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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  • Thom
    I to am so appreciative of the time and effort you put in to help both the small church and pastor. However as a smaller church pastor ( 95-110 in SS) I fear the Sbc as a whole has forgotten us when it came to discipleship. On Sunday mornings we have excellent affordable material. That’s not always the case for Sunday night. We have excellent studies but it isn’t always financially feasible for a small church. So much is dvd driven with an accompanied student book. These studies can be as short as 6-8 weeks. For a small church to spend 250-300$ every 6 weeks for a dvd driven study isn’t feasible. The majority of Sbc churches are in the small range yet often it seems our focus and resources are more geared toward the large to mega church which makes up such a small % of who we are. That’s why I’m so appreciative of your work and posts because you give so many opportunities to smaller pastors to learn and have resources to aid in building and rebuilding the smaller church field.

  • Bennett Smith says on

    I LOVE this!

  • Judith Gotwald says on


  • Smaller ships are easier to steer. People can feel like they are a part of something.

    • Guy in the Pew says on

      You would think so, but my experience has been completely different. Larger churches tend to let one guy lead, which is very effective if he’s a godly man, whereas smaller churches everyone tries to lead. It’s not so easy to steer when everyone is pulling the wheel in a different direction.

  • Lovelypeace says on

    A friend is a pastor at a small church. There’s a big split within the congregation over the matter of communion and who should be allowed to receive. It’s turning out to be really devastating for everyone and it looks like his community is going to get smaller soon.

  • Guy in the Pew says on

    We attended a mid-mega church for a while. Even though I really enjoyed the pastor’s sermons and got to know some of the staff, I got tired of feeling like I was going to an event every Sunday.

    However, the small churches I’ve been part of, or what you define as larger standard, have always struggled and have been rife with destructive church politics. I don’t know what the solution is.

    • At least in the Episcopal Church, those churches in the larger standard category are often “stuck” (my term). They’re not small and intimate and they aren’t quite big enough to have a variety of programs to reach a larger audience. So they’re neither intimate nor program – and it’s hard to be stuck in the middle, so people tend to nitpick over trivial things.

  • Joel Dison says on

    As a pastor of a small church, I, too, have hope. I know it is not God’s will for our churches to close. We just have to get on His page. Thank you for your commitment to churches like mine and the resources you make available. It’s good to know you are not alone.

  • David Stikeleather says on

    Thank you Dr. Rainer for this encouraging word! I believe God is moving in small congregations (He definitely is where I serve) and it is so encouraging as a Pastor of a small church to see the burden for us that out Denomination has, and your ministry has for our health! God Bless You!!

  • John W Mason says on

    I serve a small church and the new folks that are coming tell me they search for being connected and the closeness of the worship. I hear them say that they finally feel a part of something and others how it feels more personal and where you know the people around you. I think they also like the fact that the pastor knows them on a first name basis and interacts with them. I pastored a large church and can honestly say I knew few people by name and seldom knew who their families were. I know the people here, their families and many of their closest friends.

  • Pastor Tim says on

    Personally, I always thought it rather hilarious that mega-churches always seem to institute “small-groups” to mimic the intimate fellowship, accountability, communion, discipleship, and worship that small churches have always enjoyed.

    • Charles says on

      Without a doubt personal growth will come better in a small group setting, but often times greater ministry and ministry options are accomplished with the large and mega-churches. Often times, better children’s church, more ministries options, I hope you get my drift. I’ve been in both large and small churches. Indeed the last two small church plants spun off, or mothered by my present mega church started with more members then the average small church has in attendance.

    • Dr Robert Varnam says on

      This is perfectly well and should be applauded. Most people can only relate personally to a small group of people-small church or small group(s)!

  • I am a member of a large church, (1500). but I consider my small group, Say Sunday School as my reason for going. The large worship is OK, but for fellowship the small group of 12-15 is the motivating factor for me. If for some reason I have to choose, I’ll make the small group and skip the large worship hour.

  • We have a small church. I’m told that people are coming to small churches for the fellowship. They feel like family at a small church and a number in attendance at a big church.

    • I agree with this. That is why O prefer smaller churches. Of course, the teaching must be Biblical, no matter the size

    • Heath, my small church has the same feel. People who come to visit often remark that they were made to feel welcome at our church. It reminds me of the old “Cheers” sitcom theme song. They want to go where everybody knows their name, and their always glad you came. There are still Biblical preaching, classes, youth groups, and Bible studies, but people seem to come back because of this smaller congregation’s hospitality.

      • Barry. So funny! I love your quote of the “Cheers” show. I have often said at our smaller church I would like to put a sign out front that reads; Where everyone wants to know your name. I too, see many who feel lost in the bigger church. They have had little contact with the leadership and that is what they are looking for, personal conversation. Thanks Barry.

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