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Lost in a Crowd?

Lakewood Church in Houston, TX. Photo by Amber Case. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic License available here.

While they’ve been around for a long time, megachurches have grown in popularity and influence. The Leadership Network reports that in Canada there are about 150 churches with weekly worship attendance of 1,000 or more. Together, these congregations draw 300,000 Canadians to worship each week. When we think about flourishing churches, it’s worth asking: are large churches necessarily flourishing churches?

In some ways, yes. Data collected by the Leadership Network suggests that at a time when most churches in Canada struggle to maintain their current size, large churches are growing. Not only that, but large churches are more ethnically diverse than small churches – certainly an indicator of health in a diverse country like Canada. And, large churches offer a wide array of programs and services both to their members and their communities – another indicator of a flourishing congregation.

But in other ways, large churches can fail to flourish. They can struggle shaping and forming disciples. Over a hundred years ago, the German sociologist Georg Simmel made an important point about large versus small organizations. The larger an organization gets, the harder it is to influence people’s behavior and beliefs. In my own research, I confirmed this trend exists in churches: The larger a church gets, the much less likely someone will attend weekly. To put some numbers behind this trend, if you take a person who is a weekly attender at a church with 100 attenders, there’s only a 62% chance this person will be a weekly attender in a church of 10,000. While attendance is only one measure of discipleship, it is a key component. Becoming a disciple requires regular fellowship.

So, why do people attend large churches less frequently? Well, I think it boils down to one basic dynamic: in a big church, your comings and goings aren’t noticed as much as in a smaller church. In a church of several thousand, you probably won’t face the same encouragement (or the same pressures) to attend as in a church of 100. For large congregations, this has some important implications.

To begin with, one implication is that the kinds of people who are attracted to larger congregations might be more reluctant to become full and active participants. People who want a more anonymous environment or feel they don’t have enough time to attend weekly services may in fact gravitate to bigger churches. This means that large churches need to be aware that the kinds of people they attract might need extra encouragement to get involved in the life of the congregation.

Another implication is that large churches are harder places to get involved in. People looking for a place to be involved are less likely to find the connections they need to plug in. So, what can larger churches do to confront this challenges? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Recognize that being large or small isn’t bad or good, it just presents a different set of challenges and opportunities.

  2. Find ways to make the church smaller. Think about creative ways to get newcomers into these smaller spaces.

  3. Train a core group of your people to be fearless agents of hospitality. In a large church, it can be hard to spot newcomers. It’s embarrassing to welcome someone who turns out to be a longtime attender.

Flourishing churches can be big, small and everything in between! But, across the board, flourishing churches are aware of the special opportunities and challenges that their size presents. While common ingredients exist, the recipe for promoting belonging looks different in a megachurch than it does in a small country congregation.

David Eagle, Ph.D., is a Research Associate with the Clergy Health Initiative at Duke Divinity School

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