Why Smaller Churches Are Making a Comeback


Smaller churches are poised to make a comeback.

I’m serious. I see too many signs and indicators to believe otherwise.

For certain, I know the bad news. The median size of a church has declined from around 100 to 70 in worship attendance in a decade. That means one-half of all American congregations have fewer than 70 in worship attendance.

And I am aware that more people are attending larger churches today than they were 20, 15, 10, and 5 years ago. To be clear, I am aware that around 8,000 churches close every year.

Yes, I know those facts. But I feel the winds of change. Before we look at those change factors, let’s look at the size of churches in America. I cannot be absolutely certain about these numbers, but there are a lot of good bodies of research by some good organizations (National Congregations Study, Faith Communities Today 2015, 2014 Religious Landscape Study 2014 by Pew Research, and others).

Smaller Standard 0 to 49 worship attendance 40% of churches in America
Larger Standard 50 to 124 worship attendance 27% of churches in America
Mid 125 to 249 worship attendance 18% of churches in America
Large 250 to 499 worship attendance 8% of churches in America
Very Large 500 to 999 worship attendance 4% of churches in America
Mid Mega 1,000 to 1,999 in worship attendance  2% of churches in America
Mega 2,000+ in worship attendance Less than ½ of 1%

Two-thirds of churches have an attendance under 125. The smaller church is the norm, not the exception. And though the news has not been that promising for smaller churches in recent years, I do see some very promising signs for the years ahead. Why do I make such an apparently contrarian statement? Here are five reasons:

  1. There is a revitalization of revitalization. The increased emphasis on church revitalization portends well for all churches, particularly smaller churches.
  2. More pastors are content in Christ at smaller churches. They don’t see their present assignment and call as a stepping stone to something bigger. They love their churches and the communities they serve.
  3. The church replanting movement will help many struggling smaller churches. Instead of closing, these churches will be given new life with the leadership and resources of another church.
  4. There is a renewed commitment to neighborhood churches. Those churches were once the witness and ministry of Christ in a very specific area. There is a renewal of that emphasis.
  5. Smaller church pastors no longer need to feel isolated. There are new networks and informal groups connecting these pastors. Indeed, we are honored that over 1,600 church leaders connect with us at Church Answers.

I am encouraged. Pastors, leaders, and members of standard churches should be encouraged as well. I can’t wait to see what God will continue to do in these churches.

Posted on July 8, 2019

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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  • Bishop Virgil Taylor says on

    This is very good information! For what I can see It seems that a lot of folks are drawn to smaller churches because they want to be apart of a close- knit family of believers. I heard people say they’re tired of feeling as though they’re just a number in a seat in the larger churches.. Frankly, I think we all should focus on the positive spiritual impact that we can make in people lives in a large or small church. The focus should never be about the number of members in a church building but always it should be about the power of God working in the lives of his people. Remember people of the Lord took 12 no name preachers and turn the world up side down! This was because they operated in the power of his Spirit and they wanted to see people saved; not just gathering in a building. Keep in mind people of God the Bible says where there is two or three gathered together ( not necessarily in a building) in my name touching and agreeing their I’m I also! That’s having church!

  • The Rocky Mountain Bible Mission has been serving rural communities for over 65 years and have found there is a high accountability in smaller fellowships. The people make the difference and they expect you to be Real – Relational and Relevant. I have found it spiritually Refreshing and many of our missionaries have served their community 30 or 40 years not looking for recognition or reimbursement. 🙂

  • Steve Morreale says on

    I have the honor of pastoring a community church in a small, predominantly LDS community. I would not trade my place with anyone. We currently average 25 on Sunday, and there is excitement in the air. Looking forward to what God has up His big sleeves!

  • Virgil Wayne Freeman says on

    one main reason that is not mention is typically smaller church service the community they are in and do not bend to the pressure of blending with the times and culture and their ministers tend to preach the word.

  • When visiting my in-laws, we attend the very small congregation church in their rural area, maybe 25 on a typical Sunday, which is actually a little bigger than 5-6 years ago. But a practical challenge is how do you minister to your flock when there are quite a few old folks, a few families with children, and a smattering of middle aged people? Not enough critical mass for a youth group, bible study, or community activity. ‘Church’ is just attending on Sunday. Frequent pastor turnover (shared pastor with a slightly larger church in the next town, all have other jobs to pay the bills) Some are good at marshaling the small group to engage, others just preach on Sunday and visit the sick in the hospital. My father in law is in failing health, so mom rarely goes these days, doesn’t like to leave him alone, and yet no one visits, offers to help, or bring a meal. Seems like ministering has to involve everyone in small congregations, yet it’s lacking. And who knows where the funds come from when the roof leaks, or worse? In laws are pretty big givers, but aren’t getting any younger, and some can’t afford to give.

    • At the last church where I tried to plug in, I begged and begged for fellowship beyond Sunday service. I offered to buy lunch for people. I offered to have guests at my home for dinner. Yet I heard constant excuses. “I’m busy.” “I work a lot.” “I fast every Sunday.” “I live on the other side of town.” After a while I stopped asking.

      One of the elder men in this church had a health crisis in the hospital. We were all reminded every Sunday to keep praying for this devastated family. Yet they were unapproachable. I couldn’t have taken a casserole to their house even if I’d tried. After being there for months I knew no more about them than their first names.

      But, we sure had some good rock-and-roll worship music every Sunday service.

      This was a very small church with about 15-20 regular members. They were constantly praying for God to bring more people.

      • Sadly, I know this is far too often the case in small churches. I could be wrong here, but I believe that people in these circumstances pray for God to bring more people simply because they don’t want to see their precious church die. And by “church,” I mean the building. It’s not a gospel issue. If it really was a gospel issue, reading of Acts 2:42-47 should bring people to their knees.

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