The Barna Group’s 2016 research of American churches found that almost half (46%) attend a church of 100 or fewer members.
More than one-third (37%) attend a midsize church of over 100, but not larger than 499.
One in 11 (9%) attends a church with between 500 and 999 attenders, and slightly fewer (8%) attend a very large church of 1,000 or more attendees.
Why do so many people like going to smaller churches?
I think small churches hold some genuine advantages over large churches but also a few key hindrances.
7 Advantages of Smaller Churches
1. Family Feel
Small churches capture a family better than any other size of church.
Larger churches must create elaborate small group structures to recreate the family feel that the lost when they moved from being small to a medium size church.
In fact, medium size churches spend a quite a bit of time mourning the loss of the family feel when they grow.
Small churches don’t have to create this family feel through systems or mourn its loss.
Smart pastors amplify this family feel.
They leverage it and use it as an opportunity to minister to those members who come from a dysfunctional family background.
2. Quick Integration of New People
When a visitor walks into a small church they stand out. People notice them and generally engage with them. Thus, the process of assimilating a new member begins.
In medium and larger churches, this process had to be systemised to be effective.
Small churches have the advantage of avoiding a system that can break down because the pastor can easily focus on the integration of new people through their personal contact.
3. Simpler Systems
Small churches are simple organisations. They lack the multiple layers of complexity that you find in medium and larger churches.
There are fewer departments, less rosters to fill, fewer extra meetings to attend and less moving parts.
If a small church pastor keeps things simple they can focus their endeavours on personal evangelism and discipleship.
4. Earthed Preaching
Small church pastors are intricately involved with the lives of their members.
They walk with them in both their good times and their struggles and they are there when things really turn south.
This is an enormous help to a pastor’s preaching.
The everyday struggles of church members enables their preaching to be earthed and keeps them mindful of real life when presenting truth.
5. Shepherding Suits More Pastors
Pastors did not join the ministry to run staff meetings.
They responded to the call of God primarily because of a love for people.
Most pastors enjoy pastoring people more than engaging with the demands of leading a large organisation.
This natural bent towards shepherding people makes pastoring a small church a natural fit.
6. Less staff
Smaller churches have less staff and while I’ve also listed this as a disadvantage it can also work in a positive way for small churches.
Staff require significant resources.
They need money. They take time.
Also, they can cause you heartache when they get disgruntled. They must be supervised. And at times you have to fire them which is never fun.
When a church does not have the resources to employ staff I it opens the opportunity to very creative with volunteers.
While productive staff can bring significant blessing to a church there is a downside and small churches avoid this downside.
7. Pastoral Lifestyle
An often-forgotten positive aspect of pastoring a small church is that pastors are their own boss.
Due to the lack of staff they’re not required to keep office hours.
They can set your own routine and schedule appointments when and where you prefer.
While there is a board to submit to and key stakeholders to keep happy they have a lot of freedom in their day to day duties.
Two Sizable Problems of Smaller Churches
1. The Church Bully
Every church has them.
People who dominate the landscape through intimidation. They revel in their ability to persuade people to yield to their perspective, their way.
They dominate discussions even when they’re not in the room.
Their rule is sometimes positional, holding sway in the board room or it can be informal, dictating outcomes from behind the scenes.
Either way, their influence is disproportionate.
In small churches bullies find it easier to intimidate and dominate. There are fewer opponents and smaller factions.
They’ve outlived a few pastors and cast a long shadow over all major proceedings.
In larger churches bullies are sidelined by weight of numbers. In medium size churches, they hold less sway as leaders make a stand against their tactics.
But in smaller churches they can rule the roost.
2. Pastoral Feelings of Inferiority
All pastors compare their churches to others.
However, small church pastors are more likely to suffer from feelings of inferiority and inadequacy when they compare their numbers, facilities and leaders to what occurs in larger churches.
Feelings of inadequacy are heightened at leadership conferences when large church pastors imply that small church pastors are poor leaders, failures even, or have significant problems that are preventing them from growing their church.
Thus, small church pastors often feel misunderstood by large church pastors.
In John 21 we see Jesus address the issue of comparison when Peter asks Jesus about the fate of the beloved disciple.
Jesus asks him, if I want him to live until the kingdom comes, what is that to you?
Jesus asks us, if I want to bless another leader in a unique way that is different to you, what is that to you?
This searching question helps us understand our own hearts and is designed to lead us away from a sense of inferiority born out of comparison.
It moves us to a place of obeying the distinctive call of God on our lives.
Should Small Churches Seek to Stay Small?
It’s an interesting question but it’s also the wrong question.
Here’s a better question.
How healthy is my small church?
Size is never an indicator of health.
Is a radish unhealthy because it’s small?
Is an oak tree healthy because it’s large?
As Karl Vaters states, small churches are not problem to be fixed but neither are they an excuse for laziness.
Small churches should seek to improve their health while celebrating their unique and significant advantages.