bits from bob....

Small Churches--Hopeless or Hopeful?

by Robert J. Young
©, 2003, Robert J. Young
[permission is given to reprint with credit noted]
[This article surveys a recent Barna Research article and seeks to identify some significant factors for churches of Christ in the realm of small church studies.]

Despite the attention given to large churches in our society and culture, the average church is small with less than 100 in attendance on any given Sunday. A recent study ("Small Churches Struggle to Grow Because of the People They Attract," Barna Research Group,, September 2, 2003) refers to churches with less than 100 adults in attendance as small. In churches of Christ, we seldom keep attendance figures which include only adults, but consider this picture--50% of our congregations have less than 75 in attendance at Sunday morning worship and 85% of churches of Christ nationwide have fewer than 200 members. Mac Lynn (Churches of Christ in the United States, 21st Century Christ, 2003) reports an average attendance of slightly more than 100 in mainstream churches.
What is a small church? In Oklahoma, about 25% of churches of Christ have less than 35 members. In Kansas, the number is 42%. In Oklahoma, over 50% of our congregations have less than 75 members, in Arkansas that number is 64%. If one consider a total attendance of 200 as small, 80% of the churches in Oklahoma fit in the category and nationwide the number is 90%. The Presbyterians claim that 95% of their congregations have less than 250.
At the other end of the scale, Barna reports that slightly less than 2% of all churches have more than 1000 adults on a typical Sunday. According to Lynn, in churches of Christ, about 1/3 of 1% of our congregations have a total Sunday attendance of 1000 or more. Our number of congregations larger than 300 is between 5% and 6%. Here is an approximate snapshot of our situation: 90% of our churches have less than 200 in attendance, 6% are between 200 and 300, and 5% are larger than 300. [Note: These numbers as reported by Lynn include several more conservative branches of the churches of Christ.] Barna claims 41% of church-going adults nationwide attending churches of less than 100 and about 12% attending churches of more than 1000.

Examining the Factors
One might suppose that the major difference between a large church and a small church is geography, but statistical studies do not bear this out. While it is true that large churches are less likely to develop in rural areas, one must look beyond geography to discover the factors that distinguish small from large churches. This paper surveys four factors of importance.

The Future of the Small Church
Despite these challenges, Barna states that small churches have much potential and will continue to be a major part of the spiritual landscape of our nation. Small churches have a remarkable resiliency and refuse to die even when they seem beyond hope. Small churches will continue to provide much of the initial spiritual nourishment for a majority of the youth growing up in our nation. Small churches provide strong fellowship connections, increased opportunities for involvement, and spiritual foundations that appeal to many. Because church growth is often easier in a small church than in a larger church, some small churches will accept the challenges and grow.
Small churches that develop significant leadership, focus on increasing spirituality, and can accept people not like the membership majority will grow. The key will be leadership that encourages meaningful involvement, spirituality that can genuinely transform lives, and a level of diversity that makes the body of Christ look like God intended it to look.

Genuine Growth
If the idealistic Baby Boomer generation has led us to consider growth primarily through attendance numbers, more recent studies have focused on church health and have identified other kinds of growth--organic, organizational, spiritual, maturational, and incarnational (see Mead, More Than Numbers, Alban, 1993). Churches that carefully identify the values and belief systems that undergird faith will find it easier to identify appropriate behaviors and will experience real growth. To the extent that smaller churches effectively serve our nation spiritually, Barna predicts that we may find a new tendency toward church planting and development rather than the Boomer focus on megachurches. If we can understand these principles, Barna says we may be able to exit "the unhealthy spirit of numerical competition that currently distracts many churches."

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Last updated June 1, 2004.