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What do we know about congregational size?

Question: What do we know about congregational size?

In the United States, most congregations are smaller than 100 people, but most people attend congregations that are large. This points to the fact that many people attend “megachurches,” or churches larger than 2,000 people (see the earlier post on why someone would attend a megachurch by Gerardo Marti). These congregations continue to swell in size, attracting members away from the smaller congregations. What’s interesting, though, is that the churches that have the most members keeps changing. The largest churches can generally maintain their size and structure for 50-60 years, through the stages of growth, development, and then decline. One argument for why this occurs is that successful churches are able to capitalize on cultural waves, and then ride those waves until the cultural forms are no longer effective for church growth and development. This same pattern is seen across denominations. Think back to some of the strong churches in your communities from the 1950s — they are likely not the same congregations hat are large and growing now.

Looking at congregational size as an indicator for other factors, like financial stability, future viability, or other outcomes is often difficult. Size alone can’t predict what impact a change in pastor or changes in the local community will have. Often, people like to imagine a large church is a strong church. But strong by what measure? Community strength comes in a lot of different shapes and sizes. Some religious communities focus on the family-like feeling, enjoying close connections and relationships across the pews. That sort of relationship is hard to cultivate in a large community where you may sit next to a new person every time you attend worship. What is important to consider in issues of congregational strength and vitality is what the congregation’s goals are, and what the congregation is doing to achieve those goals. What is the vision for your church? How closely does that match with the actions your congregation is taking? What steps need to be implemented to align the vision and action more closely?

Ellen Childs
About the Author
Dr. Ellen Childs holds a Ph.D. in sociology from University of Notre Dame. She is Website Director at StudyingCongregations.org