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The Small Church in America

While megachurches seem to get the lion’s share of attention today, this has been the case for several decades. Management consultant Peter Drucker told Forbes magazine in 1998 that the rise of the megachurch was “the most important social phenomenon in American society in the last 30 years.”

Defined as having 2,000 or more people in weekly worship, these Protestant churches comprise about 1,500 of the 320,000 Christian congregations in the U.S. According to the National Congregations Study, while the smallest 50 percent of congregations contain about 11 percent of worshipers, the largest one percent contains at least 15 percent of worshipers.

With such an altered landscape on the American religious scene, is there a future for smaller congregations?

Building on a biblical model

One factor that enabled the first-century church to face competition amid other religions and even persecution from government came from the closeness formed in small congregations. Gathering in homes for worship and discipleship reflected the origins of synagogues, which under Jewish law only needed 10 males for proper organization. Jesus himself chose 12 apostles to be trained and sent. At the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus put the people into groups of 50 and 100 (Mark 6:40).

Likewise, over the past four centuries, small churches have represented the dominant expression of Protestantism. Even today’s larger churches began as smaller ones.

Stable and resilient

With all the attention given to megachurches, some assume that small congregations are on the verge of disappearing. More than 100 years of sociological studies show otherwise. Small congregations are remarkably hardy. Like a cat, they seem to have nine lives. In reality, slightly better than 99 out of 100 of any size congregation will be alive next year.

There are a lot of small churches. In the U.S. some 200,000 have less than 100 people in worship. A further breakdown shows that at least 50,000 fellowships average 25 or less in services, at least 40,000 average 26 to 50, and 110,000 have 51 to 100. The median size of all congregations continues to be 75 in worship.

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A broadly-trained church consultant, Jim Farrer is the founder of Vital Signs Church Consulting and a member of the Society for Church Consulting. A veteran of ministry positions in Canada and the U.S., he has trained leaders from 18 denominations and led seminars and coaching sessions nationwide. His articles have been published in the Journal of Evangelism and Missions and the Great Commission Research Journal.