Why Smaller Churches Are Making a Comeback

"Two-thirds of churches have an attendance under 125. The smaller church is the norm, not the exception. And though the news has not been that promising for smaller churches in recent years, I do see some very promising signs for the years ahead. Why do I make such an apparently contrarian statement? Here are five reasons." - Thom Rainer

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Bert Perry's picture

It would be interesting to see some data about the life-cycle of churches by denomination/association.  I wonder if you would see a natural life cycle--birth, growth, stasis, decline, death--that might shed light on what's going on.  In rural areas, I'd guess a lot of it parallels the life cycle of the towns that host them, and among our circles, I'm guessing it would have a lot to do in many churches with the life cycle of the founding pastor.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

dcbii's picture

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Bert Perry wrote:

It would be interesting to see some data about the life-cycle of churches by denomination/association.  I wonder if you would see a natural life cycle--birth, growth, stasis, decline, death--that might shed light on what's going on.  In rural areas, I'd guess a lot of it parallels the life cycle of the towns that host them, and among our circles, I'm guessing it would have a lot to do in many churches with the life cycle of the founding pastor.

I don't discount any of what you have said here, but having been in a church in a pretty good sized metro area that started out as smaller standard, was Mid when I joined it, made it up to the lower half of Large, and is now a Larger Standard, I think much has to do with the life cycle of the people in the congregation as with the pastor or town.  There are now many more people in our area than were here when I joined my current church, but our church is smaller.

Our area is very tech-heavy, and there is a lot of moving around for jobs, people coming, people going, and less total stability than might exist in a different sort of town where people do the same jobs their whole lives.  In addition, people change and move on because they have changed, there are disagreements, etc., and a big one I've noticed, there are a lot of cultural changes in a short period of time.  Cultural changes have always happened, but I think they've sped up during my life, and culture is changing much more quickly now than when I was younger.  More and more people are seeking out churches based on the church culture, and those churches that are comfortable with their culture and the way they do things will often see a drop-off in attendance from the young, even those that want to stay in the faith, and sometimes even from some of the "older" folks.

If we even look at the Bible, there was first the Jerusalem church which would easily have been in the "Mega" category, and it eventually disappeared, maybe when Jerusalem was destroyed in A.D. 70.  Then there were all the Pauline churches, and the churches mentioned in Revelation, all of which are pretty much now gone.  That might seem depressing, except when we realize that the true church is God's people, and the local church is just a temporary manifestation in a particular area and time.  While I'm in no way denigrating the local church, or making it somehow of less importance than the universal church (since you can't really attend or be a vital part of the universal church without being part of your local church), the universal one is the only one that has continued for the last two millennia while local churches come and go.  The faith hasn't failed because the Jerusalem church is gone, and it will continue if any of the churches attended by those here closes down.

Further, I think that the amount of empty church buildings in Europe and the U.S. indicates that there was a lot of "cultural Christianity" in both places (much longer ago in Europe) and when that goes away, there is a lot of infrastructure left over, but the true churches will still be with us, even if they've lost a lot of those who were Christian in name only.

I don't know if <100 is the best church size, as I have seen plenty of vital churches that were much larger and could do more ministry as a result, but as Christians become more and more strangers to this world, I think it likely that most true churches in our culture will eventually be of the smaller type.  I think the jury is still out as to whether that's healthier or not, but it certainly can be.  And as the article mentioned, pastors have the ability today to stay much more in contact with each other than in previous times, and as a result, do not need to only stagnate in isolation, without fellowship or instruction from the outside.  I'd love if our church were larger and could do more ministry, but I'm also content with where God has us at this time.

Dave Barnhart

Jonathan Charles's picture

Two observations:

1) Small churches are resilient. They don’t die off easily.  I know a small church that rarely has more than 25 in Sunday morning worship. It has been that way for two decades. I think their resiliency is due to their belief in something John Calvin wrote, “Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, there a church of God exists, even if it swarms with many faults.”  They preach, and observe the ordinances, and have few other things going on, they focus on the basics. 

2). Small churches do grow. Some assume that if a church had 25 two decades ago and only has 25 now, that it has experienced no growth. In an area with a declining population, and an aging population, a place where young people typically leave after school, if a church in that area has the same attendance now that it did 10, or 20 years ago, it had to attract new members just to replace those who died off or moved away.  Be careful about judging these churches harshly. 

JD Miller's picture

Bert Perry wrote:

It would be interesting to see some data about the life-cycle of churches by denomination/association.  I wonder if you would see a natural life cycle--birth, growth, stasis, decline, death--that might shed light on what's going on.  In rural areas, I'd guess a lot of it parallels the life cycle of the towns that host them, and among our circles, I'm guessing it would have a lot to do in many churches with the life cycle of the founding pastor.

I read a book many years ago called "Historical Drift: Must My Church Die? " that dealt with this very subject.  If I remember right his thesis was that a church will often grow for the first 30 years and then if something does not happen to revitalize it, then it starts the stage of decline.