Is There An Ideal Church Size?

Tim Brister —  December 14, 2012 — 13 Comments

small churchLast week, David Murray wrote a blogpost entitled, “Church Size: Is 150 the ‘Magic’ Number?” In this rather short article, David makes some rather large assumptions–assumptions I’m afraid that are all-too-often given unwarranted support. I am somewhat a regular reader of David’s blog and had the privilege of sharing a meal with this dear brother (along with Joe Thorn) at T4G this year. Though we have disagreed on things in the past (e.g., sermon delivery), I believe we enjoy a continued appreciation of God’s grace in each other’s lives. The issue of church size and the assumptions that accompany is another one where David and I disagree, and I think it is important enough to give an alternative take with reasons why.

Arguments and Assumptions

David’s main point is that small churches are richer in relationships than large churches. While David offers no biblical grounds for such an argument, he does make the following assumptions that I find problematic:

  1. David asserts that when a church becomes large (in this case larger than 150 which in my opinion is still rather small), they lose the greatest asset of all–rich relationships.  In most Reformed circles, the primary (if not only) structure of the church is the Lord’s Day gathering. If that is the case, then one might be able to understand why David’s assumption is plausible, but to have such a truncated ecclesiology creates even more problems (I will elaborate later).
  2. David contrasts a large church gaining “more respect, more money, and more activity” with small churches having the exceedingly more valuable commodity of relationships. This is (a) wrongfully assuming the motivations of large church leadership and (b) unnecessarily making a contrast between the two. I would happily want a church to grow to have more influence (respect) in the community we are seeking to impact, more money to invest in kingdom initiatives, and more activity in engaging the lost world with the gospel of Jesus Christ. What leader would not want that AND rich, meaningful relationships?  In an effort to advocate for small church size, large church motivations are not charitably characterized–which makes the reader wonder if the small church size really has sufficient merits of its own.
  3. David argues it is hard to create and maintain rich and meaningful fellowship with a church more than 150 people. Again, this goes back to assumption #1, the assumption behind the assumption being that the church size is undergirded by a church structure (church gathered) as the dominant venue/vehicle for community to take place. Relational community can be maintained and cultivated in larger churches when other church structures and venues are available to body life.

The bulk of David’s argument stems from an anecdotal excerpt about the company Gore-Tex’s philosophy to “cap” factories at 150 people. Similarly, David argues, “If this research is true not just for businesses, but for organisations, institutions, and communities everywhere, it should help churches decide what to “cap” it’s numbers at and when to plant churches elsewhere” (emphasis mine). Again, with this kind of reasoning, there’s even more assumptions that come to play. For instance, if a church exceeds the magic number of 150 and decides to plant a church, the assumption is that they have actively and intensively been training and raising up biblically qualified men to lead new churches as elders and deacons (for starters). It also assumes that a significant number of members from the small congregation would be mobilized and missionally prepared to take on the pioneering work of starting a new church. On the other hand, should we “cap” churches because of anecdotal evidence from the business world? Really? The basis for such ecclesiological decisions is no more commendable than the church growth experts who rely upon corporate America to tell us how to grow a church on pragmatism.

Alternative Arguments Regarding Church Size

In no particular order, here are my thoughts regarding the argument and assumptions regarding an ideal church size, especially in regards to a small church versus a large church.

  • The size of the church does not determine the quality of the fellowship nor the richness of the relationships. My best spin on Murray’s argument is this: If your only way of having community with other covenant members is through the church gathered on the Lord’s Day, then your best chance of having rich relationship will be in small church. That makes much more sense to me than simply saying pity the larger churches because they are incapable of (and thereby forfeiting) meaningful community. It is more honest and transparent to say that we are incapable of conceiving an ecclesiology that is not entirely dependent on the church gathered to foster the kind of community God calls for us to enjoy.
  • Big churches can do it very poorly. Small churches can do it very poorly. Simply because your church is 25-50 does not necessarily mean that community is going to happen as a result. Nor it is true that because your church is greater than 150 mean that is not going to happen as a result. As I said on Twitter, the quality of relationships is determined by the quality of disciples we’re making regardless of the size of the church. Most fundamentally, community is a discipleship issue. Secondarily, it is a culture issue (how leaderships fosters this disciple-making community). Finally, it is a structural issue. Of all the church structures, church gathered is the least conducive for maximizing relational community. It is primarily one-dimensional which most of us looking at each others backs. If you have an organizing structure of gospel community followed up by a rhythm of life-on-life expectation of interpersonal engagement, then the church has the structural capacity to grow larger and smaller at the same time, maintaining the integrity of the membership while deepening the relationships beyond what can be afforded in such a small window of time (Sunday morning).  Bottom line, the issue has everything to do with the kind of disciples we are making, not the size of the church that is gathering.
  • David argues, “One of the joys of a smaller congregation is the comfort and relaxation of just knowing everybody. In larger congregations most people remain “strangers” to us, changing the whole nature of the community, making it more uncomfortably formal or unsatisfyingly superficial.”  I find great irony in this argument regarding the “nature of the church.” In the comments of his post, some had the audacity to say that they would leave their church because they no longer knew the names of everyone in the church. If you think that rich relationship consists in knowing the names of every member, then I would argue that is “unsatisfyingly superficial.” Certainly community is more than simply knowing people’s names, and certainly covenant members would have a deeper commitment to the local church than leaving because God has grown it beyond their capacity to memorize everyone’s names. If the quality of your relationships is determined by the size of your church, then the way you view church needs to change. The size of the church has little of anything to do with whether your community is superficial or not, and if the basis of your contentment in community is superficially grounded in the comforts of small-chat competency, then I would encourage you to think beyond the comfort and relaxation of knowing everybody to everybody knowing and participating in the mission of the church.  Shared mission builds community with a depth and richness that few if anything else can.
  • Think about what we are saying when the church we belong to outgrows our personal comforts of knowing everyone’s name. 95% of the 165,000 who comprise my city don’t belong to a church on the most superficial level. We could plant 30 churches of 300 people in each church and still have a city where 90% are lost in darkness, headed to hell. That makes me very uncomfortable, much more uncomfortable than the church growing larger than 150 people and surpassing my personal capacity of knowing everyone. At the end of the day, it is not about me. It is about Jesus and His promise to build His church. To somehow bring in anecdotal research from the business world as the foundation for “capping” a church in light of these eternal realities I find personally breathtaking. If I want to err on the day of judgment, I want it to be bringing too many people into the kingdom than trying to find a cap to keep the blessings of God under the control of my comforts.
  • Which leads me to this next point. So if your church is averaging 40-50 people regularly, and God chooses to sovereignly bless with extraordinary grace and unusual providence with 200 conversions over the next year, what then? You are 100 beyond the magical number of 150. God has blown the cap and given you more new believers than you can learn names. What do you do? Plant a church? How? With what leaders? Who’s gonna go? All the new believers? Who among the established membership (original 40-50) would be willing to leave the (presumably) rich, deep relationships they have known for so long? And if the church is not a big fan of addition, what makes you believe they will be a big fan of multiplication? Simply extracting what seems to be critical mass does not a community or church make. It requires intentionality, vision, mission, and execution from the leadership to build the kind of DNA in the body where reproduction on an an individual (disciple-making disciples), communal (multiply gospel communities), and congregational (churches planting churches) level is expected, cultivated, and celebrated. It requires investing in emerging leadership and properly training biblically qualified men to lead as new elders and deacons. Is the small congregation of 40-50 doing these things? Then sure, plant another church. If not, then simply trying to reduce the size of the church to manage God’s blessings is not only counterproductive to the mission of the church, it is also ministerial malpractice.
  • It may be God’s purpose to have your church to be small. It may not be. But if you have a predisposition that a church of 150 is the magical/ideal size, then you set yourself up in a predicament that finds you at odds with God. It surprised me to see that there was no attempt to justify the kind of thinking with biblical exegesis or even a broad theological vision for biblical ecclesiology. Rather, it is common sense and anecdotal research on best business practices. I did see in the comments of David’s post one person attempt to use the Bible to make this case by saying the catch of 153 fish in John 21:11 was close to 150. I will just say let’s just hope he was making that observation in jest.
  • Regarding biblical basis, I would be interested in hearing how small church advocates deal with the relationship dynamics of Jesus with regard to the three (Peter, James, and John), the twelve (Apostles), the 70 (those he sent out two-by-two), and the 500 (whom he spent 40 days with post-resurrection). From what we have available in God’s Word, it is clear that Jesus had a “richer” relationship with the three than the twelve. We also know the names of the Twelve but don’t know the names of the 70. We know that the 70 were personally appointed by Jesus to join him on mission, but the 500 were encountered at some level by the resurrected Lord during the 40 days when He spoke of the kingdom. And of the small group of 120 people in that Upper Room came a megachurch of 3,000 people (which apparently was not capped). My point is that there are different sizes and dynamics in relationships related to Jesus and His earthly mission, and we should expect the same. I am uncomfortable being in community where everyone knows my name but no one knows my heart. At the same time, I am uncomfortable with being in community where I am considered a product or a project rather than a person and a partner in gospel mission.
  • Regarding the nature of the church, David also argues, “[In larger congregations], Christians can also hide from responsibility and service, because there are always lots of other people who can step up.” I tend to agree with David here, but what about the problems of the small church? Isn’t there a real problem with small churches relying on the pastor to do the work in many cases? Aren’t small churches faced with the same temptation of not giving (financially, because there isn’t much activity needing to be supported), of not serving (because the pastor has got that taken care of), and not having member-relations at a mere formality? And have you wondered why some (not all) large churches became large? Could it be that every member was equipped for works of ministry and empowered to serve in the Spirit’s gifting for the building of the church and conversion of sinners? Could it be that the church is large because members are not shirking their responsibility but doubling down in reproducing themselves in the lives of others? Could it be that they are owning the commands of Christ, in particular the Great Commission, to live with such gospel intentionality that in word and deed Christ is regularly displayed as a vibrant, organic, thriving outpost of the kingdom?

Concluding Thoughts on Church Size

I took a week before responding to David’s blogpost because I wanted to wrestle more with this issue of church size. I think that David and I would agree on more than we realize. But I have a real concern here, especially with those of us in the Reformed camp. As displayed in the comments of his post, I am afraid that folks in my tribe are looking for justification for lack of missional engagement leading to ingrown body life. An ingrown church is not a healthy church. An ingrown church with leaders justifying being ingrown is the blind leading the blind in an unhealthy church. Blogposts which begin with “weep not for us but for you and your family” because you are not a small church like us will only entrench those with this kind of unbiblical thinking and further perpetuate the immobilization of the church.

Few things in recent years have led me to write blogposts of this length. I chose to engage to this level because of my love for the church and desire to see churches on mission making disciples, raising up leaders, and planting churches. I am actually not a fan of very large churches. I agree that churches should be as large as necessary to perpetuate a culture and cycle of reproduction (building-birthing-building-birthing).  At the end of the day, I don’t care if the church is the size of 50, 500, or 5000. What I care about is that every one of these churches is getting their directives from the Word of God and are faithful to the mission entrusted by our Risen Savior, the head of the church.

Is there an ideal church size? No. But there is an ideal Savior who is worthy of having all of his disciples love one another in such a way that we belong to him…and that they should, too.

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  • Michael

    Your article has more assumptions than the article you are answering which you rejected because you think it is based on assumptions. Your response also has a lot of “what if” and even some caricatures of small church life and ministry. All that to say, it reads like you read the original post, just didn’t like it, and started firing off some stuff to answer it and in the process managed to miss the point entirely (as your next to last paragraph makes clear).

    • Hi Michael,

      Thanks for your comment. I did read the original post. I did find points of disagreement (and agreement as I point out in my post). If you think I have made wrong-headed assumptions, lay them out for me. I would like to learn how I missed the point entirely. Thanks.

  • Robert

    Saw this posted on facebook! I unfortunately have to come back to read this later today, but after reading the first paragraph, I’m wondering if maybe David is basing his assumptions on “Dunbar’s Number” (check it out at's_number ). while Dunbar’s number is sociologically/psychologically intriguing, it doesn’t mean that it applies to church size. But, I’m just guessing as to where he’s getting the number 150. Sorry I haven’t read more of your post! I’ll finish it later this afternoon.

  • Eric King

    Two issues I would raise concerning church size- at what point does maintenance of “structure” distract from the sentness of the people. It seems that the larger we allow a church to get before intentionally multiplying, the culture becomes that of a critical mass and comfort of status quo. We turn toward making things more confortable and contextual for ourselves. Second, even in the proximity of the fastest growing churches, there are pockets of lostness not being engaged. As you stated, in the end, the question is, are disciples being made. Much has to be considered in answering this question but to state it as my pastor, Cliff Jordon, does, disciples are those whose lives are being reoriented around Jesus and His mission. So, the question remains are disciples being made, living sent, and engaging those in similar and differing cultures so that the Gospel will be proclaimed to all peoples?

    • Eric,

      Thanks for engaging the article. I think the structure-sentness tension is an important element in this discussion. I believe others have talked in similar terms about missions drift or missional atrophy where mission moves to maintenance seemingly by default. Cultivating a missional ecclesiology is a challenge that I believe every pastor must address in stewarding the Great Commission, that the mission is the posture of the church, not a program in the church, that we exist for the glory of God and the fame of Jesus, not for what the church can do for me and meet my needs. This is why I believe you cannot divorce discipleship from mission. From the beginning, the call of discipleship (follow me) was intrinsically connected to mission (I will make you fishers of men), and in the end the same is true (Great Commission). If there is an expectation for disciples to make disciples, then it stands to reason that a church will have an expectation to grow. A church fully embracing the Great Commission while seeking to cap the size of the community seems to me a a contradiction between vision and mission.

  • I’m with you.
    Acts chp. 2 added the the first church by the thousands.
    Don’t limit God’s power.
    Our vision can be too small, and often is.
    But I believe our vision of what God can do can never be too big.
    Is anything too hard for God?

    One church that I served at had elders who confronted me when I showed too much zeal for winning souls.
    It was a PCA church that thought the ideal number of congregates was 450.
    I said I thought that was funny,…”God said go into ALL the world, so I figured ALL was a nice number to shoot for.”

    God bless,
    Christ Centered Teaching

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  • Darrell

    I attend a church that has gone from 300 to about 2000 in 20 years. The disturbing thing to me is that the structure of the church changed to attract numbers. The vast majority of the people who have come are just church-transfers. Statistically, there is no over-all church growth in America. Sadly, if your church is growing, another church is declining. The 1700 difference in the numbers only reflects how many people attend today. The truth is, there have been probably closer to 10,000 who have come and gone in that same time. They are attending other churches. Many are on their third or fourth church since leaving. My point is, trying to grow a church on transfers isn’t really growing a church. In America, it is pretty much a zero-sum game. If the 1700 growth were 1700 new converts, then I would not be leaving my church. But the whole focus is on entertaining people, not on challenging people and reaching the lost. It is all about pulling in church transfers and being the biggest. When you see a mega-church, it was grown at the cost of all the surrounding churches. So what about size? Size doesn’t matter if a churches growth is from new converts. Otherwise, it is just marketing and entertainment.

  • Matt

    I suspect we’ll look in vain for “ideal church size” in the Bible or in the history of the church. God will, from time-to-time, do very special things in the life of his church which, upon reflection, can be seen to have been a real boon to the Church… or not.

    Clearly, for most churches in sub/exurban environments to plan for a church structure which resembles 18th century England is a mistake just as a minister expecting to oversee his flock with 10-12 pastoral visits in a single day (as Baxter did), will be frustrated before lunch. Just as clearly, however, is the reality that many (not all) church leaders look to business and therapy for insights in how to pastor (efficiency and felt needs) rather than looking to the instruction God puts down in the Scriptures. About “shepherding” for example. The number of pastors who are content to not know their people – by face/name – let alone really know them is, well, staggering when considered biblically and historically.

    My wife and I have four kids. We know them well and I’m sure could do better. Now, it’s possible for me to imagine that I could hire two full-time nannys and some man-help and adopted 10, 15, or 20 kids. I could do it… and even have some vague sense that I was doing “the right thing.” But I wouldn’t know them, shepherd them, etc. in the way I should. No way.

    To shepherd a larger group more takes a proportionately more skilled pastor. When the numbers go from tens, to hundreds, to thousands in the space of several years (or ten, even?), I’m thinking, “Does this pastor really believe he can pull this off?”

    Preaching “well” (‘well’ defined by the ability to draw a crowd…) doesn’t constitute biblical church life. Nor does a church of 50. Not by a long shot.

    But the reigning assumption among evangelicals is like that of Texas: “Bigger is better.” There is an insidious industrialism at work which prides itself on efficiency – including the pastor’s identity as a “vision-caster.”

    Try putting that in Baxter’s mouth.

    • Darrell

      The “bigger is better” mentality is what is killing the church overall in America. To get bigger means to build bigger palaces to attract people, to preach in an un-offensive way, to have professional musicians and singers, and to present a wow factor that is manufactured rather than God-inspired. This by definition, makes the pastor a CEO more than a pastor. A former mega-church pastor once wrote that if it takes more than two weeks to get an appointment with your pastor, then he isn’t really a pastor. He is a CEO. Are you going to get a visit from your mega-pastor when your life is experiencing a trauma? Heck no. Unless you are a really big giver, you will get a phone call or email from a third or fourth stringer.

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  • I think the ideal church size is the number of people a pastor can know, remember, shepherd, and keep up with. So there will be ideal church size for each pastor, but not an objective number.

    The pastor needs to shepherd the sheep entrusted to him. It is dangerous to pastor larger churches for this reason. But the size of the church and ability of the pastor will vary. Personally, I can keep up with people pretty well, and in that regard could handle certain aspects of larger church ministry better than a number of my friends (I speak only of my ability to remember people and what is going on in their lives, I don’t claim to have any other abilities related to large church ministry).

    But it is a good idea to limit size sometimes. If you are able to visit the same church for three months, sit in the same seat, and not know or recognize a single person around you, the church has probably gotten to big.