Is There Really a Perfect Size for a Church?

I love small churches. I love medium-sized churches. And I love large churches and “megachurches” (typically defined as an evangelical congregation with 2,000 or more weekend service attenders). I also agree with a principle shared by Bailey Smith who once said, “There are no large churches. All churches are small, some are just smaller than others when compared to the surrounding lost population.”

I’ve pastored churches of 30 and I’ve served as a staff pastor at a church that averaged about 22,000 attenders at the time. In many ways, the largest of them was also the smallest—the most capable of shaping and nurturing my soul. For whatever reason, church size is a very, very sensitive topic. Within the church, everyone seems to favor whatever size the church they’re part of represents. Some view small churches as ineffective and unwelcoming. Others view large churches as doctrinally weak or merely as corporate structures that prefer making dollars over disciples.

Why all the sensitivity? I think it’s social. We’re all a little protective of our identity, especially when we feel that someone is judging and assessing us as more or less worthy by secondary measures such as church size.

At Grace Hills, I’m continually challenging us to have a growth mindset and to make sure that we are focused on growing multi-dimensionally. As a purpose driven church, we hope to grow …

  • larger through evangelism,
  • warmer through fellowship,
  • deeper through discipleship,
  • broader through ministry, and
  • stronger through worship.

Does a church have to compromise its theology to grow larger? Absolutely not! Have some? Sure. And have some small churches done the very same thing to make a relatively small handful of tithers happier with the status quo? Definitely. It happens, and when it does, it’s not good. What bothers me is the stereotyping of all large and growing churches as somehow diminishing either the quality or depth of their ministries. Research simply suggests a very different picture.

Consider the findings of thorough research conducted by the Leadership Network (who happen to be experts in the field of data and research). Glance at this graphic:

Some of the most popular stereotypes of large churches simply don’t hold water. In general, megachurch attenders tend to be more informed about doctrine, more intentional about serving others and more involved in missions. They tithe more, attend more and seem to have more healthy, close relationships. Again, this doesn’t mean that small churches are bad or ineffective. It merely suggests that our anti-growth, anti-large-church mindset may not only be misinformed but harmful to the cause of the gospel.

I would even argue that there is a reason you don’t see theologically liberal churches busting at the seams and going multi-campus. When we stop believing in inerrancy, and heaven and hell, and the exclusivity of Christ to salvation, we lose all sight of our missional mandate and our motivation for growth in the first place.

So how large should a church be? I’m not sure why we think there’s a ceiling, other than the surrounding lost population. Is there a person in your community who doesn’t know Jesus yet? Then larger, at least by one. When people visit our young church plant that meets in a local movie theater and share that they’re currently part of a church that has “just gotten too large” and are “looking for something a little smaller,” my response is always the same. If God leads you here, we trust Him, but we also hope to disappoint you as soon as possible.

If reading this post has conjured images in your mind of a “Six Flags Over Jesus” movement of enormous high-tech cathedrals filled with thousands of people who only show up for the the show or the sermon with no intention of deepening their walk or engaging others in ministry, you have a seriously flawed picture of what megachurches are actually like. In reality, larger churches typically work very hard at also becoming smaller, getting people into small groups, making disciples, developing leaders and deploying tellers of the good news. When they don’t do these things intentionally, they usually don’t stay large for long.

If you’re part of a small church (say, 100 or less-ish), that’s great. You’re in a sweet spot. Support your pastor, join a team and serve, and seek out the next lost person and thank God for the large church across town. If you’re in a medium or large church (relative to the typical congregation), that’s great too. Support your pastor, join a team and serve, and seek out the next lost person and thank God for all the smaller churches that are also working hard in the harvest.

But either way, regardless of where you are, growth is a good thing. When we grow without compromising our message or mission, the Kingdom wins. I celebrate both timeless biblical theology and innovative strategies for reaching unengaged people. How large should your local church get? That’s really the wrong question. The right question is, how do we make disciples of everyone we possibly can?  

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Brandon Cox
Brandon Cox is Lead Pastor of Grace Hills Church, a new church plant in northwest Arkansas. He also serves as Editor and Community Facilitator for Pastors.com and Rick Warren's Pastor's Toolbox and was formerly a Pastor at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California. In his spare time, he offers consultation to church leaders about communication, branding, and social media. He and his wife, Angie, live with their two awesome kids in Bentonville, Arkansas.