De-sizing The Church: Why The Gap Between Big And Small Churches Is Growing

An obsession with church attendance has been with us for a long time. But it’s a bigger deal today because we’ve become really good at it.

The size of the average American church is dropping. In 2000, the average church attendance was 137. By 2020, (but pre-pandemic) it had dropped to 65.

Meanwhile, according to research done by Scott Thumma and David Travis in Beyond Megachurch Myths, the number of megachurches is doubling every decade. The big are getting bigger, while the small are getting smaller. But that’s just one way to consider the growth gap. Here’s another.

(Adapted from De-Sizing the Church: How Church Growth Became a Science, Then an Obsession, and What’s Next, Chapter 10: Beyond the Big/Small Divide, available now.)

The Recent Rise Of The Megachurch

In the 1960‒70s most large American cities not only didn’t have a megachurch (there were only 16 in the US in 1969) but the biggest church in a large, well-churched city was often under 1,000. That was a maximum of thirteen or fourteen times the average size of 75.

Today, the typical American church is 65, while the biggest church in a large city is often 6,500, 10,000, and upwards. That’s 100 to 200 times the average size.

This is no longer just a numerical gap. This creates a massive distance in systems, methods, perceptions, and more.

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Unintended Consequences Of Mega-big Churches

In the 1960‒70s, if you attended the largest church in town on one Sunday, then visited an average-sized church of 75 of the same denomination the next week, they would both likely be singing from the same hymnbooks; using the same programs for kids, youth, men, and women; supporting the same missionaries; and so on.

The only difference might be that one had a bigger choir and some full-time staff. Not anymore.

Today, the biggest church in town is almost certainly nondenominational; but even if the biggest church and an average-sized church are the same denomination, that’s likely where the obvious similarities end.

As the biggest churches have become more massive, they have developed entirely new methods and systems that correspond to their enormous size. Then, when they learn these new methods, they share them with everyone.

Mid-size to large churches—even ones that are ten times smaller—use these methods readily because what works in a church of 6,500 can usually be adapted for a church of 650, just drop a zero.

But when a typical-sized church of 65 tries to use those methods, they fall flat, and the average pastor feels like a failure, again.

It’s not because the pastor of a church of 65 isn’t capable, or because the methods from a church of 6,500 are wrong, but because dropping two zeroes doesn’t work. The size gap is too vast.

So, the divide gets bigger, not just between the average-sized church and the megachurch, but between the average-sized church and the mid-sized to big churches that adapted megachurch principles.

A Significant, But Lateral Move

The impact of the megachurch cannot be overstated.

While there are adamant voices saying that this change is good, and just as many saying it’s bad, my take is that this is a significant, but lateral move.

There’s no evidence that megachurches and their pastors are any better or worse an influence on Christianity than the previous influencers, like denominational leaders and crusading reformers.

Either way, their impact must be recognized and assessed. And the results must be subject to rigorous, but fair criticism.

(Adapted from De-Sizing the Church: How Church Growth Became a Science, Then an Obsession, and What’s Next, Chapter 10: Beyond the Big/Small Divide, available now.)


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