Continuing with comments that really should have been posts (this combines two) —
Charles asked, “Is there something about a 2,000 person congregation that is inherently superior to 10 200-person congregations?”
Yes. Economists would call it economies of scale. Others might say “efficiency.” Others yet would say “avoiding spending all our money on buildings and preachers.”
Ten 200-person churches will have 10 buildings, 10 preachers, and 10 youth ministers. They will all struggle to have a decent children’s program, because there may be only one or two children in a given grade. They will struggle to have excellence in worship, in teaching, in most everything because there is only so much talent in a group of 200 people. They may have elders, but they will struggle to find enough men truly gifted for eldership.
Combine those churches into a single congregation, they will have a large staff, I’m sure, but not 20 people. The staff they do have will be, on average, more gifted and better trained, because they will be drawn from a larger talent pool and because the church can afford to send them to conferences and buy them training material — and because they can support and mentor and push one another. (The power of a united staff who work together this way is huge.)
The combined church will have elders, and they will be drawn from a pool of 2,000 people, and surely God will gift enough members for the church to be well led.
The adult Bible classes will be better taught, both because of having a larger talent pool from which to draw and because the church will be better able to equip and support the teachers.
Because of these efficiencies, members who would have been teaching children’s classes or doing building maintenance are allowed to serve outside the church, by volunteering in missions or outreach programs. Large churches have vastly more resources to support outside works because of the efficiencies the numbers create.
And because they are supporting but one building, one power bill, etc., there is more money freed up for missions and other good works.
Indeed, because God intends that we be united and not divided, I think he provides giftedness among the members sufficient for a united church. When we divide contrary to his will, we dilute the gifts we have, sometimes to the point that we struggle to survive. But that’s our fault, not God’s.
Our congregations become the equivalent of broken families, divided by sin, and struggling to pay the bills and to care for the children.
Unity is not a theoretical construct or merely a way of perceiving each other. The unity we read about in the Bible is real, visible, and realized by being a single church — one body, with one head, bound together with love — not a theoretical love but real love that can only be realized by time spent together, tasks accomplished side by side, victories celebrated together and losses mourned together.
On the other hand, there are certainly disadvantages with large scale churches, but these can be offset with careful planning. Small groups, Bible classes, and ministries become areas to become connected with brothers and sisters in ways that aren’t likely to happen in a room of 2,000.
Indeed, large churches can’t survive long if the worship service is the center of their members’ connectivity. They must get their members involved in groups, classes, and ministry — which are, in my view, better places to be connected than through the worship service because they are far more likely to push the members toward greater ministry commitment and spiritual formation.
The worship service can certainly help people become more like Jesus, but I really think the evidence is that we see more transformation in other areas of church life. There’s something about the passivity of the assembly (in both large and small churches) that holds us back. And the evidence is that larger churches are better at getting members involved outside the assembly (check Ed Stetzer’s research).
I have to admit that the bigger the church, the harder it is to feel like family. I remember when my own church passed the 200-member mark. It was a difficult transition because no longer did everyone know everyone. Many members complained that they felt like strangers in their own church.
But over time, that changed and we continued to grow — in part due to small groups and adult Bible classes, which create opportunities to feel connected in a group where you really can know everyone. Much greater involvement in ministry perhaps helped even more — because ministry is another place where you become connected and be matured into the image of Christ.
Notice that the drive to feel connected has the side effect of encouraging members to be in class, group, and ministry — all very good things. The center of church life broadens — rather than being just the assembly. Rather, lots of things happen that fit people’s passions and talents in different ways — and the church becomes much more than a worshiping society.
Charles’ question puts me to the choice of 200 vs. 2,000. My own church is around 500, and I greatly prefer being 500 to 200 — although 200 was a great experience. The missionaries we support, the ministries we do in town, etc. were not possible at 200 — and we have a much more diverse congregation — racially, ethnically, and economically. And that’s a very good thing, too.
I have very limited experience with even larger churches, but the same methods scale up without limit. They require staff with the right skills, elders who can delegate and empower, and members who are committed to the mission of God. And some huge churches are, of course, just terrible (as are many small churches), but most churches that are very large grew large for good reason, by doing good things, and being blessed by God for their obedience and intense prayer.