Well, I wasn’t expecting this one.
David Olson points out that large (1000+ attendance) and small churches (1-49 attendance) are growing at the fastest rates. “While the larger churches grew according to expectation, the smallest churches actually grew at a faster yearly rate. The churches that declined the most were those with a weekly attendance between 100 and 299.”
Confirming this findings from another angle, Olson reports that in the fourteen diverse denominations he studied, all the denominations that were growing were planting lots of churches; specifically all those denominations planting at least one new church per year for every one hundred existing churches continued to grow.
Mark Chaves affirms the movement of people into large churches.
In every denomination on which we have data, people are increasingly concentrated in the very largest churches, and this is true for small and large denominations, for conservative and liberal denominations, for growing and declining denominations. This trend began rather abruptly in the 1970s, with no sign of tapering off.
 David T. Olson, The American Church in Crisis: Groundbreaking Research Based on a National Database of over 200,000 Churches (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 86.
 Olson, American Church in Crisis, 146.
 Mark Chaves, “All Creatures Great and Small: Megachurches in Context,” Review of Religious Research 47 (2006): 329.
Now, half of all churches have 75 or fewer members — and most aren’t growing at all. Most convert hardly any — just enough to replace their children who leave the church, if that many.
The real lesson here is that church plants grow. If our church isn’t growing, well, God’s call isn’t so much to grow your congregation as to grow the kingdom. Go plant some churches — and then watch as the evidence of what they can do rebounds to your church, changing hearts so that you grow, too.
Big churches grow because they’re big — and have a wide range of services. The only churches with large numbers of singles are big churches — because they have large numbers of singles, and young singles like to hang around with other young singles. Teens and college students like to be with others the same age. Big is very attractive to the young — and therefore very attractive to the parents of the young. And that’s not going to change.
Increasingly, I’m seeing churches merge so they can get big enough to offer the programs that attract people. Good idea; wrong motivation.
You see, God never meant for us to be divided into tiny congregations each offering a slightly different version of the gospel, weekly affirming the members’ preconceptions and unable to grow. He meant for his church to be a single, united, world-changing church. We should merge because we so love each other that anything else is unthinkable.
And when we merge, lots of good things happen. First, we testify to the unifying power of the gospel. Second, we subordinate our selfish ambitions to something bigger and more important. Third, we learn to become a little more tolerant. Bigger churches are more diverse. Fourth, we lose some control. In a small church, one or two families may dominate decision making. In a big church, they lose their influence. Good. Christianity is all about giving up control. Fifth, we gain economies of scale. We only need to pay for one preacher and one youth minister and one light bill. We have more money for missions and service projects. Sixth, we are more attractive — but hopefully we are more attractive because we’ve become better, more Christ-like people.
Being located in rural counties
Olson points out from his research that “Growing churches were more likely to be rural and less likely to be small town, suburban, or urban. While the common assumption is that rural churches are under the most stress, the research supports the opposite.” Thumma and Travis similarly notes that “We are now seeing a rapid rise in the number of churches reaching megachurch proportions that are located in more exurban, formerly rural counties.”
 Olson, American Church in Crisis, 132-133.
 Scott Thumma and Dave Travis, Beyond Megachurch Myths: What We Can Learn from America’s Largest Churches (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007), 26.
Really. I had no idea.
But it’s a question of definitions. If by “rural” you mean Alabama rural, no, I can’t think of a harder place to grow. After all, in the rural South, the towns are shrinking, or at least not growing. And people attend the same church as their parents and grandparents. And around here, racial divisions are much more acute than in urban areas.
But if by “rural” you mean a rural area that’s becoming urbanized, such as the outskirts of Atlanta, well, of course! I mean, if barns are being torn down to build Best Buy locations, then people are moving in, looking for a new church, and likely to check out the big church that has a great teen program. If you’re not growing in that environment, you have some very serious problems. You need to hire a church growth consultant and get your problems diagnosed and straightened out fast!