Why Don’t Small Churches Grow? They Do. Then We Call Them Big Churches

O“Why don’t small churches grow?” That’s one of the most common search terms that leads people to NewSmallChurch.com.

So today I ‘m going to take a stab at answering it.

But before I offer my answer, I’m going to do something that may surprise you. I’m going to challenge the premise of the question.

The presumption that Small Churches don’t grow is false. 

Small Churches do grow. Some grow numerically. Most grow spiritually. Many grow in both ways.


Small Churches Grow Numerically – Then We Call Them Big Churches

Small Churches do grow. It’s just that, when they grow, we don’t call them Small Churches any more. We call them medium, big or megachurches.

After all, where do you suppose all the big churches came from? Those frogs started out as tadpoles. 

Asking why Small Churches aren’t growing is kind of like asking “why aren’t there any big Small Churches?”


Small Churches Grow Spiritually – They Grow Disciples and Other Churches

Just because a church doesn’t have more butts in the seats than it had last year, doesn’t meant it isn’t contributing to the growth of the kingdom of God, to the spiritual growth of its members or touching its community.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but supporting Small Churches is one of the best ways to reach the world for Jesus.

I outlined this principle in, Are You Serious about Worldwide Church Growth? Support Small ChurchesIn that post, I link to articles with stats proving that, per capita, Small Churches lead more people to Jesus, disciple more believers and plant more churches than our big church counterparts.

Big churches do great things, too. But Small Churches grow disciples and plant other churches really well.


But Why Isn’t MY Small Church Growing?

Despite contributing to the growth of the church at large, the frustration for most Small Church leaders is that their church isn’t growing numerically. So, for the remainder of this post, I’ll try to tackle another question that is also asked in search queries that find this website. Namely, “Why isn’t my small church growing?’

Obviously, that question is not easy to answer. It would be very hard to answer even if I knew your church. It’s all but impossible for me to do without knowing your church.

But that doesn’t stop a lot of church leadership bloggers, does it? Sometimes it seems like everyone knows what’s wrong with our Small Churches but us. And they’re all lining up to tell us.

But they don’t know your church like you do. And neither do I. So the next time anyone writes a list of all the things your church must be doing wrong if you’re not growing, take what applies, leave what doesn’t and don’t let false guilt overwhelm you. The same rules apply to my list.

With that preface, I’m now going to wade into this potential quagmire of misunderstandings and hurt feelings and give you three possible reasons your Small Church may not be growing.


1. Some Small Churches Don’t Grow Because Some of Them Aren’t Healthy

Many people seem to think that if a church isn’t growing numerically that’s all the evidence they need to call the church unhealthy. That’s just not true. I’ve addressed that issue in The Grasshopper Myth and many blog posts, so if you’re new here, check these out for starters:

It’s false to say that every church that isn’t growing numerically is failing. But it’s also false to claim that ill health is never a reason why some churches don’t grow.

Of course there are a lot of unhealthy Small Churches in the world. Take a look around. Unhealthy Small Churches outnumber unhealthy big churches by a huge margin. But that’s to be expected, since Small Churches outnumber big churches in general by the same huge margin.

If your church is small, don’t assume it’s not healthy. I don’t. But take an honest look at it. If it is unhealthy, fix that first.

The last thing the world needs is unhealthy Small Churches becoming unhealthy big churches. Getting bigger fixes nothing.


2. Some Small Churches Don’t Grow Because We Need Churches of All Sizes

Some people love worshiping Jesus in a big church. Some prefer worshiping in a small one. If current and historical statistics are any indication, those numbers are about half and half – with the lean being towards Small Churches.

At least half the Christians in the world choose to worship, serve and minister in a Small Church setting. So we need a lot more healthy, God-honoring, community-reaching Small Churches, not fewer.

A typical city may have one megachurch serving 10,000 people, but that same city will have at least 100 Small Churches serving the same number of people. Actually, it’s more likely to have about 1,000 small, medium and house churches serving about 100,000 people. Those are the usual percentages. That’s not bad. That’s normal.


3. Some Small Churches Don’t Grow Because That’s not What God is Calling them to Do

Again, I know this is counter-intuitive. But there’s no biblical mandate for individual churches to get bigger.

Of course, God wants the church to grow. Reaching people for Jesus is an undeniable aspect of what it means to be the church. But God grows his church in a variety of ways. Sometimes he grows individual churches bigger. Most of the time he plants more Small Churches.

If you’re wondering what you’re doing wrong that’s causing your church to stay small, my answer is simple. You’re probably not doing anything wrong. Of course, there’s always room for improvement in every church. But if your Small Church is healthy, don’t let anyone bully you into thinking it isn’t healthy just because it’s small.

Your church is probably small because you’re one of the many healthy Small Churches Jesus wants in your city, town or rural area. If there are big churches in your city, don’t play the church size comparison game. Nobody wins when we do that. Recognize your church’s place alongside them as an equally valuable member of the body of Christ.

The world needs more healthy Small Churches, not fewer. Yours can be one of them.


So what do you think? Do you know know any other reasons why Small Churches don’t grow?

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(O! photo from kvanhorn • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

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15 thoughts on “Why Don’t Small Churches Grow? They Do. Then We Call Them Big Churches”

  1. Karl, I LOVE your last statement, which makes two declarations. 1. The world needs more healthy small churches. And that it does! 2. My church can be one of them! How encouraging and freeing those statements are!

    I’m looking forward to March 5 when YOU, Karl “The Shark” Vaters join us on the 200churches Podcast to talk about the eight words that NewSmallChurch lives by!

    Thanks for a great post Karl.

  2. And some small churches don’t grow because they are in a small environment.

    The latest stats in our community has the population at 5988. We currently have 40 churches in the area. So if every church in town were able to reach every person in town and distribute them evenly, each church would only have 150 people. I won’t say that it would be impossible to have a large church in our town, but I would say that it is highly unlikely. The entire population of our community is smaller than every entry on the “Outreach 100 Largest Churches” list.

    If we only use numbers as the measurement for growth, we will find ourselves continually frustrated. As you said in “Metrics That Matter”, we have to find new ways to measure health. I’m learning that I have to look at impact and influence qualitatively and not quantitatively.

    We can do big things without being big.

    I’m Brian and I’m a small church pastor.

    1. Brian, AND, we have to look at impact and metrics that go beyond simply a Sunday morning service count, right?! Our churches operate so differently these days, and they spill way over the Sunday Morning Only bucket. We have stuff going on through the week that impacts people that would never show up on a Sunday morning. How should a church measure those numbers/influences? Are you measuring these things Brian, and if so, how are you guys doing it?

      1. Jeff,

        Our culture has changed so much over the last couple of generations. When I was kid Sunday was “sacred”. Meaning not much else happened on Sundays other than church and the NFL. So, to a degree, you could use Sunday morning metrics as a somewhat accurate measuring stick. Now more people are working on Sundays, the kids have scheduled activities on Sundays, and you can go to church via the internet in your pj’s on any day.

        I’ve had to flip so much of my thinking over the last few years that I’m still working on how to rightly measure influence outside of Sunday. I would say that it’s definitely more subjective than just counting noses (which I stopped doing a number of years ago because it was causing me too much anxiety). We began asking the question a few years ago, “Would our community care or notice if we closed our doors tomorrow?” If the answer is “yes”, then we’re doing things that impact and influence. If the answer is “no”, then we need to step back and evaluate why.

        The church, small and large, should initiate those things that have impact and influence. Not for the sake of making a social gospel statement, but because we believe God is relational and therefore, to reflect Him, we too must be relational.

        1. Brian, what I started doing about 8 years ago was counting noses in terms of the impact and relationships affected by our ministry. So, with MOPS every other Tuesday, we have 60 moms and about 80 kids. We reach 100 ladies conservatively through our Bible Studies, we reach about 40 kids through our midweek program who do not attend our church. We connect with 50 college students, and 10 teenagers outside of our church.

          All of these numbers do not show up on a Sunday morning. So, when you add them to our Sunday morning number of 200, we realistically impact 500 people in our community consistently. That is a big footprint in our community and we realized for doggone sure that if our church disappeared, it would make a huge negative impact on our community.

          So, as long as we are paying our bills with 200 people on a Sunday morn, I love the fact that we have a 500 person footprint, conservatively speaking, on a consistent basis in our community.

          Thanks Bri!!

  3. Good article Karl! So important to evaluate our churches in a positive light rather than cower insecurely in the corner.
    I’ve been thinking the question is entirely wrong when someone asks “Why isn’t your church growing?
    As a college instructor I learned years ago, people always answer the question. If the questions are negative, people respond with negative answers, that in time, leads to negative views, which eventually become negative reality. Turn the question around and start asking, “How many ways is your church growing? I think everyone, including the nay-sayers will be surprised at multitude of ways the church will show growth.

    1. You make a great point about negative questions leading to negative answers, Fred. That’s a big part of my growing frustration with all the blog posts that list “10 Reasons Your Church Isn’t Growing”, all 10 of which end of being some failure on the part of the pastor. We’d get to a much better place if we had more help with “Here’s How To Have a Healthier Small Church” instead.

  4. Adding to Brian Black’s very good comment: there are lots of additional factors beside just the size of the community. (1) Demographics: we all know the great majority of decisions for Christ are made in childhood and teenage years. What almost all the churches in our small town (45,000) have experienced: their young people, who have been converted and discipled in their church, move away to big cities for their studies and/or good paying jobs. The churches here have lost almost all their young adults through relocation. (2) Economics. High unemployment rates – also affecting small towns worse than big cities – also cause people to move away. And who moves into small towns with high unemployment? possibly retirees (our situation). Jesus loves them too, but if they haven’t been saved yet, the statistical chances of winning them at that age are miniscule – back to demographics. (3) Mindset. It’s not just that small towns have less people – they also think differently. There’s much more concern about what the family /neighbors / friends think or say about your behavior (“what, you’re attending that weird new church??!!”) than in the big cities. – Just a few things that come to my mind, but I’m still glad to be planting a new church in this town. We’re small, but I think we’re one of the healthiest churches in town. And I just want to be where Jesus has planted me….

  5. I love this post. Ill be passing it on to some of my ministry friends.

    I was invited to speak at a “ministry conference” about 3 years ago. The pastor filled the week with speakers who were ministry leaders that grew up or were connecyed to their church.

    In the middle of the conference tge pastor had a real genuine moment. He said “I wonder what our church woukd be if these folks had sayed.” Then he paused and thought. Then he said “But… If they had stayed they couldn’t be ministering all over tge country.”

    Sometimes a little perspective goes a long way.

    1. Right. Sometimes we joke a little about being more a “missions training center” than a church – we haven’t “lost” 13 people through relocation in the last two years, we “sent them out on a mission”. That’s not just putting a positive spin on it; many of them are really serving Jesus in their new churches.

      1. Yep. I just had to do an audit of our youth ministry effectiveness in 2005 for a class.

        60% of those we ministered to are serving actively in a local church. I never realized it until doing that assignment. Did we “grow” numerically? No. Did we grow the kingdom effort… Yes.

        1. I love this, Hugh and Jeremy!

          Our church had a similar “aha” moment a few years ago. We saw students coming in, getting trained, then leaving for full time ministry just at the point where their skill level was such that they could start paying us back on our investment (so to speak). I sat down with the church leadership and told them we had a choice. Continue to be a training center that almost never sees the direct benefit of our investment, or come up with a new way of doing ministry. They said yes to growing the kingdom. It’s one of the man reasons I love the people in my church.

          It sounds like your churches have made similar kingdom-oriented decisions. A big “well done” to you and your church leaders for that.

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