NASHVILLE, Tenn. — “The gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many,” Matthew’s Gospel quotes Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount. “The gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”
The early churches were small enough to meet in homes. The first Baptists sought to emulate the pattern.
“A church ought not to consist of such a multitude as cannot have particular knowledge one of another,” Thomas Helwys, founder of the first Baptist church in England — a congregation that some scholars estimate numbered about 10 members — wrote in the 1600s.
“The members of every church or congregation ought to know one another, so that they may perform all the duties of love one towards another, both to soul and body,” Helwys wrote. “And especially the elders ought to know the whole flock, whereof the Holy Ghost hath made them overseers.”
That’s a far cry from Baptists today, when many congregations have multiple worship services and programs that divide members into small groups scattered by age or interest sometimes in separate buildings.
Even today, the majority of American churches are small. Of the 350,000 religious congregations in the United States, the Hartford Institute for Religious Research estimates 59 percent are smaller than 100. The median U.S. church has 75 regular participants in worship on Sunday morning.
Despite that, most churchgoing Americans attend larger congregations. Smaller churches draw 11 percent of those who attend worship, while 50 percent of churchgoers attend the largest 10 percent of congregations, those with 350 or more regular participants and up.
Thom Rainer, president of LifeWay Christian Resources, reports there were approximately 50 megachurches in America in 1970. Today there are 1,600. That growth rate has slowed considerably the last seven years, however — a trend worth watching.
The megachurch, Rainer said, catered to lifestyles of the Baby Boomers and reflected cultural trends when people flocked to large shopping malls. Younger generations like the Millennials, who triggered cultural phenomena like Starbucks and social media, gravitate toward intimacy and smallness.
Small communities deliver deeper friendships, accountability relationships and maximum participation, Rainer said. They also deliver environments for spiritual growth and missional opportunities for members who want to be personally involved.
Different sizes, different skills
Different size churches require different leadership skills, said Ircel Harrison, a consultant with Pinnacle Leadership Associations.
Many seminary students’ first pastorate is the “family church” of 50 or fewer participants. They often include a patriarch or matriarch viewed as an undesignated leader, and they see a lot of preachers come and go. In that setting, the pastor is more or less a “chaplain of the family” in place to love and accept the members as they are, to preach and teach, exercise pastoral care through visiting and perform “priestly functions” like weddings and the Lord’s Supper.
Those functions continue when the church grows to between 50 and 150, but a shift occurs to a more pastor-centered fellowship. Expectations are higher for preaching proficiency, and the pastor leads through personal relationships and by delegating responsibilities. One of the greatest challenges becomes time management.
When churches get even larger, attendance, programs and ministries multiply to where the pastor can to longer be the coordinator of everything but must depend on staff members in other leadership areas. When a church becomes very large, the senior pastor usually is seen as the chief executive officer.
Rainer predicts megachurches still will be around in 20 years, but they will shift from large facilities to smaller buildings and multiple venues. He believes churches of all size will “downsize” or at least not build as quickly once their worship services seem overcrowded as they did in the past.
Bob Allen ([email protected]) is managing editor of Associated Baptist Press.