Category Archives: Church Size

Examining church size, growth and it’s ramifications

Church Size – What about ‘essential’ programs?

In examining the philosophy related to congregation size and growth, and in proposing a focus on the Lord rather than the numbers, questions will invariably arises concerning ‘essential’ programs. If size and growth are not to be an issue, aside from an after effect in which to rejoice with new believers, and if the numbers are not be a goal, then how does this affect our view of whatever programs we might hold near and dear?

Clearly, if the number considerations are off the front burner, then this will likely have an effect on the delivery of programs that require financial (and likely human) resources. In essence, it is a simple equation: less people = less money = less programs and initiatives. Also, different starting points will have different concerns – a start-up congregation would have very different needs than an established one.

It is unrealistic for me to look at all senarios in all congregation sizes and it would just be a distraction from the real issue. The concern I have is with the emergence of ‘growth focus’ and the conviction that it is simply not appropriate, nor supported biblically. Even when theis approach might produce results, the slide into worldly values is far to easy and fast. Being a people apart does not exclude the way we approach growth.

The business the “grow or die” credo is both pervasive and persuasive as a model for profit generation. Is any form or derivative of this applicable to the church situation? I would strongly argue that the answer is no. We are back again to why we grow. We do not grow to provide services or profits. We grow indirectly and not of by our own hand, by sharing the Gospel and seeking the Lord through His Word. The growth is up to Him, very literally.

This post has turned out to be a challenge. The discussion of programs is huge and varies dramatically across congregations. Each different type of congregation has different needs and priorities on the practical level. The temptation is to be diverted from the real concern into operational specifics. No matter how significant they may appear, this is a diversion. The point to be made is that the growth of the congregation is not the goal. It can be couched in many forms, with many laudible bensfits, but it is still not the appropriate focus.

The purpose of the God’s people is to glorify Him. The fundamentals are worship (including prayer) and the sharing of the Gospel (which can include many forms). As the Lord calls new believers to faith, the body of believers grows. If, as part of that growth, the number of a particular congregation increases (as surely they will), then that is cause for celebration with those new brothers and sisters. Other benefits may come but they are not an appropriate rationale for any change in focus. The reverse of this paradigm, where growth in the church is sought, even if the Gospel is shared as ‘part’ of the program and new believers result, is error.

Someone will surely call me unrealistic, but that’s okay.

Let us worship Him, seek Him in the Word, and share the Gospel together, leaving the rest to Him.


Church Size – Is bigger better?

Much of what has been examined in previous posts in areas such as the Lord’s Table, congregational interaction (in the works), and Scripture memorization, brings with it implementation issues at some point for most churches. I am not referring here to the unique details related to each specific area, but to common issues. Globally, delivery issues more often than not translate into the availability of financial and time resources. Combined with this are frequently more daunting issues of scalability, if growth is a large part of the church agenda (which almost always seems to be the case today), or if the church is already quite large.

At present, churches seem to fall into roughly three groups: first, large to mega churches (let’s put this at 500+, but often several thousand); second, normal churches aspiring to grow substantially over time as a stated goal (150-400+); and third, small stable assemblies, including house or cell churches (10-15 to 125+), often with few growth aspirations other than as a side effect of evangelism. These sizes are just guess-timates, but they give us benchmark categories from which to work, and sliding them somewhat would make little difference to the discussion. I would also note that a comment on the previous post on church size suggested the senario of a believer abstaining from group worship and living as an assembly of one. That model is addressed in the associated reply.

The first group is very large organizationally. I have little experience there, but they appear to have substantive sub-congregation programs in place that may function as cell churches for the purpose of some activities. Nonetheless, the ability to deliver congregation wide coverage of the basics is difficult, and fragmentation is hard to avoid. Further, they are often focused on, or sustained by, continued growth. Personally I can not see intimate personal relationship on a global basis in this scenario. Possibly a reader with positive experience could explain if and how it can work.

The second group is often focused upon growth as a solution to delivering more or better content. Increased size is seen as providing increased resources with which to concentrate on better quality programs. Better may have many definitions (music, or worship, or missions, or others) but always requires more resources, mostly financial. Certainly there is a minimal resource requirement to provide a basic, encouraging and Biblical assembly. However, the proposal that growth and its results will increase effectiveness is an illusion. Since many who adopt this philosophy are using a business model as a guide, it is disappointing that they do not see the limitations of the approach in this framework. It is potentially a treadmill of growth and demand, with no satisfying or stable end. For business, this model often has benefits and yields profits. For the Lord’s people, assembled for Him, this model follows a road to worldly concerns. The growth focus is always couched in talk about the faith and so on, but it is clearly a business model that is in use. Fundamentally, the Lord’s model for performance is not that of a business based in the world.

The third group (a very small minority) are modeled more on the cell church structure. This may not make them tiny, but probably limits them to just over 100 practically. Once that threshold is passed, they would likely have to divide to continue as two small units. This, in fact, is often the approach adopted by these groups. In this environment there is little or no concern with growth, though it is not avoided proactively. Growth in this model is a side effect. Since they are not forward looking in a growth sense, the focus tends to rest on foundational faith and obedience therein (including sharing the Gospel). This characterization assumes that they are not struggling with growth to the next size. If that is the case, then they face the same issues as the second group, but with the likelyhood of greater discouragement.

One argument for church growth is that it is synonymous with evangelism and growing the body of believers. There is no question that we are commanded to evangelize, and thereby facilitate growth of the body. That this is synonymous with church growth is, I feel, a complete miss-representation of the intent. Church growth may occur with the sharing of the Gospel. In fact, it is even quite likely. However, this is not the goal and must not be even on the horizon. If it is, then it is the organization that is the focus of growth, with the body of believers as a side issue. That is not evangelism. Not doubt, as with all events, the Lord can and will use all senarios to his advantage, but that does not change our challenges.

It might appear that a bleak picture is being painted. Not so! The point is that church growth alone is not a legitimate goal, and can make congregational life difficult. Those who embark upon it must face those realities, both in presentation and in ongoing evaluation. Congregational growth, however, is a legitimate side effect.

In terms of overall size, there are surely some large assemblies that bring all congregants together in true fellowship and joyous worship. As size increases, however, this becomes exponentially more difficult, and eventually impossible, from my present viewpoint.

The support of the Body of Believers and the sharing of the Gospel by an assembly will be used by the Lord to call the Faithful to Himself. That is the focus. We assemble, pray, worship, share the Word, and so on, in simple obedience. Again, that is the focus. The size of some congregations may increase, but that is wonderful gift from the Lord and not the goal. Let us remain focused upon fellowship in our Lord and the Word.

Next -> Church Size – But what about ‘essential’ programs?


Church Size – Decided by whom?

With the brief thumbnail (to be expanded in a later post) of congregational size from a previous post as a backdrop, the question struck we – who should set this significant direction for any congregation?

There are church type and official policy considerations as an undercurrent, but those often do not accurately reflect the way the congregation operates. For example, many constitutionally ‘congregational’ churches may in fact run with a Pastor as defacto CEO and with congregational approvals as an effective afterthought. Or the paradigm could be reversed. Ignoring these set-ups and any value judgments about them as a separate issue for the moment, however, who should set the priority for the congregational size and growth profile?

A case is sometimes made for interpreting the great commission as a command to proactively grow not only the faith, but by implication each congregation. This would be Biblical by implication, if that interpretation were applied. This intrepretation would mean that growth would be close to, if on the, top proirity. However, not only is that simply one interpretation, but there is no concrete stipulation in Scripture of precisely ‘how’ it is to be sought. Procative congregation growth, and the means thereof, has many models and possibilities.

Growth which is based upon offering services (in that paradigm, that is what programs are, after all) can end up as a vicious circle. In this model, there are never enough resources to satisfy the program needs, so further growth needed, and so on. As such, increasing size based upon programs can end up chasing resources (that is, money). This would apply to both internal congregational support programs and external programs such as missions or social acitivism. In both cases the result is expanded resource needs that never meet the expanding program plans.

There are other senarios, but they all lead to the place where increasing program scope and activity requires additional financial resources. This would appear to be true whether the models starts at the small or the large end of the scale.

With all this in mind, let us consider the process of setting congregational program priorities.

In the biblical model used in many evangelical denominations, the Elders (including the Pastors) are tasked with Spiritual guidance for the congregation. Those tasks today seem to be presumed to included the direction of the church in terms of growth priorities. Depending upon the denomination, those priorities may require approval by the general membership in some forum. In many cases, though, these goals and their full implications are not clearly spelled out or completely veted with those in the pews before being ‘passed’ and ‘implemented’.

Does that matter? Well, if the decisions have financial implications for congregant participation, and if there is to be hope of success, then it matters a lot. Failure of the proposed priorities to reflect the actual priorities of the stakeholders (the congregants) is to flirt with failure. Since this is not an uncommon church situation, the surprising, even shocking, part is that the leadership is surprised by the result.

What am I saying? Well, if there is to be a congregational direction related to increased size and financial obligations, then the majority of the contributing congregation must help formulate that direction (and I don’t mean just approve it at a meeting, which is a historically unreliable indicator), and agree to it explicitly, along with a clear statement of it’s implications for the individual. I would go so far as to say that to do otherwise is to ‘test God’ as opposed to ‘trust God’.

Why bring this up? Well, after talking to congregants from various congregations, and having heard a majority say that in one respect or another their church is struggling financial while at the same time proposing increased expenditure, it would seem that there is an organizational failure to communicate somewhere.


Church Size – Questions…

To roughly quote another believer, speaking during a discussion on a church expansion proposal: “If you had the choice between attending a church composed of 500 or more adherents, including a precentage of believers, or a church of 125 or so, mostly believers, which would you choose?”

An interesting question. One’s answer will likely determine one’s reaction to our discussion, and possibly reflect a theological view. The speaker’s answer was somewhat clear in his phrasing, but the question remains.

A large or very large congregation offers the substantial resources to support many worthwhile and useful ministry programs and projects. These might include, but are not limited to, Youth groups and activities, small group ministry support, missions and missionaries, worship (team) equipment and support, additional Pastoral staff to support special areas and congregation subgroups, and much more. All of these have valuable objectives and serve the Kingdom. However, the focus can easily shift to the programming itself.

The small congregation offers an intimacy of contact that is hard to replicate (despite various programs to address it) on the larger scale. In that closer contact there is often more room for (and likelyhood of) close fellowship on the congregational scale, and assuming a Christian mindset and leadership are in place, possibly a greater opportunity to personal development of Christian character. At the same time, with obviously less resources, there are very strict limits on the type and variety of activities that can be undertaken. The exclusion of some people and significant acitivities may be unavoidable. These limitations are especially true in the area of Pastoral staff, where salaries and benefits are directly related to congregational size in most circumstances.

Which is better? There is likely no ‘correct’ answer, and the answer given will depend upon what a particular believer is seeking in fellowship. However, this leads to an allied question. To what degree is the church a service organization, and what are the true and proper priorities within the Body?

Questions, questions, questions…