How Big Is Your Local Church?
How big is your church? Jared lifted our eyes in his last post to see that ours is the church universal, regardless of the size of our local body, and we need to worship the living God with that knowledge each week. Jared and I had a little exchange behind the scenes about the statistical basis for some of the claims after he posted. In our private discussion, we both demonstrated our mathematical and statistical incompetence in seeking to accurately interpret the data in the study that he later linked in an update. Let’s just say that for the sake of our pride, we are glad that the Gentle Reformation math-whiz, Barry York, was not able to overhear our dialogue.
Though neither Jared nor I will be hired by George Barna any time soon, there are basic trends that deserve consideration. The study Jared referenced shows that half of American churches have 75 members or fewer. But, half of all worshipers worship in a church of about 400 members. Finally, because so many go to very large churches, another statistical measure puts the average worship experience at 1169. You’ll have to read the article to understand the method, but the point is this: in America, most people go to large churches. Furthermore, I suspect that the average worship-attendance experience for those under age fifty is also a significantly higher than this study shows, meaning that these numbers will probably continue to rise, perhaps dramatically in the next few years.
What does it matter? It means that we need to understand that those who visit small Presbyterian and Reformed churches will likely experience something very foreign to their expectation of what church is to be like. Until twenty years ago, many people who began to attend a seventy-five member Reformed Presbyterian church might have found the music and psalmody a bit different than the Lutheran, mainline Presbyterian, Wesleyan, Baptist, Brethren, or Episcopal church they had grown up in. But what they saw in terms of the building, nursery, basic elements of worship, Sunday school class structures, prayer meeting, fellowship meals, and youth group were probably fairly familiar. No longer. Should it change what we do if we are in a small church? The knowledge that visitors are probably experiencing something unusual ought to at least make us more sensitive to them.
True, some will argue that they we once lost in a large church and were only really ministered to when they went to a small church. But, worshipers are voting with their feet – and the hard data shows that most people prefer large churches. And, some large churches are ministering effectively to people, if not perfectly.
I have heard people say something like, “Just wait, people will be put off by the size and show of mega churches eventually, and they will want to come to a small, biblically-minded church like ours.” But, I’m not so sure that will be true on any significant scale. The hard-core dispensationalism of the 20th century has quieted a bit, making people of a reformed persuasion feel less threatened in larger churches that have grown from a heavily dispensational background. Many larger churches have a small group or two that will devour Sproul and other material teaching reformed soteriology. Some of the large churches are openly embracing reformed soteriology and make it their hallmark – though without reforming their worship. Over the last three decades the homeschool movement with its practical covenant theology often drew otherwise non-reformed people to small reformed churches, but homeschooling is now mainstream, and those people find no cultural barriers in larger churches. The so called “worship wars” are dying down. The worship styles are changing from the seeker-friendly emphasis of the 80s to the edgy/in-your-face emphasis that is hip today. Either way, loud music has won. Those put off by the bands have left the expanding churches; if individuals in those bodies were going to make a move, they probably have. Any exit-wave of traditionalists disaffected in churches that re-oriented their worship and programs for size has probably already hit smaller Presbyterian and Reformed churches and will not continue for the same reasons.
How should these trends affect our ministry? First, we should focus on loving God and loving each other from the heart. Visitors may not be impressed by our small buildings, singing that no one would buy were it recorded, and the absence of lattes in the foyer. But they will know that we are his disciples by the love we have one for another, and if we worship God’s way from the heart they will declare that God is among us. Are those things true in our midst? Few people come as visitors who are ideologically pre-committed to a church’s positions. Experience plays a large part in changing people’s thinking, and we should expect what visitors experience in our midst will be attractive, though not flashy. That requires death to self on our part in a plethora of ways, but it shows Christ as glorious even in a less than glorious body of sometimes quirky people. We can’t just be right on paper and in technical practice and expect to convince people of the truth. We must humbly live the truth and seek to meet people where they are.
Second, it seems to me that it ought to help we who are in small churches see that we can’t compete with the big boys. That’s good news. Rather that seeking growth by focusing on those who come from other churches, let’s focus on those who have never worshiped anywhere. Thousands of people going to big churches, but thousands more are lost in their sin and do not worship the living God anywhere. Jesus came to seek and to save the lost, and we should seek them too. When the unchurched come to worship, they don’t wonder where we are hiding our three-story indoor play-land. But they can know the wonder of redemption and the Savior who provides it.
Finally, we need to remember that numbers are not what matters. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it is not the soul of holiness. Some large churches are ministering well, and I pray that God would send revival such that all of our congregations would be 3,000 next Lord’s Day. Whatever our size, are we glorifying God? That is the question. I long for the day when I worship with the throng of myriads upon myriads in glory. In the Scripture we see worshiping bodies of various sizes, and God doesn’t prescribe a best-size. In the Reformed Presbyterian Church, we have found that we tend to minister most effectively in congregations of less than 200. We tend to daughter new works when the numbers in one church grow beyond 150. Let’s just humbly admit that we know how to minister best in congregations of that size, rather than somehow demanding that there’s something holy about a hundred. Who knows, the Lord may lead us to minister in larger numbers in the years to come.