improve! Of course, you can also give a copy to each board member to read on their own.
2. ECFA Tools and Templates for Effective Board Governance contains 22 time-saving, tested, and well-developed resources. Do you have an orientation process for new board members? An assessment for the senior pastor or for the board? A board policies manual? Annual affirmation statements for board members? They’re all here, and more.
3. ECFA ChurchBoardScoreTM is easy to use, unique and insightful, and it offers immediate feedback. It’s designed to help your board evaluate its performance, and then show how to improve in areas where you’re weak or uncertain.
It’s a quick process: you sign in, and then fill out about six questions in six sections—around 36 questions total. You immediately see your score on each of the six elements, and you can save the findings onto your computer, or print them out for group discussion in your boardroom.
Then the best part of the scoring is the wealth of very specific suggestions about how to improve. Each topic has a “why this matters” section with a short teaching from Dan Busby, and then you’re also pointed to specific ECFA resources, mostly ECFA books or free downloads, that enable you to learn and grow.