Large Church or Small Church? Which do you prefer?

I am just beginning a book titled Left Behind in a Megachurch World: How God Works through Ordinary Churches by Ruth Tucker.  The author was formerly a professor at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  I had the opportunity to hear her speak on two occasions while I was attending seminary in Grand Rapids.

The premise of the book is that God is working in small churches.  In fact, the notes on the dust cover seem to hint that the author believes that God may actually be working in greater ways through smaller churches than through larger megachurches.  After pointing out that only 2 percent of churches have over 1000 members and that the average church in America has less than 100 members, the back of the book reads:

After studying various smaller, “plateauing” churches from around the country, Ruth A. Tucker weaves together her interests in church growth and spiritual formation to show that smaller churches bear the greatest mantle for Christlikeness.  Left Behind in a Megachurch World shatters the myth that only megachurches are leading the way for Jesus and shines a spotlight on ordinary churches doing extraordinary things.

Like I said, I have just started the book, so I have nothing specific to critique at this time.  However, I do wonder what you think about small churches vs. megachurches.  What are the strengths and weaknesses of each?  Does it seem like we measure success by numbers?  Is this a good way to measure our success?  What other ways can a church measure its success if not by numbers?

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11 Responses to Large Church or Small Church? Which do you prefer?

  1. Mark says:

    A topic some friends and I have recently been discussing! As a general rule the larger churches have less opportunity for intimacy.

    Having said that I see a lot of NEW converts attending mega-churches first and then as the need for intimacy and “real” relationship grows they move to the smaller church.

    Not to say that intimacy cannot be found in a large church, the point is a member must go and find it rather than being built into the DNA of the church body.

  2. arm5 says:

    I perfer smaller churches just because they just feel more like a family. Of course I have never been to a negachurch. But also in megachurches you have to go through a chain of people before you can get to the pastor and you don’t have to do that in a small church.

  3. Andrew says:

    Most mega churches have too much of a “business-like” structure to them and I prefer the simple, smaller places. True, some large churches have larger community impact based upon their size, they may be more likely to host and do big events that the people in that community will see. But small churches have the better advantage of connection to the people there. The bigger the church body gets, the harder it is to keep up with everybody and cliques tend to be easily formed this way.

  4. Tim Farley says:

    It seems like everyone is hitting on the issue of intimacy. I know that one of the things that large churches continually struggle with is how to develop meaningful relationships among the members. It is much easier to get lost in the crowd and never connect at a large church.

    Do you think that those who are drawn to large churches go there because they think the possibility of building relationships is greater? After all, there are more people to develop relationships with, right?

  5. Kelsey says:

    Maybe people go to big churches because they WANT to get lost in the crowd. Now that I’m looking for a church to go to here at school, I’m tempted to go someplace where I can just be anonymous, because that usually means fewer demands on my time. Totally selfish, I know, but that might actually be one of the magnetic factors of certain churches. Also important to note, though, is that size of the church does not really dictate quality of relationship. I’ve found that it’s easier to get lost at a mid-sized church than anything else because they aren’t really used to having visitors, but they also aren’t in need of new members, so it’s easy to slip in and out without anyone trying to learn my name. Churches of all sized definitely need to consciously and deliberately create a noticing and welcoming atmosphere.

  6. Mark says:

    Tim, I have gone to large churches because the economy of dollars available means more stuff for my children to do. While I still believe this, it is also true that keeping my eyes and the eyes of my family facing the Lord and not the establishment is hard.

    In defense of mega-churches I have been to those that are VERY good at building AND promoting community. Even so I found it very easy to go to the fun stuff and skip the rest.

    I am training to be a pastor in my second life, after age 45. Currently I am leaning toward smaller, but I firmly believe that God calls different ministers and shepherds for different flocks. I believe it is up to the Pastor to get quiet with God and listen to what He is saying. That can only happen if one can die to them-self and their own desires first. For me therein is the daily, sometimes hourly struggle.

  7. Tim Farley says:

    Kelsey:

    I agree that many are probably drawn to large churches because they are able to avoid timely commitments. I do understand that some people do not have the time available because of other commitments and can feel guilty about that at times. However, the problem is those who avoid commitment when they have no legitimate excuse. A large church makes it more difficult for pastors and leadership to know who these people are and to work with them. Does a large church lend itself to complacency more than a small church?

    Mark:

    I too went into pastoral ministry after earning a business degree and spending several years in sales. I was in my early 30s when I enrolled in seminary. I spent 3 years as an intern at a church of nearly 800 while earning my theological degree. That church has been the largest I have been a part of and also the one I believe is the most successful at training and caring for its people.

  8. Robynne says:

    Wow, so many comments. I’ll leave my first impressions prior to reading the comments, so sorry if I repeat anything.

    Having experienced several different-sized churches and currently attending a church that has grown rapidly, I feel that they all have their strengths and weaknesses. (I don’t like the way I phrased that, but I don’t feel like fixing it.)

    The first church I attended (not including the one I went to as a child and barely remember) was First Christian. It is a fairly large church. I don’t think I’d consider it a “Megachurch,” but it had a large sanctuary and 3 relatively full services when I was there. I started attending with people who had been there for a while and knew everyone, so I never had the experience of going in not knowing anyone. At the same time, I still felt like I had no idea who else was attending, and couldn’t help feeling guilty for not knowing the members of my church. Having a large congregation allowed for many small groups and classes to form, bringing individuals with shared interests together. We also had a large youth group. While I was able to choose the people I hung out with, I could also feel very left out, and being able to choose who I spent time with gave me the ability to ignore others and I didn’t feel like I needed to love everyone, because I had plenty of friends without them.
    I don’t attend Sunday morning services at Pine Grove, so I don’t really know what it’s like to be part of that, but I really enjoy the environment at all the activities. There truly is a church family, and everyone seems to know each other. The drawback to this, in my opinion, is coming in and feeling like you’re not part of the group. However, that will happen anywhere, and the people there seem like they wouldn’t let you feel like that for long.
    Element started very small, and has grown significantly. We are about to move up to 4 services from 2 services. Being there through the process has allowed me to get to know a significant portion of the church members, but I also attend both services. The fact that the growth has been constant tells me that we’re reaching people, and that others are bringing their friends. I worry about it becoming impersonal, but I feel that as long as we focus on community and reaching others, it won’t become that way.
    In short, big churches can be impersonal, but offer more personal options at times because there are more people with potentially shared interests. Small churches can be more personal, but it is easier to feel that you don’t quite fit in.
    Another thing: Big churches are often focused on growing in size, not spiritually. If the church is growing because the members are growing and the church is reaching people, big churches can be good. If the church is big because they are trying to grow or make themselves seem appealing, it might not be a good thing.

  9. Tim Farley says:

    Robynne:

    Thanks. You hit on one of the key things Ruth Tucker mentions in her book. Large churches often focus on numerical growth rather than spiritual growth. It is also true that it can be easy to find your group and then ignore everyone else. These are potential problems that not every church or individual will be guilty of.

  10. Robynne says:

    Programs are another thing. Mark mentioned that he brought his children to larger churches because they have more money to spend on programs. As Element has grown, children’s ministry has become increasingly more difficult. As more kids come, it is harder to give the children individual attention. We have been lucky to have sufficient volunteers who truly care about reaching the children and, as far as I know, the money hasn’t been an issue. A smaller church can be better for children, as long as the members of the church see children’s ministry as important. But large churches can pay a Children’s staff, host children’s events, and may have better children’s facilities.
    As churches grow, “fun” activities do tend to increase. But I typically have more fun at the same activities with smaller churches, because I actually know the majority of people attending. Also, there were many people I saw coming to more of the activities than actual services, and it wasn’t necessarily noticed because the majority of the church didn’t realize when they did or did not come.
    There seems to be less accountability at large churches unless you get involved with a group of people. When the congregation is large, most of the congregation won’t notice that one person hasn’t come for the past month, let alone the pastor who has hundreds or thousands of people coming every week. It’s nice going to a small church where, when you miss a week, many people approach you and ask where you were.

  11. Robynne says:

    (I read through the comments and had more things to say.)

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