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Sizing up the competition

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When it comes to church size, bigger is not always better.

Some small congregations have big-church envy. Their members look longingly at larger churches and think their own congregations are lacking because of their smaller size.

But sociologists of religion are divided about whether small churches must grow to stay vibrant. Size matters, they say, but only insofar as leaders are intentional about addressing the challenges that come with it.

In recent years, sociologists such as Scott Thumma of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research have sharpened their gaze on the megachurch movement. These churches, defined as having 2,000 or more participants each weekend, overwhelmingly describe their worship services as vital and alive. Members also see these mega congregations as embracing innovation, willing to meet new challenges, welcoming change and ready to try new things.

No wonder these megachurches are drawing a larger share of the churchgoing public. While the majority of U.S. churches are small, most worshippers on a given Sunday can be found in larger congregations.

But megachurches are not the answer to every Christian worshipper’s needs. A 2008 study sponsored by Willow Creek Community Church found that numeric growth does not equal spiritual growth. The elaborate church programs megachurches have developed don’t necessarily lead people to grow in their faith, this study discovered.

By comparison, the 2001 U.S. Congregational Life Survey by researchers Cynthia Woolever and Deborah Bruce found that small churches of 100 or so participants did exceptionally well on a set of measures when compared with larger churches.  Not only did worshippers in small churches feel services were particularly meaningful, they also felt good about their spiritual growth there and the degree to which their congregation is reaching out to the community.

“We found that small churches can do just as well as larger churches,” said Woolever. “A large megachurch can put on quite a show, but at a small church you can do things that are more participatory.”

The key for church leaders is recognizing the challenges that size presents. For small churches, the challenge is to create a worship service that is so compelling members want to invite their friends. For megachurches, the challenge is creating a sense of connection and intimacy while steering people to a deeper spiritual discipleship.

“Size does matter because the complexity of the organization shapes what gets done and what gets done well,” said Scott Thumma, the lead investigator of the megachurch study at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. “But size doesn’t matter because all churches have to be intentional about attracting newcomers and assimilating people into the life of the church.”

Mid-sized churches, those with 200 to 400 worshippers on Sundays, may face the biggest organizational challenges of all. These churches can no longer create the same degree of intimacy as in small congregations. But neither can they support the wide range of programs typically offered by the megachurches.

Sociologists point out that not every church can grow up to be a megachurch.  A church in a declining neighborhood may not be able to grow as large as a church in a more desirable location. A sanctuary that can’t be enlarged may limit growth. A clunky Web site may turn off young people.

But none of these limitations means that a small congregation can’t thrive. In many cases, successful small churches are a well-kept secret.

“Because they’re small, they’re under the radar,” said Woolever. “You’re not going to read about them in the newspapers. They just don’t get picked up.”

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