The Story: A new study finds that many American churches are plateaued or declining in attendance. But can we understand growth and decline if we don’t know what size a church should be?

The Background: A new study from Exponential by LifeWay Research found 6 in 10 Protestant churches are plateaued or declining in attendance and more than half saw fewer than 10 people become new Christians in the past 12 months.

According to the study, most congregations have fewer than 100 people attending services each Sunday (57 percent), including 21 percent who average fewer than 50. Around 1 in 10 churches (11 percent) average 250 or more for their worship services. Three in 5 (61 percent) pastors say their churches faced a decline in worship attendance or growth of 5 percent or less in the last three years, while almost half (46 percent) say their giving decreased or stayed the same from 2017 to 2018.

More than 2 in 5 churches (44 percent) only have one or fewer full-time staff members. Close to 9 in 10 pastors (87 percent) say their church had the same or fewer number of full-time staff in 2018 as they had in 2017, including 7 percent who cut staff.

In 2018, few churches added new multi-site campuses (3 percent) or were involved in some form of planting a new church (32 percent). Sixty-eight percent say they had no involvement in church planting. Around 1 in 10 (12 percent) say they were directly or substantially involved in opening a new church in 2018, including 7 percent who were a primary financial sponsor or provided ongoing financial support to a church plant.

What It Means: There is something peculiar about the way we focus on numbers within the church. For instance, if we say a church has “grown” or “declined” the automatic assumption is that the congregation has gained or lost members or attenders. While there is nothing inherently wrong in using the terms in this way, it reflects our numeric bias. There is no reason, for example, that terms like growth and decline wouldn’t be used as qualitative (e.g., changes in discipleship) rather than quantitative descriptors.

Nevertheless, the numbers reflect people, and because people matter the numbers matter too.

Still, I suspect we could do a better job in thinking about how we think about numbers. For example, before we can understand what it means to say a church has plateaued or declined in attendance, we should be able to answer the question, “What size should a church be?”

For most pastors the answer is “A little bigger than my current congregation.” More people often means more “success” in the form of increased finances, baptisms, conversions, and so on. But as a whole, evangelicals have not given much thought into what would be the optimal size for an average congregation, much less considered what factors should be driving church size. Instead, we allow our unexamined assumptions about church to determine size for us.

To see what I mean, imagine you’re called to plant a new church. How would you decide whether your new church plant should adopt the model of a house church or a multisite church? The choice may appear to be a false dichotomy, since while it might be possible for new congregation to meet in houses, a multisite model would requires a particular combination of leadership, money, and so on, that many congregations do not have—and may never be able to obtain.

Yet considering the question about structure can reveal how churches assume a particular model, which in America is often based on a small-business startup. Almost every church plant I’ve encountered (including my own) is based on an entrepreneurial model where a visionary leader (a church planter) recruits a team of like-minded staffers and members to help raise funding, develop and promote core functions (such as the worship service), and “launch” the branded product (the new church plant) into a specific geographical “market” (usually an area considered unchurched or underchurched). Often, other congregations outside the local area serve as “investors” that help provide financing until the church plant can be self-sustaining.

Embedded in this model is the assumption that local congregations should start (relatively) small and, if possible, grow into larger organizational structures, such as megachurch or a multisite church, after they’ve established themselves. Where does this idea come from? Why have we not developed a model in which churches are planted as multisite or megachurches? Rather than distributing resources broadly to a smaller number of small, individual church plants, why don’t we pool our funding and talent for large-scale church plants?

My point is not to critique the current church-planting model—which I believe has been helpful—but to force us to realize there are numerous unexamined assumptions and preferences that may have more to do with the size of churches that we realize.

For example, it’s no secret that many churches are planted because young men have the noble desire to preach on a regular schedule. Rather than being the fourth associate pastor on staff who gets to preach once a year, they want to be the one to lead from the pulpit. How much could motives like a desire to preach be affecting the ultimate size of our congregations? And how much should they drive our thinking?

If every year God is calling thousands of young men to be both preachers and pastors, then we might expect the number of congregations to be large while the average congregation size to remain small. But if we start with the assumption that most churches should be large (or at least larger), then we have to give serious consideration to the question of what number of preachers are needed to pastor faithful churches.

And this is but one of hundreds of unexamined factors that could be influencing the sizes of churches in America.

In the children’s story The Three Bears, a little girl named Goldilocks tastes three different bowls of porridge and finds that she prefers porridge that is neither too hot nor too cold, but has just the right temperature. The term Goldilocks principle is an analogy used to understand the concept of “just the right amount” in a wide range of disciplines, including economics and engineering. It’s a useful concept that could be helpful in understanding what would be the “right size” for our churches.

But before we can know if our churches are too small, too big, or just right, we should give more thought to whether our congregation size is being determined by biases and preferences that need to be reconsidered.