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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  • I have been the pastor of the very large church (over 500).

    I have also been pastor of the under 50 attenders.

    It feels the same in the pulpit. The challenge to preach God’s word is the same.

    I have a real problem with preachers in the large to very large church who think they are “more blessed” or “better than” the small church pastors.

    The “race is not always won by the swiftest.”

  • I think it would be interesting to see the percentages of people who attend the different size of churches next to these numbers.

  • Thom, I can certainly agree with this. I pastor a church of about 30, and one of the things they love is the family feel. No one feels strained or pressured. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad, but it’s the truth. LOL

  • Thom – I don’t think you should glamorize smaller churches. The figures you quoted in the article foretell a disaster that’s coming! When does the decline stop? What happens if it does not stop?

    If what we’re doing isn’t working then we better start doing something else. Our churches do a poor job at outreach, and we can do better. George Barna said years ago that the world’s greatest gift is the world’s best-kept secret, and that is even more true today from my observations.

    Pastors need to sharpen their messages, they need to hire outreach pastors, they need to get everyone in the pews to engage their friends, neighbors, co-workers, and relatives in conversations and invitations.

    John Emanuelson

    • John,
      I wouldn’t call this glamorizing small churches, just not despising the day of small things. Every size of a church has its disadvantages and its advantages. I believe that the advantage of a smaller church is its ability to evangelize. I am not a gifted evangelist, but in my conversations with both Christians and non-Christians, people are longing for truth and honest relationships.
      In our small church of about 70, we have a man who is trying to figure things out when it comes to the Bible, faith, and Jesus. He comes every week because he is known by people in the congregation. He feels like he is a part of something, even if he is struggling to believe. He can get that at a large or mega church as well, perhaps through a small group. But I know that he is getting it here, in our small church.
      Also, I understand your fear regarding the decline of churches. This is just me, but I honestly feel that the decline is a representation of churches getting healthier. Sure, many churches are closing their doors and numbers are in decline, but so many people who attend church are just that “church attenders.” How much of the decline is from people who aren’t really Christians leaving churches? God will build his church. He will always maintain a remnant. THe church continues to grow around the world. I am encouraged, but I won’t stop putting my hand to the plow by any means. Me and my little church will continue to shamelessly preach the gospel and love each other well.

  • Greg March says on

    I think its sad, dysfunctional and sinful that the majority of books and literature is by and on The Biggest. … “Mine is bigger than yours”.

    The reality is that most church on the planet are small.

    In fact Our Lord had a small group, and I bet 100 % of the early church communities were what we would call “family Sized churches”. Lets celebrate being small!

  • This is some very good and encouraging news! We were most certainly due fo rsome. Thanks for your wisdom, dedication, and role in revitalization.

  • Janeece Bowers says on

    Simple. There are smaller churches because so many people are leaving them, not because they want a small church. The liberals are trying to rationalize dwindling membership numbers.

  • Connie says on

    I feel more at home in a small community Church. In a larger Church you are lost in the crowd ; the pastor may not even know your name.

  • Ellen Haley says on

    Will this trend mean that more churches will by necessity go to Discipleship pastors that oversee adults down to babies utilizing key volunteer leadership rather than having say a youth pastor a children’s pastor and a discipleship pastor? Or perhaps go more towards a Minister to families? If so how will this affect the seminaries?

  • We worship about 70 or so on a Sunday. I find that it is a perfect number to build with for a greater disciple making opportunities. As pastor, I have been here about 2 1/2 years. It is difficult when the contemporary music or children/teens program is not quite up to a larger church offerings, but I am certain that we have a future that God has given us to accomplish with those who want to build as we are fed the Word and seek to obey our gracious Lord’s commands to reach more people! We are starting a preschool to reach families in our community! It’s one of many starts!

  • We are a resort church that used to be a community church. During resort season we have an average of 35-40 people. Which has a number of visitors included. During the off season we average around 25. The problem is that a few of the year round attenders struggle with the lower attendance during the off season, but they are also opposed to change such as me not using the KJV Bible in the pulpit. Nor can they accept the fact that we are no longer a community church. The median age in the off season is 60+, but we do have a few younger couples attending recently who seem to enjoy being here year round. Would love to equip church with projector and projection screen but sense a unwelcome attitude toward that.

    • PB we use a projector and screen every week. I recently had a laptops hard drive die and it created an issue as what were we to do without it? We put our hymns on there and don’t have the hymnals out anymore. They are handy though. I also have the DailyWord typed in the PowerPoint. That way people can read it to themselves as I go along. Not to mention special quotes. It just has a greater feel of inclusion when they can read it themselves I believe the membership can take it into their minds better. If you can, do it, just explain to the older ones, that you know change is hard, but its the way the younger people do things now. If you want younger people you have to change with the times.

  • I serve in a multi-site church, including various ethnic/language congregations. At present none of our English community based sites/churches are larger than 250 on average (your “Mid” or maybe barely “Larger”). Many who visit and stick like the programming of a larger church but the feel & community of the somewhat smaller congregation.

    Question: Where did you get the data that says “8,000 churches close every year”? I’ve frequently heard 3,500-4,000, but never this high!

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Frank –

      It is an extrapolated number. For example, we know around 1,000 SBC churches cease to exist each year. SBC churches account for about one of eight churches in North America, thus the extrapolated number is 8,000. I actually think the number is closer to 10,000 since the death rate of mainline churches is higher.

      • Many churches affiliated to various conventions are simply going non- denominational. They do not actually close or die. This is true of sbc churches that simply got tired of legalistic expectations. I don’t blame them.