Big Church, Small Church

I was sitting in our family minivan at a stoplight a while back, when one of those over-sized SUVs pulled up beside us.  A minivan, despite its moniker, is not a small vehicle, but beside the Ford Excursion (or was it an Expedition, or an Excavation, or what?), I felt like I was in a Radio Flyer red wagon.  Unless the driver was on her way to invade Guatemala, I can’t imagine a need for such an extra-large vehicle.  Then just this past week, I was out for a walk when a neighbor pulled into his driveway in a smart car.  The thing is micro-sized.  I’m pretty sure he had to have an extra knee joint implanted in order to be able to fold his 6’ 2” frame into the tiny coupe.  I’m still not sure how the car can be street legal since it’s not much bigger than a golf cart.

The same thing that’s going on with vehicles seems to be occurring with churches: congregations are simultaneously getting super-sized and micro-sized.

The rise of the mega-church is a commonly known phenomenon that’s now decades old.  But it wasn’t until I was in a workshop with Larry Osbourne a few months ago that I understood the true scale of the movement.  Larry’s church, North Coast Community Church near San Diego, averages 9 to 10 thousand worshipers each week.  He said that on the list of mega-churches that comes out each year (yes, someone compiles such a list), his church has consistently gone further down the list – from being a perennial top ten church when they had 5,000 worshipers, to being #63 on the latest list.  He mentioned that twenty years ago a “mega-church” was a church of 1,500, now it’s closer to 7,500 and that there are thousands of them in the U.S. alone.

Meanwhile, an interesting counter-movement is also well underway.  The number of home churches is exploding.  It’s hard to know the numbers since so many of these congregations fly under the radar, but most of us in church leadership circles recognize that we hear of and see more and more small churches sprouting up all over.

The aim of this article is not to pit big versus small, but to explore why each has an appeal.  I’m sure the lists could be long enough to fill that Excursion, but I’ll keep my lists smart and small.  Here are three reasons big churches and small churches are appealing.

The Big Deal

  1. Large churches often feature excellent teaching/preaching.  This is not always the case (in fact, I’m constantly surprised how large a church can grow with an “okay” preaching pastor), but by and large the larger churches provide worshipers with well-crafted, accessibly-taught, and meaningful preaching.
  2. Large churches often provide worshippers with a high-caliber worship service.  I’m not going to wade into the “worship as entertainment” conversation, but I will just say that a large church can create an experience that is on a level unlike anything a small- or medium-sized church can do.
  3. Many large-church attendees find that being part of a large church provides them a sense of being part of a movement, something larger than themselves.  The Huffington Post had a piece on this just a few weeks ago.

Small Sensation

  1. Small churches provide attendees a strong sense of community, as opposed to the anonymity that can be true of a large church.  There’s no sneaking out of a living room if you don’t like what’s being said.  The level of engagement required to be in a house church is, well, engaging to many.
  2. Small churches can be simple.  The smaller a church, the less complexity there is in terms of administration, finances, decision-making, levels of leadership and such.  And simplicity is alluring to more and more people, especially those who are disenchanted with large organizations and bureaucracies.
  3. Small churches emphasize spiritual growth and application of Christ’s teaching.  Every church has an idea of what it means to “win.”  In most churches, winning is related to numerical growth.  But house churches have to find another metric, and they usually land on personal spiritual growth and application—the church is healthy and doing well if the members are living out the faith in greater and greater ways.

As mentioned earlier, these lists could be much, much longer.  So what do you think?  What’s the appeal of a super-sized church?  What’s alluring about a small church or house church?  I look forward to the conversation.

About Chad Hall

Chad Hall is the Director of Coaching for Western Seminary and also serves as a leadership coach for ministry and corporate clients through his role as Partner with Coach Approach Ministries and iNTERNAL iMPACT.

13 thoughts on “Big Church, Small Church

  1. Good topic, Chad.

    An Urbana missions conference… for most of us from an average church of 300 it was the first time to worship in song with 20,000 believers. That can be a powerful experience–people were impacted with the times of worship, communion and messages.

    It was a big “bang”…a helpful step in the discipleship of many, waking us up from our apathy, giving us a vision for the world.

    Then, for seven years my main fellowship and church was a small home group.

    Small house fellowships can be incredibly intimate and if your definition of real church fellowship is being known by other believers, then you can find it there.

    To me, on a regular basis, the simplicity and participative nature of a house fellowship are extremely attractive.

    I remember seeing a poster with the picture of the back of a man’s head…the caption was, “Isn’t church supposed to be more than this?”

    It was a deep time of growth in faith and relationships.

    Disadvantages of mega-churches…pressure on the spiritual leader…leading to burn out or scandal that go very public [yes, there is a Wikipedia page dedicated to evangelical scandals…a very sad list and when I read it I thought, “what are we doing to our pastors with this kind of a structure?”]

    Disadvantages of small churches…inward stagnation.

    I was at one small church of 60 and I asked someone the names of a couple in the row next to us. “I see them each week but I don’t know their names,” was the reply. What? Week after week with just 60 other people and you still don’t know each other?

    So, size does not guarantee closeness.

    If a church is truly making disciples…that is everything. So we had better start measuring everything by that…wouldn’t that be cool if we started answering the question, “What kind of a church are you a part of?” with “A disciple-making church.”

    Not mega, not mini, not contemporary, not classic, none of that as our distinctive…just this–a lot of disciples come out of that church.

  2. As an adherent of a large church (for this area) of about 4,000, there are interesting pros and cons:
    – programs have lots of resources.
    – great new building
    – excellent child and youth ministry with dedicated staff.
    – professional level worship music and service offerings
    – good bible based preaching to a large demographic
    So what’s not to like, you might ask? Well….
    – preaching is good as far as it goes. It is very carefully controlled to not offend or challenging the larger demographic. For example, love is heard lots but never sin. All about decisions, little about disciples.
    – biblical literacy past basics is not even on the radar.
    – lots of Adult ed but all family values, small group social fellowship and living. No biblical meat at all.
    – continuous special appeals for more money.
    Bottom line – create a great experience, don’t offend the larger demographic and don’t challenge too firmly, only suggest politely.
    Result – lots of people come and go, some financial success and and little Christian depth. Sad but true. Many stay because then can’t find a better alternative so they enjoy the atmosphere.

  3. Good words Brent. Our churches have lost the ability to make disciples. Chad, I think you hit on something in point 3 of small churches. How we measure success is one of the determining factors in what we want in a church and what happens to that church. The story of many Mega churches is they started small. We each have our own taste and multiple opinions, but we all no matter what size must get back to measuring success as it is defined in Scripture and making disciples. I have seen large and small do good and poor in both. It is easy from a small church to pick out the flaws in the large, but I can also clearly see where we do not make disciples. I would ask how well is a particular church equipping its people to make disciples? Is there a something we can pull from Scripture that might help us instead of our personal feelings and attitudes?

    Three good reads on the idea of discipleship. The Lost Art of Disciple Making – Eims, The Dynamics of Personal Follow-Up – Kuhne, and The Master Plan of Evangelism – Coleman

    1. Aaron and Brent,
      Great comments. Both of you remind me that one of the things that has me troubled is that it seems terribly difficult to escape the gravitational pull of consumerism in all this. How I choose the church to attend is an inherently individual and consumer-like choice. When that’s the case, people choose churches that “meet their felt needs” — even if the felt needs are not the true/deep/real needs. So people truly need discipleship, but what they feel they need is an event or to be part of something big or a lesson. The pastor who wants to disciple followers is often hired/fired by a board who wants the church “to grow.”

      1. We just so underestimate the desire and need of believers to be challenged.

        Sure, we all want our needs met, and that consumer attitude affects us all.

        I was watching a great show on Urban Meyer and 2-a-day practices at Ohio State this summer…totally and completely about challenging people to be better. Super tough, exhausting…and the guys are lining up for it.

        They want to kick back and eat chips and watch TV–a need to relax.

        But a deeper need is to become the best athlete they can be, and win a championship.

        So, it is all about which kind of needs we appeal to.

        I feel the same will happen for those who are hungry in churches for the real thing…if it is provided by a real leader.

        I see a wonderful, biblical, church-integrated model at

        — Brent

  4. Being a college student, I have found that many people my age tend (at least in my area) to be attracted more to the house church movement, and I think it is because of the sense of community. We are looking for places where we can grow spiritually and have that accountability, and typically, we will say that worship is more meaningful and personal when it’s just a guitar and then some voices. At the same time though we like big things like conferences. I’m from the south where the Passion Conference is huge, and we enjoy that for a few days. It’s in conferences like that where we see the big-C Church and the movement of God throughout the world.

  5. I guess this is where the cell/celebration model tries to combine the best of both worlds, so on a cell level you have the intimacy, accountability, discipleship & community of a small group and at the gathered celebration you have the BIG worship & teaching (which can then be followed up in the cell). It also means that the combined cells have greater resources in terms of outreach & blessing those around them. Not that any model is fool-proof though. I know my tendancy is to try and find the ‘right’ model and then depend on that rather than making Jesus the centre. He did say “apart from me you can do nothing”…


  6. My experience is that the larger the church, the more there is anonymity, invisible poor, and superficial relationships.

  7. As part of a small church, the elders and I regularly pray that God would accomplish His work through us in ways that cannot be explained as “human accomplishment.” (Work among us in a way that is obvious that none of us can take credit.) Against a backdrop of not having the resources of a larger church, God has been answering. I am currently enjoying a season of ministry that has my heart bursting with joy as this little church does not know they are little. I know that this may not last – but in the meantime I am not about to tell them that we should not be able to do these things…

  8. Thanks Chad,
    I love the metaphor from the onset and connection throughout. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve engaged in a conversation about this we could go out to one of those fine dining Portland cafes. I wonder if something in the comparison between the woman at the well, the invalid being dropped through a roof and the mass feeding of fish and loaves is culturally comparable or not. I go back and forth in my own journey in longing for both small and large. I love very little more than studying on my own, but all my study leads to the reality that we need to share the gospel – “we are more sinful than we’d ever dare believe and more loved than we ever dare hope” (Tim Keller). Maybe it’s the Holy Spirit’s conviction and prompting, or maybe it is guilt.

    Regardless of whether we are in a big or small church, I contend that there must be growth. This is a struggle for me, personally, and it’s sometimes uncomfortable. I was sitting at a church lunch this week and there was this late teenage boy who was clearly out of place (and a different race). I recalled the great song by the Sesame Street gang, “One of these things is not like the other” (don’t we all often feel that way). I gravitated to him and he to me. It was at a big church (1000-2000) yet a small environment at tables. I talked at length with the boy and was able to share as clearly as I could the gospel of Jesus and he wore his longing for something like that on his face. We connected later that week, as he was serving at that church to meet his community service requirements after his stay in jail the week prior. But instead of pressing him towards follow up (point #3 with small churches), I sensed as if I “did my job.”

    Small church or large church, I think most Christ-followers hold a similar experience and viewpoint when it comes to evangelism and discipleship. They are investments. They can’t be help like pulling over to help someone fix their tire. The efforts to see the sanctification process really take hold seem doable and real in a small church environment, but “programmatic” in a mid-large church.

    I find it so easy to criticize while also see how both can be effective. I’ve seen folks grow and solid and God glorified in both. As long as the gospel, evangelism, discipleship are done in worship to God and carried out in community, it’s the body doing the best it can to be the body.

    Maranatha! Then there’ll be a MEGA-church!

  9. I have just graduated from the Melvin Floyd school of Evangelism, and i am looking for a “bible believing and teaching church. I want a church that is VERY active in the community, a church that the community knows that there is soul winning going on in there. and i personally do not believe that will happen in a big mega church.

  10. After serving on staff in the same church in the north for almost 30 years, my husband and I felt the call to be senior pastors. We relocated to a rural town in Louisiana, and have been pastoring here for almost 11 years. The church we came from in Ohio averaged around 90 people when we first started attending, but grew to a congregation of over 2,000 before we relocated. In a large church, the challenge is getting connected with others and forming true friendships. In a smaller church, which in most cases is a “family” church, it is sometimes hard for outsiders to find a welcoming atmosphere because “family” churches can almost be clickish if they’re not careful. The church we came to in Louisiana was and is averaging around 60 people. Knowing the “numbers” are not what’s important to God, I have had to learn to ignore how many people are absent from week-to-week, which is difficult to do in a small church. Our congregants are very giving and we offer three free community-wide events each year, including an Easter Eggstravaganza, Fall Festival and Free Flea Market that is open to the public. These events are used to reach out to those who do not have a church home, and to share the gospel message of Jesus. We just keep planting seed, knowing the principles of sowing and reaping and believing God will receive the increase through all our efforts. On a personal level, the other challenge for me is coming from a highly mult-cultural congregation to a very segregated culture in the south. I miss all the diversity in worship and fellowship.

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