By Kent E. Fillinger
This is the final installment of a three-part series sharing the research findings from our annual church survey. The May issue focused on 2018 data from megachurches and emerging megachurches. The August issue covered large and medium churches, and now we conclude the series with statistics from 78 small churches and 47 very small churches.
This was the second year of surveying small and very small churches, so I will include some year-to-year comparisons, while acknowledging more data is necessary before identifying trends.
Small and very small churches had the slowest growth rates of any of the church size categories. The small churches grew only an average of 0.03 percent last year, making it the slowest-growing category two years in a row.
In 2017, very small churches had the second-fastest overall growth rate, 5.5 percent. But last year, very small churches grew only 1.7 percent on average, which was second to last among the six church categories.
Small and very small churches were the only church size categories that saw less than half their churches grow (38 percent and 43 percent, respectively). By comparison, 74 percent of megachurches and 71 percent of emerging megachurches we surveyed grew in 2018.
Attendees of small and very small churches were the most generous givers of any category. Based on general fund giving and average weekly worship attendance, average per-person weekly giving at small churches was $36.11, best among all categories, followed by those who attend very small churches, where weekly individual giving averaged $35.30. The third most generous were emerging megachurch attendees, who gave an average of $33.82 per person per week.
Small and very small churches also were the most generous in funding outside ministries. Small churches again led the way by directing an average of 17.1 percent of their total budgets to outreach ministries. Very small churches were next most generous, sending an average of 16.4 percent of general fund monies to outreach giving. By comparison, megachurches gave 12.5 percent of their budgets to missional efforts, the lowest average percentage.
Lead Minister Insights
The ministers of small and very small churches surveyed were the least likely to be hired from within the church (16 percent and 4 percent, respectively).
Ministers of very small churches in this study also had the shortest average tenure—7.1 years—of all the categories. By comparison, the average megachurch lead minister had a tenure of 14.3 years, and the average small church lead minister had served 11.2 years in his current role. The oldest lead ministers in the study, on average, were megachurch ministers and very small church ministers, with average ages of 53 years and 52.7 years, respectively.
Classes vs. Groups
At 16 percent and 46 percent, respectively, small and very small churches were the most likely to use adult Bible classes as their primary means of adult discipleship. Among the other four categories, an average of only 2.5 percent of churches used classes as their primary discipleship method.
Small groups were the primary discipleship strategy for one in four small churches, while only 4 percent of very small churches relied on small groups as their primary form of discipleship.
Beyond the Walls
Several small and very small churches noted they were developing or engaged in some creative ministry outreach efforts to reach their communities. Good examples include Vernal (Utah) Christian Church, which is reaching into their local Mormon community; One Life Church (Concord, North Carolina), which is starting a nonprofit, co-work space called the Collective; and First Christian Church (Mableton, Georgia), which is working to establish an immigrant ministry. Other examples include New Hope Christian Church (Belton, Missouri), which is serving homeless families, and the Church of Christ at Logansport (Indiana), which has weekly worship services for both Hispanic and Burmese families from their area.
Hopes, Fears, and Priorities
The survey asked churches to identify one hope, one fear, and one priority for this year. Reviewing the open-ended responses revealed several notable themes. Here are the major hopes, fears, and priorities of the small and very small churches surveyed.
- Increased level of discipleship within the church
- Numerical growth resulting from evangelism and more baptisms
- Impacting the community through outreach and service
- Expanding church facilities
- Financial challenges from decreased giving
- Losing members because of aging and death
- Apathy and unwillingness to change
- The death/closing of the church
- Reaching more young adults and young families with children
- Greater focus on discipleship
- Developing leaders and adding ministry staff
- Evangelism, preaching, and doctrinal purity
A handful of small and very small church ministers in the last six months have told me they’ve conducted more funerals for members than baptisms of new believers for the last few years.
This is a troubling trend that could result in churches closing their doors over the next decade. It’s going to take some major changes—new ministry strategies and programs, facility enhancements, increased generosity, and Internet and social media upgrades and initiatives—for most of these struggling churches to start shifting the tide from death and decline to new life and growth.
No church can keep things unchanged for 40-plus years and expect to reach and retain young adults and families. We can’t forget the biblical principle that “new wine” requires “new wineskins” (Matthew 9:17).
Kent E. Fillinger serves as president of 3:STRANDS Consulting, Indianapolis, Indiana, and regional vice president (Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan) with Christian Financial Resources.