Megachurches: Is bigger better?


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.

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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17 Responses to Megachurches: Is bigger better?

  1. Skip says:

    The question to ask “Is our Church a bomb shelter or a light house?”. Bomb shelter churches are focused on isolating themselves from outside threats and remain small. Lighthouse churches are a beacon to the world and always grow.

  2. alanrouse says:

    On the other hand, there are certainly disadvantages with large scale churches, but these can be offset with careful planning
    I would add that the same could be said for smaller churches. The Holy Spirit lives inside the members, and can make up for all of the disadvantages you mentioned.

  3. Adam Legler says:

    One reason the large churches are large is because they are understanding something on how to reach the lost that many times the small churches haven’t even realized exists. Not saying that all small churches don’t get it, but large church leadership tends to be more open to continuing education and discussion of status quo which shapes the way they lead and do church. It’s more effective.

  4. josh says:

    As someone who considers 200 a large congregation (we have 30-45 most Sundays), my major concern with a 2000 member congregation would be accountability. Don’t folks get lost in the cracks? Who notices that I’m not involved? Maybe those who do get lost would never darken the door of a 200 member congregation.

  5. Adam Legler says:

    I think it all depends on the leadership. The big churches have elders and leaders at the doors greeting people coming in. If they are doing their job well they will notice when they haven’t seen certain people in a while. Saying that, I’ve now been a member at two different churches around the 500 range where I tried talking to leadership about how to be involved. When we decided that it was healthier to go some where else we just stopped attending these places and still haven’t been contacted about where we have been. However, I just finished reading the book The Tipping Point where it makes a strong case that any organization, church, or business becomes less effective when they get more than 150 people.

  6. ben Wiebe says:

    This is a generalization, as much against it as for it. I have been in both large and small churches. In a large church many people simply hide or get lost, in a small church that is hardly possible. In a small church young people (and older people) will likely be more included and take their place and learn that they are “part of the church.”

  7. Adam Legler says:

    At the same time a visitor may feel more welcomed at a big church and out of place at a small church if the small church hasn’t learned to include outsiders into their closed group of friends. It really depends on so many different factors. I think leadership has the biggest impact on both situations.

  8. Adam Legler says:

    I think the bigger question isn’t how are members held accountable, but how are members given the opportunity to get plugged in and use their gifts to serve. That seems to be the bigger issue in a culture where the church staff insists and is expected to do most things as long as the weekly contribution meets the budget.

  9. Skip says:

    The relationship problems of a big church are largely resolved if the church creates small groups. Ideally, everyone is in a small group and thus they have best friends who know them and know their individual needs. If a member wants to hide, they can do it no matter what church they are in.

  10. ZBZ says:

    If done correctly (as it usually is, which is why big churches are big!), the amount of care and attention a member receives is just as good, if not better, in a big church than a small church. This is because, as Jay says, big churches have intentional systems in place, and people specifically tasked, to ensure every church member is being shepherded. (I haven’t seen too many small churches this intentional!) I’ve heard this called “Span of Care,” where for every 10-12 members, there needs to be one care-giver. And every 10-12 care-givers have a care-giver for them, and on and on and on. This is usually done in the context of small groups, or Bible classes, volunteers with Deacons, or senior staff members with junior staff members, etc. In this way, every member of a 2000 person church has someone shepherding them, and no one has to shepherd more than 10-12 people themselves.

    Before you think this sounds too much like a secular business than a church, consider how we see Bible characters shepherding large crowds. Moses (under the instruction of Jethro) divided the millions of Israelites into smaller groups, each with an ordained judge to oversee them and handle their needs. This freed Moses up to focus on the particularly difficult cases, and allowed everyone’s needs to be met. Jesus does the same thing with the crowds – rather than focusing on 5000 people, he focuses on 12 people. And eventually his disciples go off and get disciples of their own. So in time the 5000 have enough leaders to care them. Finally, in Acts 6, the apostles face the problem of some of their church members falling through the cracks (sound like a concern some folks have with mega-churches!?). So how do they handle it? They have their church members select among themselves some guys who will specifically be tasked with ensuring this ignored segment of the membership is being taken care of. So now the “Span of Care” is extended from just the apostles to now apostles and deacons! The apostles can keep doing what they’re called to do, the deacons have specific tasking (take care of a designated portion of the church), and no one gets forgotten about. In fact, Acts 6:7 reveals this leadership structure is a huge success!

  11. Is “more efficient” actually “superior”? If we are speaking of cost efficiency, then non-building-centered connections are far more cost-efficient, and make more resources available for impacting our communities.

  12. Larry Cheek says:

    As you have 2000 members and brake out into groups of 10 or so and their leader acting as a shepherd, how much less of a job would he be expected to do than an Elder. Or should that church have 200 Elders, the Deacons are usually capable to attend to the material goods and facilities of the church.

  13. ZBZ says:


    I’m not sure I completely understand your comment. I apologize.

    But you do bring up a great additional point – leadership development. In the big church structure I described in my previous comments, any individual church member has the opportunity to rise to become a group leader. And then if appropriately gifted, that church member then has the opportunity to become a leader of group leaders. And then if appropriately gifted, that church member has the opportunity to become a Deacon, or get hired on staff, or even become an Elder. This is the beauty of having an intentional “span of care” – it provides an avenue for men and women to rise through the ranks of leadership, gaining experience at each level and earning the trust of the senior leadership. Then 10 or 20 years down the road, when it’s time to install new Elders, these men and women have already evidenced their calling, proven they’re capable, and won the trust of others.

    Compare this process to how most small Churches of Christ nstall Elders. They pick the oldest man who has kids, or the most successful retired business man, or the man who’s been a member the longest, or the man who’s already calling the shots informally with his money. Personally, i’ll take the mega church way of identifying, preparing, and installing Elders!

    Remember that leadership in general, and especially biblical leadership, isn’t about consolidating power at the top. It’s about delegating responsibility, passing authority onto others, and pushing leadership down to the lowest levels. I believe Acts 6 and Ephesians 4 support this. So Elders, Deacons, and staff members shouldn’t be doing the work for others, they should be empowering and equipping the church members to be doing the work themselves. So back to your comment, by the time someone is installed as an Elder in a big church with an intentional “span of care,” he/she has already been acting like an Elder for perhaps a couple years! I believe this is Paul’s intent when describing the qualifications for Elders and Deacons – don’t look for someone who can grow into those traits and responsibilities; look for someone who already has! Someone who is already acting like an Elder. And the intentional “span of care” leadership model of big churches provide those opportunities for people.

  14. Larry Cheek says:

    Have you also noticed that there were Elders appointed to lead the early church within one year of its existence? In your opinion could 10 Elders oversee a congregation of 2000 even if they were segmented into equal portions for them to personally oversee as the scriptures suggest there would be 200 per Elder. Maybe, they could have some (sheep dogs) subordinate proposed to be Elders to help but, where would you find an example in scriptures. We were never given a figure pertaining to the number of Elders that were utilized in any church or city in the scriptures.

  15. Skip says:

    There are elders who are true shepherds who love the flock and are deeply involved, then there are the typical Church of Christ elders who are chosen because they are successful in business. I have seen lots of the later.

  16. Harold says:

    Since we have no specific inspired instructions on how to manage the work in different size congregations perhaps it is God’s intention for Saints to work out the details of the works of different sized bodies by members cooperatively working together as one body?

  17. I appreciate Jay entertaining my question. I asked if there was something inherently superior about a 2000-person congregation than 10 200-person congregations and the answer was, “Yes, because the megachurch’s per capita operating costs are probably lower.” Frankly, I wasn’t thinking about money when I asked the question. Such naivete about the priorities of modern congregational governance is clearly my own failing. I am a longtime proponent of the idea of the singular “church in the city”, but never advanced this idea on the basis of economies of scale. Perhaps I have been approaching it the wrong way…

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