We often think of the three groups of churches as distinct categories. Megachurches are those congregations with an average worship attendance of 2,000 or more. Neighborhood churches are located in and serving a specific and, often, smaller demographic area. Multi-site churches have more than one location or venue.
Though there is some obvious overlap between the three types of churches, we don’t really think of them as connected by a singular and major driving force. But they are. Let’s look at each of them first.
Though more people have migrated to megachurches, particularly in North America, from smaller churches, the movement is really not growing. The number of megachurches has not grown over the past several years. They may have a larger share of the population of church attendees, but that movement may slow or even reverse in the next few years.
Megachurches are largely a Baby Boomer phenomenon. My generation (born 1946 to 1964) was the generation of big churches, big stadiums, and big malls. The latter, big malls, is definitely declining. The other two are not growing as fast and may soon begin to decline.
It has been a quiet growth movement led by Gen X and Millennial pastors, but it is a movement worth watching. Neighborhood churches are those congregations serving a specific demographic area. They can be found in both suburban and urban neighborhoods, smaller towns, and rural areas.
While pastors and other leaders younger than Baby Boomers have been attracted and led to these churches, their age-group peers are now beginning to follow them. The pandemic accelerated the move to these demographic areas. Churches that are willing and ready to receive this younger generation have a great opportunity before them.
The multi-site church movement shows no sign of slowing. It began with megachurches. In fact, if you look at the largest churches in North America, you will rarely see one of those congregations with only one site.
Over the past decade or so, megachurches have grown horizontally, not vertically. In other words, they grew with new sites rather than higher attendance at one site. Most megachurches would be declining now if they had not gone to multi-site.
The multi-site movement has spread to smaller churches in recent years. In fact, we may see a micro-church movement become another expression of the multi-site movement.
The Common Thread
The common thread in all of these movements is that congregations are becoming more local. Fewer people desire to drive a long distance to attend a worship service. To state it more positively, people want to attend a house of worship that represents the neighborhood or locale where they live.
It has been amazing to see how many church leaders are striving to learn more about their immediate local community. Our fastest-growing resource at Church Answers is Know Your Community, a 35-page report that gives rich details of each church’s community (see https://churchanswers.com/solutions/tools/kyc/know-your-community). The most common description we get from church leaders to define their communities is “drive time.” How long do typical attendees drive to get to a respective house of worship? It is not unusual to see requests come to us for a report based on a 10 to 12 minute drive time.
The attractional church is yielding to the local church. This one phenomenon explains what is taking place in the three categories of churches described in this article.
Even more importantly, this move toward local ministry is shaping congregational life and ministry around the world. It behooves all church leaders and members to get to know your community, serve your community, and love your community.
It is a movement we should watch.
It really is a movement we should embrace.
Posted on April 19, 2021
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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I want to personally agree and say thank you for your article on social media. If we were to spend as much time in study and prayer as on this ( basic gossip and one’s chance of meaningless dribble, ( some things are constructive, such as many women are making clothes for themselves and children and grand children. Savings are there as they share costs of goods, patterns and solutions to problems).
But just to gossip and meaningless chatter is a waste. I wonder what is the relation of time spent in Bible study to time spent on face book. I would be totally amazed be the answer. Just maybe if the time wasted on face book was directed to evangelism in our neighborhoods or community Bible study in our homes we would make a difference in the growth of our churches? We need to make a difference here in this life. Back to the Bible and it’s truths and guidance for life can change Nations.
As a deacon of a rural Baptist Church, now that we are without a pastor, I worry people will leave (hasn’t happened to date, we’ve kept our numbers consistent even through the pandemic).
My question is, what does this mean, “willing and ready to receive this younger generation”. We are indeed willing …
Another question I have is, why are preachers willing to preach but not pastor? I’ve found so many willing to preach but none willing to pastor. Is it the bi-vocational aspect? Or, are preachers not wanting the weight of being a pastor?
Hi Jamey, without knowing too much of your context, I’ll chime in. I don’t want to insult your intelligence, but some of the things I say may already be things you well know.
First, I’m glad to hear that you have stayed steady, even without a pastor and in the midst of COVID.
Second, I’ll at least answer what I think is meant by “willing and ready to receive this younger generation.” Maybe your church already represents people across the generational spectrum, and if so that’s great. I inherited a small, mainly elderly congregation and we were successful in bringing in younger folks. But many of the people who left along the way were those that said, “We need younger people here…” but what they meant (and left unsaid) was “but don’t change anything.” A young new pastor with a young family will not attract younger people. Now, I’m not saying you have to run out and buy a drum set, but is your worship music (even if traditional) of good quality? Will parents of young children see clean kids areas not populated with toys from the 1970s? Most importantly, has there been a move to pass the leadership baton over to a younger generation? If younger people have no voice in the church and no place to exercise their God-given gifts, they’ll go elsewhere.
As to pastors not willing to pastor, I can’t relate to that. Maybe because I’m better at member care than I am at preaching. I guess, I’m curious as to what you mean by pastors who don’t want to pastor. I’ve been bi-vocational, and I still managed to do hospital visits and counseling, and the marrying and burying. And yes, it’s hard–but I think I’m all about “pastoring.” Not fully understanding what you mean, I’m going to take a risk here. As I see it, the biblical mandate place upon a pastor is found in Ephesians 4:12. He is “to equip the saints for the work of ministry.” So what kind of ministry is your church body doing? Closer to home, what are the deacons doing with regard to doing the ministry, and seeing to the needs of the church (especially widows). Maybe these pastors are tired of doing all the ministry themselves. Maybe the pastors you refer to are tired of sheep that bite. You know this, but more than a few church members can be some of the meanest, most critical, emotionally-draining people on earth. Maybe the pastors you see have grown sick of it. Or maybe they don’t understand their role or overestimate the value of their preaching. I don’t know for sure because, like I said, I’m not quite sure what you mean. But maybe I’ve given you a little to chew on.
I AGREE WITH YOUR FINDINGS MAN OF GOD, THE ALL MIGHTY GOD BLESS YOU FOR THE GOOD JOB
Responding to earlier posts. One of the principles is the person without a church home is more likely to stop at a church they pass multiple times a week. Likewise, we have had the experience of parishioners moving out of the community (from 10 minute drive to 30 minute drive). They were regular attendees for a while then realized there was a church closer with families they interacted with in other locations (school, etc.) and transferred.
Looking back, the first church plants were called parishes. A parish was responsible for Church/Christian formation, social welfare, non-parochial education, and general care and feeding of the community. Granted, that was nearly 4 centuries ago but the life of the faith in colonial America might have some insights into well functioning neighborhood parishes/churches in the 21st century.
Excellent points, Les.
An original iteration of the congregation. I think, possibly, more Biblical.
Thom is addressing the issue from the church’s perspective, while the responses are from the attendee’s perspective. He is simply saying the local church should do everything in God’s power to reach its immediate community. He is not saying that you shouldn’t drive to another church at some distance.
Dr. Rainer I appreciate your insights and summaries. I also see those trends in some areas. However, Jason, I also see what you are talking about in our area. People have no problem driving 20 to 60 minutes to get to a church where God’s presence is obvious and the Word is being taught, the worship is passionate, and the people are living out their faith in the community. I see a growing trend to be a part of a Body that is real…no matter how far the drive!
I’ve always appreciated the saying, “If the church is alive its worth the drive.” As a pastor in a smaller church I understand about reaching your local community. But I’ve also been in the spot where my family drove over an hour to church because that’s where we needed to be at the time. I know a pastor in Kathmandu that has congregants walk for hours to come to church. I think focusing only on those who live 10-12 minutes away is very shortsighted.
It’s not shortsighted at all. It is a recognition that we have been called as churches to minister to the communities where God has placed us. While I would never discourage those who drive from farther areas to attend worship services, I would hope churches are first reaching their immediate neighbors. And comparing Western congregations to churches in Nepal is apples and oranges.