Some Thoughts on Church Size

 

There are three major variables necessary to understanding a church:

Theology: This is both what you believe and what is emphasized in the teaching and ministry of the church. This includes what topics are regarded as open- and closed-handed issues, respectively. This is where questions such as, "Do we lean Reformed or Arminian?" "Do we baptize babies or not?" "Are we charismatic or cessationist?" "Will we have female pastors or not?" "Do we believe in a literal hell or not?" are answered.

Ministry Philosophy: This is the set of values and practical decisions that determine how you do things. Will you be a missional church engaging culture? A fundamentalist church retreating from culture? A seeker church attracting families with programming? Have contemporary music with a band or traditional music with a choir? Be multi-service or multi-site? Preach through books of the Bible or do short topical series? Etc.

Size: Church size affects nearly every aspect of a church, as bigger churches are not simply larger versions of smaller churches but rather very different organizations. For this reason, sometimes two very large churches that differ in aspects of theology and ministry philosophy have a lot in common simply because of size.

Size affects the number of lines of communication, how an organization stacks or does not stack leadership, access to the senior leader and family, etc. Simply, church size does matter for how a church is run, much like a married couple who some years later find themselves with a dozen children cannot simply organize their life as they did with their first child—everything must change. For those wanting to learn more about the dynamics of church size, Tim Keller has a helpful paper, and Larry Osborne has a helpful book called Sticky Teams

Also, in my book Confessions, I write the following:

No one is exactly sure how many non-Catholic Protestant churches there are in the United States but the general figures are somewhere between 400,000 and 500,000 churches.[i] So, for purposes of this rough estimate I am assuming that there are 400,000 non-Catholic Protestant churches in the United States. I am also assuming that the reported attendance at these churches is accurate, something that is highly questionable as over-reporting of church attendance is estimated by some to be as high as fifty percent.[ii] Therefore, a rough estimate on the breakdown of weekly church attendance for adults and children in America breaks down as follows:

      • Churches with 45 people or less = 100,000 churches or 25% of all churches

      • Churches with 75 people or less = 200,000 churches or 50% of all churches

      • Churches with 150 people or less = 300,000 churches or 75% of all churches

      • Churches with 350 people or less = 380,000 churches or 95% of all churches

      • Churches with 800 people or less = 392,000 churches or 98% of all churches

      • Churches with 800 people or more = 8,000 churches or 2% of all churches

      • Churches with 2000 people or more = 870 churches or 0.22% of all churches

      • Churches with 3000 people or more = 425 churches or 0.11% of all churches

Summarily, George Barna says, “Four out of ten church-going adults (41%) go to churches with 100 or fewer adults while about one out of eight church-going adults (12%) can be found in churches of 1000 or more adults.[iii]

According to church expert Lyle Schaller, the two most comfortable church sizes are 45 people or less and 150 people or less.[iv] Subsequently, these are also likely the hardest size barriers a pastor has to push through. Practically, it seems that churches under 45 people are large enough to gather for worship and function as a church, but small enough for everyone to know each other and have a say in everything that happens. A congregation of 150 can usually gather in one service and exist as one community, yet have the resources to hire a pastor to care for all the people. These variables may help to explain why the average church in America is reportedly 89 people.[v]

Additionally, pushing through the 350 barrier is often very difficult because it usually requires that the church transition to multiple pastors, multiple services, and become multiple communities.

Mars Hill Collective Church Size Barriers

There are very few truly large churches in America, contrary to some perceptions. Estimates for the total number of churches ranges from 300,000 to 400,000. Of those, the following are the number of very large churches according to a recent issue of Outreach Magazine listing the largest and fastest growing churches in America:

10,000 to 15,000 = 26 churches

16,000 to 20,000 = 5 churches

20,000 to 25,000 = 3 churches

25,000  to 40,000 = 0 churches

40,000 + = 1 church

Total Churches 10,000 or more = 35

A few observations help to articulate this further:

1. The data on church attendance is not always accurate. At least a few of the churches reporting for the above numbers are highly unlikely to be reporting real numbers. Some churches, contrary to what they are asked to do, report their total seating (not people in those seats), or their highest attendance of the year on Easter (not their typical attendance). Subsequently, the number of very large churches in each category may in fact be smaller than the totals listed above.

2. 32 of the 35 churches listed as the largest in America are multi-site.

3. The largest churches tend to be concentrated in Southern California, Texas, the Southeast, and around Lake Michigan, including Chicago.

People tend to wrongly attach a moral value to church size. This explains why big churches are accused of being uncaring and small churches are accused of not reaching people or being well-led or organized. 

I pastored Mars Hill when it was small and saw a lot of people saved by Jesus. And, now that Mars Hill is large, I'm certain we take far better care of our people with far better community than we did when we were small. Many smaller church pastors, especially those who value theology well above ministry philosophy and size, tend to completely overlook or even deny the importance of church size. They will accuse those who care about numbers to be simply pragmatic, as if wanting more people to meet Jesus and grow in grace was a bad thing. After all, the fourth book of the Bible is called Numbers, and Acts likes to often tell us how many people were in the early church, such as 120 in the beginning and then the exact thousands that were added at various points.

For a church to grow, it must change. It does not need to change in theology, but it will need to change in methodology. If a church is unwilling to change their methodology to reach and care for more people, then it is guilty of methodolatry, which is where we confuse unchanging biblical principles with what are supposed to be changing cultural methods. Churches guilty of methodolatry are often guilty of one or more of the following underlying causes:

  1. Legalism: This is where people basically say, “We have one way of doing things and we simply will not change because our identity is wrapped up in our programs, our style, and our traditions. This ministry is about us more than God and people not yet with us.” This is also where people fight for one service without adding any more, battle for one tired, dead, old program that a handful of well-meaning volunteers still prop up, and push for some old-school evangelism program that has not brought much of anyone to Christ in years. 

  2. Laziness: Change is hard, people complain, work is tough, fundraising is awkward, and so some church leaders are happy with mediocrity and job security. When people pay the pastor because he does what he's told, and he cashes their check and plays by their rules, it's co-idolatry. 

  3. Fear: What if we fail? What if the change doesn't work? What if the paid staff lose their job? Many leaders don't make changes because they'd rather exist than take a risk to thrive. 

  4. Presumption: Sometimes the assumption is somehow that we will be fine because we've always been fine. God will send the success fairy to do a miracle somehow, right?

  1. Priest and Prophet, not King: Some churches assume so long as the people are loved (the role of the priest) and the Bible is taught (prophet) that the church will be well organized, led, and see converts. Such is not true without the kingly work of systems, organization, fundraising, and the like being valued and followed. Worse still is when the priests and prophets jettison or even criticize kingly gifts, as if doing things well with a plan was not spiritual and holy. 

In the end, church size is not really the issue. I have pastored a church from one of the smallest to one of the largest in America. At each stage I've had to work hard, enjoyed a lot of God's grace, and reinvented myself and our church to get to the next level. What is most important is what Paul tells Timothy: "Do your best.” Every leader must ask, “Am I doing my best? Are we doing our best?” If the answers are yes, the church will be grow. So, in many ways, it is about the numbers—namely, the number of people in the church doing their best. Are you doing your best? 

Endnotes

[i] Vaughan, America’s Megachurches 2005, slide 51; “About Us,” Church Growth Today: www.churchgrowthtoday.com/Content/ContentCT.asp?P=19 (June 21, 2005).

[ii] “See C. Kirk Hadaway, Penny Long Marler, and Mark Chaves, ‘What the Polls Don’t Show: A Closer Look at U.S. Church Attendance,’ American Sociological Review 58 (December 1993): 741-52; Mark Chaves and James C. Cavendish, ‘More Evidence on U.S. Catholic ChurchAttendance,’ Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 33 (December 1994): 376-81; and ‘Symposium: Surveys of U.S. Church Attendance.’ According to the 1996 General Social Survey, only 2 percent of people who did not attend church ‘last week’ report that they attended some other type of religious event or meeting. Thus the standard question does not ‘miss’ a significant number of people who attend, say, prayer meetings instead of church services” (Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone [New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000], 453 n.29). Also, David T. Olson, 10 Fascinating Facts about the American Church (2004): slide 3, The American Church: www.TheAmericanChurch.org.

[iii] Barna, “Small Churches Struggle to Grow Because of the People They Attract,” www.barna.org/FlexPage.aspx?Page=BarnaUpdate&BarnaUpdateID=148.

[iv] Schaller, The Very Large Church, 42.

[v] Barna, “Small Churches Struggle to Grow Because of the People They Attract,” www.barna.org/FlexPage.aspx?Page=BarnaUpdate&BarnaUpdateID=148.