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Thinking Like a Great Small Church (Seminar) – Part 2

August 21, 2014


Last week I introduced the seminar (Part 1) I led at the recent National Association of Free Will Baptists (NAFWB) convention. Today, I will share the next section of the seminar. This is the section that deals with some statistics. Bear in mind that while the original seminar was presented to a group of Free Will Baptist leaders, the principles apply to any church. The footnotes are from the original document. The links were added for this blog post. I hope you find this helpful and encouraging. Please feel free to comment below. I look forward to your response.



The National Association of Free Will Baptists is a denomination primarily made up of small churches. This is an undeniable reality. We certainly have some larger churches, but the truth is most of our churches are small. What constitutes a small church? Who decides what category of church yours is? Obviously, there is no absolute standard. The only church size category that appears to be somewhat standardized is the category of the mega-church. A church is considered a mega-church when it averages 2,000 or more in weekend attendance. This clearly will not apply to our discussion.

Various researchers, statisticians, missiologists, and other experts generally mark the transition from small church to medium-size church when attendance crosses the 200-300 mark. Timothy Keller makes the distinction when a church is larger than 200.[1] A leader in the church growth movement, Gary McIntosh, in his book One Size Doesn’t Fit All, also marks the transition from small to medium church when attendance moves beyond 200.[2] Those are just a couple of examples. A quick internet search will reveal the opinions of experts—and those who pretend to be—from across the spectrum.

For those of us in small church ministry, this can be a little discouraging. We all want our churches to grow, but it seems we will always be trapped in small church territory. In fact, the vast majority of churches will always be small churches. This has been true throughout history and it appears it always will be. Could it possibly be this is by God’s design?

Most churches in the United States are small. How small? According to the National Congregations Study, the average congregation has just 75 regular participants.[3] This number has not changed since at least 1998. How about Free Will Baptist churches? Where do we stack up against the national averages? It is difficult to say with any real accuracy. But we do have some clues.

We don’t know exactly how we compare because we don’t collect good data. We collect local church information mostly at the district or quarterly association level. The data is then compiled and forwarded on to the state association level. The information is then compiled and forwarded to the national association level. By the time the information reaches the national level all that is available is state numbers. The local data is not there. This means we cannot report how many churches fall within certain size ranges. We cannot know how many or our churches are small, medium, or large churches.

Another problem is the rest of the church world collects data on attendance or attendance and membership. We only collect membership information. We all know there is often little resemblance between membership and attendance numbers.

All that said, the most recent numbers tell us the average Free Will Baptist church has a membership of 75.[4] While not relating directly to our discussion today, I do want to share some other information. Let me state clearly something most of us already know. The National Association of Free Will Baptists is shrinking by virtually every measure. I surveyed the church and membership information in the last five editions of the Free Will Baptist Church Directory (2010-2014, reporting information for 2008-2012). In that five year span we lost almost 100 churches, we lost over 15,000 members, and the average Free Will Baptist church membership fell from 78.3 to 74.6. This is not a sustainable trend!

While we cannot know how many Free Will Baptist churches fall within the various size ranges, we do have this information about the larger church world in the United States. The following table was taken from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. According to their statistics, 59% of all Protestant churches in the United States have an attendance of less than 100 people.[5] Small churches are not the exception, they are the norm.

Church Sizes

It is likely these statistics are not new to you. You have heard them—or very similar—many times before. We usually hear these numbers as if they are a problem to be fixed. What if it is not a problem? What if this is God’s design? What if he wants there to be a few really large churches scattered around, a lot of mid-sized churches around the world, and small churches tucked into every nook and cranny of the globe? What if it is his plan? I am not proposing that we become complacent and not try to grow our churches; I am suggesting we become content and quit making church growth the goal.

Some, including researcher Warren Bird, try to make a biblical case for pursuit of mega church status as a goal by referring to Pentecost as “the first mega church”.[6] In my opinion, this is an obvious fallacy. While Acts 2:41 does say that 3,000 people were converted that day, clearly God had no intention of sustaining such a large church. A short time later, Acts 8:1 tells us that a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered. If Bird and others make a case from scripture to justify mega church as the goal, I would make a case from scripture that smaller gatherings of believers scattered around the world is the goal. My aim is to do neither. There is a place and role for churches of all sizes.


[1] Keller, Timothy, Leadership and Church Size Dynamics: How Strategy Changes With Growth, Copyright ©2006 by Timothy Keller, ©2010 by Redeemer City to City. This article first appeared in The Movement Newsletter, and was reprinted in the Spring 2008 edition of Cutting Edge magazine, Vineyard USA. Accessed July 14, 2014.

[2] Accessed July 14, 2014.

[3] American Congregations at the Beginnings of the 21st Century,  Accessed July 14, 2014.

[4] This information is taken from the 2014 Free Will Baptist Yearbook. The numbers are from 2012. The membership average was calculated by dividing the NAFWB membership number of 170,820 by the number of churches, 2,289. The average was actually 74.6, rounded to 75.

[5] Accessed July 14, 2014.

[6] Accessed July 15, 2014. I do not claim to know if he actually considers this a megachurch, but his comments rooting church size directly in Acts 2:41 is certainly a discouragement to those who faithfully labor in the small church context.

Where does your church fit in the size scale? Is your church past of a movement that is shrinking? Do you think some churches are small by God’s design? Is there a role for all church sizes?



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