By Kent E. Fillinger
Not all megachurches are exactly alike. But after studying those on this year’s list, a church growth analyst will see several similarities. This description combines them into one hypothetical story.
Managing a growing staff and an expanding ministry is an exciting and sometimes exhausting challenge for megachurch senior minister Brian Roberts. Some days, he’s not sure this is what he originally signed on to do when he came to Canyon Creek Christian Church in 1998.
In the beginning, Canyon Creek was a small church with a limited vision. Several faithful families who had moved to a new suburb of a nearby California city started the church in 1955. Over the next 40-plus years the church had grown to average about 200, but then its attendance plateaued for more than a decade.
Sitting quietly in a now older, but still fast-growing suburb, the church had potential that energized Brian. He dreamed of seeing Canyon Creek reach the surrounding valley for Christ. When he started, he didn’t realize the sacrifices and challenges he would endure as the small church grew into a multisite megachurch with more than 4,400 in weekend worship attendance.
After arriving, Brian focused on improving the quality and the consistency of the Sunday worship experience and introduced small group Bible studies to help the large number of new members get better connected and to have another platform for discipleship. The church continues to provide some classes on campus, but it primarily focuses on involving people in small groups.
Brian relied on his extroverted personality and entrepreneurial spirit to connect with people and to communicate his vision for church growth. Church numbers increased rapidly, and after a couple of years, the church outgrew its small building, even though it was conducting multiple worship services.
Church leaders, along with Brian and his staff, began talking about the implications of relocation. Soon the search for a new site began. Within six months, the church identified a great piece of property in a newer, nearby suburb expected to grow rapidly.
Both the church’s growth and its relocation process were accelerating, and Brian was working hard to keep pace. Canyon Creek held its first worship service on its new campus in October 2003. In the first two months after moving, the church doubled in attendance from 800 to 1,600.
After five more years of consistent growth, Canyon Creek was averaging more than 3,000, and once again encountered space issues in its children’s ministry areas and parking lot. Having already added Saturday night services, Brian and his team explored the option of going to a multisite model. The church identified another fast-growing area a few miles away, where many of its members lived, and it added a second campus in 2009.
Canyon Creek added a third location last year after a struggling church in the area approached it and suggested a possible merger. After a series of discussions, Canyon Creek acquired the church and renovated its existing building to serve as its third campus. Brian and his team are considering the possibility of more multisites in the future.
For the first time last year, Canyon Creek saw more than 8,000 attend at Easter and almost 7,000 attend its Christmas Eve services. Canyon Creek also had worship services on Christmas Day this past year. These record weekends helped the church grow almost 6 percent in 2011. Brian said Canyon Creek is continuing to surge and soar.
Canyon Creek saw a record number of baptisms in 2009, when it conducted special baptism services during its weekend worship services. Last year, the church celebrated 332 baptisms. The church invested a little more than $21,000 per baptism last year, based on its general fund giving.
Although the church offers six worship services in three different locations, space at its main campus continues to be a challenge, since nearly 80 percent of its attendees worship there. Additional parking and children’s ministry areas are needed. And despite a worship center that seats 1,600, finding a seat during the prime services is often a challenge. In an effort to simplify and to motivate people to pick different worship services, Canyon Creek uses only one style of worship in its six services.
Building again isn’t an option right now, even though the recent recession has not impacted Canyon Creek as greatly as churches in some other areas of the country. Giving at Canyon Creek exceeded the church’s $6.5 million budget last year, allowing the church to increase its ministry spending and enlarge its staff. The church spent 48 percent of its budget on staff last year. The church has almost $9 million of debt, so Brian and his team are brainstorming ways to be more creative in order to keep growing and not pursue a capital campaign or a building program.
Brian began blogging each week a few years ago to keep communicating in a changing culture. Last year, after some encouragement from his executive team, he started to use Twitter to post updates and to broaden the reach of his message. Today, Brian can post status updates and tweet directly from his smart phone, regardless of where he is.
Over the last few years, Canyon Creek has increased its focus on local outreach; overall last year, the church invested 14 percent of its budget on local and global outreach. A special offering at Christmas enabled the church to give gifts to more than 2,500 children, provide groceries to 1,500 families, and build a church in India and provide the salary for its national pastor. The church also sent more international mission project teams last year than ever before. Canyon Creek initiated a new project in Kenya with a key mission partner that included encouraging its members to sponsor children as a way to engage in the world and to make a difference.
Today Brian, who has been with Canyon Creek for 13 years and is a little over 50 years old, is evaluating what’s next for the church. He’s trying to determine how best “to keep his foot on the gas” as a leader and guide the church in its next phase of ministry.
He’s seen the research showing that a church’s growth rate can start to slow in a long-term ministry as a senior minister ages. He hopes to buck the trends and continue to lead Canyon Creek to reach even more people for Christ from across its California valley.
Kent E. Fillinger is president of 3:STRANDS Consulting, Indianapolis, Indiana, and associate director of projects and partnerships with CMF International.