church size

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Size matters

Size Matters

When it comes to local churches, is big always best, or is small better, or does size just not matter at all?

Three decades ago I had the privilege of being called to pastor a tiny but rapidly growing local church. The shack in which we were meeting was scheduled to be demolished to make way for a town house complex and so we had to find other accommodation. The property developer who was demolishing the shack offered us the choice of two plots of land on which we could build; one, a huge area right on the main road through the suburb and opposite the shopping centre, the other was a much smaller stand right in the heart of the residential area. The choice between these two options forced me and my eldership team to think and pray intensely about the nature of the church which any proposed building campus would house. The large site was ideally suited for a big, attractional church model and the smaller site would almost ensure that the church located there would be small, organic, and relational. This led me into a fresh study of the New Testament to discover the principles and values of local church. This is just a sample of what I found:

Other than the first expression of church life in Jerusalem, the local churches were small and intimate extended families.  Advocates of larger churches point to the 5,000 member first church that met in Solomon’s porch in the temple campus (Acts 5:12).

The problem is of course that the apostles seemed to have got some fundamentals wrong in those early days and it would be unwise to use the early Jerusalem church as a model.
For instance, Jesus had instructed them to go into all the world (Mark 16:15), yet they remained in Jerusalem until persecution forced them to obey (Acts 8:1). The churches they then established outside of Jerusalem were small, and we can deduce this from at least two main clues:
  1. We know from historic evidence that there were no large meeting places that would have been available to the early Christians.
  2. Paul’s teaching concerning the church is intimate and community/family oriented and he even makes mention three times of the church meeting in private homes (Romans 16:5, 1 Corinthians 16:19, and Philemon 2).

The problem with this sort of reasoning is that it is by no means exhaustive or conclusive. For instance, the church, in say Corinth, may have had to meet as small groups in homes simply because there were no viable alternatives. One cannot conclude from the evidence that large church meetings are unbiblical or inherently ‘wrong’.

For me, it is far more important to try to understand, from the biblical evidence, the dynamics and underlying core principles of local church life.

The questions to be answered would then be, ‘what size and type of local church would best serve these values, and what type of local church would erode these values’?
The New Testament presents three main analogies of local church – Body, Household, and Temple.

Body as churchThe figure of a BODY is a wonderfully descriptive illustration of the functionality of the Church. 1 Corinthians chapters 12-14 develop the concept considerably, as does the book of Ephesians. Individual believers, in this analogy, are like single cells within a body. Each has the complete DNA blueprint of the whole body, yet each is specialised and developed to fulfill a specific function within the body. Each is interdependent, relying on others in order to exist and function. Even the ‘ascension gift’ ministries fit into this paradigm; Prophets, for instance, are like nerve cells which convey information to and from the brain; Pastor and Teachers are like red and white blood corpuscles carrying nutrition and oxygen to the other cells, removing waste, and combating sickness. And so on. The concept of the Church as a body reveals its functionality, inter-relatedness, and organic unity.

A second biblical analogy for the church is HOUSEHOLD. In Matthew 10:25 Jesus refers to his disciples as members of his household, and Galatians 6:10 calls Christians ‘those who belong to the family of believers’. In Ephesians 2:19 Paul calls the congregants’ members of God’s household’, and in 1 Timothy 3:15 he actually defines the Church with the words ‘… God’s household, which is the Church of the living God…’ (Some other references are Hebrews 3:2,5,6 and 1 Peter 4:17).

A household has a patriarchal head; a household has extended family – parents, children and servants (Ephesians 5&6); a household has order and discipline; a household is built around relationships and not structure… and so on. The household concept puts the focus on internal organisation and relationship within the Church.

Now Ephesians is the Bible’s most comprehensive revelation of the Church, and these are some of the terms Paul uses here with reference to the relationships within the Church: ‘Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ … he predestined us to be adopted as his sons … in him we were made heirs … our inheritance … members of God’s household … the Father, from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name … Then we will no longer be infants … Wives, submit to your husbands … Children, obey your parents’.

Although the additional image of a Temple can be found in Ephesians, by far its most dominant theme is the Church as the Family of God.

The Church is referred to in some texts as the TEMPLE of God. 1 Corinthians 3:16, for instance, states ‘Don’t you know that you yourselves (plural) are God’s temple (singular) and that God’s Spirit lives in you?’ Ephesians 2:21-22 expresses the same idea: ‘In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.’ What a concept! The Church = The Place of God’s Presence.

In Old Testament times God presenced himself in the Holy of Holies, first in the Tabernacle and then in the Temple. This presence was manifest in the Glory Cloud, the Shekinah, which appeared over the Mercy Seat of the Ark of the Covenant. Then, in New Testament (Gospel) times, the triune God presenced himself in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ: John 1:14 reads ‘The Word became flesh and lived (Tabernacled) for a while among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.’ In addition, John 2:19 records Jesus as saying, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” and verse 21 tells us that the temple he had spoken of was his body. Then, on the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descended and presenced himself in the Church. So, Temple One = The Tabernacle; Temple Two = The body of the Lord Jesus Christ; Temple Three = The Church. Truly the Church is the Temple in which God lives by his Spirit! Even the word ‘temple’ evokes images which reveal aspects of the Church’s function, such as worship, sacrament, and the ministry of the Word.

Of these three models, only the church as a temple can apply with equal force to both small and large church gatherings, but the dominant models of Body and Household apply best to small church gatherings.

Of course, a key question for me is always ‘what did Jesus say or model concerning this matter?’ Well, He clearly made no attempt to establish himself in any particular location and then draw a regular crowd. On the contrary, He selected just 12 men and travelled with them all over Israel and Samaria. He regarded them as family and a particularly significant text concerning this is Matthew 12:46-50 which records, ‘While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” I do not believe that Jesus was harshly rejecting his mother and brothers, as some critics contend, but was rather making the very point that I am highlighting, that his disciples were ‘family’. It is typical of Jesus to use a current incident or circumstance to make an important teaching point.

Church FamilyThe church values that yield ‘family’ and ‘body’ are things such as participation, knowing others and being known by others, accountability, being a disciple of Jesus and discipling others, loving relationships, personal ministry, and so on. These values are best lived out in a small church setting. In addition, small churches can be effectively led by a team of unpaid volunteers or a limited paid staff, but large churches invariably need large staff components and hierarchical management structures in order to operate optimally. This kind of leadership is alien to a family environment. Small church congregations can provide relationship, pastoral, and ministry opportunities for all who attend, but in large churches only a small percentage of attenders are known, participate and receive pastoral care. Small churches can add fellowship groups to deepen relationships, but large churches have to rely on such groups to provide any consistent pastoral care… and only part of their congregations are able or willing to attend such groups. Small churches can function organically with minimal organisational aspects but large churches can only function as organisations with minimal organic aspects. I have made some strong but largely unsupported statements here but anyone wanting further discussion can click HERE.

A Respected reformed theologian and pastor has written an article covering many of the dynamics I am touching on here, and,  although I do not agree with his apparent underlying assumptions that all churches need at least one full-time pastor and that all churches need to grow numerically as single local churches, I think he makes several valuable observations. The author also appears to assume that a church, to be healthy and successful, needs to grow numerically from small, to medium, to large, to very large. I do not agree at all with this assumption because I hold that by doing so the church loses its fundamental nature of body and family and becomes an organisation and even a business.  Never the less he accurately describes the differences in leadership styles and church nature that occur at different numeric sizes. You can find this article HERE but for those who don’t care to read his full article, here are some of his observations (I have been unashamedly selective here):

  • ‘Size has an enormous impact on how a church functions’.
  • ‘Out of necessity, the large church must use organizational techniques from the business world’.
  • ‘The larger the church, the less its members have in common. There is more diversity in factors such as age, family, status, ethnicity, and so on, and thus a church of 400 needs four to five times more programs than a church of 200.’
  • ‘The larger the church, the more staff per capita needs to be added’.
  • ‘The larger the church, the harder it is to recruit volunteers’.
  • ‘The larger the church, the more planning and organization must go into events’.
  • ‘The larger the church, the higher its aesthetic bar must be’.
  • ‘The larger the church, the more it is subject to frequent and sudden change… smaller churches tend to have little turnover… the larger the church, the more it loses members because of changes’.

Now the church model selected by the leaders of a local church yields a set of core values which will determine how the church functions, grows and maintains integrity over time.

My conviction is that leaders should select the model that best represents the biblical pattern for the church.
But there is another way of looking at this in that the core values of church life found in the scriptures should lead us to the biblical model. I have expressed some of these core values earlier, things such as, participation, knowing others and being known by others, accountability, being a disciple of Jesus and discipling others, loving relationships, and personal ministry. There are of course other values such as numeric and spiritual growth, and intergenerational family ethos that need to be taken into account.

So, my conclusions are that (a) the biblical church model and values should dictate congregational size, but (b) congregational size will in turn seriously effect values and the integrity of the church model. Put another way, a family/body church model, and the values that flow from and underpin this, cannot be easily or adequately expressed and maintained in a large congregation. Size most certainly does matter.

For those of you who interested in further detail and observations regarding this topic, please click HERE. As always, I appreciate comments and interaction on the articles I post, but please use the comments facility on the Blog, rather than emailing me directly, because in this way others will get to benefit by what you write.

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Congregation size versus ‘church’ size

I define a local church as any local expression of the Body of Christ. It may meet in one building or several buildings, and it may maintain several Sunday services and any number of other gatherings or ministries. What makes it one cohesive local church is (a) one constitution, purpose, and set of values, and (b) one united eldership team. However, when it comes to numeric size, the key gathering is the congregational worship meeting. A local church may consist of 360 members but if these are distributed into, say, 3 congregations of 120 each then, for the purpose of these discussions, I would consider the church as ‘small’. However, I would consider 360 people consistently meeting in one congregation as constituting a ‘large’ church. In terms of the points I am making, there is little value in differentiating between, medium, large, and mega congregations.

Participation/involvement ratios

In a small congregation, people can easily participate in the worship services by praying aloud, reading out pertinent texts, prophesying, ministering to others, giving testimony… and so on. In a large congregation, such involvement is very limited or even restricted to church leaders and pre-approved congregants. In addition, the number of people performing serving functions constitute a smaller percentage of total attendance in large congregations. Let’s say the number of people participating as members of the worship group, preachers, duty elders, greeters, communion facilitators, those taking up the offertory, etc. come to 20 for a congregation of 100 and 30 for a congregation of 400. In the small congregation 20% of the people are serving in these ways but in the large congregation, the percentage is just 7.5% (economies of scale). This is also true for other church gatherings such as Junior Church, Mens and Womens ministries and so on. Another observable phenomenon is that the more paid staff there are, the fewer people volunteer for service.

Group boundary numbers

There are no ‘magic’ barrier numbers, but my observations, and the findings of some church growth researchers, have yielded the following:

  1. Seven to 12 people and no more than 30 in attendance at any one time constitute a fellowship/life/cell group. Jesus had a group of 12 disciples although more than this number followed him as He travelled across Israel. In this kind of group, the key elements/dynamics are intimacy, accountability, nurture, the exercise of spiritual gifts, and the practical application of the message preached in the congregational meetings.
  2. The next boundary number is 120 people at any one service, and this constitutes the ideal congregation. There were about 120 people in the upper room on the Day of Pentecost when the church was born. A minimum number of people for a congregation is about 30 and the maximum number around 160 in any given meeting. The key elements/ dynamics of a congregation are the preaching of the Word of God, each person known and knowing others, pastoral care, high participation, and many people involved in ministries in and through the church.
  3. Somewhere between 120 and 160’ish the dynamics of the meeting change considerably. People are no longer known and they don’t know most of the others in attendance; opportunities for participation and involvement become limited, strictly controlled, and rule-bound; initiative is taken almost exclusively by designated leaders, and both style and tone of the service become front-led and pre-planned.

Perceived advantages of large churches

The larger the church the more immediate influence it can have in a community, the more resources it can muster, and the more people it can attract to its services. Such churches, because of their size and complexity, operate as organisations rather than organisms and require formal structures (usually hierarchical) and highly paid management and specialist staff. In these structures, ‘pastors’ are more chief executive officers than shepherds. The ‘worship group’/band consists of paid professionals, the children’s and youth ministries are highly organised and well resourced, and there are multiple programmes for all ages and genders under the management of paid staff. There is also no doubt that large churches benefit from economies of scale; 40 involved and financially supportive people may be able to sustain a church of 150 but it will only take, say, 60 and not 80 to sustain a church of 300 people. Yet another perceived advantage is the belief that a church can be large yet still foster the core values that are evidenced in the biblical model of church. I think that this is wishful thinking and experience will surely prove this contention wrong. Fortunately, there are countless big churches to use as case studies and diligent research and accurate observation over time will, I am convinced, yield solid evidence.

Attractional versus incarnationalLarge vs small church

Large churches grow even bigger by attracting people to their campuses and incorporating them into their structures, mainly through elegant facilities, programmes, populist preaching, and high-quality music. Incarnational churches aim to ‘incarnate’ the life of Christ, the Body of Christ, in their area of influence and they grow numerically through one-on-one disciple making and planting other churches much like themselves – just as families do when the children grow up and go off to start families of their own.

Leadership dynamics

Small churches can (and I believe should) be governed by a plurality of Elders (an eldership team) while in large churches single leaders or small executive groups usually govern the church. Large churches normally require the services of a Chief Executive Officer, sometimes called an Executive Pastor or Senior Pastor. The ascription ‘pastor’ is misleading in such circumstances because the role is executive management rather than pastoral care. Small churches can function very effectively without titles and without executive managers, and elders can assume portfolio responsibilities and can equip and release deacons to implement policies and respond to needs. The larger the church the more its leadership will be compelled to operate within a business model, but small church leaders are able to be real pastors to the people.

Numeric growth

Most church leaders believe that we are called to extend the Kingdom of God in our area of influence and that because of this the local church needs to grow numerically. A large church is able to attract and accommodate people more rapidly and consistently than small churches, therefore should we not always aim to have a large church? Well, in my understanding, we are called to make disciples. A disciple is someone who knows Jesus, is growing to be more like Him, and is helping others to do likewise. Can a large church make disciples more effectively than a small church? I don’t think so, and I contend that history and current experience around the world bear this out. However, numeric growth is important and small churches need to work hard and sometimes pay a high price, for ensuring that this happens. But they don’t achieve this numeric growth through seeker-sensitivity, programmes, or compromising other values; they do it through church planting, creating additional congregational services within the existing campus, developing a house church network, or similar strategies. They also recognise that extending the Kingdom of God is most effectively done through inspiring believers to witness to their relationship with Jesus and, within this each-one-reach-one-and teach-one context, to help seekers to encounter Jesus and receive the rebirth of their spirits. This Jesus-taught strategy does not always grow the local church, but it does extend the Kingdom of God in a wonderfully relational manner, and surely the Holy Spirit will draw all reached in this way to some or other local church family.

Cost implications

Large churches cost a lot of money. A small church can function with a home, a hall, or even a commercial office as its meeting place. A large church, on the other hand, requires substantial accommodation which invariably means that the members need to purchase an existing church building or build a new one. The capital investment for this is huge and almost always entails a substantial loan. The negative effect of this is that the current members enjoy the current use of the facilities but future members have to pay for it. In my opinion, we should be leaving a legacy not a debt. Another implication is that the leadership are compelled to focus on fundraising from the congregants and this can take the focus off Jesus and His Gospel. However, a positive implication, from a worldly perspective, is that the church acquires a valuable asset and pays for it over time with depreciated currency. But large churches also need a lot of monthly income to survive. Staff costs are huge and the facilities themselves require insurance, maintenance, and constant refurbishment. Small churches do not require massive cash flows in order to thrive.

Size MattersCritical mass

Youth ministries seem to need a big crowd to thrive. Young people like multiple social opportunities and a crowd big enough for them to blend in unnoticed. Small churches just cannot usually create large youth groups unless they join forces with other churches in the area. The critical mass needed for a powerful praise service is also quite high and, once again, small churches are disadvantaged unless they can periodically hire a large facility and bring a number of congregations together for a combined service.

Present and future trends

I sometimes hear that if church leaders want to be up-to-date and meaningful in today’s world then they need to be part of big or even mega churches. Big churches have been around for a very long time and even mega churches are not a new innovation. Big does not equate to up-to-date any more than small equates to out-of-date. Interestingly, there is some evidence that the so-called Millennial generation are seeking relationships rather than programmes and depth rather than superficiality, and small churches are best able to meet these needs. The contention is that small churches will once again be on the cutting edge of church growth.

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About Me

My name is Christopher Peppler and I was born in Cape Town, South Africa in 1947. While working in the financial sector I achieved a number of business qualifications from the Institute of Bankers, Damelin Management School, and The University of the Witwatersrand Business School. After over 20 years as a banker, I followed God’s calling and joined the ministry full time. After becoming a pastor of what is now a quite considerable church, I  earned an undergraduate theological qualification from the Baptist Theological College of Southern Africa and post-graduate degrees from two United States institutions. I was also awarded the Doctor of Theology in Systematic Theology from the University of Zululand in 2000.

Four years before that I established the South African Theological Seminary (SATS), which today is represented in over 70 countries and has more than 2 500 active students enrolled with it. I presently play an role supervising Masters and Doctoral students.

I am a passionate champion of the Christocentric or Christ-centred Principle, an approach to biblical interpretation and theological construction that emphasises the centrality of Jesus

I have been happily married to Patricia since the age of 20, have two children, Lance and Karen, a daughter-in-law Tracey, and granddaughters Jessica and Kirsten. I have now retired from both church and seminary leadership and devote my time to writing, discipling, and the classical guitar.

If you would like to read my testimony to Jesus then click HERE.