The New Very Large Church

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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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69 Comments

  • Hi Thom,

    Having done a lot of my ministry in main line churches, the described realty about church size is not new for me. What I do think is helpful still is the reality of church stages from work I was exposed to earlier in my ministry. We spoke in terms of the 200 barrier, and how to lead through it successfully. It still is one of the toughest barriers, because the informal structure behind the scenes is very powerful and can derail whatever formal authority the elected leaders have, if the system of government has elected leaders. If you want to discuss more, Pew Trust has good research on this.

  • What about Mega Church stats, I would be interested in how they compare and is that category going to change? For example mega church are those above 1,000?

    Thanks for sharing the report and analysis.

  • Thom. . . I appreciate your ministry. As to this article. . . what is the scope of the statistical data? Is it SBC, protestant, all USA Churches???

  • It’s difficult to grow a church if 1) The Elderly are too old/weak to serve 2) The famlilies are busy raising kids 3) The Young people exist just to pay rent (Or work all week to meet the bills). 4) The majority are on benefits and/or addcits. Who has disposable income or time to serve or even attend? Basically retired people in their 50’s who own their own homes – and that’s a dying breed. That’s more of a ‘cultural’ shift than a moral or philosophical one.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Jason –

      You have noted well the reasons churches struggle. But we have to keep in mind that the first-century churches had more struggles than we do today. The Holy Spirit is still working in many churches today.

    • I think you have hit on some very key points in your reply. I serve a mainline congregation where we average around 30 in-person attendance and have another 20 or so that join us online. Most of the people in the church that I serve are 65 and older with a big chunk of them being in the 75 and older group. I am in my mid 40’s and my wife just turned 40. We have very, very few in their 50’s and even less in 40’s, and only 3 people in their mid 30’s to mid 20’s. We have a big segment of our church who are at the age where they do not have the physical or mental ability to serve more on a regular basis (especially leadership roles), and then many of the people who are in that earlier retirement age of 65-75 who have done more of the leadership roles are traveling more, less frequent in worship, taking care of family, or dealing with their own health issues. While we have money in savings we are not starting to cut into that, and the majority of our congregation are on fixed incomes. It is very challenging for churches like these because we can’t just put on programs or events and people start flocking to the church and giving financially. It just doesn’t work like that anymore. The church longs for how things used to be, but even if we wanted to try to “re-create” the past we do not have the budget, the people, or the energy to do so. This means the church has to either adapt, try new things, (which often they lack the will or energy to want to do this) or understand that most likely their local church will not survive.

  • Alan Morrison says on

    Not surprising, but not talked about so many mid-size congregations think they are still small congregations.

  • I was thinking that our church was one of few with low attendance. I was really discouraged almost ready to throw in the towel. Don’t get me wrong I am not happy about this new paradigm. I wish that we were one of few instead on among many. The real question is how do we turn it around? One of things that I am doing is getting more involved in the community. Reaching out to the young people in our community and their parents. In the past we went to them telling them what we would do for them. This year I am asking what are your needs and how can we help. Trying to build more relationships like Jesus did with the woman at the well. Remember Miracle Baptist Church Chattanooga in your prayers for the harvest is plentiful but labors are few.
    Pastorj

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Randy –

      Church Answers has been researching growing churches in 2022. As a consequence, we saw common patterns in them. The single most common pattern was a regular outreach in the community at least once a month. We will release a resource in May 2023 that helps churches do just that. It is called “The Hope Initiative.”

  • Thom,

    Thank you very much for this article. Do you happen to have the remaining stats? For example, do you know what is the current percentage of churches in the following categories: 500-1000; 1000-1500; 1500-2000; 2000+? Or some variation of those stats?

    If this is going to be in the Podcast just let me know which Episode.

  • I am interested in knowing where the stats for the number of churches in each category originated. Thanks!

  • Chad Crooks says on

    What are your thoughts on WHY this shift? Covid? Lack of passion?

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Chad –

      We have an analysis of this phenomenon in an upcoming Rainer on Leadership podcast. For now, we see the biggest shift to be in the general culture of America. It is no longer culturally necessary to be active in a church. That one factor may account for 30% or more of the decline. “Cultural Christians” (an oxymoron for sure) are declining in number precipitously.

  • Janet Alyce Hasler says on

    Church attendance has been changing for some time. I think some churches might have to merge
    and in other cases a pastor might have to serve more than one church. I think in this day and age
    the church must go beyond the doors of the church and be more involved in the community. In addition to preaching the Gospel, the church has to be there for the abused person, the addicted and those needing counseling. Everyone can see the church building, but do they know the pastor, what the church has to offer? If the church doesn’t serve as missionaries to the community I think it will die. Congregations seem to be older in age, the future is our youth and we need to reach out and bring youth into the church and have them be more involved. Some churches are weak in doctrine; that cannot be; the Bible must be preached in its truth and purity. Small groups are excellent for bring people closer together and closer to the Bible. Fellowship is important and cannot be ignored.

  • I got to hang out with Dr Wiersbe a lot. And anytime I would mention the deminuative size of our congregation, he would always reply, “there are no big churches with God and there are no small churches. There are no big pastors with God and no small pastors.” Always such an encouragement! Thanks for the article, it gave good perspective.

  • Very interesting

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