The New Very Large Church

It’s time to rethink church size. For the purpose of this article, I define church size as average weekly worship attendance, including children and youth who may not be in the primary worship service. In other words, we count every person attending a worship weekend (or other days for a few churches).

Thanks to Lifeway Research, we have a clearer understanding of the sizes of churches. I don’t know if you will be surprised.

I was.

What is a Large Church?

Let’s look at the breakdown of churches by average worship attendance:

  • Under 50 in attendance: 31% of all churches
  • 51 – 99: 37%
  • 100 – 249: 24%
  • 250 and above: 8%

All of the numbers are fascinating, but the largest category should cause us to pause. Only 8 percent of churches have an attendance of 250 or more. These churches now define the category, “very large churches.”

Of course, there are still megachurches of 2,000 or more in worship attendance and mid-megachurches of 1,000 to 1,999, but those churches are outliers. If a church has an attendance of 250, its size is in the largest category.

New Names for New Categories

There will be some readers who cringe at the numerical emphases of this article. I get it. Numbers are neither ultimate nor penultimate. But these numbers represent a sea change in how we look at or define church size.

For now, we at Church Answers will speak of churches in the following categories so we can be on the same page:

  • Under 50 in attendance: smaller churches
  • 51 – 99: mid-size churches
  • 100 – 249: large churches
  • 250 and above: larger churches

Implications of These Paradigmatic Changes

We will discuss the implications of these changes in depth at our podcast, Rainer on Leadership. But it does not take much thought to understand the world of American congregations is dramatically different than just ten years ago.

More pastors and staff will be co-vocational and bi-vocational.

Equipping church members to do the work of ministry is as vital as always.

Ministry and theological training must adapt to this reality.

Search committees will be looking for a different type of pastor.

Church budgets will be smaller.

Denominations must refocus their ministry and support of this new paradigm.

More churches will need to be adopted or they will die.

The list could go on.

The New Reality

Over two-thirds of American churches have a worship attendance under 100. As noted earlier, the new very large church has an attendance of 250 or higher.

It is indeed a new reality.

I would love to hear your thoughts on it.

Posted on November 28, 2022

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • Linda Benskin says on

    Christian congregations are becoming smaller. This is not necessarily a bad thing. House churches offer many advantages over mega churches, and emulate the churches of the first century more closely. In a smaller, more intimate, group, it is more difficult to be a bystander who is not truly engaged. And, shier people are more likely to teach. The authors contend that these smaller congregations should equip their members to do most of the work of the church (always a good idea) and their leaders should support themselves, at least partly, with other work (Paul was a tent maker when he stayed in one place, rather than being an itinerant missionary). Smaller churches also offer more opportunities for inter-generational communication and mentorship.

  • In my opinion, the world underwent a sea change with COVID and the church was scrambling to adapt. During that time there was a golden opportunity to rethink the entire church model and we missed it. I have never seen such a hard push by western Christianity to just get back to status quo, which won’t work. It’s very troubling to me personally. I have been searching for a church that actually is doing the mission and I can’t find one. It’s just more of the head in the sand nonsense.

    If we look at the results of the resource intensive model that has driven the western church model for the last 50-60 years, it’s sadly a disaster. Everything the church is doing seems the opposite of what is really required. We are adopting more technology to appeal to the younger generations when they want more face to face interaction. Young people want two things: truth and results. The church is not providing either and then we wonder why they are leaving. Churches want to become bigger but don’t want to dive deeper. Pastors want people to come back to church but don’t want to equip people to be the church. I don’t think they know how or they don’t trust the people sitting in front of them every week.

    The professional, pastor centric, resource intensive model has failed the mission of the gospel and must undergo biblical reform or the western church will continue in decline. I wrote a multi part series on the state of the church and what I think needs to be done for the very near future before it’s too late.

    • Linda Benskin says on

      I would love a copy of what you wrote on this!!! (multi part series on the state of the church and what I think needs to be done) I am a part of a fantastic “large” congregation that did not shut down our food pantry, even for a week, during the pandemic, and continues to reach out the hurting in our community through this and other ministries while actively supporting missions abroad. We have grown organically as volunteers from the community were attracted to help and then wanted to learn more about why we give so sacrificially of our time and wealth. However, there are several strong personalities within the congregation who want to attract more young people by fancying up the building, getting rid of anything that might look old fashioned, and adding more entertainment. I do not believe this is what young people who are seeking God want.

  • Thom, I have long thought the vast majority of churches are as you list them here, are less than 250 people involved on a given Sunday. Two thoughts:
    1) “Attendance” and engagement patterns are vastly different these days. Monthly attendees (virtually and in person) might be a better gague of involvement. Our weekly attendance at worship services are rarely over 100 but our unique monthly “attenders” range from 175 to 200 plus. In addition, ministry “size” may be better measured by those connecting with the ministry through our “service” to our community rather than just those “attending”. For example through 8 different AA meetings over 500 people weekly come to our small building including numbers or our “members”. 20 to 30 folks come to our weekly community Grief Share ministry a few of them being our “members”. Another 20 to 40 come weekly with social workers attempting to reunite with their foster children. These are all extensions of those we financially support and engage regularly.
    2) Counterintuitive nearly ever church conference I’ve ever attended across my 45 years of ministry is lead by magachurch pastors teaching leadership and other principles that seldom practically connect with the real life challenges of the 249 attendees and less 92% of us. That has been a great frustration AND a significant down pressure on my colleagues and I who are made to constantly feel that if we aren’t “growing” through all the church growth plateaus we are in the wrong ministry, or calling. It appears from your research we should be developing our conferences, books, and talks around how to maximize the impact of the majority of churches and greatly encouraging the other 92% of Pastors. (BTW, I’ve been a part of both megachurches and smaller ones.) Pastor Allan Gorman.

    • Steve Gtove says on

      Great points Allan, with which I agree. As to #1, I tried to look at our building and think of ways that those visitors could be engaged with designate, etc. we have a few verses of Philippians 2 printed on the wall in the sanctuary, as well as a large map of the world.

      I think there is a place for a church “mall” maybe. Shared space with a few other congregations, should office personnel, and signage like a movie theatre. Well, maybe.

  • Brad Hales says on

    I would love to know the age breakdown in these categories. Do the medium size churches tend to have older memberships then the larger churches? Or do we see aging in all categories?

  • Fernando Orona says on

    Good stuff! Out of curiosity, is there any way to see how the numbers have changed over time? This article refers to a paradigm shift, so curious what the comparison would look like. Thanks!

  • Donnie Foster says on

    I have been saying for two years that Christians are practicing herd mentality and are flocking to mega churches because it makes them feel safe. Mega churches are hiring ministers away from smaller, now midsize churches, because they either don’t know how to, or refuse to train their own congregation for ministry. How does a church of over 1000 not have at least one person for a ministerial opening, but a midsize church has many? Small churches have to train their own, mega churches just throw money at the problem. Mega churches have become Amazon putting smaller churches out of business, because they can literally outdo and outshine the smaller churches with programs and light shows. Instead of helping smaller churches, they put a satellite campus in the area and have far more resources and draw people away. It points to several issues. Smaller churches aren’t grounding their people, and mega churches only care about supporting their budget. God help us! The answer is to stop trying to impress people and start winning souls! I mean, convert, baptize and disciple, not a hand raising at a Huge Spectacled Event. These numbers are proof we are in trouble, and much of the problem is of our own doing! I’ve witnessed mega church leaders walk around at conferences and literally broker deals for ministers to leave smaller churches and go to a mega church. It’s sickening! Jesus said, Go Make Disciples, not go build mega churches that only draw other Christians and have no discipleship programs. We better wake up! Just once, I’d love to see a mega church pastor call a small or midsize church and say, “Instead of putting a satellite campus in your area, we are sending you people to help build the kingdom and win the lost! The lost don’t need a video screen and a fancy facility, they need the life changing message of Jesus Christ and people who aren’t afraid to suffer and get their hands dirty for the cause. Thank you for doing this research and publishing it! God bless you!

  • For its first two-hundred years, the church met in the private homes of its members. Since every epistle written to a church was written to a church that me in someone’s home, the body-life activities set forth as ideal were (arguably) designed for smaller settings. Bigger isn’t necessarily better—better is better! Smaller churches have strategic, divinely-designed size advantages for effective ministry. Good things really do come in small packages. Smaller settings foster the simplicity, intimacy, unity, love, support, and accountability that characterized the early church. The relationships described in the New Testament work best in situations in which everyone knows everyone else. A loving, family-like atmosphere is more easily developed. The many “one another” exhortations of Scripture can be more realistically lived out. Church discipline takes on genuine significance. Disciple-making is natural and personal. Participatory worship is better suitable for smaller settings. Celebrating the Lord’s Supper with the agapé love feast is more natural in a smaller setting. Achieving congregational consensus is easier when everyone knows everyone else and open lines of communication genuinely exist. Involvement with a smaller church can be a wonderful blessing with strategic, divinely-designed advantages.

  • The last 2 churches I have been a part of the struggle was redefining the time of the staff and getting away from the staff doing everything. It is even more important today to realize that the congregations need to be retrained to where they take on more responsibility.

    One of the churches I resigned from stating that I felt my position was not necessary. I was the assistant children’s pastor and between my supervisor and I we were 60 hours a week. At the time I resigned we were averaging 10-15 children. But when I left they immediately hired a replacement. A year later, just before Covid hit they closed their doors rather than adjusting staff numbers and responsibility. Do instead if a few staff members finding a place at other churches they were all suddenly without a ministry position. The church I left just after Covid is facing same struggle. Neither felt they could expect volunteers to step up to the plate and serve.

    I appreciate your providing direction , information to churches to help adapt to the new reality for churches today.

  • While doing research for my doctorate in 2010, I was confronted with these numbers as the “trend”.
    The Small church, in my opinion, is where we can best “live” as Christian more effectively in these days. Where we can keep the simple and pure Gospel, help one another, and reach out to our neighbor. We cannot truly love anonymously.
    I believe this “move” is of the Holy Spirit in preparation for things to come.

  • I appreciate the findings of Lifeway. I am guessing you did not get into remote attendance. That’s a whole different kettle of fish.

  • Hi Thom,

    Thank you for your work. Two questions: Is the data compilation post-covid or pre-covid? How do you think this data will effect theological education?



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