Church Growth: Andy Rowell Summarizes the Studies, Part 5 (Being large or small, Being rural)

churchgrowthl.jpgBeing a church of 1000+ attendees or under 50 attendees

Well, I wasn’t expecting this one.

David Olson points out that large (1000+ attendance) and small churches (1-49 attendance) are growing at the fastest rates. “While the larger churches grew according to expectation, the smallest churches actually grew at a faster yearly rate. The churches that declined the most were those with a weekly attendance between 100 and 299.”[9]

Confirming this findings from another angle, Olson reports that in the fourteen diverse denominations he studied, all the denominations that were growing were planting lots of churches; specifically all those denominations planting at least one new church per year for every one hundred existing churches continued to grow.[10]

Mark Chaves affirms the movement of people into large churches.

In every denomination on which we have data, people are increasingly concentrated in the very largest churches, and this is true for small and large denominations, for conservative and liberal denominations, for growing and declining denominations. This trend began rather abruptly in the 1970s, with no sign of tapering off.[11]

[9] David T. Olson, The American Church in Crisis: Groundbreaking Research Based on a National Database of over 200,000 Churches (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 86.

[10] Olson, American Church in Crisis, 146.

[11] Mark Chaves, “All Creatures Great and Small: Megachurches in Context,” Review of Religious Research 47 (2006): 329.

Now, half of all churches have 75 or fewer members — and most aren’t growing at all. Most convert hardly any — just enough to replace their children who leave the church, if that many.

The real lesson here is that church plants grow. If our church isn’t growing, well, God’s call isn’t so much to grow your congregation as to grow the kingdom. Go plant some churches — and then watch as the evidence of what they can do rebounds to your church, changing hearts so that you grow, too.

Big churches grow because they’re big — and have a wide range of services. The only churches with large numbers of singles are big churches — because they have large numbers of singles, and young singles like to hang around with other young singles. Teens and college students like to be with others the same age. Big is very attractive to the young — and therefore very attractive to the parents of the young. And that’s not going to change.

Increasingly, I’m seeing churches merge so they can get big enough to offer the programs that attract people. Good idea; wrong motivation.

You see, God never meant for us to be divided into tiny congregations each offering a slightly different version of the gospel, weekly affirming the members’ preconceptions and unable to grow. He meant for his church to be a single, united, world-changing church. We should merge because we so love each other that anything else is unthinkable.

And when we merge, lots of good things happen. First, we testify to the unifying power of the gospel. Second, we subordinate our selfish ambitions to something bigger and more important. Third, we learn to become a little more tolerant. Bigger churches are more diverse. Fourth, we lose some control. In a small church, one or two families may dominate decision making. In a big church, they lose their influence. Good. Christianity is all about giving up control. Fifth, we gain economies of scale. We only need to pay for one preacher and one youth minister and one light bill. We have more money for missions and service projects. Sixth, we are more attractive — but hopefully we are more attractive because we’ve become better, more Christ-like people.

Being located in rural counties


Olson points out from his research that “Growing churches were more likely to be rural and less likely to be small town, suburban, or urban. While the common assumption is that rural churches are under the most stress, the research supports the opposite.”[12] Thumma and Travis similarly notes that “We are now seeing a rapid rise in the number of churches reaching megachurch proportions that are located in more exurban, formerly rural counties.”[13]

[12] Olson, American Church in Crisis, 132-133.

[13] Scott Thumma and Dave Travis, Beyond Megachurch Myths: What We Can Learn from America’s Largest Churches (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007), 26.

Really. I had no idea.

But it’s a question of definitions. If by “rural” you mean Alabama rural, no, I can’t think of a harder place to grow. After all, in the rural South, the towns are shrinking, or at least not growing. And people attend the same church as their parents and grandparents. And around here, racial divisions are much more acute than in urban areas.

But if by “rural” you mean a rural area that’s becoming urbanized, such as the outskirts of Atlanta, well, of course! I mean, if barns are being torn down to build Best Buy locations, then people are moving in, looking for a new church, and likely to check out the big church that has a great teen program. If you’re not growing in that environment, you have some very serious problems. You need to hire a church growth consultant and get your problems diagnosed and straightened out fast!


18 Responses

  1. Great! The research shows that growth has nothing to do with doctrine. That’s what I’ve been saying all along. Changing doctrine will not fix our growth issues. Our doctrine is not the root cause.

    [taking a break in the middle of a very hectic, but enriching, three weeks of travel]

  2. Great post, I am in “very rural” America and God is definately at work here. The root of growth is Jesus…not our “sectarian” doctrine…


  3. As long as a newly planted church is under 50 in attendance, they feel very much like a small church – and want to grow. The people involved in the planting are likely enthusiastic and committed.

    As the number increases to 75, the church begins to feel more like “a real church” – and two things happen:

    1) The new people are not as interested in planting a church as in just being the kind of church they have always known. Since the new people will have come from various backgrounds, with diverse expectations, the new church has to sort out these different ideas and doctrines.

    2) The church as a whole becomes more inward looking as demands for services for themselves increase. Hence, leadership is distracted from growth activities to maintenance activity.

    For a new church to continue growing, the planters will have to have a strategy to keep from becoming a “political” church where differences are compromised rather than used as personal growth opportunities, as per your posts on the “Moderate Church.”

  4. I’m a little conflicted when I read material like this post. I can’t disagree with it at a substantive level, because, as they say, “it is what it is.”

    But my conflict is whether this is the kind of stuff God wanted us to be concerned about, focused on, etc. I don’t think Jesus instituted an “organized religion.” In fact, more often than not, he was condemning the effects of organized religion.

    “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” James 1:27

    “Love one another, as I have loved you.”

    I do not criticize all the good things that congregations do, but I tend to come down more on the side of individual believers getting over themselves and loving others, the way Jesus loved us.

    I think that would change the world.

  5. I think the growth of small churches has something to do with the sort of people who choose to be part of a small church (assuming there is a choice). In a small church you feel really responsible to the group. You are definitely missed if you are not there, and your service is missed if you do not serve. That kind of environment attracts people who want to make a difference. There are plenty of “unchurched” people who find that kind of environment more attractive.

    Increasingly, I’m seeing churches merge so they can get big enough to offer the programs that attract people. Good idea; wrong motivation.

    Agreed, that’s a pretty self-centered motivation.

    It’s not necessary for congregations to merge in order to reach ‘critical mass’ in groups such as the singles ministry. Multiple congregations can cooperate on singles ministry. We do that with several local congregations for singles and teens, and it works great.

    I don’t think it’s inherently a problem to have multiple smaller churches in an area. There apparently were several in Rome in the first century, and Paul didn’t try to change that. OTOH it’s a problem if those congregations don’t get along well enough to cooperate in meaningful ways.

  6. I don’t see anything wrong with a church that offers programs to attract people so they can hear the gospel. There were mega churches of 3000 converts in the Bible.

  7. Rich,

    You can’t be serious: “nothing to do with doctrine”? Go back and read the list in the first post, especially the last item —

    (14) attractive worship style, senior pastor, and church reputation.

    There are other items in the list where conservative Church of Christ theology interferes with church growth.

  8. Jay,

    Please help me understand. There were 14 points that are indicative of growing churches. Maybe the last one deals with the doctrine of proper church music. Yet, I thought you posted somewhere that your congregation has seen good growth even with acapella music. I believe Richland Hills saw good growth prior to adding instruments. Acapella can be done well. People flock toward quality.

    The gist of the 14 points are the quality of what we do and how well we show our care for others. Doctrine is secondary when it comes to attracting the unchurched.

  9. Rural churches are where the people who were most likely to attend church used to be. The evidence shows that the majority of membership form the churches of Christ exists in churches of communities with populations of 50,000 or less. I personally believe because of research that there is significant opportunity to change this. In fact if the rural and semi suburban churches are not turned around or re-planted American Christianity will see the most significant numerical decline in the History of Christianity because that is where the overwhelming majority of churches exist. The problem in reviving old small churches in rural to semi suburban areas are very complex. In most instances it is better to just let it die out first and then start from scratch.

    There are very specific reasons why it ended up the way it did and it is not for the reasons that most of us would think. First of all rural towns are filled with church quitters and everyone knows each other. Traditional legalistic, dogmatic, empty religion still dominates these rural towns. Leaving the religion of your youth is deadly sin in these towns. Also the existing churches Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran, churches of Christ etcetera usually consider new non-denominational church plantings as a threat to their long time existence even though their present membership is rapidly aging and dying off. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a small traditional church to turn around the statistics show that only one half one percent of churches once they dip below 50 members turn around they are more likely to close down.

    That said, it is important to plant new different churches in these rural towns. These churches must be full of new ideas, simple in intellect as the potential people are most likely people who have already given up on failed traditional theology and liberal American religion. These towns are also filled with new non-Christian immigrants such as the Indians who run the hotels and the middle easterners who run the gas stations so they need to be brushed up on the five major world religions if they hope to make a strong case for Christ with these people. Remember they will be comparing Jesus to Muhammad or Buddha or whatever it is that they already believe. The people planting the church must be willing to have people over to their houses to eat that are non-white middle class. Rural politics and cultures today in America are toxic and depressing. This is where some of the saddest stories of post modern America have taken place. Addictions to meth-amphetamines are highest in rural areas like AR and MO. These rural areas are also least likely to have the human social services (counseling, Psychiatry, etcetera) available to deal with these things. Just some food for thought.

  10. Rich,

    I agree that instrumental music is not essential to church growth. However, having worship that is expressive and free is. My church is a cappella, but we clap, we have a praise team, and we don’t wear coats and ties. We allow our members to raise hands, and we serve communion from the back. We applaud baptisms and announcements of good news. Our preschool children attend a children’s program. And all these practices are deemed sin by some of our sister congregations. Therefore, even if you’re an a cappella church, doctrine can severely inhibit the power and impact of your worship.

    Visitors from other Church of Christ congregations routinely comment on the “freedom” of our worship, meaning (I think) our willingness to express our feelings and just worship without regard to what criticism someone might make in their bulletin.

    And you’ve not even mentioned the last item in point 14: church reputation. Many Churches of Christ have a terrible reputation. If your doctrine drives you to damn the other congregations in town, and to refuse to cooperate in disaster relief, and if you don’t help people in need — pretty soon, you have a bad reputation.

    Obviously, not all Churches of Christ have this problem, but many have a bad reputation in their communities — and largely due to a doctrine that emphasizes right positions over right compassion.

  11. Joe,

    Thanks for a very thought-provoking comment. I’m sure that small town America would be open to less-traditional Christianity, just as is urban America. It’s just less likely to happen because it’s so much riskier for a small town church to make the change — as there’s no vast population from which to draw new members. And church plants do indeed suffer resistance from the older churches.

    Nonetheless, I can see a well-funded plant team doing quite well just by attracting de-churched people who’ve lost interest in their old congregations. Add that to the opportunities among the Hispanic and other ethic groups that have never experienced a multi-ethnic congregation, a rural plant could have a dramatic impact.

  12. Jay,
    These things just come from experience of working with small churches in AR, TX, and MS. The first church I preached for is now closed down. It was in the town of Bartlett TX it was established in 1923 and grew to 300 members by 1955 and closed down in 2006. Here is the thing Bartlett has almost twice the population that it did in 1955 but they are not white middle class they are Hispanic. If a theologically and ethnocentrically similar church to that which closed down was planted there in Bartlett it would meet the same fate probably quicker than the previous one. So before we start planting churches it seems that our best efforts would be in the areas of solving problems of poor theology and breaking the ethnocentric barrier of the white middle class church. Also many small inner city congregations have the same problems as rural congregations. Just a hint language is not the main ethnocentric barrier.
    Here is the issue with IM as a part of a small town plant. The churches of Christ are one of the few who have traditionally left out IM. Many of the people who are church drop outs come from churches where IM was the norm. If you invite them to a new church plant and tell them right off the bat that IM is against NT doctrine you will loose them immediately as they will relegate that theology to the failed theology that led them to leave there previous church. We started a church in Conway AR in 2000 and quickly decided to use IM as most of the non-churched people we were engaging immediately sensed a strong traditional “church of Christ” presence. I will tell you it made a huge difference. People are tired of failed traditional theology and empty religion. In the middle part of the last century if you were going to win your fair share of people from the same Christian pool you had better be able to establish that your forms of church and church governments were the most biblical. Now spiritual seekers don’t care if you can “prove” that you are more doctrinally correct than the congregation down the street they are seeking the deeper issues of who they are, why they are here, what is God like and so on.

  13. Jay,

    I really appreciated your earlier post concerning Alexander Campbell’s strong respect for those with whom he disagreed. This included even those with whom he would not fellowship.

    That’s a great lesson for us all.

  14. Jay,

    A trivial question for you. What does ‘serve communion from the back’ mean? What objections have you heard?

    Sorry for the triteness. I can’t think of anything wrong with serving communion from the back unless that’s a phrase that means something else than I’m thinking.

  15. The traditional means of serving communion is from a table at the front. Men line up and march to the table, blessing is said, emblems distributed, and men make distribution. Process is done x 3.

    We distribute from the back. Men don’t have to dress extra nice. They can sit with their families. No time is spent on marching from back to front. Men are glad to volunteer because you don’t need a chart laying out where guy X standing at spot Y goes to position Z and serves in direction AA. The men can coordinate in the back to make sure no one is missed and go get extra juice if we run out. It’s all less formal.

    The criticism is (a) there’s no table with “Do This In Remembrance of Me” carved on it, (b) the men don’t necessarily were suits and the whole thing is relatively informal, and (c) change?!! The strongest objection is the absence of any real table. The men serving love this approach and the congregation is glad not to have to watch them marching to the front. I think every church should do it this way — unless they do something radically closer to the NT practice, such as taking communion as part of a love feast or in home groups.

  16. Jay,

    Thanks for the info. This certainly sounds fine to me. I guess some people just have a hard time changing anything.

    With our size, we serve from front and back simultaneously to save time.

  17. We also distribute from the back. Works fine for us.

  18. We lower it down from ceiling so no one has to move is that ok?

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