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March 10, 2009

Mark Chaves: Congregational size

Size is among the most important characteristics of any organization, including congregations. It affects everything else. More people means more resources, more staff, and more programming. Bigness also brings more complexity: different kinds of staff, more administration, more attention to coordinating the various parts. Bigness brings bureaucracy, formality, and a loss of the personal touch. Some may worry about churches that get too big for the pastor to know all the members’ names. I once heard a megachurch pastor confess that he didn’t know the names of everyone on his staff.

There is lots one could say about congregational size, but one fact is fundamental: Most congregations in the United States are small, but most people are in large congregations. Let me explain.

Most congregations are small. The median congregation has only 75 regularly participating people and an annual budget of approximately $90,000. Ninety percent of all congregations have 350 or fewer people.

But this is only half the story. Even though there are relatively few large congregations with many members, sizable budgets, and numerous staff, these large congregations contain most of the churchgoers. Even though the average congregation has only 75 regular participants and an annual budget of $90,000, the average person is in a congregation with 400 people and a budget of $280,000.

To get a feel for just how concentrated people are in the largest congregations, imagine that we have lined up all congregations in the United States, from the smallest to the largest, and imagine that you are walking up this line, starting on the end with the smallest congregations. When you get to a congregation with 400 people in it, you would have walked past about half of all the churchgoers in the United States, but you already would have walked past more than 90 percent of all congregations!

Or imagine walking along this line of congregations from the other direction. Start with the very largest congregations, walking down the line from there. When you get to that same 400-person congregation, you would have walked past only about 10 percent of all congregations but you would have walked past half of all churchgoers!

In a nutshell, the largest 10 percent of congregations contain about half of all churchgoers. Most denominations, even the largest ones, could comfortably gather the pastors of congregations representing more than half their people in a medium-to-large hotel ballroom. And it’s not just people who are concentrated in the largest congregations. Money and staff also are concentrated in this way.

This basic fact has tremendous implications for American religion. It means that most seminarians come from large churches (since that’s where most people are), but most clergy jobs are in small churches. It means that pastors of the largest churches wield political power inside denominations that may be proportional to the size of their congregations, but is disproportional from a one-congregation-one-vote point of view. It means that denominational officials can serve the most people by concentrating their attention on just the largest churches, but that strategy can leave most congregations out of the picture. When confronted with a policy decision, should you ask what the impact might be on most churches, or what the impact might be on most churchgoers? That’s a tough question.

Moreover, this concentration is increasing. More and more people are concentrated in the very largest congregations. We all know about megachurches, but they’re only the tip of the iceberg. The movement of people from smaller to larger churches is much broader and deeper than the proliferation of stereotypical megachurches. But that’s a subject for another day.

Mark Chaves is professor of sociology, religion and divinity at Duke University and director of the National Congregations Study.



I know that Dr. Chaves is using a common understanding of "church" when he uses it above. He's referring to a local church. But I wonder what would happen if we had the same conversation about size and compared the "connectional" church. In other words, I've always thought when comparing Willow Creek (or insert any other mega church name) to a local UMC (or insert any other mainline denominational name), we're comparing the wrong things. We should be comparing Willow Creek with all its connections to The UMC (at the denominational level) and its connections. When this comparison takes place, local UMC churches look more like really well staffed small groups, and that sounds a lot more like what Methodism was from its beginning.

Congregational size

Concerning your article on congregational size, you point out that the majority of church-goers attend large congregations. This is a societal trend that began in the 20th century. For instance, in agriculture the trend toward large, corporate farms; in education the movement to large regional high schools; in finance the trend toward large banks, etc. In these cases it has yet to be proved that the larger is better theory is correct; it remains to be seen how the future church will come to recognized the fruitfulness of this trend in the local church.

Smaller can be much better.

The older I get and the longer I serve as a very small church pastor, viewing the church world and its various trends from my unique position without trying to feel sorry for myself, really, I am convinced most people attend large churches to hide. Not many people really "see" you. Sure, large churches can have various programs for specific ages, etc., but still the family cannot see you. And you don't want them to. With all the corners to hide in (quality music, skillful group speakers, a variety of special effects, felt needs defined and "met" from so many venues) that spiritual and holy quality is missed that can do a believer much good.

Consider what should be our starting point. The Bible. The Apostles addressed "families" within churches. Most churches met in homes where family life and health could truly thrive. Then a couple centuries or so later, buildings were built to "meet" in. And there it went, from then onward.

Some of the most precious and special memories of my early days as a new believer were not the larger venues I was "supposed" to attend, but the spiritual "family" ties that came from the smallest and often from those outside my age-identifiable niche.

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