Reverend Matthew L. Watley delivers his sermon during Sunday service...

Reverend Matthew L. Watley delivers his sermon during Sunday service at Kingdom Fellowship AME Church, Sunday, June 2, 2024, in Calverton, Md. The suburban Maryland congregation, led by Rev. Watley, has landed at the top of a list of the fastest-growing churches in America. Credit: AP/Terrance Williams

CALVERTON, Md. — The Rev. Matthew L. Watley says it’s not happenstance his suburban Maryland congregation, part of the historically Black African Methodist Episcopal denomination, landed at the top of a list of the fastest-growing churches in America.

From hearing his call to ministry while dancing with his Step Afrika troupe in South Africa to giving up his law school aspirations and enrolling at Howard School of Divinity, all paths led to the pulpit — and eventually Kingdom Fellowship AME Church — for this son and grandson of AME ministers.

“There’s a phrase that says, ‘In America we believe in God, but in Africa, they depend on God,’” said Watley, who also met his wife, a lawyer and federal lobbyist, at Howard. “I had never seen faith like that before.”

In 2019, the year Kingdom Fellowship AME was founded, the church had about 3,000 members and an average weekly attendance of about 1,800 people, according to the church's figures. Today, membership has swelled to nearly 8,000, and its weekly services draw about 2,500 attendees altogether.

On a recent Sunday morning, Watley, 50, preached to a packed sanctuary from the Gospel of Luke about Zacchaeus' transformative meeting with Jesus. The short and corrupt tax collector changed his ways after climbing a tree to see Jesus over the crowd.

"When Zacchaeus climbed that tree, that was his way of doing what he needed to do to become whole — to become healed from the stuff he’d been carrying his whole life,” Watley said.

Afterward more than 20 people, some with tears in their eyes, retreated to an intake room for new members. Kingdom Fellowship is averaging about 110 additions per month, according to the church's count.

Members of the congregation at Kingdom Fellowship AME Church raise...

Members of the congregation at Kingdom Fellowship AME Church raise her hands in praise during church service, Sunday, June 2, 2024, in Calverton, Md. The suburban Maryland congregation, led by the Rev. Matthew L. Watley, has landed at the top of a list of the fastest-growing churches in America. Credit: AP/Terrance Williams

Before Kingdom Fellowship, Watley built a robust following for years through a ministry called Power Lunch, the first of which drew about 300 people. These were midday worship hours held in the District of Columbia and the greater Washington metropolitan area that provided attendees with a to-go meal before they headed back to work.

Watley also brought a church to the people, taking note of the scores of Black Americans relocating from D.C. to the suburbs and in need of a place to worship. Although outside the district, Watley and Kingdom Fellowship have remained in the capital’s political orbit, sharing his pulpit with Baptist pastor and U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Georgia; and hosting Vice President Kamala Harris and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff for the inaugural service in its new church building. They have also welcomed Angela Alsobrooks, the Democratic U.S. Senate nominee challenging former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, among other politicians.

But Kingdom Fellowship still wants to be identified with its homespun hospitality and a culture that puts its members on equal footing regardless of what they do outside the church.

“We appreciate that you’re the CEO, whatever. We need some help on the parking lot. It’s great you’re … the head of the ER medical unit. We need somebody to hold this door. And that’s the culture,” Watley said.

Reverend Matthew L. Watley, right, greets members of the congregation...

Reverend Matthew L. Watley, right, greets members of the congregation after Sunday service at Kingdom Fellowship AME Church, Sunday, June 2, 2024, in Calverton, Md. The suburban Maryland congregation, led by Rev. Watley, has landed at the top of a list of the fastest-growing churches in America. Credit: AP/Terrance Williams

Kingdom Fellowship began as a satellite campus of the growing Reid Temple AME Church in nearby Montgomery County, which is where Watley served as executive pastor, overseeing the budget, local ministries and its 132,000 square-foot-facility featuring a sanctuary, credit union and bookstore that was completed in 2004. Watley also served as the de facto chief of staff for Reid Temple’s senior pastor, the Rev. Lee Washington.

“He had a lot of ideas,” said Washington, who recently retired. “I gave him the freedom and the flexibility to do what he thought was best.”

With Washington’s blessing, those ideas included launching Reid Temple North with a small contingent of volunteers. They held the first worship service in 2006 in the Montgomery Blair High School cafeteria, where they met until 2010. The growing congregation moved into a renovated building in Silver Spring, Maryland, where Watley added a second Sunday service in 2011 and a third in 2013. The campus eventually became financially self-sufficient.

Instead of naming Watley his successor, Washington with an eye on retirement opted to spin-off Reid Temple North as an independent church. It was renamed Kingdom Fellowship AME and Watley became its inaugural senior pastor in 2019.

“Our church was growing by leaps and bounds, and I did not believe in hoarding,” Washington said. “I believe in sharing.”

Watley, even as a young leader, was noticed within the denomination for his maturity and strong opinions, said Bishop James Levert Davis, the presiding prelate for the AME district that includes Kingdom Fellowship. Davis has selected Watley to be part of his district’s delegation to the upcoming AME General Conference where the denomination’s ban on same-sex marriage is expected to be debated — an issue Watley hopes won’t cause a schism.

“I tease Matthew constantly telling him that he’s the oldest young person that I know,” Davis said. “Between his father and his grandfather, he has been anchored and nurtured by the best of who we are.”

Watley’s role as the first leader of Kingdom Fellowship also came with a nerve-wracking capital project — building a new worship center with sky-high ceilings and an amphitheater-style sanctuary. Not only was there a recent example of a similar project falling apart at another church in the region, but Kingdom Fellowship was preparing to break ground when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

“I was very cognizant of that. Absolutely,” Watley said.

But no one pulled out: neither the bank nor the contractor or the congregation. Instead, members of Kingdom Fellowship increased their giving, and the congregation celebrated their first service in the new worship center in 2022 for Easter. Recently, Outreach magazine named the church the fastest growing, a ranking based on a self-reported Lifeway Research survey that compared average weekly, in-person attendance for February and March 2023 to 2022 numbers.

In the U.S., Black Protestants’ monthly church attendance declined 15% from 2019 to 2023, a larger drop than any other major religious group, according to a 2023 Pew Research study. They are also more likely than other groups to take in religious services online or on TV, with more than half (54%) saying they attend services virtually.

The pace of growth at Kingdom Fellowship AME has been rapid but seamless, said Sharon and Billy Watts, of Upper Marlboro, Maryland. What has remained constant is the kindness and care of church staff, they said.

The couple previously attended Reid Temple North where they got to regularly witness Watley's gift for preaching and reaching people. Watley inspires outside the church, too, said Sharon Watts, noting the speech the pastor gave at her husband's retirement party that had the crowd of soon-to-be retirees wondering how and where they could hear Watley again.

“It's something about that man and what he brings forth in his preaching,” said Sharon Watts, who first noticed that Watley's knack for drawing crowds in the Power Lunch days. “To me it seems like we're called to bring the community together, to hear the word of God, to not just prepare them spiritually, but to prepare the whole person.”

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