For who has despised the day of small things? ...

Zechariah 4:10

I recently did an interview for a local newspaper, and it was actually quite pleasant. The reporter had good manners, was refreshingly free of the anti-"religious-right" bias that seems to characterize so much of the media, and I was happy to answer all of his questions...well, all except one...

"What is your average Sunday attendance?"

When you say your church attracts a hundred people or less* on a Sunday morning, it just sounds so pathetic, like it’s not a viable ministry, not significant or influential in the community—in short, not successful.

(Thankfully, our church has since grown. Nevertheless, you won't be reading about us in "Charisma" or "Christianity Today" anytime soon!    KH)

The idea of success being measured by size has been relentlessly drilled into us by a society preoccupied with bigness. Mega-grocery stores have put the corner store—and even the supermarket—out of business. Bigger homes, bigger motorcycles, bigger hardware stores, gyms—you name it—bigger is better, and success breeds more success, and bigger gets bigger still.

My father’s generation spoke in terms of the personal touch, the quality of handcrafted items, and of humility, keeping things simple, and the value of understatement (speak softly and carry a big stick). That mindset seems to have been brutally swept to the sidelines like an Amish carriage on a freeway.

The bigger is better philosophy doesn’t necessarily hold true in many areas of life. China is the world’s most populous nation—does that mean it’s the best place to live? The Roman Catholic church is larger than any other—does that make them the most spiritual, the most favored by God?

Size often has very little to do with success or the blessing of God. It could be the result of good marketing, demographics, or just being in the right place at the right time. In fact, one could even make an argument that in order to attract the most people, you’d have to "dumb down" your product, make it more generic, leave out some of the personality, and those things that might offend. Seek the lowest common denominator, so to speak. Cater to people instead of challenging them. One would have to be very careful in such an endeavor if the product was the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

In the Bible, small and large numbers are recorded in the same matter-of-fact manner. Luke, the writer of Acts, mentions three thousand being added to the church in Jerusalem, and twelve men responding to Paul’s ministry in Ephesus without getting excited ("wow, 3000!") or apologetic ("only twelve."). God chose a nation that was few in number to represent Him in the world...

The LORD did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any other people, for you were the least of all peoples; but because the LORD loves you, and because He would keep the oath which He swore to your fathers, the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.

Deuteronomy 7:7-8

If God were into numbers He’d be disappointed with 98% of the churches in the world today. The vast majority are under a hundred; average size (depending on which survey you read) is somewhere between 75 and 89 people. Less than two percent number a thousand or more. In spite of all the hullabaloo about mega-churches, and all the emphasis on church growth, far more people still attend small churches.

Are they being shepherded well? Are their needs being met? Christian Schwarz, a German church analyst, has done enough research to say without qualification that churches cannot be measured by the number of people in attendance on a given Sunday. He outlines eight criteria to measure the effectiveness of a church...

1. Goal-Oriented Leadership

2. Gift-Oriented Teams

3. Passionate Spirituality

4. Functional Structures

5. Inspiring Services

6. Holistic House Groups

7. Needs-Oriented Evangelism

8. Love-Filled Relationships

His research indicates that small churches outperform larger churches in all but one of the above—inspiring worship services. It’s obviously more uplifting to sing along with 5000 people and a professional band than to have fifteen people led by a young man that only knows three chords on his guitar. (Some might argue, by the way, that an effective worship service is not necessarily measured by human skill and emotional impact.) Schwarz says:

One of our most surprising discoveries is that (while there are some notable exceptions) the bigger a church grows, the worse it becomes both in quality and in its capability to reach new people for Christ.

There are, as Schwarz mentioned, small churches that are lifeless, and larger churches that do better than the average. But generally speaking, small churches are far more effective than large churches, especially very large, so-called mega-churches.

I’ve come up with my own list—well, my own observations based on quite a little bit of research of others’ work on the subject—of what makes small churches more effective than larger ones, in spite of having fewer people, staff, facilities, resources and programs...

1. Small Churches Offer Better Fellowship, what one researcher termed "Authentic Relationships." Seeing as the church is primarily a fellowship of believers, this should be near the top of any list of needs that should be met. Admittedly, meaningful relationships are not always a felt need in modern American society—we tend to be rather standoffish with one another—but it is, nevertheless a real need. One couple who recently joined our church testified that they made more friends in the first month here than in nine years at the larger church they previously attended.

2. Small Churches Provide Better Pastoral Care. Obviously, when your pastor doesn’t know your name, the quality of pastoral care suffers. In John chapter ten, Jesus speaks of the true shepherd of the sheep, who calls his sheep by name, whom the sheep follow because he is no stranger. Unfortunately, many people go to churches where nobody knows if they’re present or absent, much less the pastor.

The small church pastor has fewer people to watch over, so he can be more diligent. You can call him at home, instead of trying unsuccessfully to get past a receptionist with a guard dog mentality. You can observe your pastor’s family life, see how he reacts to various social situations around the church—from volleyball games to troublesome parishioners—and decide if this is the sort of man you want to watch over your soul.

Large churches attempt to address the need for pastoral care—and fellowship, for that matter—by organizing small groups, and some have succeeded in getting a significant portion of their people to attend. The average number of mega-church members who connect with a small group, however, is fifteen percent or less (for those who are arithmetically challenged, that leaves 85 or more out of every hundred people in a large church basically unshepherded). Furthermore, the cell group leader doesn’t necessarily have the training, experience or anointing to meet all the needs of the sheep. God ordained pastors for a reason.

3. People are Discipled Better in Smaller Churches, for all the same reasons we’ve already discussed. They have closer, more meaningful relationships, and discipleship is based on relationship. Even Jesus didn’t attempt to disciple thousands of people at once; He had an inner circle of twelve, and possibly seventy others in the next tier. Discipleship is the process of imparting the day-to-day disciplines of the Christian walk, the attitudes, the mindset—things that aren’t easily accomplished without personal contact. Interestingly, small church pastors, according to a George Barna survey, are more likely to buy books and materials about discipleship, while pastors of larger churches buy more leadership books.

4. Relationships Plus Discipleship Equals Accountability. Accountability means someone knows you well enough to feel the liberty to speak into your life. Proverbs 27:17 says, "As iron sharpens iron, So a man sharpens the countenance of his friend." We all need to be accountable to someone outside of ourselves—and often to someone outside of our immediate family, because they can be turned off the path along with us. Accountability means you have a friend or elder who can ask you where you were the past two Sundays, or why you haven’t quit smoking yet. Accountability is mutual: you may be up when your friend is down and can help lift him to where he ought to be (Ecc 4:10).

5. Small Churches Involve a Larger Percentage of People in Ministry. The larger the church, the fewer people actively involved in ministry; it’s a well-established fact that is reinforced by every study undertaken. In churches with less than a hundred people in attendance, 31% are involved in some sort of ministry. In churches that average over a thousand, that figure falls to 17%. Large churches have a tendency to hire outside staff, while smaller churches generally raise up leadership from within the congregation. In a smaller fellowship, people feel as though they have a future in their church, as though their contribution matters. In larger churches the talent pool is so extensive that most people are intimidated, and therefore remain on the sidelines.

6. Small Churches See More People Called into Christian Service. A large percentage of professional Christian workers, including 80% of foreign missionaries, come from small churches. This is an incredible statistic! Again, the reason behind it is no doubt better discipleship and more encouragement to be in ministry.

7. Small Churches See a Greater Spiritual Harvest—They Win More People to the Lord. Christian Schwarz’s data shows that small churches are actually sixteen times more effective in winning people to the Lord! You can theorize as to the whys and wherefores of this phenomenon... large churches have a bigger percentage of nominal Christians hiding in the safety of the crowd, people are not discipled as well, they don’t connect, and therefore aren’t as excited about their church...whatever the reasons, smaller churches once again outperform large ones in the all-important area of winning people to Christ.

God is working mightily in the small churches of our nation today, and instead of feeling insignificant because we’re not doing as well as the mega-churches around us, maybe we should be celebrating how much better than them we’re doing! We small church pastors and members have nothing to be apologetic about. Underscoring the effectiveness of smaller ministries is in no way a matter of "sour grapes." We have nothing to be sour about! It’s high time we small church people quit feeling apologetic and started rejoicing in the fruit that we are bearing. Our profile isn’t as impressive as the larger churches in town, but then again, maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

Finally, let me say that all healthy organisms grow and bear fruit. Small churches should be gradually growing into not-quite-so-small churches, and even into medium size churches. But as we grow, let us not lose the ingredients that have made us so effective.




Christian Schwarz, Healthy Church Development (Carol Stream: ChurchSmart Resources, 1996). Unless otherwise stated, the statistics used come from this book.

Stephen Lim, Smaller Churches Can Do it Better–How To Take Advantage of Your Size (The Enrichment Journal--online version, Springfield, MO).

Small Churches Struggle to Grow Because Of The People They Attract (The Barna Group, September 2, 2003)

Survey Reveals The Books and Authors That Have Most Influenced Pastors (The Barna Group, May 30, 2005)


Copyright © 2005,  Kim Harrington, Masterbuilder Ministries. All rights reserved

Scripture quotations from the New King James Version, unless otherwise noted

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