How Big Should a Church Be?

In the 1980’s and 1990’s I was all in for the church growth movement. Bigger is better and everything that is healthy grows, right? I attended a Breaking the 200 Barrier seminar and learned to go from a shepherd to a rancher. It was exciting times. The little church that was 56 my first Sunday eventually topped 1000 in weekly attendance. (Since COVID and other churches being planted around us we are about half of that now.)

I was sure getting to 300 would be a hallelujah moment. It wasn’t. Then I was sure topping 1000 would make me the happiest pastor on earth. That didn’t happen either. Both of those goals were exciting, and I think God-given goals. It was wonderful to reach them because the numbers were real people who were influenced by the Lord in some way. They weren’t just numbers, they had names.

One of my unfortunate discoveries while pursuing those goals is that leadership principles can be employed to gather a larger crowd even if those people are not being discipled effectively. There are things that even businesses do to be more effective that will cause church growth. Numbers can not be the only metric that is used to measure effectiveness.

This is not a condemnation of larger churches. I believe in them and some are very effective. If someone asks me the best size for a church whether its micro, macro, mega, house, or community church, my answer is YES! There is no perfect size church if that church stays engaged in the harvest and continues to make disciples.

I played basketball in high school and desperately wanted to reach 6 feet in height because it looked good in the game program. I never made it. It wasn’t in my DNA and there was nothing I could do except be frustrated. My challenge was to stay healthy and reach the full potential of my DNA.

In the same way, every church has a DNA. It can not become something it isn’t.  Every church regardless of size should focus on being healthy and reaching its full potential. Some churches are more effective if they stay small and plant other churches. When I reached adulthood and was married, I had children and now grandchildren. Growth can come generationally and that is just as good.

There are many frustrated pastors struggling to be larger rather than accepting who and what God made them to be. When John the Baptist’s followers reported to him that Jesus was getting the big crowds “To this John replied, “A person can receive only what is given them from heaven” (NIV). Accepting and being comfortable with the assignment God has given each church is one of the keys to enjoying and lasting in service to God. Having a larger church does not make one more spiritual.

A major issue with pastors is the expectation to be a success according to the standard of nickels and noses. There is an unspoken comparison and competition with other churches to do as well as them or surpass them. When pastor in South Carolina is asked the question “how many are you running” he responds, “five thousand”. This usually surprises the questioner until the pastor says, “Not really, I just wanted you to like me better”. Only in their most vulnerable moments will pastors admit that they feel like failures because the standard they are using is “compared to them”.

Malcolm Gladwell in his book “The Tipping Point” talks about the “The Rule of 150” (184). It has been discovered by him and others that the social channel capacity of culture is about one hundred and fifty. With the average American church hovering close to the one hundred mark, is it unnatural to try to force it beyond its God-given DNA? Seminars abound on breaking the two hundred barrier. It may be that it is better to teach the church to multiply the next generations of churches as a parent and grandparent. If a pastor is called to a church with the DNA of one hundred, it is painful for him and the church to become something they are not.

Should it be typical for the “superstar” pastor to do everything from preach to counsel to administrate? It is exhausting. Especially if as in David’s case, the armor just doesn’t fit. It can warp a soul to try to make it something that is outside of its identity. This does not give permission to the pastor and church to be lazy and content with few people. It does change the way the pastor and church reach out to make disciples.

Theology and the Bible presents no such demands on a church’s structure or size. The Apostle Paul planted primarily house churches. They were very organic and adapted to the culture they were planted in.

Jesus talked about the old structural way and new structural ways in Matthew 9:17. “Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved” (ESV). He encourages creativity and change but not at the expense of the old wineskin. New structures should exist side by side with the old structures. In the Western culture it should not be either/or but both.

Trying to get a community church or micro church to grow past 200 is tantamount to trying to get me to grow beyond 6 feet tall. The answer is to prayerfully preach the gospel and organically grow and make disciples. It is wise to leave the size to God.

The Bible places the emphasis on disciple making rather than church planting but it is also records Paul and others gathering the new disciples into groups or churches. 

The Church is God’s doing and Jesus himself is building it. It is time for us to do our part of the partnership and leave God’s part to him. 

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