Leaders of fast-growing church share ministry tips

By Kara Witherow, Special Contributor…

While many United Methodist churches in the U.S. are in decline and losing members, Harvest Church in Byron, Ga., is one of the fastest growing UM congregations in the country.

In its 12 years, Harvest has seen more than 2,000 people accept Christ for the first time. The church averages about 2,400 each week in its four worship services.

There’s no big secret to the church’s success, though, says the Rev. Jim Cowart, Harvest Church’s lead and founding pastor.

“For 12-plus years we have been ‘students of leadership,’” he said. “We go to a lot of conferences, seminars and coaching networks to learn leadership and church growth skills. However, before we started Harvest we chose a model for doing ministry and that has stayed consistent these 12 years. We aren’t chasing fads or changing the vision every few years. The vision is the same. . . . If you ask the average Harvest member about the mission of Harvest, they may use different words but they can tell you what it is. We’re a battleship connecting people to Jesus Christ.”

Jim and Jennifer Cowart

Passionate about teaching, coaching and helping others grow the Kingdom of God and be more effective, Mr. Cowart and his wife, Jennifer, have put some tried-and-true tips together in a new book, Start This, Stop That: Do the Things That Grow Your Church.

It’s accessible, with chapters that are quick, three- to four-page reads. The book is broken into five main parts that focus on the keys to effectiveness and church growth: leadership, worship, money, growth and tools.

“It’s not a theory thing; it’s really a nuts and bolts book about how we operate,” Mr. Cowart said. “We wanted to write a book that’s really useable.”

Contacted about two years ago by Abingdon Press, an imprint of the United Methodist Publishing House, Mr. Cowart initially had no desire to write a book. But about six months later the couple attended a conference in Orlando, Fla., and heard a speaker talk about dreaming big dreams.

“I remember hearing that and I thought, ‘Well, Lord, we’re already doing our dream, I don’t know if there is a new dream,’” said Jennifer Cowart, Harvest Church’s director of Christian education and emerging ministries. “When we got into the car I remember telling Jim that the only new dream I could think of was a book. I said, ‘I sure would like to write a book one day. I think we have some stories to tell.’”

During that conversation, Mr. Cowart’s iPhone signaled that he had received a new email. It was from Abingdon Press.

“It was them recontacting him saying, here’s a contract, we want you to write that book,” she said.

With hundreds of leadership books on the market, the Cowarts wanted theirs to be effective and easy to implement. “There are a lot of leadership books and a lot of good books about why we need to be doing Kingdom work, but we had a hard time thinking of [books about] how and what to do,” Jennifer Cowart said. “We wanted to put together a book that said, ‘Here’s how you can get started and here’s what you can do.’”

All Christians are called to preach the gospel—that’s the Great Commission—“but they want to know how to do it,” she said. Inspired by that and the numerous emails, phone calls and questions they’ve received from pastors around the world, the couple set to work writing.

“We wrote about the big things that we feel like churches across our country, every church, struggles with and gets stuck [on]—leadership, worship, money and growth,” Mr. Cowart said.

The Cowarts say they don’t know all the answers, but are passionate about learning, growing and figuring out what works for Harvest, its congregation and the UMC’s South Georgia Conference.

“We’re really not innovators. We’re not super-creative, but we’re pretty good tweakers,” Mr. Cowart said. “When we started Harvest, we knew we didn’t know what we were doing, so we had to learn from other people. We don’t think we have all the answers—we know we don’t. But we really hope that we can be a catalyst to help other people say, ‘We’re going to make a difference where we are.’”

Both the book’s content and its title come from their desire to provide resources and materials that help pastors and church leaders be more effective disciple makers.

“Sometimes you have to stop the things you’re doing because they’re keeping you from growing,” Mr. Cowart said. “But stopping isn’t enough. You have to start something new and different.”

The Cowarts don’t guarantee that every suggestion or tip in the book will work for every situation, but they know many will work if they’re faithfully put into action.

“Our main hope is that we’re going to see people more effective for the Kingdom, and that by trying some new things they can become relevant to unchurched people,” Jennifer Cowart said.

Ms. Witherow is editor of the Advocate, the newspaper of the South Georgia Conference, where this article first appeared.

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to

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