By Jacqueline J. Holness
Americans seem to have a fascination with size—from our widening waistlines, to our penchant for Hummers on narrow city roads, to the McMansions that decorate suburbia from sea to shining sea.
And the church is not immune to this cultural influence. Which is better—the small church, or the big church?
Let me say up front that I am a member of a small church; but don’t assume that I automatically align myself with team small church because I’ve been a member of one most of my life.
This question has fueled an ongoing debate since the rise of megachurches in our country. We should not assume a church is unsuccessful because it’s small, and we should not automatically be suspicious of the motives and methods of a church that is growing exponentially.
To frame this discussion, consider the facts. According to the 2006-07 National Congregations Study (directed by Duke University Professor of Sociology, Religion, and Divinity Mark Chaves), in both “1998 and 2006-07, the average congregation had just 75 regular participants”; however, the “average attendee worshipped in a congregation with about 400 regular participants.” The survey included information from 2,740 congregations.
I did my own informal and less extensive Facebook survey to discover what churches my friends prefer. Here are some of the more interesting responses:
Small churches. They’re more personal.
My thing is . . . if your small church gets bigger, then it must be prospering and something good is happening. If it is still small and remains the same, then it’s time for some fresh bread and you may have to look elsewhere. You can’t grow as a person if your church is not growing.
I’m part of a large church, and I feel swallowed. I prefer a medium-size church (300-900) where the preacher still knows his members. But he must be a teacher and preacher. I need a serious person who studies the Word and doesn’t give me a bunch of clichés on Sunday morning. But I digress. I prefer a medium church and I’m out of my element right now because I don’t feel connected in the large church we attend.
What I love about big churches is their ability to meet the needs of the members and the larger community, because they have the financial means to do so. If a church is struggling to pay the light bill, it can’t very well feed hundreds or thousands of people, assist those in dire financial need, or support foreign missions. The big churches I’ve been a member of did all of those things very well. There are pros and cons to big and small.
I prefer small churches for getting to know members better, but a larger church when I am late and don’t want to be noticed.
Here is an interesting historical perspective I read in The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (Random House, 2010), in which Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson masterfully chronicles the migration of Southern black people to the North and West from 1915 to 1970 to escape the Jim Crow system. In Chicago, as a result of the migration, one church gained “five thousand members in the first three years of the Migration,” becoming “one of the first megachurches in the country.” However, migrants overall preferred smaller churches. “The reason one left a mainline church was because it was ‘too large-—it don’t see the small people.’”
Serving Where I’m Needed
A few years ago, I considered leaving my small church for the many opportunities of a large church. But as I tried to visit other churches, an elderly lady at my church, who was without transportation, called me one Sunday morning to get a ride to our worship service. As this happened several Sundays in a row to my frustration, I finally realized what God was trying to tell me. I was needed to serve at my church, and it was more about what I needed to give than what I needed to receive. Philippians 2:7-9 makes it clear that faithful service to God—whether we are called to be in a small church or a large church—should be the marker for success.
Jacqueline J. Holness, a member of Central Christian Church in Atlanta, Georgia, is a correspondent for Courthouse News Service, and author of After the Altar Call: The Sisters’ Guide to Developing a Personal Relationship With God, (Nevaeh Publishing, 2012). afterthealtarcall.com
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