Small Church Research

Ed Stetzer and The Lifeway Research recently completed a study of small churches. If you would like to check it out click here.


15 Responses

  1. Interesting. I must admit that reading the ten points made small church life seem fairly hopeless. I believe that we already have a bias against small churches. However, the reality is that there are things that a small church can get done that a big church cannot get done. Further, with the ‘flattening’ of the world there are a lot of things that only big churches use to be able to do that small churches can now do too. I hope studies like this ultimately lead to a renaissance of ‘the little’ church, and not more bias against them. After all, most of our churches are made up of 50-or-so people. I’ll definitely be interested in hearing other comments!

  2. “dooh dooh dooh….hmmm….any small church people around anymore?”

  3. I’m small because I’m planting another church and I’m still thinking about the post. I’m reading your first post again and next will read the article once more. Stay tuned.

  4. Okay Jonathan,
    Here are my short thoughts on the first three items in the list.

    1. Time. According to Waggoner, 32 percent of the respondents said they were bivocational pastors and didn’t have enough hours in the day to do what they were called to do.

    I can relate to this one and call it true at least in my case in San Francisco.I had my own painting company to make a living and I would paint three apartments a day before going into the city and walking the streets and ministering. I did this for the first 7 years and I had days I was mad at God. I remember one day throwing my airless paint gun on the ground and fussing at God. He won the fuss by asking how much I was making for painting the apartment. I answered and softly I heard Him say to me, “Look how many homeless meals you are feeding with that money. You are feeding me.”

    2. Resistance. Small-church pastors said their congregation doesn’t want to change, which leads to stagnation. Pastors have to deal with individuals who want to usurp authority from the pastor, forgetting that it’s God who controls His church.

    I have not had this happen because I started the two churches God called me to plant and set the vision before they arrived.

    3. Lack of commitment from members. Many pastors said they deal with apathy and indifference. Waggoner said it doesn’t matter what the size of the church is, but small churches feel it more.

    This one has been true from time to time. Commitment can’t be demanded. It has to be caught. Small or large churches deal with some who get it and others who don’t get it. It just seems that when your smaller, like planting a church the ones who don’t do anything are more noticeable.

  5. Great thoughts Steve. I even teared up a bit thinking of you having your little fuss with God and you hearing God answer! I also think you bring an important clarification about planting a new church as opposed to ‘changing’ an established church. Those would be two very different endeavors I would guess.

    Steve Parrish has an interesting concept of re-planting churches. I wonder if he’ll catch this and chime in?

  6. Not sure if Steve Parrish will jump in or not. I sure hope he does. Come on Steve, we are waiting.

  7. OK, I’m not Steve, but I’ll chime in.

    Much of what Waggoner states is true of established churches who’ve “missed their day of visitation”. HOWEVER I believe in the Turn-Around Church.

    After pastoring two small churches, I would like to see the connection between where small churches are now compared to where they used to be…their individual histories and denominational.

    As far as CoG is concerned, what was our average church attendance 20 years ago compared to today? I don’t want the number of members but number of attendance. Out West our churches were comparatively small then, and these same problems existed then but no one seemed to notice.

    So out of all the observations I get the feeling that its not so much that the churches are smaller but more that they are older. The younger the congregation the less likely the other observations will apply.

    It is the old and new wineskin paradigm to me.

  8. A personal shout out to me right here on missionalcog, fancy that!!! I’ve finally arrived at the big show!!!! – on a blog about small churches – puts it in perspective, don’t it! With Travis in Seattle, you guys must be getting desperate for something to talk about!

    “Small” is a cyclical step every church experiences, no issue there. A stagnant “maintain” mindset, however, I do have issue with whether we are talking about a church of 15 or 50! The Stetzer list should is probably just as applicable to churches of 1500 that have stalled there for the last decade. While size is always relative, problems that hinder growth are specific and need to be addressed.

    I probably don’t fit into the Stetzer’s box as presented. My church is small by my standards, our present facility is packed. I have been full time since I came and for the last 4 years have had a full time youth/worship pastor. I really don’t deal with resistance, my members are committed, I could use more workers (but who couldn’t), the average age in our church is early 30’s but we have infants and people in their 70’s. People are faithful to give and we’ve been able to liquidate to purchase other properties and build so money has been good (I hope I can say the same when our $16K a month building payment kicks in). We reflect our communities culture but I don’t really see “worldliness” in our church, whatever the article means by that. I’m only 41 (though that’s old, but I’m still really young in the COG!), we are able to get new people through the doors and assimilate them even though to date we have been buried on a back street, and our church is a pretty good reflection of the community demographic. All that to say, I really don’t identify with his article. Though our church had some of those issues, they are no longer issues today.

    I hope not to sound arrogant, but Stetzer’s list is a compiled list of pastor’s whiney excuses that may be valid, but are really explanations to answer the question, “Why Is Your Little Church Still Little?” Everything on that list should be able to be torn down over time through the power of God, prayer, hard work, faithfulness, wisdom, vision and relationships. Our church had all of those excuses, but you work at it. We haven’t arrived, but we are taking ground. If we can, anyone can, because Jesus can!

  9. Darrell and Steve, thanks for your thoughts. They were really helpful for me! My intuition was that something didn’t really sit right with me about the list. However, I didn’t have the pastoral experience to help me put it into words. Steve Wright did not really identify with much of the list, but he also qualified his thoughts by noting that his experience has been mostly with church plants, and that might make it different. So, hearing you guys sound off based on your experience really helped.

    Darrell I like what you said about ‘old’ and ‘new’ wineskins, and this list not really reflecting small churches in general. And Steve I like what you said about whiny excuses. Ultimately this list tells me more about the mindset of many of the pastors you might find in small churches than the mindsets of the members.

    I would like to hear more vision cast for small churches (and I have in mind vision that includes staying a certain size). But perhaps that’s another discussion for another post.

  10. Jon… can’t imagine staying a certain size unless the plan was to give birth to churches every time the local congregation reaches a specific size. Staying a certain size would require you to tell the next person who shows up after achieving maximum capacity that “Jesus house is just too full… go away!!!” Hell will always make room for one more person. So should the church!

  11. Steve, there are certain things that small churches can do that large churches cannot do…and vice versa. That is why cell churches have such parameters. For example, if a cell gets to 20 or 30 or some number they’re expected to split into two cells. There comes a point where you simply cannot do the things you set out to do when the number gets too high. Or consider a prayer group. The last thing you want to do with a prayer group is pack the place out. Like Francis Frangipane is fond of saying, “In prayer, four of a kind beats a full house.”

    Logically speaking, as I look at how the church has developed and grown during the last 2000 years, it does not make sense to me that the Lord intends for every church to set out to constantly grow in numbers. That has never happened, and I assume it’s for good reason. There are seasons for every type of advancement, but you can never advance indefinitely. The same is true with numerical advancement. As the Church (universal) makes advances it will be important for some to ‘man’ certain outposts while others regroup and/or prepare to make the next advance.

    The problem I see with our lack of vision for small churches is that our vision is TOO SMALL, as ironic as that sounds. We are a body, and each part of the body needs to be able to function in its calling. If every part is seeking to grow then some of those parts will be trying to grow right out of their calling. Consider this, in a body unchecked growth is called cancer. And if every church is operating under the assumption that their effectiveness can be measured by the number of people in their church then we find ourselves competing with one another and marketing ourselves in order to attract more people, which actually leads to division (improper cell division is the other basic definition of cancer by the way), which hinders our ability to fulfill our mission. For Jesus said that when we become one, the whole world will know that He is the Son of God.

    If what I am saying is true (and yes, I understand that many will say that it is not), then we have to start casting vision for the things that small churches can accomplish, things that optimize their size and helps them find purpose and vision for where they’re at. If what I’m saying is not true, then we will all continue to compete with one another and every pastor will have to decide what to do with they myriad of questions that arise when his/her church reaches the next plateau.

  12. Jon and Steve P,

    In my area there are legitimate reasons for capping attendance at a location, but not legitimate reasons for capping vision.

    The largest church in WV is a non-denominational church which had to buy a mountain top to get enough property to suit their vision. After leveling the property, they projected the growth of the church for the next 15 years. In phases they have been building on the property. I asked the pastors what the maximum capacity was that they were shooting for. If memory serves correctly (and I’ve slept since this conversation) the maximum capacity was @2500 in the main sanctuary, @1800 in the youth sanctuary and I’m not going to guess about the children’s ministries. I then asked what they would do when they hit the cap. The plan is within 20 years to open various chapels in the region which would each have an initial cap of 300.

    Here’s the thing, 15 years ago this was just another small church, Apostolic (Jesus only) at that.

    They have done an awesome job of keeping the “small church feel” in their small group ministries. They have an excellent staff, and are constantly training new ministers. They are also trouble shooting for some of the smaller churches in the region and trying to prepare others for a “spill over” effect.

    So there may be situations which cause you to cap attendance for effective ministry, but you should never cap your vision.

  13. Darrell I find your clarification of capping attendance but NOT capping vision to be very helpful!! Furthermore, what I like about the example of the church in WV that you mention is the mindset of the bigger BoC picture that is reflected in things like preparing other churches for spill-over. Steve shared some things on his rePlant Blog that I found helpful as well…when he was discussing “losing people the right way.” He spoke about a lot of insightful things that reflected a broad view of the Kingdom and not a local/territorial/survival view of things.

    Ultimately, I think that is the most important point here, and I think anyone that is truly ‘missional’ in mindset has that going. That is, they truly value the bigger picture and put the Kingdom first. However, I’m still wrestling with pushing for more thinking about the value of certain size churches. My intuition is that, besides the fact that there are sometimes practical/logistical considerations to capping attendance, there might also be ‘missional’ considerations to keeping certain congregations certain sizes. I think starting out with your clarification about capping attendance and not capping the vision is a VERY helpful way to start such a conversation.

  14. Jon,

    You mentioned the “mindset of the bigger BoC…a broad view of the Kingdom…not a local/territorial/survival view of things.” I couldn’t agree more.

    In the inter-denom circles I’m involved with, we refer to this as “Kingdom Building Mentality” verses “Castle Building Mentality”. One seeks to expand the Kingdom, the other seeks to build a castle unto themselves. One of the problems of the small churches which unintentionally stay small is that they were created as a feudal type castle, not as a part of the Kingdom as a whole (back to your concept of the BoC and the parts wanting to be bigger on their own).

    A friend of mine is writing a book on the subject of Kingdom vs. Castle. When he publishes it I’ll let you know.

  15. Darrell, I REALLY like the Kingdom vs. Castle concept, and will be very interested to read your friends book. Please keep me posted on it.

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