— 9 —
Does a church's size indicate anything
about its spirituality or success?

Not necessarily. There are excellent churches which have grown to great size. But there is a danger in using largeness as a standard to measure success. Size does not depend as much on spirituality as it may many other factors. There are many smaller churches which uphold the same truths as faithfully as the larger, but have never experienced the same degree of growth.

Most large churches claim that their size is a result of the ability to satisfactorily "minister" to the needs of a broad range of people. If this is so, then it would necessitate a broad range of gifts, talents, programs, and social factors to be represented in a congregation. Although their preaching, teaching, and spiritual fervor may not be any greater than many other smaller churches, they have been able to "multiply" that ministry by training others to use their gifts, and developing a network of personal interaction and care for one another. Many smaller churches have excellent preachers and ministries but may not have developed all the gifts which lend toward this type of growth. This certainly does not make them inferior.

While it is true that there are more large churches today than there were in the past, they still only make up a tiny percentage of the body of Christ. According to Lyle E. Schaller, one of the foremost authorities on church attendance, 90 percent of American churches have an attendance of somewhere below 200. The majority of churches, 55 percent, have an attendance of somewhere less than 100. According to his research, a church that runs 400 or more is in the upper 3% category, and amazingly, only about 1 percent ever attain attendances of more than 700. There are only a few dozen of the so-called "mega churches," which number in the multiple thousands.

Percentile of U.S. Church Attendance

Percent ....... Attendance
30% ----- 0 to 40
25% ----- 50 to 100
20% ----- 100 to 175
12% ----- 175 to 225
10% ----- 225 to 400
02% ----- 400 to 700
01% ----- 700 or more

Keep in mind that if attendance alone were used to measure a church's effectiveness in its community, it would need to be balanced against the population of the community in which it resides. The church of 200 located in a population area of 10,000 has reached 2% of its citizens, while a church that runs 1,000 in a population of 500,000 has reached only one fifth of 1%. In this case, the smaller church would actually be ten times more effective than the larger.

Large numbers obviously indicate that something is being done that is appealing to people. But there are many other things, not especially based on truth or spirituality, which draw crowds. Churches may attract numbers with marketing and promotional skills, sensational entertainment or attractions, a stimulating social environment, or opportunities for participation. Or they may simply offer an appealing message that people want to hear — providing the "scratch" for those with itching ears. "For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers;" (2 Tim. 4:3). Any organization, club or church can grow as long as they "offer something that appeals to people," and there are many ways to do this that have nothing to do with Jesus Christ or Christianity.

Popularity or growing numbers do not necessarily give credence to any religion or teaching, and in fact, can often be the mark of compromise or deception. Islam, for instance, is considered the fastest growing religion in the world, but is a false religion. The Jehovah's Witnesses have been called one of the most rapidly growing religious groups in the United States, increasing from 373,430 members in 1950 to more than 4,701,357 in 1994 — but the JW's are a cult. The Mormons are another church cult which are growing at an overwhelming pace, from 4,936,000 in 1981, to over 9,000,000 in 1995. Some sociologists even classify professional football as the largest of America's religions, drawing the greatest of all Sunday congregations, but the NFL doesn't seek to lead anyone to Heaven.

We must remember that the Christian message of the cross has traditionally been unpopular, even to those quite willing to accept the other more savory aspects of the Gospel (Phil. 3:18-19). From the Bible, we may recall the great popularity of Jesus while he was performing miracles and distributing fish and loaves. But later, fearing reprisal for their identification with Christ, there was far less attraction at the most sacred event in history as Jesus gave his life for our sins on the cross.

If crowds alone were used as the criterion of success, then Hell would prove to be far more successful than Heaven. Jesus made it clear that the way which leads to life is not popular and relatively few will find it. "Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it" (Matt. 7:13-14).

Leadership National Conference, Lyle E. Schaller, August 1991
The Multiple Staff and the Larger Church, Lyle E. Schaller
Christian Research Newsletter, May 1995


This article is from the book, What People Ask About the Church, authored and copyrighted © by Dr. Dale A. Robbins, 1990-2015, and is a publication of Victorious Publications, Grass Valley, CA - Nashville, TN. Unless otherwise stated, all scripture references were taken from The New King James Bible, © Thomas Nelson Inc., 1982. You may download this article for personal use as long as you retain credit to the author. Obtain permission before reproducing copies for any reason, by filling out our simple permission form. Many of our writings are also available as free pdf tri-fold pamphlets, which can be downloaded for reproduction from our Online Catalog. For media reproduction rights, or to obtain quantities of this title in other formats, email us.