Why Are There So Many Small Churches? (Some Assumptions & Realities)

Small sign 200cLet’s revisit the stats.

Ninety percent of the churches in the world have less than 200 people. Eighty percent have less than 100.


It’s been clearly established in both The Grasshopper Myth and on this site that the abundance of Small Churches in the world is not evidence of a problem to be fixed, but part of a strategy God wants to use. So we won’t be replaying those reasons today.

Instead, let’s take a look at why Small Churches are not just the majority, but the default way people choose to worship Jesus.

Actually, before we do that, we’ll take a look at a few Small Church assumptions and compare them with Small Church realities. Then we’ll conclude with what I believe is the main reason so many churches are small.

First, the assumptions.


Small Churches Aren’t Just…

RURAL – The most common response I hear when I say not all churches are meant to be big is, “Well, of course. You can’t build a megachurch in a small town.”

True, but Small Churches (including the one I pastor) aren’t just in small towns. And has anyone followed that line of thinking to its logical conclusion? Do we really expect that every church in heavily populated areas will either be big & mega, or sick & dying? Of course not.

City people like Small Churches too.


UNHEALTHY – The world is full of failing churches. Hurting churches. Dysfunctional churches. Unwelcoming churches. Unloving churches. Name a human problem and you can find a church that matches it.

Many of those unhealthy churches are small or shrinking. But not all Small Churches are unhealthy. Most aren’t.


START-UPS I was attending a ministry conference a few years ago, when they did a giveaway to the pastor of the smallest church in attendance. The pastors in the room applauded as the Small Church pastor ran to the stage to claim a free grab-bag of “books, CDs and more!” from the host.

Wow, I thought, that’s great! They’re acknowledging the value of Small Churches. Then the host said, “We’re so glad you’re here! We just love helping start-up churches!” [Cue the sound of bagpipes deflating]

Start-up churches? I love helping start-up churches, too. But that wasn’t the question he asked, it was an assumption he made. Surely any pastor of a Small Church attending an innovative church conference has to be a start-up, he assumed.

We’re not all start-ups. Most of our churches have been small for a while, and will continue to be.


Small Church Realities

There are almost as many reasons for Small Churches as there are Small Churches. Many are in smaller towns, some are unhealthy, and a lot of them are start-ups. But there are other reasons too.

NICHE NEEDS – Many Small Churches fulfill the needs of a specific group of people. Retirees, recovering addicts, the bohemian downtown coffee shop crowd, etc. I’m convinced the Niche Church will be the church of choice in the next generation or two.

DEMOGRAPHICS – Not every pastor is called to a church in a thriving population center. Many respond to God’s call to meet the needs of people in a ghetto, a barrio, a downwardly-mobile or aging suburb, a small town, an agricultural community or a formerly “Christianized” region that has mostly forgotten God.

PASTORAL GIFTING – Some pastors, like me, are called, gifted and suited to pastor a smaller group of people, rather than to manage a staff that serves a larger group. We’re shepherds, not ranchers.

PERSONAL PREFERENCE – More people like worshiping Jesus and using their gifts in an intimate setting than in a vast crowd. It’s just the way they (we) are.


THE Small Church Reality

Of all the reasons churches are small, I have come to believe the main one has nothing to do with demographics, ill-health or personal preference. I believe it has to do with the very nature of the Gospel itself.

The nature of Church lends itself to smallness.

Worship is both communal and individual. But at its core, it is a personal practice. We need each other, but we also need an atmosphere of intimacy.

The birth, life and message of Jesus was not a grand affair. Yes, there were occasional crowds, but Jesus treated them as an uncomfortable exception, not as his main way of life. He lived humbly, ministered to the hurting and broken, celebrated children and widows, and scoffed at grand religious displays.

Bigness doesn’t happen for most churches because I believe bigness is an aberration, not the rule, for most church life. Large churches need massive facilities, huge tracts of land and big maintenance budgets led and managed by highly-skilled, passionately-driven, Type-A personalities. That’s not me. That’s not most of us.

As I’ve stated many times before, there’s nothing wrong with megachurches. They are a gift to the body of Christ. But they have been, and always will be the the exception for church life, not the rule.

In most cases, bigness happens in church because we force it. It’s not a natural process. If massive church growth happened as naturally as church growth proponents say it does, then why do we need all the books and seminars telling us how to do it? Don’t normative things happen naturally?

Small Churches happen more naturally because smallness and the Gospel go hand-in-hand.


So what do you think? Why do you think there are so many Small Churches?

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(Small Sign photo from BitBoy • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

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3 thoughts on “Why Are There So Many Small Churches? (Some Assumptions & Realities)”

  1. Thank you for this post. I’m part of a small church start up & many in the group already talk about the “thousands”. It concerns me that they have that on their minds too much & will get discouraged if it doesn’t ever grow beyond a 100 or so.

    1. It sounds like you have the right attitude and approach. Just keep that attitude up, celebrate the things that count, and others will get the idea. It may take a while to dislodge that old way of thinking, but it can happen.

  2. Great ariticle, looking forward to gleaming more…thanks! Following Jesus means loving people, we are called to be faithful in everything.

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