When Pastor Jason Brinker arrived at the 124-year-old First Baptist Church in Jacksonville four years ago, his look – blue jeans and an 8-inch goatee – didn’t exactly mesh with the suit-and-tie crowds he saw at church on Sundays.
And Brinker knew if they were going to attract the Marine Corps population, the church would have to change to become more relevant – less about rules and more about helping families have a relationship with Jesus.
“It was obvious First Baptist in Jacksonville was hungry to really reach the younger population. Jacksonville is the youngest city in America with a median age of 22. And when I came here, First Baptist was a 40 and up church,” the pastor said, adding that now, the church has 600 kids under five years old in Sunday school.
Before he arrived, the church had a healthy 950 people attending weekend services, but that number had plateaued.
After adding more contemporary services and re-energizing worship, the church is now bursting with four weekend services and 3,000 attending.
The quick growth at First Baptist earned it a spot on Outreach Magazine’s annual list of the 100 Fastest Growing Churches in the United States. The list includes seven North Carolina churches with a combined attendance of more than 30,000 people in Jacksonville, Arden, Gastonia, Durham, Charlotte and Greensboro.
And many of the N.C. churches in the survey by LifeWay Research have done similar things to grow including sermon series on pop culture topics, easily navigable web sites, Internet services and adding multiple campuses around town so people don’t have to travel as far.
Flexing with the congregation
All of these parishes are megachurches in a region where these large Protestant churches are still growing. According to Hartford Institute for Religion Research, 22 percent of the megachurches in America are in the South.
The Institute identifies 59 megachurches in North Carolina with a collective attendance of 196,287, including Wilmington’s Port City Community Church.
Many of the churches on Outreach’s list show a willingness to shift with the needs of congregants, planting new sites nearer to parishioners as the Durham-based Summit Church is doing starting its seventh site in Chapel Hill in January. Daystar Church in Greensboro held a sermon series on the moral messages in summer blockbuster movies. And Newhope Church in Durham added an online service called iCampus to reach people who want to worship at home.
Most of the congregations are relatively young except for First Baptist in Jacksonville, founded in 1890.
Growing pains and joys
At Summit Church, senior associate pastor the Rev. Rick Langston likes to say God – not strategy – causes growth.
“The gospel is not the diving board but the whole pool you swim in influencing your whole life,” Langston said.
Along with multiple sites, Biltmore Baptist Church in Arden is growing through “events and multiple service-project oriented weeks to reach out to our community. We encourage our members constantly to invite others to church and utilize strategically planned advertising to reach the unchurched in our community,” wrote Amanda Bullman, the church’s communications director, in an email.
Brinker says adding extra sites is First Baptist’s next move – three new campuses near Jacksonville in the next five years. Plus, the church plans to expand its worship space to hold 1,200-1,500 parishioners.
But is there a saturation point where the church gets too big, even with multiple locations?
Langston said there’s no good answer for that now.
“We’re sort of in the middle of this now,” he said. “I don’t know when we’ll get to the end of it.”
Fast change can be hard, and Brinker didn’t shy from admitting the growth at First Baptist had turned off some parishioners.
“But for the most part, it’s been a fantastic transition. Some felt it changed the church drastically, saying it’s big now. We don’t know everyone now,” he added. “Our desire has really been to honor the previous generation with a traditions service. We’re not allowing our past to dictate our future. We want it to be a blessing to our future.”