By Kent Fillinger
This is the second installment of a three-part series sharing research findings from our annual church survey. This month, we turn our attention to 88 large churches (average weekly worship attendance of 500 to 999 during 2018) and 86 medium churches (average attendance of 250 to 499).
The medium churches on average grew at almost twice the rate of large churches in 2018 (3.7 percent compared to 1.9 percent, respectively). This was the first-time since 2009 that medium churches we surveyed grew faster than large churches.
This flip-flop partially resulted from medium churches having their best growth rate since 2012 (when they grew 4 percent), but primarily occurred because large churches had their slowest growth rate in more than a decade. From 2013 to 2017, large churches grew at an average rate of 4.2 percent; 2018’s rate of growth was not quite half of that.
Likewise, for the first time, a larger percentage of medium churches than large churches grew last year. Sixty percent of the medium churches grew, compared with only 52 percent of large churches. In contrast, more than 70 percent of the megachurches (averaging 2,000 or more weekly) and emerging megachurches (1,000 to 1,999 weekly) grew last year.
Among those that grew, large churches saw an average 8.3 percent increase, compared with 10 percent growth in medium churches. Among those that declined, large churches saw a 5 percent drop, compared with a 5.8 percent dip among medium churches.
There were no discernable causes for these changes in 2018. It will be interesting to see if this is an anomaly or the start of a new trend.
In the May issue, I noted an apparent shift in “CEO” (Christmas and Easter Only) attendance among megachurches and emerging megachurches. Christmas Eve services have grown to nearly the size of Easter services among churches that average 1,000 or more.
That Christian holiday attendance trend hasn’t trickled down to the large and medium churches.
Easter attendance at large churches was 1.6 times the size of their average weekly worship attendance, compared with 1.3 times average attendance on Christmas Eve. At medium churches, Easter drew 1.5 times the normal weekend attendance, while Christmas services saw a bump of only 1.1 times average.
Multisite Movement Not Catching On
The multisite movement is not catching on among our large and medium churches. From 2011 to 2018, the percentage of megachurches using a multisite model increased from 44 percent to 67 percent. Likewise, during that same time frame, emerging megachurches saw multisite usage increase from 23 to 31 percent.
Among large churches, only 10 percent have used a multisite ministry model, and that percentage has remained flat since 2011. Only 1 percent of medium churches have used a multisite model, and that has remained unchanged for five years. Ninety-five percent of the large and medium churches surveyed said they have no plans to start a multisite model in the next year.
It should be noted, large churches using a multisite model in 2018 grew faster and baptized more people than single-site large churches (8.1 percent to 1.3 percent, respectively). The difference in baptism ratios wasn’t as significant: 5.7 baptisms per 100 in average attendance vs. 4.9 baptisms, respectively.
Medium churches are more likely to be debt free than large churches (32 percent compared to 21 percent, respectively). For the sake of comparison, only 8 percent of megachurches and 17 percent of emerging megachurches have no debt.
Medium churches are more generous than large churches (and megachurches and emerging megachurches) in terms of outreach giving—and it’s been that way for five consecutive years. Medium churches we surveyed gave 15.1 percent of their annual budget to ministry outside their walls in 2018. Among the four largest church groups, megachurches gave the smallest percentage, 12.5 percent.
Hopes, Fears, and Priorities
The survey asked these churches to share one hope, one fear, and one priority for 2019. Among the many responses, several themes are worth noting.
For the “hopes” section, large and medium churches both listed such things as a greater emphasis and effectiveness in discipleship and making disciples, more local community involvement and engagement, facility expansion, debt reduction, new campuses, and spiritual and numerical growth. Several large churches identified developing or implementing a new vision as a hope for this year, and several medium churches listed additional ministry staffing as a hope.
In the “fears” section, the answers were more diverse, but responses common to both were giving and financial concerns (i.e., meeting their budgets), losing momentum, and growing complacent in their ministries, resulting in stagnation or an inward focus.
Five common themes emerged as “priorities” for large and medium churches: discipleship, evangelism, leadership development, community engagement, and staffing issues/hiring.
Kent E. Fillinger serves as president of 3:STRANDS Consulting, Indianapolis, Indiana, and regional vice president (Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan) with Christian Financial Resources.