Rethinking Church Size

Joel Nelson

Director of Church Strengthening, Converge North Central

  • Church strengthening

I’ve been friends with Bruce for 35 years beginning when we were roommates in college. I was in his wedding, and he was in mine. We still get together with our wives on a regular basis. I remember the first time my parents met his parents. His Dad, a hog farmer from Iowa, was asking my mom about the church she worked at as the long-time secretary. She told him that it was a small church in Pennsylvania. I interrupted her. My home church at the time was about 500 attenders. I told my mom that his church in rural Iowa was under 100. Her church wasn’t small. It was huge compared to his. It’s about perspective.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been a part of a number of conversations where the pastor has described their church as small. I know these churches. They have an average worship attendance of between 85 and 150.

When I hear pastors say they lead a small church, I want to tell them to stop saying that.  

In a recent article, Thom Ranier wrote about a Lifeway Research report on the size of churches. Here’s the breakdown they found in regards to average worship attendance (children, youth, and adults):

Under 50 in attendance: 31% of all churches

51-99: 37%

100-249: 24%

250 and above: 8%

Over two-thirds of American churches have worship attendance of under 100. If you want to read the implications of what Ranier calls “paradigmatic changes,” here’s the link.

In considering these numbers, Ranier offers some fresh categories.

Under 50 in attendance: Smaller churches

51-99: Mid-size churches

100-249: Large churches

250 and above: Larger churches.

Yes, we’re not all about numbers. They’re so much more to be considered, but numbers, whether it be offerings, baptisms, decisions, or attendance are worth our attention. Often, we do find ourselves measuring our ministry success on numbers.

So, if you haven’t already, find where your current ministry sits in the above categories. Then consider these four things:

1.     The odds are good that statistically, your church is not an outlier. Two-thirds of American churches are under 100 in attendance. The overwhelming number of churches are less than 250.

2.     Reaffirm your calling. If your “church-size-self-esteem” is taking a hit, go back to your calling to your current ministry. Is there still work to be done? What is the potential God has shown you in that place?

3.     Make a list of all the things you can do in your current ministry that a church in the other categories can’t or won’t do. Leverage and build off that list.

4.     Find ministry colleagues who will spur you on and challenge you for the next season as opposed to daydreaming about the grass you believe might be greener on the other side of the fence. You’ve heard it, and maybe even preached, that comparison kills contentment and joy.

My middle son played basketball at Bethel. There was a head coach change between his freshman and sophomore seasons, and he had the opportunity to be the team representative on the search committee. He probably had one of best question for each candidate: “Not counting Jesus, who, from the Bible, would be your starting five?”

That’s another story, but feel free to let me know who you would pick for your starting five!

They ended up hiring a great coach who knew his X’s and O’s, created a fun atmosphere, and brought out the best in his player. He came to Bethel from coaching two nationally known Division I basketball programs where he was the top assistant coach. He was asked many times about his resume. He could have easily transitioned to a Division 1 head coaching job, or even a strong Division 2 position. But he chose a Division 3 head coaching job at a small Christian university in Minnesota. To many, it seemed like a demotion.

His response to that question of going from D1 go D3?

“The big time is where you are.”

Pastor, if you’re where God wants you to be, you’re in the big time.

Joel Nelson, Director of Church Strengthening, Converge North Central

Director of Church Strengthening

Additional articles by Joel Nelson