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Why So Many Small Churches?
By: Lyle E. Schaller

When congregations are asked to report their average weekend worship attendance, why are the seven most frequently reported numbers 18, 20, 25, 30, 35, 40, and 50? The sociological response is because the natural, normal, and predictable size of a congregation in American Protestantism is that when the size of the crowd exceeds 25 to 35 participants, the levels of anonymity and complexity reach a point that makes it easy for people to stay away. "If I don't go, they won't miss me" is one way to articulate this attitude. Another is, "You know you belong when you know you're needed."

A huge quantity of research on group dynamics also agrees that the negative impacts of anonymity and complexity begin to erode the feeling of cohesion or belonging when the number of participants exceeds 15 or 16 or 17. Most military formations are based on that pattern of human behavior. If the organization is a high expectation group that places a high value not only on group cohesion, but also on personal sacrifice, that magic number is in the range 7 to 10. The New Testament teaches us when the number reaches 12, sooner or later, one will betray the leader and another will deny ever knowing that leader.

Another example is the jury that requires a unanimous decision for a conviction usually is limited to a dozen or fewer members.

A simple example is major league baseball teams carry a roster of 40 players during spring training, but cut back to 25 when they begin to place a high value on wins and losses. The combination of specialists and injuries means professional football teams are forced to carry a huge number of players on the active roster, so the usual pattern is to enable each player to earn a sense of belonging to and being needed by one of three "teams"—offense or defense or special teams such as the kickoff team or the punt return team.

This pattern has a longer history and greater visibility in public elementary schools in America. An enrollment of 20 to 35 was widely seen as the optimum size as recently as the 1930s when the one-teacher elementary school dominated the educational scene in the United States.

Today, the teacher of the fourth-grade class with 30 to 35 students assumes a teacher's aid is necessary and will be provided. Another pattern illustrated by the very large public high school is the larger the enrollment, the greater the probability a substantial number of students will engage in anti-social behavior. One response is the "administration" side of the teacher-to-administration ratio grows as the size of the enrollment goes up.

Two Widely Neglected Variables
Very large institutions such as grocery stores, hospitals, public schools, financial institutions, new car dealers, and motion picture theaters are much larger than they were in the 1950s.That raises a question of why is it possible for a Protestant congregation in America averaging 126 or more at weekend worship to be able to rank among the largest 30 percent of churches in the typical state or denomination? On the other hand, why are the 5 percent averaging 500 or more at worship able to include more than a third of all Americans who worship God with a Protestant congregation on the typical weekend?

One explanation is organization. Approximately one-half of all Protestant congregations in America are organized as a collection of individuals, families, personal friends, and other relatives. The focus on the organization of congregational life is the individual. Most of the members can call nearly every other member correctly by name. Most also know the family tree to which every member belongs. That helps to explain why one-half average fewer than 75 at worship. (The United Methodist Church, which is organized as a small church system, reports the median size of congregations is an average worship attendance of 52. One-third average 35 or fewer. That contrasts with the one percent that report an average worship attendance of 750 or more, but that one percent accounts for 12 percent of all worshippers in a United Methodist congregation on the typical weekend.)

By contrast, instead of being organized as a collection of individuals, the very large Protestant congregations in America are organized as a collection of cells, circles, classes, committees, connectional groups, fellowships, mutual support groups, learning communities, ministry teams, task forces, and worshipping communities. "I belong to the 10:00 service in the fellowship hall" or "We go to the traditional service in the sanctuary at 11:00, but our daughter and her husband prefer the contemporary service at 10:30 in that big room we built two years ago" are two common expressions of "where I belong."

The larger the size of the congregation, the more likely recent new members, when asked to describe this sense of belonging, will identify an adult study group or a sports team or a music group or a special community ministry task force or some other face-to-face group that meets regularly. They illustrate the fact that it is easier to be quickly assimilated by helping pioneer the creation of a new group than it is to become assimilated into a group or class organized two or three decades earlier and where the majority of current members trace their membership back at least a decade.

That paragraph also helps to explain why most contemporary strategies for planting new missions are designed to welcome at least 250 adults, rather than two or three dozen pioneers, at that first public worship service. It also explains why large congregations that continue to reach, attract, welcome, serve, and assimilate newcomers place a high value on expanding the group life. What happens when 150 adults depart during the typical year? The 7 to 12 new face-to-face groups launched that year together may assimilate 100 to 250 newcomers.

By contrast, the congregation averaging 35 at worship is often diverted by a plea from the chancel choir or an adult Sunday school class or the board of trustees: "We need to place the top priority on replacing our members who have moved away or died."

A second neglected explanation of that line of demarcation that separates most large congregations in American Protestantism from those averaging fewer than 75 at worship is reflected in the points of continuity members refer to when they ask themselves, "Why am I still a member here?"

In the smaller congregations, those points of continuity with that institution usually give considerable weight to kinship ties ("I married a third generation member") or memorable and meaningful rituals ("We were married in this church") or the real estate ("I can walk to church") or the denominational affiliation ("I'm a fourth generation Presbyterian") or to nationality ("I was born and reared in Korea and this is a Korean congregation.")

By contrast, the points of continuity for the typical member with that religious institution called a large church often reflect personal social networks. "All of my closest friends are members here" rather than kinship ties. For some, the No. 1 point of continuity is spiritual growth. "I came here as a casual believer who had been taught by my parents to go to church every Sunday morning. Four years ago, I signed up to help start a new early Saturday morning Bible group with nine other men. Today, as I look back, I am convinced those experiences transformed my life from one who inherited my religion, along with my name, from my parents into a fully devoted disciple of Jesus Christ."

For many others, the response to a question on continuity is a simple two-word explanation: "The preaching!" An overlapping response is, "To be challenged and equipped to be engaged in doing ministry in and through this church." Another reference to continuity is represented by the comment, "Two years after we moved here and joined this church, I volunteered to be a member of the new team to lead worship in our new contemporary service." Helping to pioneer the new is more attractive than trying to perpetuate the old.

The Crucial Variable
From this traveler's experiences, the most significant line of demarcation that separates the congregations averaging fewer than 75 from those averaging more than 850 is the system of governance. Incidentally, this also helps to explain (1) the increase in the number of American Protestant churchgoers who worship with a congregation averaging more than 500 at the weekly corporate worship of God, (2) the decrease in the number worshipping with a congregation averaging 76 to 450 at worship, and (3) the increase in the number of congregations averaging 75 or fewer at worship.

For this discussion, we will condense the number of systems of congregational governance to five. The one we will not discuss is the top-down system of authority combined with the assumption that "one size fits all." The Roman Catholic Church in America, the United Methodist Church, and, to a lesser degree, the Episcopal Church USA are the three highly visible examples of the absence of appeal of that system to Americans born after 1960. A majority of the younger generations of American Christian churchgoers prefer a greater degree of local control.

If the reference point is the number of churches, the most popular system of congregational governance in American Protestantism is a "participatory democracy." This grants every member a vote on every decision. The uninformed vote carries equal weight with the well-informed vote. Six hundred years ago, in Chapter 6 of The Prince, Nicolo Machiavelli wrote, "There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things." Except when there is near universal agreement of a crisis, the participatory democracy system of governance naturally encourages efforts designed to perpetuate the past rather than to create a new tomorrow. In American Protestantism, that also helps to explain why approximately one-half of all congregations in American Protestantism average more than 75 at weekend worship. They have become too large to function as a participatory democracy. Thus, they usually choose to become a representative democracy. At about 125 in average worship attendance, the representative democracy model tends to become a barrier to change—and change usually is required to reach and serve younger generations. One popular choice is for the members to grow older in age and fewer in numbers. A more difficult choice is to choose a third model of governance and become a lay "elder-run church."

In contemporary American Protestantism, approximately 70 percent of all congregations report their average worship attendance is 125 or fewer. Together they account for nearly one-third of the people worshipping with a Protestant congregation on the typical weekend in America. The switch from a representative democracy to an elder-run model, with the pastor as one of the two or three most influential voting members of that governing board, may be acceptable until the average worship attendance approaches 450.

At that point the congregation usually chooses from among four options: (1) attempt to plateau in size, (2) watch passively as attendance at worship begins to decrease, (3) switch to a staff team-led system of governance or (4) switch to a pastor-led system. (The pastor-led model rarely survives the departure of the long-tenured founding pastor in post-1985 America.)

Recent history in new church development suggests one way to avoid that fork in the road to the future is to replace that old model of sending a pastor out to plant a new mission by first assembling a staff team of five to seven people. (One model consists of three full-time specialists and four part-time volunteer specialists.) That team designs and implements a strategy that will produce an attendance of at least 500 at that first public worship service and an average attendance of at least 350 by the end of the first six months.

The success of this model depends first on choosing a mission developer-pastor as the team leader rather than a minister who prefers to be one of several leaders in a participatory democracy. Second, success usually coincides with a tenure of at least 15 years for that first team leader.

Finally, from a denominational perspective, the system of governance usually is easier to change if the goal is to increase the proportion of congregations averaging 500 or more at weekend worship. That strategy also becomes more attractive when it is pointed out that the 5 percent averaging over 500 at worship account for 35 percent of all Americans worshipping with a Protestant congregation on the typical weekend.

Lyle E. Schaller is a retired parish pastor and consultant.

Copyright 2010 by Lyle E. Schaller

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