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How Large Is A Small Church

For the next few weeks I am going to try to answer some questions that I am most often asked as I talk with people across the country. Hopefully you will find the answers helpful.

Questions # 1

How large is a small church? At what point does a church stop being small?


The simple answer

When I wrote my thesis on the subject of Evangelism in the Small Church, one of the things that I had to do was numerically define what I meant by a small church. This meant that I had to arbitrarily choose a number and assign it as the attendance figure that defined what constituted a small church.

I chose Sunday morning attendance as the figure to define the size of the church because it was the most meaningful determinate that I could find. Membership varies from church to church and from denomination to denomination. Sunday school attendance is really a measure of the number of families with small children attending the church. Churches that practice parish ministry talk about potential attenders rather than actual ones.

The most meaningful measurement is Sunday morning attendance and I chose the figure of 150 people as the upper level for a small church. Churches with more than that number attending did not qualify as a small church for my thesis. I have continued to use that number as the upper point of the small-church continuum.

I appreciate though that no number will provide an acceptable answer for everyone. If you grew up in a church with twenty-five or thirty people on a Sunday morning, a church of one hundred seems quite large. If you grew up in a mega-church and your first leadership assignment is in a church of one hundred, you probably are in shock at the realization that churches can be that small. Same size church but very different perspectives.

The simple answer is a numerical answer but it is a very inadequate answer as well. There needs to be a better way to measure what constitutes a small church.


The small-church mindset

Small church is best measured by looking at the mindset of small-church people. Recognizing that no definition is going to perfectly describe every small church, there are some general observations that can be made. I have two questions that I have been asked over and over again of people in small-church settings and the answers to these two questions tend to capture the small-church mindset.

I love to start on a positive note and ask people what they consider the strength of their small church. Without exception the answers that I have received back have had something to do with relationships.

People attend mega-churches because of the quality programs that they offer, the high level of preaching from the senior pastor, the high energy worship on Sunday morning and the feeling that they are part of something significant because it is big..

People attend small churches primarily because of relationships.  For many people they grew up in the church and they have family and long-term friends there. To quote the theme song from the old sitcom “Cheers” they want to go to “a place where everyone knows their name.”

A small-church mindset is shaped by relationships. There is perhaps no more important question for small churches to ask than the following: Are we doing relationships well?

The second question that I like to ask is what is the greatest frustration that you face as a church. About 95% of the time I receive an answer focused around lack of resources. This may take many different forms from lack of people to lack of finances to lack of giftedness but it is all a shortage of resources.

Small churches don’t have the resources to do all that they would like to do. They would love to have a fully resourced Sunday school but they only have two teachers. They would love to have a youth program that will shape their teenagers for the future but they only have five teens and no one is volunteering to lead them. They would love to have a powerful worship team on Sunday mornings but they only have one pianist and no one who plays another instrument.

Lack of resources determines what most small churches do. As much as they might like to run a large program like the big church down the road, they don’t have the finances or the people to get it done.


The small churches defined

Going back to my original question I want to add one small but very important word. Rather than asking what constitutes a small church, I want to ask what constitutes a healthy small church.

At the heart of being a healthy small church is a commitment to building every aspect of church life around relationships.

The healthy small church takes the biblical pictures of the church as family and the church as a body very seriously. The members understand that life in that family or in that body is life together in relationship.

I once read a wonderful description of the difference between a large church and a small one. The person said that in a large church attendance is taken by having someone stand at the back of the church to count heads. In a small church attendance is taken by noting who isn’t there.

I love that distinction because it captures what should be true of every small church.

The important question is not whether you numerically fit into the small church category. The question is whether you fit into the healthy small church category, a church that truly is the body of Christ in which each part of the body is caring for the other parts.


Next week’s question

How does our small church overcome the lack of resources that shapes everything that we do?

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