Is Bigger Really Better? The Statistics actually Say “No”!

by Neil Cole


There are millions of people in smaller congregations across the country who live with a feeling that they are failures because their church isn’t as big as the megaplex congregation down the street. This is sad and should not be the case.

A global survey conducted by Christian Schwartz found that smaller churches consistently scored higher than large churches in seven out of eight qualitative characteristics of a healthy church. A more recent study of churches in America, conducted by Ed Stetzer and Life Way Ministries, revealed that churches of two hundred or less are four times more likely to plant a daughter church than churches of one thousand or more. The research seems to even indicate that the pattern continues—the smaller the size of the church the more fertile they are in planting churches.

It pains me that so many churches and leaders suffer from an inferiority complex when in fact they could very well be more healthy and fruitful than the big-box church down the street.

I am not suggesting that the mega church is something we need to end, I am simply saying that we need other kinds of churches to truly transform our world. I also do not want people in huge churches to think that just because they have more people and more money that they are more blessed by God. The stats tell us that ten smaller churches of 100 people will accomplish much more than one church of 1000.

Christian Schwarz says:

“The growth rate of churches decreased with increasing size. This fact in and of itself came as no great surprise, because in large churches the percentages represent many more people. But when we converted the percentages into raw numbers, we were dumbfounded. Churches in the smallest size category (under 100 in attendance) had won an average of 32 new people over the past five years; churches with 100-200 in worship also won 32; churches between 200-300 average 39 new individuals; churches between 300-400 won 25. So a ‘small’ church wins just as many people for Christ as a ‘large’ one, and what’s more, two churches with 200 in worship on Sunday will win twice as many new people as one church with 400 in attendance.”

Schwarz found that the average growth rate in smaller churches was 13% (over five years), whereas in larger churches it was a mere 3%. A small church in the NCD sample with an average attendance of fifty-one typically converted thirty-two persons in five years; megachurches in the NCD sample averaged 2,856 in attendance but converted only 112 new persons in five years. The same number of persons participating in fifty-six small churches averaging fifty-one in attendance would have produced 1,792 converts in five years.

I know such extrapolations in some ways mean little. I also know that conversions is not the whole picture. My point is that we need to stop seeing smaller churches as less successful. The trend currently is seeing the closing down of smaller churches as larger ones increase in size and number and I think this could be an alarming trend given the actual facts when we measure true influence.

When I mention statistics like these I am often criticized as being a mega church hater, and that is not fair. I am not a hater. I am not a bride-basher because I love the groom too much.

It is hard for me to feel sorry for the mega churches when this information confronts them given that they are so often lifted up as the height of success–often at the expense of the smaller church around the corner. My advice: Get over it. I am not thrashing the mega church here, I am simply saying that smaller churches are necessary, needed, and often more fruitful than we have been led to believe. And they often feel less significant in the shadows of their much larger sister around the corner. Lets look at the truth and accept it for what it is and strive to do whatever it takes to make a difference in this world.

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About Neil Cole

Neil Cole is the founder and executive director of Church Multiplication Associates & CMAResources, which has helped start hundreds of churches in thirty-five states and thirty nations. He is seen by many to be one of the key founders of what is known as the organic or simple-church movement. One of the key training components of this expanding movement is the Organic Church Planter’s Greenhouse – Story 1 and Story 2 Trainings. Read More About Neil Cole At His Author Page

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  • fascinating!
    can you share links to the sources for further reading?

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  • Keith Plummer

    Interesting that some believers charge you with being a hater for posting stats like these. Be prepared to soon be charged with being “megaphobic.”

  • Ben Thorp

    Every big church was a small church once. Presumably it was a small church that saw a lot of new people come in. The debate is not which is better; the big question is how you maintain momentum as you grow. The answer cannot be “stay small” because that’s counter-productive. I don’t think the answer is always “plant a new church”, although that can be a way sometimes.

    • I don’t think the answer is always “plant a new church”

      Why not?

      • Doug

        Amen! It is biblical for churches to reproduce.

      • Steve

        Churches that plant new churches should keep growing themselves. Planting isn’t a guarantee that a church will stay small.

        If the rate of new people coming in exceeds the rate of people going out on planting teams, that gap may cause the church to grow pretty large. This gap may be necessary in order to give time to equip the people in your church to be effective planters. This is especially true if the church is effectively connecting with men and women who don’t yet know Jesus.

        Does that make sense?

  • It makes sense. I like what Ben said. All big churches were once small. The fact that the church is now big means they did something right to attract that many people.

    • Mary Joseph

      Tina…Big does not mean they are doing something right…You can hide your sins in a big place!!!!

      • When I look at pastors like James MacDonald (Harvest Bible Chapel) and Bill Hybels (Willow Creek). They both started in small churches and have attracted many to hear them speak. I guess I meant that those pastors are doing something right to attract all of those listeners. I myself grew up in a small church & the two pastors I named reminded me of my childhood pastor which is the reason I attended their sermons. Big or small it’s what’s in your heart. To each its own. You can hide your sins in a small church too.

  • Mary Joseph

    Church is NOT a Building..it is PEOPLE. I am very thankful we meet in homes. I wouldnt want to go back to being in the BUILDING that has ONE man and HIS sermon week after week oh my!!!! We multiply the home groups. You cant hide in a home group…the light is bright, but it is also warm and loving. I left a “pyramid church” about 7 years ago…leaving was the best thing that ever happened to me, beside repented and being a part of the Body of Christ.

  • A J M

    What “churches” did NCD study?
    I read and have the book somewhere.
    If I remember correctly none of the eight characteristcs were necessarily derived from Scripture.
    Would someone please list them.?

  • [email protected]

    Greeting from Myanmar I want to work with your Church in Myanmar, our mission is faith mission so that I want to join your ministry because we are the same doctrine,and If your Church or you want to work with us in Myanmar we welcome you from Yangon Myanmar For the Glory of God and tell to day we do praying for you and your Church and as well as your ministries
    thank you, May God bless you and your ministry.
    Ps. Notinthang
    Yangon,myanmar

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  • Could you share links to the two studies? That would be very helpful.

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  • thrufaithalone

    The anonymity that a large church provides must be appealing to many people – and I’m sure there are many more physical aspects that attract people. The biggest problem by far that I have with large churches is that people end up getting “lost” in them; they seem to be more “clique-ish”….it’s more difficult to minister to each other because relationships seem more superficial. I don’t see how anyone in churches such as the one in your photo can really get to know and support each other.

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  • Russ

    In the mega-churches I’ve been to, nobody is interested in knowing you or talking to you. It’s basically a rock concert with a devotion and everyone goes home.

  • What were the 8 qualitative characteristics?

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