S.D. church makes ‘fastest-growing’ list

Oh for the problem of where to fit in a fifth Sunday worship service.

Such happy headaches face Embrace Church in Sioux Falls, S.D., and its 31-year-old pastor, the Rev. Adam Weber.

Embrace is the sole United Methodist church on Outreach magazine's recently released list of the top 50 fastest-growing U.S. churches in 2013.

Though the denomination is absent from the name, Weber emphasized that the church's identity is decidedly United Methodist.

"We may not have it by label, but I hope and pray we're the most United Methodist by heart," said Weber. "John Wesley did anything to reach the next person for Jesus. That is our heart to the `t.'"

LifeWay Research compiled both "fastest growing" and "largest" lists for Outreach, using self-reported data from evangelical Protestant churches as defined by the American Religious Data Archive. (Some 27,000 churches were contacted, though not all responded.)

Only churches that averaged more than 1,000 in worship were eligible for the list of fastest-growing churches. Rankings were determined by a formula that averages percentage and numerical gain.

Seeing new faces each week

Embrace ranked 40th overall, and fourth in growth rate, having seen a 65 percent attendance rise. When the survey was done in February and March (but excluding Easter Sunday), the church averaged 1,112 in worship. Since then, Embrace has spurted to 1,300 for four services.

"Every week we look out and we're seeing new faces," Weber said.

Embrace Church began in 2007, an initiative of Cornerstone (United Methodist) Church in Watertown, S.D.

"Many of our young adults fromCornerstone end up moving to Sioux Falls," said the Rev. Roger Spahr, Cornerstone's pastor. "Two of those were my own kids and many of their friends who loved the Lord but didn't seem to be connecting in any church very naturally."

Weber had come to faith as a youth at Cornerstone. In 2007, he was finishing a master of divinity degree at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky.

Spahr had identified Weber as having what it took to lead a church plant. "So I went to the (Dakotas regional Annual) conference leadership witha proposal," he said.

Weber was chosen to lead the new church and flew back monthly for services until finishing at Asbury.

Prodigal son story inspired name

Making the List

The United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kan., ranked 43rd on Outreach magazine’s list of the largest Protestant evangelical churches in the United States, with average worship attendance of 10,137.

White’s Chapel United Methodist Church in Southlake, Texas, ranked 76th on the extended Outreach list of fastest-growing churches and 97th on the list of largest churches, with average worship attendance of 6,149.

Nearly half of the largest churches identify as nondenominational. The state with the most fastest-growing churches was Texas (17) followed by California and North Carolina (7 each).

Learn about other vital congregations.

Weber took the name "Embrace" from translations of Luke 15:20 that use "embraced' in describing the father-son reunion in the prodigal son story. The themes of compassion and forgiveness remain a focus for the church, Weber said, noting that a copy of Rembrandt's "The Return of the Prodigal Son" hangs in its sanctuary.

The decision to leave "United Methodist" out of the title and de-emphasize denominational ties generally was, according to Weber, hard but necessary, given the church's goal of reaching people wary of denominational churches.

But he sees the decision as consistent with the "Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors" message of The United Methodist Church.

"What we wanted to do was lower the bar for people to come in the front door," Weber said. "We tried to open the door as wide as we possibly could."

Finding focus

Embrace is in its third home in seven years, a former Lutheran church building that it rented first, then bought last year. Embrace offers four contemporary worship services on Sunday. A fifth is under consideration, said Weber, an ordained elder since 2010 and the youngest lead pastor on Outreach's 50 fastest-growing churches list.

Asked to explain the church's growth, Weber points to a focus on helping people start and strengthen a relationship with Jesus. The church buys bulk copies of the Gospel of John and hands them out free to visitors, figuring that will give them entrée to the core of Jesus’ message and start them reading the Bible.

“What we’re hearing is almost everybody in the church grew up in a family with 10 Bibles, but nobody had ever read them,” Weber said. “It’s so cool, discipleship-wise, to hear people say, `Yesterday, I read the Gospel of John.’”

Embrace also stresses small group participation. The church has ongoing mission work in Haiti, but at home has what it calls “The One Thing” a single mission initiative lasting just a month, but done with intensity.

One month the church rounded up gift cards for families who had a child in the hospital or a loved one in hospice care. Another month, the church asked families at local soup kitchens if they’d like a portrait photo.

“We took hundreds of family pictures,” Weber said. “It was so crazy to realize what a luxury a family picture is for most people.”

Important support from Path1

Weber credits the United Methodist Board of Discipleship’s Path1 new church starts initiative, particularly new church strategist the Rev. Paul Nixon, with giving him and the church important support.

“We’re very excited about what Embrace Church is doing for the kingdom of God,” said the Rev. Candace Lewis, Path1 executive director. “We are pleased that Path1 has been able to play a part, especially through the ministry of Paul Nixon.”

Among Embrace’s regular visitors now are representatives from other United Methodist churches, who want to learn from its approach.

While eager to help, Weber has his hands full steering Embrace’s growth.

“We’re very close to starting a second campus. Lord willing, that will come together.”

*Hodges is a Dallas-based writer for United Methodist News Service. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.


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