The Average Church Size in America

In 2009, Michael Bell, posted a most interesting article on the average church size in America.

What would you guess is the average size? 300, 500, 750?

Well, Bell says it depends on your approach to this. He shares these thoughts in the article I link to above:

Imagine you are looking down a very, very long street, and all the churches of U.S. are lined up along the left side of the street from smallest to largest. In behind each church are all their Sunday morning attenders.

If you counted the grand total of everyone standing behind each church and then divided this number by the total number of churches that you see on this very long street, you would come up with a “mean” or “average” size of 184. “Mean” is usually what we mean of when we think of “average”. But this number of 184 is a very misleading number.

Lets say you start walking down the street, passing the churches with 5 people on a Sunday morning, 10 people, 15 people, 20 people. You continue walking until you have passed half of all the churches in America. Half of the churches in the U.S. are now behind you, half are still in front. The “average” church that you are standing in front of is called the “median” church. You look to see how many people are lined up behind it, and you see 75 people. That is right, half the churches in the United States have less than 75 people.

I am interested in posting Bell’s thoughts because of an article I recently posted on whether church size matters. I think these numbers above are quite telling.

The average people population (the ‘mean’) of a given local church in North America is that of 184 people. Or, you might come at it from the perspective that says half of the churches in America have 75 people or less (the ‘median’).

That’s what I am understanding from these statistics.

Bell goes on to state:

So, you continue walking, past the churches of 80, 90, 100, 110. You walk until you have passed 90% of all the churches. You look to your left and you see 350 people lined up behind this church.

Wow! 90% of churches have 350 people or less. But, then he goes on to say:

Much to your surprise, although you have passed 90% of all the churches, over half of the churchgoers are still in front of you! This is why the “mean” is so much higher than the “median”. While most of the churches in the United States are small, most of the attenders go to large churches.

So, though half of the churches in the US have 75 people of less, with 90% of the churches having 350 people or less, still, half of the individual church-goers are part of churches that have more than 350 people.

Yes, we like it large-sized, venti-sized.

I personally appreciate churches in the 75 to 184 person range. As I have said a few times, I am convinced that we need more and more to extend outwards, not upwards.

Does Church Size Matter?

Last week, a blog I frequent, Near Emmaus, had a good discussion going in one of their posts – Random thought about the size of churches…

Actually, it led to 56 comments (of which I came in late, and so am the last commenter).

The questions posed by Mark Stevens were: If the church is too large for a minister to not know the name of every person in the congregation is it possible the church has grown too large? Has the minister removed himself from the ability to be a faithful pastor?

Below you will find the gist of my thoughts in response to these questions:

1) I believe you cannot shepherd those you do not know. Shepherds know their sheep, sheep know their shepherds.

2) I think that the normative model set-up in the New Testament is that of a plurality of elders. And, with that said, the elders are the shepherds. I have emphasised amongst our church that we will not appoint someone into eldership if they are not ready to shepherd in some manner. But many churches function in the model that the pastor-shepherd and the elders are different groups. The elders manage, the pastor cares. I find that hard to establish, at least from the conceptual seed in the New Testament.

So if we appoint elders, they need to be challenged to be shepherds. If they are not shepherding in some form and fashion, they probably should be released from eldership (though that wouldn’t be a fun one).

And, as a side note, I am also not up for establishing plurality of elders just because it is the normative model in the New Testament. At this point, I am the only elder-shepherd in our local church. We need more time for people to rise up as shepherds.

3) Because of what I said in #2, I believe having a larger congregation is not inherently evil. If you have 200-300 people, and you also have a handful of elder-shepherds, I don’t think it is out of the question. But the shepherds still need to know the sheep (which includes getting to know their name). And even if you don’t know everyone’s name, it is good to champion the concerted effort that all sheep have the involvement of at least one shepherd.

4) I used to be quite anti-big church. I’ve grown up a bit from that perspective (I hope). I would still prefer a smaller local church. But I don’t believe it is inherently bad to be big. But what I do find is that, the larger we become (at least in the west), the more we might move into managing rather than shepherding. All shepherding will involve some managing at some point. But that is not the essence of shepherding. But, big does not have to head down the management path, nor the lack of purposed and personal interaction amongst shepherds and sheep, as I can testify from my brothers and sisters in China. Megachurches are to be found in the east, but they function a lot differently than western megachurches.

5) I think ultimately we need a change in perspective – we have to move away from building upwards and start building outwards. This is the model of Acts, the only practical guide to ‘church growth’ we find in the New Testament.