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July 30, 2005
Column #1,248

The 50 Most Influential Churches

      Quick, who would you say is America's most influential pastor?

     If you guessed Dr. Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in Lake Forrest, CA, you were right. His book, "The Purpose-Driven Church," sold millions of copies before he wrote "The Purpose-Driven Life," which has sold 23 million copies and is the best selling non-fiction book of all time.

     Following a pattern set by thousands of other churches, hundreds of inner-city Philadelphia churches will kick off a 40-day study of "The Purpose-Driven Life" this fall.

       Warren launched Saddleback in 1980 with only one family. Today a stunning 50,000 are members of the Southern Baptist Church. It has baptized 9,200 new believers during the past seven years and helped launch 34 daughter churches. And 250,000 pastors and church leaders from more than 125 nations have attended its seminars.

     The second most influential pastor and church? Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Community Church. Hybels planted the congregation in 1975 with 125 people who met at the Willow Creek Theater in Palantine, IL. The church grew so fast that it bought 90 acres of farmland in South Barrington, IL, and hit 2,000 members by year three.

     Willow Creek is the opposite of a typical church. There are no steeples, no crosses, no pews, no stained glass windows, and no organ or even a choir if my memory of a visit ten years ago is correct. The traditional church bored many Americans.

     Hybels created the first "seeker friendly" church which made the traditional worship hour inviting to non-believers. Its worship center was constructed next to a beautiful lake that can be seen from the plush comfortable theater-style seats that replaced pews.

     The "service" is entertaining. Instead of opening with a Charles Wesley hymn, the service I saw began with a play that made a strong moral point. Hybels' sermon seemed to grow out of the play.

     Today nearly 22,000 attend each weekend, making it among the sixth largest in America. In a walk through the lobby, one passes rack after rack of information on interactive, fun ministries such as Father-Son Kayaking. Some 35,000 events are held on the property annually.

     The church launched a Willow Creek Association to provide networking with interested churches to share training and resources with 10,500 member churches in 90 denominations and 35 countries.

     The "Top 50 Most Influential Churches" were selected in a survey of 2,000 church leaders conducted by "The Church Report," a magazine for church administrators. Half of all nominations were of either Saddleback or Willow Creek and 75 percent centered on five churches. All of the other top three churches are led by sons of famous clergy, two of whom have founded churches larger than their fathers:

     Northpoint Church in Alpharetta, GA, a suburb of Atlanta, which attracts 18,000 weekly founded by Andy Stanley, son of Charles Stanley, the long-time pastor of First Baptist Church of Atlanta with 6,000 attending (and #22 on the list).

     Fellowship Church in Grapevine, TX, with 22,000 attending was founded by the son of another famous preacher, Ed Young, Jr., whose father, Ed Young, Sr., is pastor of Second Baptist of Houston, TX, which is ranked as #33 in influence.

     Lakewood Church, located in one of the poorest sections of Houston, was created by Dr. John Osteen in a feed store, and has been led by his son, Joel Osteen, since his father's death in 1999. Joel added three more worship services, and has seen attendance rise from 11,000 to 25,000 at present and is America's fastest growing church.

     California is where 21 of the top 50 churches are located (such as Church on the Way in Van Nuys and Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside). Texas had 13 and Georgia, 9. Ted Haggard of New Life Church in Colorado Springs, #10 on the list, is better known as the President of the National Association of Evangelicals.

     Left in the dust: Mainline denominations with few churches on the list, such as the National Cathedral (#16) and Fifth Avenue Presbyterian in New York (#42). (Catholic churches were not even considered by The Church Report.)

     However, the bottom line is this. If there are now tens of thousands of seeker-friendly churches, who are attracting the unchurched, why has the number of unchurched Americans nearly doubled, according to pollster George Barna, from 39 million in 1991 to 75 million in 2004?

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