By Kent Fillinger
From Abingdon, Virginia, to Woodland Park, Colorado, medium-size churches are a vital part of our annual church survey. Over the last three years, 160 different medium-size churches (average weekly attendance of 250 to 499) from 37 states have participated in our research study.
On average, 93 medium churches have responded each of the last three years. Most recently, 88 medium churches completed the survey. I hope to see the number of medium churches that participate grow in the future!
Here’s a quick statistical overview of the 88 medium-size churches based on 2016 data. The list of these churches was published in our May issue and is available online.
Medium churches grew a little faster on average than megachurches over the last three years. The average yearly growth rate of medium churches over that time was 2.8 percent compared with 2.7 percent for megachurches. The 2016 average growth rate was 2.1 percent for medium churches.
Sixty-two percent of medium churches grew in 2016—one percentage point better than both megachurches (average weekly attendance of 2,000 or more) and emerging megachurches (average attendance of 1,000 to 1,999).
The three fastest-growing medium churches last year were Vernal (Utah) Christian Church, which grew 25 percent; Central Christian Church (Portales, New Mexico), 19 percent; and Northwest Christian Church (Acworth, Georgia), 18 percent.
Medium-size churches in our survey baptized 1,793 people last year, an average of 21 baptisms per church, or 6 baptisms per 100 people in attendance. The three-year average baptism ratio for medium churches (6.1) is the lowest of any of the four size categories of churches surveyed.
The medium churches with the best baptism ratios last year were Vernal (Utah) Christian Church, 25.5; Horizon Christian Church (Valrico, Florida), 15.8; and Verve Church (Las Vegas, Nevada), 13.1.
The medium-church lead pastors have been in their positions an average of eight years, the shortest tenure of any of the church categories. By comparison, megachurch lead pastors have served in their churches almost twice as long—an average of 15 years.
It stands to reason, then, that the average medium-church lead pastor is younger than his megachurch counterpart, and he is (47.4 years old versus 52.3).
Seventy-two percent of medium churches had no succession plans for replacing the lead pastor. By comparison, only 22 percent of megachurches have no succession plan.
Medium-size churches invested a greater percentage of their budgets on ministry staff last year (48.7 percent) than did churches in the other categories. This was an anomaly because, historically, medium churches tend to spend the least on staff.
Even with that change, medium churches continued to invest the greatest percentage of their budgets into ministry outside the walls of the church. In 2016, medium churches devoted 14.7 percent of their budgets to local outreach and global mission initiatives.
The average medium church was carrying $982,366 of debt, an average of $2,799 per person. However, 35 percent of medium churches reported being debt-free last year, the best of any size church.
LOCATIONS & AGES
Each of the last three years, Indiana has had 26 medium-size churches participate in our survey, the most of any state. Ohio had 18 churches reporting in 2016, the second-largest total, followed by California with 13. Sixteen of the 37 states represented in our survey had only one medium church reporting.
Just over half (54 percent) of the medium churches reporting in the most recent survey are located in a small town or rural setting, and only 8 percent are in a new suburb. By comparison, only 16 percent of megachurches have a small town or rural location, while 67 percent are in a suburb.
Medium churches are the oldest of the churches in our survey. For example, medium-size churches, on average, are 17 years older than megachurches, with average start dates of 1936 versus 1953.
Several trends worth noting emerged from two open-ended survey questions. Churches were asked what they planned to stop doing or start doing in 2017. They were also asked what questions they were asking and what issues they were working through. Here are three trends that caught my eye.
Moving from adult Sunday school to small group discipleship. These churches, and the large churches (average weekly attendance of 500-999), are placing a greater emphasis on discipleship. The major difference is that medium churches are shifting to small groups and away from Sunday school. Only 25 percent of medium churches were using a “small groups only” model for discipleship last year. But 10 churches noted they are planning to either revamp or expand their small groups ministry in 2017.
Balancing the tension between community outreach and congregational care. Medium churches are much like churches of other sizes in stressing a greater desire to connect with their local communities through service. But the unique tension noted for multiple medium-size churches is a simultaneous desire to provide a better level of congregational care to its members. Medium-size churches are the only ones to use words like shepherding and care to describe issues they are wrestling through as a church.
Starting to talk more about the possibility of multisites. The multisite movement has virtually skipped the medium churches so far. Most years, none of the medium churches involved in the study have used a multisite model. But in this year’s survey, two medium-size churches reported having more than one geographic location—Momentum Christian Church (Garfield Heights, Ohio) and Reunion Christian Church (Boston, Massachusetts). But four medium churches say they have definite plans to launch a multisite location in 2017, and four more churches say multisites are under consideration for the future.
Kent E. Fillinger serves as president of 3:STRANDS Consulting and director of partnerships with CMF International, Indianapolis, Indiana.