Thought Questions: How Does the Size of a Church Affect How It Operates?

cartoonchurchgrowth.jpgWe in the Churches of Christ tend to assume that all congregations must operate pretty much the same way. There’s this “pattern” that all churches must follow. Of course, there are exceptions, but not many.

For example, we teach that churches must be elder led, with deacons running ministries. Unless the church is too small, then it has no elders and no deacons and is run by the men via a “business meeting.”

We have lots of experience with small churches, but big churches are largely a new experience for us. Can we run a church of 1,000 the same way as a church of 100? Does the Bible place restraints on how we can lead a church of over 500 or 1,000?

Tim Keller recently posted an explanation for how church dynamics change as the church grows. Keller is Presbyterian, and Presbyterian Churches are organized very differently from Churches of Christ, and yet many of the same principles apply —

The difference between how churches of 100 and 1,000 function may be much greater than the difference between a Presbyterian and a Baptist church of the same size. The staff person who goes from a church of 400 to a church of 2,000 is in many ways making a far greater change than if he or she moved from one denomination to another. …

Most people tend to prefer a certain size culture, and unfortunately, many give their favorite size culture a moral status and treat other size categories as spiritually and morally inferior. They may insist that the only biblical way to do church is to practice a certain size culture despite the fact that the congregation they attend is much too big or too small to fit that culture.

For example, if some members of a church of 2,000 feel they should be able to get the senior pastor personally on the phone without much difficulty, they are insisting on getting a kind of pastoral care that a church of under 200 provides. Of course the pastor would soon be overwhelmed. Yet the members may insist that if he can’t be reached he is failing his biblical duty to be their shepherd.

Another example: the new senior pastor of a church of 1,500 may insist that virtually all decisions be made by consensus among the whole board and staff. Soon the board is meeting every week for six hours each time!

As Keller notes,

Larger churches have a great deal of difficulty keeping track of members who drop out or fall away from the faith. This should never be accepted as inevitable. Rather, the large church must continually struggle to improve pastoral care and discipleship. …

The smaller church by its nature gives immature, outspoken, opinionated, and broken members a significant degree of power over the whole body. Since everyone knows everyone else, when members of a family or small group express strong opposition to the direction set by the pastor and leaders, their misery can hold the whole congregation hostage. If they threaten to leave, the majority of people will urge the leaders to desist in their project. It is extremely difficult to get complete consensus about programs and direction in a group of 50–150 people, especially in today’s diverse, fragmented society, and yet smaller churches have an unwritten rule that for any new initiative to be implemented nearly everyone must be happy with it. Leaders of small churches must be brave enough to lead and to confront immature members, in spite of the unpleasantness involved.

It’s hard for small churches to grow large because often one family insists on a decision that makes growth impossible. It’s hard for large churches to grow larger because it’s so hard to keep track of people.

In Churches of Christ, size differences impact several things. For example, in a small church, the deacons may cut the grass and lock the building. In a church of 500, those jobs may be hired out. In a church of 500, the deacons will likely be program heads, responsible for overseeing a ministry with dozens or more volunteers. Men who were great deacons when the church had 100 members may not serve effectively when the church grows to 300.

Larger churches will have more ministries run by women (although some will pretend it’s not true). It’s just not possible to run children’s, teen, and campus ministries without significant leadership by women. Indeed, churches may find that many ministries once run by all-male deacons are led by women because the women are just too talented to be denied — and there aren’t enough qualified men to do all that needs to be done. These churches soon shift from deacon-led ministries to ministries led by the gender neutral “ministry leaders.”

The role of the preacher changes as the church grows. In a small church, he may be the entire staff. In a larger staff, he may be a co-minister with two or more other ministers — some of whom may be women. A preacher who is excellent in a church of 150 may not be able to work within a much larger staff. Indeed, in a church of over 500, it may be necessary for the preacher or another staff member to oversee the staff. The job may get too big for the elders.

Indeed, as a church grows, the role of the elders shifts, as well. Elders can personally know every member in a church of 200, but not in a church of 1,000. Members will all know their elders in a church of 100, but many may have little personal relationship with an elder in a church of 1,000 — unless the church works in a very concerted way to change that outcome. Things that happen naturally in a church of 100 — everyone knowing the preacher and the elders — become very difficult in a church of 1,000.

Indeed, one of the biggest barriers to church growth is trying to run a church of 300 the same way you ran a church of 100. At 100, you could talk to everyone before making a big decision — but not at 300. At 300, most members don’t expect to be involved in all decisions — except the ones who were there when the church was at 100!

So that was a lot to say just to ask: What has been your experience as your church has grown or you’ve move to a larger or smaller church? What should leaders watch out for?

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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10 Responses to Thought Questions: How Does the Size of a Church Affect How It Operates?

  1. Roger S. says:

    Wow, nailed it. In smaller churches, those with vision need to stay the course, even if it costs some members. My experience has been that even though you seem to shrink even smaller at first, because the "we will never change a single thing" people leaven, the result is that the church quickly recovers and begins to grow because the church was actually being held hostage by those people. Sadly, however, it is hard to get everyone to see that sometimes it is kinda good for some to leave. While it is true that the larger a church gets, the mroe difficult it is to keep up with everyone, this is not imppossible, and this is why small groups (which we call Starting Point and Growth Groups at New Hope) are so important. As Andy Stanly said, "The task becomes to take a church of 20,000 and make it feel like a church of 30"–how would you like that task? Yet, it can be done with the proper leadership and training.

  2. Alabama John says:

    Churches usually spawn another location when they get too big for the building they are in. This is very positive.
    Churches also split due to disagreements and some move to a new location.
    In both these cases the members meet twice on Sunday and on Wednesday night and attendance is high at all services.
    In a big church, the attendance is low on Wednesday and Sunday nights so many discontinue Sunday nights and few come to Wednesday night.
    Life groups or whatever they are called sound great, and a few work, but ultimately, most members don't meet at all on Sunday or Wednesday night.
    Members in a large church, since the members come from far away in all directions only really know but a few members if any and they are in their age range.

  3. Price says:

    My experience suggests that the Leadership exerts far more control on the activities of the church when it is small but by necessity must involve the members in the larger groups. Those that prefer absolute control should never attempt to grow. And those that wish to grow should prepare to equip and train and just remember that "We who are many are one body in Christ." I love seeing members encouraged to participate in organizing or running a program.. Not only does it better equip them, it gives us all a better appreciation of the difficult job of the leadership…

  4. aBasnar says:

    Can we run a church of 1,000 the same way as a church of 100?

    Of course we can. But we have to divide uo the church into 10 or more different assemblies that meet throughout the town and noit in just one place. We still can have on leadership for the whole church and big gatherings where all congregations come together.

    If you look at the church in Antioch, there was "the" church in Antioch, but obviously they met in different houses, some ofthem more Jewish dominated some with more gentiles (see Gal 2). Ortake the Jerusalem church that met in different houses throughout the city but still functioned as one church.

    The advantages are strikingly clear:

    Each of the cmaller congregations will be led by mature brothers or even elders, shepherds who take care of the flock "which is among them" (1Pe 5:2). So there "pastoral care" is clearly divided up, and no one will be trained to look up (or look for) a "super-pastor".

    More brothers and sisters will be engaged in ministry, because they will feel being more needed. It does make a differerence in a smaller congregation whether I show up and serve or whether I just sit in the pews or stay at home.

    The testimony of a local church is being multplied into different aries of a city or district, thus their impact on the neighborhood is much more effective.

    You can think of your own examples.

    On the other hand I can see not one advantage of mega churches that could even come near outweighing this list.

    The role of the preacher changes as the church grows. In a small church, he may be the entire staff. In a larger staff, he may be a co-minister with two or more other ministers — some of whom may be women.

    Two things:

    a) Even in a small church the gifted brothers sghould take turns in preaching – it is simply unscriptural that there is only one brother doing this service.

    b) Larger churches who want to keep the larger numbers face a serious problem: Since they cannot give full "doctrinal attention" to each individual anymore, it is just a question of time that worldly attitudes and opinions creep in and forces the church to compromise. Female preachers do exist in smaller churches as well, but I believe (I have no evidence, but you may check it out) this apostasy started in the larger churches, setting a terrible example for all churches of Christ.

    You asked:

    Does the Bible place restraints on how we can lead a church of over 500 or 1,000?

    No, it does not.

    I said it in a different context, but it is quite interestuing: Such questions (as I quoted) are "legalistic" in a different way. They ask for a clear "No" in order to be compelled to stop doing this or that. Such questions demand a specic Law, prohibtion and restraint. And as long as such clearly written statements are not found (they might be there anyway), the church feels free to do what they please without digging any deeper. We don't always need a clear prohibtion. What we need is – most of the times – a deeper understanding of Christ and His church in order to discern His will. We would then recognize that the examples from Acts or the Epistles are in harmony with the essence of both, so that their examples do in fact become perfect guidelines – even if there is not an express "thou shalt (not)" to be found. They are binding in as much as they are inseparable from the essence of what they describe.

    Therefore: The whole thought question should focus on whether this form of church life accurately represents and enhances the essence of the NT church. Here it is not only about "downsizing", because if a small congregation functions essentially the same way as a large one, it is still essentially off base.


  5. Can a church change when it changes in size…

    ooops, there is THAT WORD again – C H A N G E.

    Change is difficult. It is manageable, but I have met very few people in church leadership who had any clue about managing change. So for the most part, my experience is that people want their congregation to grow, but only if a few hundred people who are exactly like them (you know, really spiritual 😉 show up.

  6. Doug says:

    My experience and the experts opinion says that about 10% of the people in a Church will take leadership roles and actively do work in that Church. The other 90% are attenders and have no interest in actively working.

    That means that a Church of 100 has 10 workers and a Church of 1000 has 100 workers. It is more diffficult to organize a workforce of 100 than a workforce of 10 and for a larger Church that means more organization and powersharing if that Church is to be truly functional. A larger church needs a more developed organization than a smaller Church. It also needs talented people in the roles that function between the Elders and the people. A person placed in one of those roles incorrect;y could lead to a loss of members and the Elders might not see that coming until it was too late.

  7. Alabama John says:

    Many oppose having breakouts into smaller meetings in homes or anywhere but inside the large church building.

    They see these as separate churches because they will all not agree with each other on every subject.

    Even more objectionable is that there are a group of big church elders overseeing all these separate little meetings and that is getting to close to a hierarchy like the Catholics.

    May untimately have a figure overseeing all called something like Pope Battey.

  8. Royce Ogle says:

    The first church had about 3,000 members and it was growing daily. They had 7 deacons and none of the modern conveniences we take for granted.

    How many elders did they have? Not many would be my guess. Most of the apostles were traveling and preaching the resurrected Christ.

    Oh, they didn't have a building either. And there was soul winning deacons. Why has nobody ever tried to restore that church? LOL

    There are very large churches and I think even more very small churches that are only going through the motions. They will insist that they are somehow better than others who don't have a Sunday night gathering at the building and because they have a higher percentage of the congregation on Wednesday night. Oh..Really? I don't remember reading about Sunday nights and Wednesday nights in the Bible.

    And, there are great small churches and great very large churches that are more faithful to the good news about Jesus than to anything else and both are seeing lives transformed and Christ glorified. The hungry are being fed, the prisoners are visited, and the members are content to allow God to get the applause.

  9. Mark says:

    A better way to think of the effects in the size of the church is to think of what "planned parenthood" has done for our nation. I say lets have more children even if we can't afford them. God will find a way.

  10. JJM says:

    ALL churches will fall away from God. Catholics will say Protestant. Protestant will say Catholic.

    I have always felt God in my heart ever since I was a tiny child. But I was never taken to the church. My parents didn’t live a life for God, even though they believed he existed. But somehow as a child, I ordered a large Bible set in the mail. My parents had to pay for it but I didn’t get into trouble, most likely because it was about God. And over the years I sat and read, trying to understand the words. I had no one in my life to simplfy things. But naturally, I fell away from the whole idea and lived an atheist style life. Thankfully there was always a “conscience” that kept me from drugs, casual sex, and other immoral acts. Something “good” in me always remained. I have been in my fair share of churches and saw the flaw in every one. I believe whole-heartedly that no church can get us to God. The only “church” that can is through the direct Word of God. That is, no middleman. The only time there should be a middle-man is educating your family, or through desperation or accident. A voluntary effort to attend a church will not get you there. Man has proven time and again that he cannot stand above a group of people without yearning for admiration. He easily becomes more than he is. And quickly, he becomes the last person that needs to be spouting the words of God. Almost every church I have been to threw away the old building for a new and improved, expensive one. Appearance became everything. And of course someone had to pay for it. Tithes became more emphasized. The use of “fear” also became more emphasized to discourage members from leaving. It sickens me really. What comes with the falling away is pure hypocrisy. And it wreaks in this century. Its everywhere. Churches are about as necessary as a drive-thru to get a meal. We should all go home and be with our children the way it was meant to be. Stop reaching out beyond the only true church in the world, your family.

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