Church Attendance And The Law Of Large Numbers

According to the Law of Large Numbers, while ideas are often very transferable between large groups, they might completely collapse when they’re transferred to a small group.

Have you ever tried to implement a great idea that works in a large church only to have it fall flat in your smaller congregation?

It may not be your fault. Or the fault of the person you learned it from. It could be due to a sociological principle called The Law Of Large Numbers.

According to this phenomenon, while ideas are often very transferable between large groups, they might completely collapse when they’re transferred to a small group.

The Law Of Large Numbers is one of the primary teaching tools I use to help small church leaders understand why great ideas that work in big churches don’t always apply in the same way for them. It can also encourage us to look in other places for other that are more likely to work better in our smaller context.

This principle is described in my book, Small Church Essentials: Field-Tested Principles for Leading a Healthy Congregation of Under 250, but it’s important enough to offer it here for everyone. Here’s an excerpt.

What Is The Law Of Large Numbers?

The Law of Large Numbers = The bigger the group, the more predictably they behave. The smaller the group, the less predictably they behave.

According to the Law of Large Numbers, once you reach a certain threshold of size, there’s little difference in the way people function and interact.

That’s why, if a pastor of a church of 2,000 goes to a conference and hears a church leadership principle from a pastor of a church of 20,000, they can drop a zero and use almost everything they’ve learned. (Yes, this is an oversimplification.)

The Principle Of Sample Size

This is why pollsters don’t need to ask everyone in the nation how they feel about something in order to tell us, within a small margin of error, how the entire nation is likely to behave.

If you use the correct questions and a proper demographic balance, the behaviors, beliefs, and desires of a segment of the population can be extrapolated to the entire group. But the critical issue is this: the sample size must be big enough for the data to be valid.

So while the pastor of a church of 2,000 (a large enough sample size) can use most of the principles that worked at a church of 20,000 by dropping a zero, it’s not the same for a church of 200 (too small a sample size). That pastor can’t just drop two zeroes and use the same ideas.

When we get to smaller numbers, it’s not a matter of scale anymore. The smaller the group, the more the idiosyncrasies of individual people and the relationships between them come into play.

When you drop the congregation size down to 100, the differences are even larger. At 50, they’re bigger still, and at 25 or fewer, the overlap on the Big Church/Small Church Venn diagram is extremely small.

The Big/Small Difference

That’s not the case with bigger churches. While there are certainly doctrinal and stylistic differences between megachurches, they have more in common procedurally than small churches do. Again, it comes down to the Law of Large Numbers.

When you have 2,000 or more people showing up for weekend services, strong systems need to be in place to manage such a large group. Those systems don’t vary much from place to place, especially if the churches operate in similar environments and cultures, such as a large urban center.

I’ve been to a lot of megachurches and have been blessed by that experience. Yet even taking their differences into account, they share commonalities—from the well-designed parking signage to the friendly greeters, from the age-appropriate childcare to the technical expertise of the worship team. And they should. If someone discovers a better way to create a worship experience for massive numbers of people, it’s appropriate that those ideas get shared and used by others.

That’s not how things work in a small church, not because small churches and their leaders aren’t working hard and learning how to do ministry better, but because the smaller the group of people, the less predictably they behave.

For instance, if I walk into a large church, I know what’s expected of me; I will be an audience. Aside from singing along (if I know the songs), I will be a watcher and listener, not an active participant, unless I also join a small group.

If I walk into a small church—especially one of fifty or fewer—I may not be sure what’s expected of me. As people mill about in conversation before the service begins, do I walk up to random strangers and introduce myself? Do I sit in the empty chapel alone?

If they’re serving coffee, can I take it with me into the chapel? And, if I have kids, do they stay with me or in a special kids’ room? And where is that kids’ room?

In big churches, those questions get answered easily by signage, a well-trained rotation of greeters, and by the guests’ understanding of how to behave as an audience. In small churches, there are many unwritten rules, and you can’t rely on the unwritten rules of one small church to guide your behavior in another small church.

Why Numbers Matter In Bigger Environments

The church I pastor is in a denomination. Every year we’re required to fill out a long, complicated form, asking for numbers in every conceivable configuration: Sunday attendance, mid-week, youth, kids, small groups, salvations, baptisms, and more. Not to mention our offering counts, missions giving, benevolence, and so on.

I’m not a numbers guy, so I’ve never looked forward to filling out those forms. During difficult seasons, I’ve anticipated them with a near-apocalyptic dread. There have been many years when I wished I could check the box for option “Everything stinks right now, leave me alone.”

But the Law of Large Numbers has taught me why it’s important for my denominational officials to get numbers from all our churches, no matter the size. Denominations deal in massive numbers of people—sometimes hundreds of thousands—so changes of 5 or 10 percent can affect how they run programs, hire staff, and anticipate future projects and missions giving.

So, my denominational small church friends, keep sending those numbers in: they matter on that level. But don’t obsess over them on a week-to-week basis. You can’t let shifting numbers dictate your mood, your work ethic, or your sense of value to the kingdom of God.

(An excerpt from Small Church Essentials: Field-Tested Principles for Leading a Healthy Congregation of Under 250.)

(Photo by Craig Whitehead | Unsplash)


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