By Kent E. Fillinger
Less than 20 years ago, a megachurch was an anomaly. Today there are roughly 1,500 Protestant megachurches—56 from among the Christian churches and churches of Christ, representing a 250 percent increase from the 16 megachurches recorded in 1997, the first year Christian Standard reported megachurch attendances.
But while the number of megachurches has dramatically increased during the past decade, the size of the average church has not changed since 1998.
The median conservative Protestant church in the United States has 117 regular participants in worship on Sunday mornings. The median refers to the point at which half the churches are smaller and half the churches are larger.
The National Congregations Study estimated that smaller churches draw only 11 percent of those who attend worship. Meanwhile, half of all churchgoers attend the largest 10 percent of congregations, which includes churches with 350 or more regular participants. Therefore, 90 percent of churches have fewer than 350 attendees.
The good news is God uses churches of all sizes to achieve his purposes. In this and the next two issues (April 24 and May 1), Christian Standard will spotlight four categories of churches, ranging in size from 250 to almost 20,000. Timothy Keller wrote, “There is no ‘best size’ for a church. Each size presents great difficulties and also many opportunities for ministry that churches of other sizes cannot undertake (at least not as well). Only together can churches of all sizes be all that Christ wants the church to be” (“Leadership and Church Size Dynamics: How Strategy Changes with Growth,” Redeemer City to City, 2010).
The hope is the stories and statistics of these churches, combined with relevant trends and important findings, will spark significant conversations among your church leaders, generate deeper-level analysis of your church, and motivate the leaders to dream together of future possibilities for greater kingdom impact.
A dozen years ago, Gary McIntosh’s book One Size Doesn’t Fit All assisted me in navigating the leadership and organizational transitions of a growing church. McIntosh wrote, “The most useful system is to group churches by size. Comparing churches by size reveals more helpful information for faithful ministry than looking at their denomination, location, or any of the other numerous methods of comparison.”
McIntosh developed a “typology of church sizes” that he explored and explained throughout his book. The book still has value for small- and medium-size church leaders attempting to gain a better understanding of the leadership and organizational shifts necessary to grow past certain size barriers.
But McIntosh’s work included only small, medium, and large churches, with the final category including any church that averaged more than 400. Given the subsequent explosion of churches with more than 1,000 in attendance, McIntosh’s typology is outdated.
Using McIntosh’s model as a springboard, I developed the “Church Size Matrix” (see chart, below) to highlight the transitions that take place as a church continues to grow past specific size points. While McIntosh devoted an entire book to this topic, I provide a snapshot in this two-part article.
The Church Size Matrix explores six types of organizational change that take place as a church grows, including: orientation, structure, the senior minister’s role, leadership and decision making, staffing, and culture. The Church Size Matrix identifies six size categories of churches, four of which are profiled in this and the following two issues.
Keller wrote, “One of the most common reasons for pastoral leadership mistakes is blindness to the significance of church size. Size has an enormous impact on how a church functions. There is a ‘size culture’ that profoundly affects how decisions are made, how relationships flow, how effectiveness is evaluated, and what ministers, staff, and lay leaders do. . . . A large church is not simply a bigger version of a small church.”
Every church has a central organizing principle or orientation. The small church is driven by a family or relational orientation, with high value placed on everyone knowing one another. Often these churches are comprised of one or two extended families that play a key organizing role for the church.
As a church grows and the possibility of knowing everyone decreases, a medium-sized church begins to function as a collection of family groups with several ministry groups or teams. Programs begin to take precedence over what is acceptable to the key families, and the collection of groups and the programmatic focus create an environment for growth.
As a church reaches the large-sized phase, it is critical that another shift be made to an organizational orientation where there are additional structures and more organized group life.
The emerging megachurch can function like an oversized large church or begin to function in such a way as to truly become an emerging megachurch; this grouping of churches, therefore, receives the classification of having a hybrid orientation. Depending on the philosophy of the leadership, the emerging megachurch can either maintain the same menu of groups and ministries, or it can once again explore new structures to spur continued growth.
Upon reaching the megachurch level, a church’s orientation resembles a corporation where the bottom line drives more decisions and the number of relational entry points is simplified and clearly defined, and people are guided into specific environments.
If a church reaches the gigachurch level (10,000 or more in weekly attendance), then based on sheer size, its orientation assumes that of a minidenomination, and often the by-products include specialized church conferences, self-published curriculum and books, and other resources that support and reinforce the brand or flavor of that particular church.
McIntosh notes that if a church does not make the appropriate and required adjustments, then it will either plateau for a time, or decline back to the previous smaller-size category. The pull downward, he adds, is stronger than the pull upward.
The small church is best characterized as a single cell. Most times, the single cell small church is internally focused on meeting the needs and concerns of those who are already in the circle. McIntosh says it is difficult for someone new to be accepted in a small church unless he or she meets one of the following criteria: he or she is born into one of the key families, marries someone from one of the key families, has an outgoing personality, has something of value to offer that the church needs (e.g., spiritual gifts, money, prestige), or has experienced a crisis along with the key families.
When a small church experiences growth, the single cell is stretched as it becomes a medium-sized church. The medium church is comparable to an awkward teenager experiencing the growing pains of adolescence. McIntosh defines a stretched cell as one that “has grown numerically large enough to be considered a medium church but has not added new leadership to its governing board.” The church leaders are still solely comprised of the original single cell or members of the key families.
The multiple cells of a large church set it apart from a medium church. In a large church, most attendees are involved in a mix of small and large groups, with most having little or no contact with one another. The focus often includes a balance between the external and internal, and new people find quicker, easier entry points into community. Also, the leadership is representative of multiple groups within the church.
The emerging megachurch continues to expand as it focuses on multiplying cells or the number of new groups and ministry options available in an effort to meet everyone’s needs. Oftentimes, the strategy of emerging megachurches becomes somewhat fragmented or diffused as it tries to mirror the megachurch rather than creating the new functional structures that best fit its inherent strengths.
The book Simple Church has been used by churches of all sizes, but recently the book’s concepts have permeated many megachurches, which have called a time-out to address the scope creep they have experienced as the number of attendees, groups, and ministries has reached unmanageable proportions. Megachurches best achieve a structure of simplified cells as they work to redefine their ministry strategy and hone in on a few intentional pathways for future growth.
Finally, the structure of the gigachurch is often best reflected by multiple locations. Gigachurches are still the primary drivers behind the multisite movement, and now online worship venues have opened a new stream that can include defined virtual and physical groups meeting in several states or even countries around the world that identify with a particular gigachurch.
The reality is the more groups your church has per 100 in attendance, the better cared for people are, and the faster your church will grow.
Kent E. Fillinger is president of 3:STRANDS Consulting and associate director of projects and partnerships with CMF International, Indianapolis, Indiana.