From the Worldwide Faith News archives

African-American church becomes largest in United Methodism

Date 23 Jan 2001 14:43:54

Jan. 23, 2001 News media contact: Linda Green·(615)742-5470·Nashville, Tenn.

NOTE: A head-and-shoulders photo of the Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell is available.

A UMNS News Feature
By Linda Green*

The Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell, the African-American pastor featured prominently
in the recent inaugural festivities for President George W. Bush, is pastor
of what is now regarded as the largest U.S. congregation in the United
Methodist Church.

The 13,498-member Windsor Village United Methodist Church in Houston, a
predominantly African-American congregation, has surpassed the 13,188
membership of predominantly white Highland Park United Methodist Church in
Dallas, which was the largest church in 1999. Among African-American
churches in the denomination, the next-largest congregation is Ben Hill
United Methodist Church in Atlanta, with 9,363 members.

In addition to Windsor Village, Highland Park and Ben Hill, other
large-membership churches include First United Methodist, Houston (12,325);
First United Methodist Church, Fort Worth, Texas (11,162); and First United
Methodist Church, Tulsa, Okla. (8,541).  

Official local church membership statistics for 2000 will not be available
from the church's General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA) until
October or November. The figures cited in this story were obtained by
directly calling each of the top six churches. 

The denomination has 8.4 million U.S. members and another 1.5 million in
Africa, Europe and Asia. The GCFA's office of statistics does not have firm
membership figures for individual congregations outside the United States,
but none is believed to be larger than Windsor Village.

GCFA's most current local church membership figures are dated Dec. 31, 1999,
and list the 12 largest United Methodist churches in the country, each
having more than 6,000 members. The agency reports that First United
Methodist Church in Houston was ranked first in membership at least through
1990, but the church moved to third place in 1999 after what appeared to be
some major cleaning of its membership roll.

"We have been growing for 18 years," Caldwell said, "but the number that
counts is not that of membership but of worship attendance. I think
attendance is a meaningful and relevant indicator of how many are involved
in the life and the ebb and flow of the church." The average Sunday
attendance at Windsor is more than 6,000 and the average at Highland Park is
around 3,000.

Caldwell is correct, said the Rev. Bob Pearson, chairman of the United
Methodist Board of Discipleship's 10-year-old large church initiative. The
initiative encourages large churches to support one another and share
information. "The reality is that you measure a church by attendance, not
membership," he said.

"Windsor Village is the largest church in terms of worship attendance, and
it has been for several years," he said. "It is the flagship church of the

Any church that has 250 members or more is a large membership church, and
the denomination has about 2,300 congregations in that category, Pearson
said. He is pastor of one of them - 4,000-member Christ United Methodist
Church in Tulsa. 

Caldwell attributes Windsor's growth to a multipronged approach to mission
and ministry. The congregation experiences "multiple, dynamic and winsome
worship services," and the parishioners take the sanctuary to the streets,
he said. They believe in the power of prayer and are excited about the
church, he said. 

"Sheep produce sheep; shepherds do not produce sheep," he said. "Our members
go out and evangelize. It is not a committee, but it is a lifestyle." 

The congregation strives to have informed, inspired and involved lay people
in the working of the church, he said. "The lay and clergy of Windsor
Village are in partnership. We are committed to each other, not in conflict
with each other."  

The congregation expects the church to grow because it is supposed to grow,
he said. "In the 18 and a half years that I've been at Windsor Village,
we've only had one weekend where a person has not walked down the aisle to
express their desire to join."  

Windsor Village strives to be led by the Holy Spirit, and "we operate in the
context of Wesleyan tradition, but we are not bound by traditionalism," he
said. It is unfortunate that Methodism today is not consistent with the pure
Wesleyan tradition, which is evangelical, grass roots, Spirit-led and
grounded in spiritual disciplines, he said. "We do not allow the chains of
traditionalism or folks' understanding of Methodism to box us in."

Caldwell, who provided the benediction at President Bush's inauguration on
Jan. 20 and a prayer at an inaugural prayer service, said he met the
president a little more than five years ago at a reception in Houston. Bush,
then governor of Texas, had read a newspaper article about Caldwell and
Windsor Village's faith-based ministries, and the work the church's
nonprofit organization was doing in the community.

Bush was a strong proponent of faith-based initiatives and "we were
manifesting or doing what he was talking about," Caldwell said.

Traditionally, African-Americans have overwhelmingly supported the
Democratic Party, but in the recent presidential election, some black voters
switched from Vice President Al Gore to Bush.

Caldwell, who said he voted for Clinton twice, supported Bush in the
election. He voted for the Republican not because he supported compassionate
conservatism but "when I looked at his plan for urban ministry and Gore's
plan for urban ministry, Bush had a better plan." He compared the policies
and practices of both candidates, he said. "It was clear to me that Gore was
more conservative than Bush."

For example, Caldwell said Gore's views on policies and his practices on
affirmative action were inconsistent. "Of the 200 managers Gore had on his
vice presidential staff, only one was black, which is not even 1 percent,"
Caldwell said.  

During the Clinton-Gore administration, U.S. contracts to African-American
businesses decreased 60 percent. Caldwell attributed that to the Bundling
Program implemented by Gore, which took small contracts and packaged them
together into larger ones, putting small businesses at a disadvantage.

In contrast, when Bush was governor of Texas, 18 percent his managers were
African American, Caldwell said. During Bush's tenure, contracts with
African-American businesses swelled from $4 million to $101 million, the
pastor said. He added that he thought Bush's tax cut proposal would be more
favorable for working poor families than Gore's.

"Mr. Bush's speech on compassionate conservatism represents his head and his
heart," Caldwell said.

Clinton had United Methodists among his spiritual advisers and was open to
United Methodist leadership. Will Bush be as open?

"I don't know how much advice Clinton followed," Caldwell said, "but
President Bush will have an open-door policy."

# # #
*Green is the news director of the Nashville, Tenn.,-based office of United
Methodist News Service.

United Methodist News Service
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