While considerable attention has been paid in recent years to small churches and megachurches, far less has been given to large churches—those with a minimum average attendance of 350 but not reaching the 2,000 mark often used as the cut-off point for defining a megachurch. However, studies and other research efforts have revealed some interesting and little-known findings about these churches—and church size in general.

“By any measure, most congregations are small” (p. 17), writes Mark Chaves in Congregations in America, in which he describes the findings of the 1998 National Congregations Study, a survey of 1,236 U.S. churches, the majority of them Christian and Jewish. “Fifty-nine percent of U.S. congregations have fewer than one hundred regular participants, counting both adults and children; 71 percent have fewer than one hundred regularly participating adults” (p. 17–18). These are stunning figures, but perhaps even more startling is another statistic Chaves cites: that 10 percent of U.S. congregations—the largest ones—contain half of the nation’s churchgoers1. “Even though there are relatively few large congregations with many members, sizable budgets, and numerous staff, these large congregations contain most of the people involved in organized religion in the United States” (p. 18).

Similar results were obtained by later surveys. “Most congregations are small. But most worshipers are in large congregations” (p. 21), write Cynthia Woolever and Deborah Bruce in A Field Guide to U.S. Congregations, based on the U.S. Congregational Life Survey of more than 300,000 churchgoers from 434 congregations, conducted in 2001.2 “Ten percent of U.S. congregations [the largest ones] draw 50 percent of all worshipers each week. Another 40 percent of congregations have 39 percent of worshipers attending services that week. The remaining 50 percent of all congregations [the smallest ones] have only 11 percent of the total number of worshipers in a given week” (p. 22).

Similarly, the Faith Communities Today (FACT) study, undertaken in 2000 by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford Seminary, found that only 10 percent of U.S. churches have more than 1,000 regularly participating adult members. Half have fewer than 100 participants, and one-fourth have fewer than 503.

Church Growth: The Where and Why
Fifty-one percent of the congregations in the FACT study reported that they had grown in the previous five years, with 34 percent reporting a membership increase of 10 percent or more. Factors contributing to the greatest growth, the Hartford researchers found, included being located in the suburbs (particularly newer ones), offering a variety of social ministries, attention to social justice issues, denominational loyalty, a clear sense of mission, well-organized programs, uplifting worship, spiritual nurture, and inclusion of contemporary worship styles and music—characteristics that describe many large churches.

New suburban communities, Hartford researchers Carl Dudley and David Roozen found, are particularly favorable to the growth of faith communities because they offer the family composition, higher educational and income levels, and the available teenage, male, and young adult populations that are conducive to such growth. According to these researchers, the larger the congregation, the more male participants it has4. In addition, “Newer and larger congregations in growing suburban communities report a higher percentage of active high school youth. The ability to attract teenagers and youth also contributes to membership growth,” they write (p. 21).

Additionally, many large churches tend to very socially conscious, develop strong ministries, are often located on arterial highways or other convenient access routes, offer plenty of parking, and are frequently highly denominational, the researchers found. “They do the tradition and they do it really well. They are not required to be so much innovative as excellent,” says Dudley, faculty emeritus for the Hartford Seminary and the Hartford Institute of Religion Research.

However, Dudley says, “Large churches do not necessarily grow at all. The growth of a large church is typically based on how good a job it has done at providing family-based programming.” Many growing large churches, he says, are located in “feeder suburbs”—suburban areas where there is a match between a church’s ministry and the surrounding population’s needs and desires, causing the community to “feed” members into the church. This heavy reliance on local support sets the large church apart from the megachurch. As Dudley points out, megachurches are often regional institutions, drawing their members from a wide geographical area. Consequently, their growth potential tends to be more independent of the reaction of the people living in the immediate area.

The Perception of Vitality
Dudley and Roozen also found that larger, newer, and growing congregations are more often described by their members as vital and healthy than are other congregations, and that the perception of vitality contributes to continued growth. Older, larger congregations—especially those in the suburbs—report better financial health than other congregations, as well. Directly related to a church’s growth and financial well-being, the FACT study suggests, are clarity of mission and purpose and the strictness of the church’s expectations of its members. Larger congregations, the researchers say, are more likely to be clear about their mission and purpose, and more likely to emphasize personal morality.

Larger congregations are also more likely than others to welcome change, the FACT study indicates, especially if they are Evangelical and located in growing suburban areas or Western states. More recently organized congregations appear to be more willing to change than older congregations, which tend to have more established patterns that appear to make them less able—or more resistant—to making changes.

When it comes to the breadth of program offerings, size makes the most significant difference, the Harvard researchers contend. “While Sunday school, Scripture study, and prayer groups are the most universal programs, other programs for spiritual development seem to require a minimum critical mass of participants, funding, and building space to sustain the activity. Larger congregations, therefore, have the option of developing a much broader range of programs” (p. 44).

The ability to offer a wide array of programs, in turn, affects reports of the church’s vitality. “Congregations with the broadest offerings of programs report greater vitality among their members. For many participants, community outreach is as much an expression of faith as participation in prayer groups, liturgical practice, or doctrinal study. Congregations working for social justice and with a broad array of outreach ministries are more likely to express vitality. Congregational size has the predictable effect on social ministries, with larger congregations generating more programs and speaking to more issues” (p. 47).

Scores on Spiritual Growth and Nurturance
Size alone, however, should not be viewed as a reliable predictor of growth, cautions Deborah Bruce, associate research manager of the Research Services Office of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Like the FACT study, her research with Cynthia Woolever revealed that a church’s commitment to caring for its children and young people through adequate programming is a significant predictor of church growth. So is level of participation. In other words, says Bruce, “the degree to which people are involved in more than just worship”—whether that takes the form of singing in the choir, teaching a Sunday school class, participating in a small group, serving on a committee, or g
etting involved in the church’s outreach programs—is a strong indicator of how likely the church is to grow.

Size may actually be a drawback in some ways. As Woolever and Bruce note in Beyond the Ordinary: 10 Strengths of U.S. Congregation, although worshipers in mid-size and large congregations report being “more satisfied with the spiritual nurture they receive from their congregation” (p. 20) than those attending small congregations (those with average attendance under 100), small church members gave much higher ratings on factors relating to “growing spiritually” than did those attending larger churches.

Perhaps most significantly, small churches received the highest average scores from their members on the following six out of the ten strengths Woolever and Bruce believe are tied to church growth:5 

  • growing spiritually
  • meaningful worship
  • participating in the congregation
  • having a sense of belonging
  • sharing faith
  • empowering leadership

Mid-size congregations had the highest average scores on the following three strengths:

  • caring for children and youth
  • focusing on the community
  • looking to the future

Large congregations received the highest average score on only one strength: welcoming new people. Contrary to what they expected, the authors say their research indicates that congregations with high scores on their Growing Spiritually Index are less likely to be growing numerically. “Unfortunately, congregations that are strong in the area of spiritual growth are rarely strong in welcoming new people, a congregational strength that powerfully predicts growing in numbers” (p. 23). Nevertheless, they caution against viewing growth as the key to determining a congregation’s health and vitality, and warn that “congregations whose members fail to spiritually change and grow” are likely to ultimately see membership declines—and possibly even their own demise.6 

1. Mark Chaves, Congregations in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), 18.
2. Cynthia Woolever and Deborah Bruce, A Field Guide to U.S. Congregations: Who’s Going Where and Why (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002).
3. Carl S. Dudley and David A. Roozen, “Faith Communities Today: A Report on Religion in the United States Today” (Hartford Institute for Religion Research, Hartford Seminary, March 2001).
4. Dudley and Roozen, “Faith Communities Today,” 13.
5. Cynthia Woolever and Deborah Bruce Beyond the Ordinary: 10 Strengths of U.S. Congregations (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 24.
6. Woolever and Bruce, Beyond the Ordinary, 136.