Small Congregation, Big Potential: Ministry in the Small Membership Church
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Small Congregation, Big Potential: Ministry in the Small Membership Church

by Lyle E. Schaller

There are many questions that leaders of small-membership congregations ask themselves about their church's future. Lyle Schaller suggests that two in particular should rise to the top of the list. First, what's the right size of for a church? Is the small congregation averaging two or three dozen people at worship a legitimate order of God's creation? You bet it


There are many questions that leaders of small-membership congregations ask themselves about their church's future. Lyle Schaller suggests that two in particular should rise to the top of the list. First, what's the right size of for a church? Is the small congregation averaging two or three dozen people at worship a legitimate order of God's creation? You bet it is, says Schaller. Second, should these congregations make their plans on the basis of few resources and fewer options, or should they see themselves as possessed of pools of talent and expanding possibilities? If you are convinced that the former is true, then this book is not for you.

If, however, you are among those who believe that small-membership churches are distinctive places of Christian witness and service, spreading the gospel and living in service to the world in ways that other, larger churches are not, then this book is for you. In it you will find the right questions to ask as you seek to lead a small-membership congregation, and solid, practical guidance for doing so.

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Small Congregation, Big Potential

Ministry in the Small Membership Church

By Lyle E. Schaller

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2003 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-687-03656-1



Jesus declared, "For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them" (Matthew 18:20 RSV). While I am reluctant to quarrel with Scripture, for simple pragmatic reasons, the definition of the small church in this book begins with a larger number. This was decided in spite of the fact that in reporting their worship attendance, scores of American Protestant congregations report an average of one to three. In 1999, for example, seven United Methodist congregations reported an average worship attendance of one, while 22 others reported two as their average worship attendance. (Ten of these 29 churches reported a membership of zero to five.)

For this discussion, however, the operational definition of small begins with congregations reporting a worship attendance of three, four, or five, rather than one or two. In the year 2000, that included 25 Assemblies of God congregations, 49 Episcopal parishes, 40 Southern Baptist churches, 32 PCUSA, 208 United Methodist churches, 8 Disciples of Christ congregations, 5 ELCA parishes, and 3 Presbyterian Church of America congregations.

At the other end of this size spectrum, the largest congregations to be included in this discussion are those averaging 101 to 125 at worship. That is a broad category and includes approximately 25,000 or about the same number that average more than 350 at worship. Every autumn, Southern Baptist churches are asked to report their worship attendance for the last Sunday in September. The reports for 2000 included 2,726 congregations reporting a worship attendance of 101 to 125. That compares with 2,529 that reported an attendance of 51 to 60 (a far narrower size bracket), and the 1,004 congregations reporting an attendance of exactly 40 at Sunday morning worship. (See appendix A for reports from other denominations.)

In other words, the definition of "small church" in this book includes those congregations averaging 125 or fewer at the principal weekend worship service.

How Many Does That Include?

In most of the larger American Protestant denominations that definition includes a thousand or more congregations.(The vast majority of American Protestant denominations, associations, fellowships, and movements include fewer than 1,000 congregations.) Approximately two-thirds of the affiliated congregations report an average worship attendance of 125 or fewer. In those traditions in which the operational policies encourage the emergence of larger congregations, that proportion is smaller; while in those in which the operational policies discourage the emergence of large congregations, the proportion of small churches naturally will he higher.

Our database indicates that out of the estimated 325,000 organized Protestant churches in the United States at the end of 2000, approximately 165,000 averaged 75 or fewer at worship and another 60,000 averaged between 76 and 125 at worship.

Why Choose 125?

Many readers may prefer to define small American Protestant congregations as those averaging 100 or fewer at worship. That is a good round number and easy to defend. One reason to use it is that relatively few congregations averaging less than 100 at worship are served by a full-time and fully credentialed resident pastor, but a substantial number in the 100-125 bracket do enjoy that advantage. One reason to lower that end of the definition to 99 or 100 average worship attendance is a congregation averaging 110 at worship will utilize a different set of criteria in the selfevaluation process than will the very small church averaging 15, 18, or 20 at worship.

One reason to use 125 rather than 100 in this definition is the growing agreement that an average worship attendance of 125 or more is the contemporary minimum to be able to economically afford, to justify in terms of the workload, and to attract, challenge, and retain a full-time and fully credentialed resident pastor.

A better reason is a worship attendance of approximately 125 usually is required to be able to mobilize the resources required to meet the expectations that younger generations bring to church. (See chapter 4.) The expectations people project of a church in the early years of the 21st century are far greater than they were in the 1950s. One consequence is more resources are required to meet those expectations.

Another reason is illustrated by ninth-graders. Where should ninth-graders go to school? They are clearly too big and too mature to be mixed in with seventh- and eighth-graders. They also are too young and too immature to be in the same school with eleventh- and twelfth-graders. (See chapter 12.) The parallel is, where in the classification system do we place these congregations averaging 101 to 125 at worship? One answer is to stop debating the question, assign a separate chapter to them, and move on to another subject.

The 20th-century Context

The last truly comprehensive census of religious congregations in the United States was conducted by the United States Bureau of the Census in 1906. The bureau also conducted a census of religious bodies for 1916, 1926, and 1936, but none of these were as comprehensive as that benchmark survey of 1906 that was published in 1910.

That 1906 census collected data on 212,230 religious congregations, up from the 165,151 counted in 1890. That 1906 total included 195,618 Protestant churches, plus 12,482 Roman Catholic parishes, and 1,709 Jewish congregations. That total of 195,618 represented a 27.8 percent increase from the 153,054 Protestant total of 1890.

How many Christian churches are in the United States today? No one knows. Back in 1906 it was easier to answer that question. The Bureau of the Census relies on reports from 186 religious bodies for nearly all of their data. That census of 1906 counted 1,079 independent or nondenominational Protestant congregations, up from the 155 counted in 1890.

The most comprehensive recent census used data for the year 2000 and was conducted by the Glenmary Research Center. They collected data from 149 religious bodies that together included 268,254 congregations, including 21,791 Catholic parishes, 3,727 Jewish congregations, and 1,705 independent churches. It is worth noting that 55 of the 149 reporting religious bodies include fewer than 100 congregations.

Back in the nineteenth century the vast majority of Christian congregations in America were affiliated with a religious body such as Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Baptist, or Lutheran. One part of the explanation for that pattern was most congregations traced their religious heritage back to western Europe, where denominational affiliations were the norm. A second reason was most of the American Protestant denominations specialized in serving congregations. These services included enlisting and sending Christian missionaries to other parts of the world, providing materials produced by the denominational publishing house, screening and approving candidates for ordination, planting new missions, administering charitable and institutions such as homes, orphanages, and schools, and offering leadership training events.

A third influential force, which has been largely neglected by most church historians, was the railroads. Clergymen were entitled to request a pass or a discount on their railroad passenger ticket. One required qualification was that clergyperson had to be listed on the roster of ordained ministers in the current yearbook for that denomination. No listing meant no clergy pass!

A fourth factor was that network of intradenominational ministerial fellowships. In many denominations they were the gatekeepers to ordination. That denominational affiliation was an important component of a pastor's professional identity. One common consequence was the congregation seeking a pastor chose their favorite candidate. That candidate, however, required this: "If I accept your invitation to become your new pastor, your congregation must agree to join my denomination." Local church histories covering the nineteenth century describe that arrangement. In some cases that meant the congregation switched its denominational affiliation. In others it meant what had been an independent church now carried a denominational affiliation.

The twentieth century brought the creation of thousands of nondenominational Protestant churches in America. Others seceded from their denomination to become independent. More recently the flood of immigrants from the Pacific Rim and Latin America, plus the emergence of thousands of nondenominational congregations created to serve American-born, Caribbean-born, or African-born blacks have combined to increase the number and variety of independent Protestant congregations in America.

The 1960s fed the fires of anti-institutionalism and affirmed the right of individual autonomy. One result is the number of independent Protestant congregations in America has increased at an accelerated pace during the past four decades.

How many Christian congregations are in the United States today? No one knows. Back in 1906 a reasonably accurate count could be derived from an examination of denominational reports. Today those reports tell only part of the story. A reasonable guess is that in 1906 the actual number of independent Protestant churches probably was closer to 2,000 than to the 1,079 reported by that special census. Today that number is probably closer to 50,000, plus an estimated additional 25,000 nondenominational house churches.

This book is based on the assumption that at least 325,000 organized Protestant congregations exist in America today. That represents a 67 percent increase between 1906 and 2000. The population of the United States increased three and a half times during those 94 years.

That total of 325,000 Protestant churches includes all of the ethnic minority and immigrant congregations, but it does not include that uncounted but clearly growing number of lay-led house churches that resemble voluntary fellowships rather than organized churches.

Our database includes worship attendance figures for approximately 160,000 American Protestant congregations. We know that our database greatly underrepresents (1) congregations consisting largely of American-born blacks, (2) immigrant churches, (3) nondenominational or independent churches, and (4) congregations that were born but disappeared within a few years following their birth.

What must be defined as an informed estimate is that approximately 70 percent of those 325,000 Protestant congregations average 125 or fewer at weekend worship. That comes out to approximately 225,000 congregations.

Seven Categories

For this and other discussions we have divided those 325,000 American Protestant congregations into seven categories. The largest group includes an estimated 50,000 congregations that average 25 or fewer at worship. These can be described as fellowships. Approximately 1 out of 6 or 7 American Protestant churches falls into this category.

The next category consists of what we are describing as the norm. The normal and natural size for a worshiping community in American Protestantism is 18 to 40 at worship. (See chapter 3.) We have redefined it here to include all congregations averaging 26 to 50 at worship. That total of 40,000 congregations represents 1 out of 8 Protestant churches in America.

Our largest, and the most inclusive category, includes the estimated 110,000 congregations averaging 51 to 100 at worship. That includes 1 out of 3 Protestant congregations in America.

Our fourth category includes those organized Protestant churches averaging 101 to 125 at worship. That number is estimated to be 25,000, or 1 of 13.

A fifth and extremely broad category includes the estimated 75,000 "midsized" churches averaging between 126 and 350 at worship. A sixth category consists of the 18,000 "large" churches averaging 351 to 800 at worship while the smallest group plays by a different "rulebook." These are the 7,000 congregations averaging more than 800 at worship and are the focus of other resources.

An Interesting Question

The use of average worship attendance as a criterion for describing American Protestant congregations did not begin to be widely used until the 1950s, and most denominations did not include that question in their data banks until the 1960s or later. Therefore we do not have a long historical record in the use of this yardstick. By contrast, thousands of congregations and several denominations do have year-by-year reports on average Sunday school attendance going back to the 1920s or earlier.

An old adage among professionals in the field of evaluation declares, "You count what you believe is important and whatever you count becomes important." Does this recent recognition of the value of counting and reporting the attendance when people gather for the corporate worship of God suggest that in a growing number of religious groups in America worship is now as important as the Sunday school in reviewing congregational life? Or, is this simply a belated recognition that average worship attendance is a more reliable, a more realistic, and a more sensitive yardstick for measuring size than either membership, or financial receipts, or the number of dollars sent to some other religious organization?

One of the consequences of this recent expression in the number of congregations reporting their worship attendance is the emergence of four trends. One is the recent sharp increase in the number of very large congregations reporting an average worship attendance of more than 800. A second is the growing proportion of younger American Protestant churchgoers who choose a very large church. The third is that shrinking number of midsized Protestant churches in the United States. The fourth is the recent increase in the number averaging fewer than 75 at worship. This fourth trend motivated the writing of this book. Together these four trends also introduce the next chapter.



One of the central ways we make sense of experience is by making differences. The world presents itself without inherent order, and our impulse is to place things in piles, count them, and name them. —Lee S. Shulman

Apersuasive argument could be made that one of the most misleading efforts would be to offer a two-day workshop or write a book for leaders in small Protestant congregations. That could be the equivalent of focusing on a category such as "immigrants" or "teenagers" or "men" or "Americans born in the 1970—1982 era" or "women" or "American-born blacks" or "retirees" or "Asians" or "Euro-Americans." Each one is an extremely broad category. Each one includes millions of people. Each one consists of subgroups in which the differences between the subgroups exceed the similarities within that large category.

For example, that age cohort born in the 1970-1992 era includes record numbers of (1) people currently in jail or prison, (2) female college graduates, (3) physically disabled adults, (4) never-married mothers, (5) millionaires, and (6) Americans of Asian ancestry. The cultural differences are far more significant than age as a point of commonality.

Likewise, "small church" really is not a homogeneous category. That new Lutheran mission that held its first public worship service four months ago and currently is averaging 60 at Sunday morning worship is a small church. In 2001, 72 percent of all ELCA parishes were averaging more than 60 at worship. A United Church of Christ congregation founded in 1890 in a small rural community in Ohio that averaged 60 at worship last year—up from 53 10 years ago, but down from its peak of 84 in 1958—also is a small church. The two, however, have little in common. The first is driven by a future orientation. The second is driven by 11 decades of local traditions.

Similarly, that nine-year-old Korean-American congregation in California serves a constituency in which most of the adult males were born in Korea, have earned at least two academic degrees, and enjoy an annual income of more than $60,000. It averages 45 at worship but has little in common with that working-class Haitian congregation in Florida that also averages 45 at worship.

How Many Categories?

If, for discussion purposes, we focus on the estimated 200,000 congregations in American Protestantism that average 100 or fewer at worship, we end up with more than 10 million separate categories after identifying only a dozen primary lines of demarcation.

The first line of demarcation could be the skin color of the majority of the constituents (white, black, brown, yellow, and multicultural). The second is more complicated and divides each of those first five categories by language, ancestry, place (nation) of birth, and place of parents' birth. Multiplying those first five categories of skin color by at least 80 cuts in this second round brings us to 400 categories. Multiply that by only five categories for geographical location of the meeting place (center city, old suburban, new suburban, exurban, and rural), and the table now contains 2,000 cells after only three cuts. Add a fourth round consisting of only three divisions for the dominant age cohort among the adult constituents (born before 1941, born 1941-1960, born 1961-1985), and we have 6,000 cells in the table. Multiply that by four divisions for social-economic-educational class, and we have 24,000 categories. Multiply that by four broad categories for theology (fundamentalist, evangelical, middle-of-the-road, and liberal), and we now have 96,000 cells in the table labeled "Small American Protestant Churches."


Excerpted from Small Congregation, Big Potential by Lyle E. Schaller. Copyright © 2003 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Lyle E. Schaller is the country's leading interpreter of congregational systems and their vitality. He is the author of dozens of books, including From

Geography to Affinity, also published by Abingdon Press. He lives in Naperville, Illinois.

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