Came across this article last night. I have been praying for and struggling with discernment for the church I serve as pastor to. Read the article, then tell me – do you prefer a larger church (say, over 150), a mega-church (over 1,000), or something in between. Or maybe, you are looking for a small church (under 100)?
Is Bigger Better?
What makes for a biblically healthy church? People might answer that question in any number of ways but one of the most common, and misleading, assumptions often associated with this topic is that “bigger is better”. If a church is large and growing then the almost automatic assumption is that it is healthy or, at least, “successful”. It is often these churches that are well known to others and may even be “spotlighted” as good examples in print or in ministry conferences (yes, some sponsored in the past by MNA!). This has left many, if not the majority of, pastors discouraged despite the fact that their ministries, though perhaps smaller, are actually quite healthy and “successful”, having a real gospel impact in people’s lives.
In contrast to this MNA has more recently been trying to communicate what many already know intuitively: “bigger is not necessarily better”. Being a large, growing church may indeed reflect a biblically healthy church that is attracting many people and seeing a number of conversions. It may be the result of a particularly gifted leader/preacher, positive demographics, and/or a unique movement of the Spirit. All this can be wonderful! But the fact is that small churches can also be biblically healthy and successful and this is a fact that we need to embrace and celebrate as well.
Christian Schwartz, in his book Natural Church Development, objectively demonstrates by using a variety of “health factors” the reality that small churches can still be healthy churches. He shows that in even tiny churches of 50 or less, let alone in small churches of 125-150, that there is a higher percentage of new conversions than in large and mega churches. Thus, according to Schwartz, 20 churches of 100 are likely to see MANY more people come to Christ than in one church of 2000 over a given year. In fact, he points out that a mini church of less than 50 can actually be more effective evangelistically, in proportion to its size, than a mega church!
In addition, he shows that spiritual formation takes place much more effectively in small churches, that a higher percentage of the membership is involved in a small group and are using their gifts in ministry, and so forth.
Small churches are much more likely to reach a wider variety of people and to penetrate and transform a given community. This is partly because larger churches tend to attract people from outside the immediate community and who thus tend not to have an investment in that community. Larger churches also tend to foster more of an audience mentality among a high percentage of those attending where people can be anonymous and come for worship and learning but not for discipleship, fellowship, and ministry. Impact in an individual’s life and their subsequent impact in a community can be less compared to smaller churches. Large churches can become dominated by issues related to facilities, programs, and staffing as opposed to evangelism and spiritual formation.
The fact is, small churches can be healthy even when they are not growing or even declining, a fact that may be due more to demographics than issues of biblical health. For all these reasons it is more important to emphasize and pursue biblical health than it is numerical growth.
But, of course, the opposite may be true. A church might be small BECAUSE it is not healthy. It may be ingrown, self-serving, or just plain lazy! Despite its outward profession it may be, in practical terms, unfaithful to its calling to reach and impact its community for Christ. In this case, being small cannot be celebrated. It must instead be biblically evaluated and challenged.
It should be emphasized that there are certain advantages to large churches. There are often more resources of many kinds for outreach, church planting, and world missions than a small church. Still, it would be very strategic to see the landscape of North America dotted with countless mini, small, and mid-size churches that are reaching their communities with the gospel, continuously reproducing themselves, and “working side by side for the faith of the gospel” (Philippians 1:27)
When it comes to church planting and church health, bigger is NOT always better!