by Austin Maxheimer
Is bigger better when it comes to church, or does the old saying ‘Good things come in small packages,’ apply? With growing tension and debate about congregation size, what does the future look like for both small and large churches?
The Church Will Continue to Get Bigger…
The megachurch is here to stay (for now). The explosion of the megachurch—generically defined as 2,000+ attendance—is well documented. Reports vary, but here are approximate numbers:
1980 → 100
1990 → 300
2000 → 650
2013 → 1,700
That’s pretty remarkable. Video technology pioneered the way for broadcast, which made the multisite model an even more viable option for church growth. The results have been a powder keg. Of the 1,700-some megachuches, about half of them are multisite, and that trend does not look to be a passing fad either. There are an estimated 5,000 churches currently operating as multisite. If anything, it seems we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg. There will be another wave or two of multisite attractional-model churches that make the current numbers look tiny. Add to these facts the old maxim that a crowd draws a crowd, and you have the environment for the trend of Bigger churches to continue to get bigger.
The Church Will Continue to Get Smaller…
Alan Hirsch estimates—based on solid research done in Australia—that the current church model is reaching only about 40 percent of Americans. That means about 60 percent are not engaging with the presently existing model. The answer? Smaller gatherings of Christ-centered communities going out to live life where people are. This commonly takes form as “missional communities” or “house churches,” but the future of the church will see a proliferation of different expressions of smaller church bodies. Some of the “Smaller movement” is reactionary to the megachurch trend (Newton’s 3rd Law of Motion), but I think it mostly comes out of personal experience and context. There are simply some people in some situations who will not come into a church building for a Christian service. The Smaller movement aims to take the gospel to them and be incarnate in the cities and communities they live in.
What About the Medium-Sized Church?
While certainly not every mid-sized church will magically disappear from the church landscape—and I personally believe there will always be a place for a healthy “family church”—the data and missional context suggest they will continue to decline. Megachurches (by necessity) and small churches (by design) are inherently more organic and have movement dynamics. Mid-sized churches tend to be more structured and institutionalized. There are obviously many more contributing factors, but in a culture that is increasingly anti-institution, tech savvy, micro-community–oriented, and mission driven, the Bigger and Smaller churches tap into the cultural ethos more readily.
My Two Cents…
There is nothing to be concerned about by this trend. In fact, it’s exciting! When you look at the church in Acts, there is explosive growth and missional communities, dynamic speakers and empowered “lay people,” attracting unbelievers into Christian community and sending Christians out to unbelievers. As long as we don’t throw stones at each other and see that both are needed to reach the each side of the 40/60 split—and hopefully even get to the point where we can work together—then the potential for impact is limitless!
What does this mean for church, big or small?
1. Keep focus on the mission. If half the energy that went into criticism of other churches went into collaboration on kingdom growth, our cities would be revolutionized. Big/Small, Broadcast/Live, Missional/Attractional—we need to tune out all that dialogue when it takes us away from building up the kingdom of God. Instead, we can remain laser-focused on the mission: Are we helping people who are far from God experience Jesus? Are we helping people trust and follow Jesus?
2. Multiply everything! Both Big and Small. Multiply groups, teams, campuses, churches, leaders, baptisms…everything. However, before multiplying everything, be a church that is fanatical about reproducing one thing: disciples. Sometimes we forget that Big movements start with the Small move of individual life change. Knowing who you are personally helps you grow closer to Jesus.
3. Realize you are perfectly positioned. This is tough to do. Our default modes are to either hunker down and not want to move or to be discontent with where we are and long for more. We need to trust that God has us where he wants us and align with his will for our communities.