Excellent Article on Small Church vs. Large Church Dynamics

I recently completed a research project at Fuller examining the difference between small church and large church ministry. Honestly, before engaging in that project this had never been something I’d given a ton of thought.

An article by Tim Keller dealing with this subject caught my eye today, and I found it quite insightful.

Here’s an excerpt:

One of the most common reasons for pastoral leadership mistakes is blindness to the significance of church size. Size has an enormous impact on how a church functions. There is a “size culture” that profoundly affects how decisions are made, how relationships flow, how effectiveness is evaluated, and what ministers, staff, and lay leaders do.

We tend to think of the chief differences between churches mainly in denominational or theological terms, but that underestimates the impact of size on how a church operates. The difference between how churches of 100 and 1,000 function may be much greater than the difference between a Presbyterian and a Baptist church of the same size. The staff person who goes from a church of 400 to a church of 2,000 is in many ways making a far greater change than if he or she moved from one denomination to another.

A large church is not simply a bigger version of a small church. The difference in communication, community formation, and decision-making processes are so great that the leadership skills required in each are of almost completely different orders.

And …

Every church has a culture that goes with its size and which must be accepted. Most people tend to prefer a certain size culture, and unfortunately, many give their favorite size culture a moral status and treat other size categories as spiritually and morally inferior. They may insist that the only biblical way to do church is to practice a certain size culture despite the fact that the congregation they attend is much too big or too small to fit that culture.

For example, if some members of a church of 2,000 feel they should be able to get the senior pastor personally on the phone without much difficulty, they are insisting on getting a kind of pastoral care that a church of under 200 provides. Of course the pastor would soon be overwhelmed. Yet the members may insist that if he can’t be reached he is failing his biblical duty to be their shepherd.
Another example: the new senior pastor of a church of 1,500 may insist that virtually all decisions be made by consensus among the whole board and staff. Soon the board is meeting every week for six hours each time! Still the pastor may insist that for staff members to be making their own decisions would mean they are acting unaccountably or failing to build community. To impose a size-culture practice on a church that does not have that size will wreak havoc on it and eventually force the church back into the size with which the practices are compatible.

A further example: New members who have just joined a smaller church after years of attending a much larger one may begin complaining about the lack of professional quality in the church’s ministries and insisting that this shows a lack of spiritual excellence. The real problem, however, is that in the smaller church volunteers do things that in the larger church are done by full-time staff. Similarly, new members of the smaller church might complain that the pastor’s sermons are not as polished and well-researched as they had come to expect in the larger church. While a large-church pastor with multiple staff can afford to put twenty hours a week into sermon preparation, the solo pastor of a smaller church can devote less than half of that time each week.

This means a wise pastor may have to sympathetically confront people who are just not able to handle the church’s size culture—just like many people cannot adapt to life in geographic cultures different from the one they were used to. Some people are organizationally suspicious, often for valid reasons from their experience. Others can’t handle not having the preacher as their pastor. We must suggest to them they are asking for the impossible in a church that size. We must not imply that it would be immaturity on their part to seek a different church, though we should not actively encourage anyone to leave, either.

There’s a lot more to this article as it is 15 pages long, but worth reading. To access the entire thing in a .pdf, click here.

An important question a church leader should think about: which church culture – small or large – would you fit best in as God has gifted you? The dynamics of each are drastically different, and require very different approaches as it pertains to leadership.

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12 thoughts on “Excellent Article on Small Church vs. Large Church Dynamics

  1. Cary says:

    Excellent, and true, observations. I served in leadership at mid-size churches (400-700), at a large church (2,500) and then at a small one (175). The culture shock of those transitions can be a tough one, because organizational expectations are completely different. I had just gotten used to administering a campus ministry of 600 before moving to one of 30, and the article is right, changing sizes can be much more significant than changing denominations.

  2. WesWoodell says:

    Thanks for the comment, Cary. I’ve had a crash-course myself 🙂

  3. Terry Reed says:

    The writer has great insight. I have found that many people think that small churches (the ones I deal with) to be little versions of large congregations instead of recognizing them for the unique bodies they are. All of God’s true churches are important, but different. Thanks for the article!
    Terry Reed
    Small Church Tools

  4. Tulsaoilman says:

    This guy has a lot of good stuff to say. After working in the church I have been in the past 11 years I found this to be the most profound statement:
    “To impose a size-culture practice on a church that does not have that size will wreak havoc on it and eventually force the church back into the size with which the practices are compatible.”

    Sooooo true!

  5. SKH says:

    Our church in the last 15 years has grown from 300 to 800 people. I now see our church making staffing decisions without considering the members. It seems as it has grown in size it has closed its doors to member input. I understand due to size you can not have a meeting for every change, but you can set up informational meetings and invite members to express concerns and ask questions. In essence, be involved in the church. To me we are trending to the big business of “If you don’t like it, find a new church home”. Now I want to move churches after 15 years. I think you can keep communication with the members, especially in this age of technology, but you need to have the desire.

  6. Oyawe says:

    Great work sir, more grace, strenght and wisdom for you in Jesus name.
    Please the download link to the ebook is not working. I really need to read this article, it will be a great blessing. THANKS

  7. Rebecca says:

    I have a question about regarding this.
    Our church just moved to a small building to a sportsplex!
    We only have two staff, but are trying to build our church not for sake of number so but to share the gospel and build our fellowship.
    Does church size culture change as numbers grow? How does a church staff of two encourage changing a small church mentality to a big church mentality?

    • David Phillips says:

      “How does a church staff of two encourage changing a small church mentality to a big church mentality?“ First by not trying to be a “big” church but by focusing on developing super healthy Christians. The best way to do this is to take advantage of the small size to model and live life in front of a few people while asking them questions about their personal spiritual life. Teach them how to do the same with people around them. Deal honestly with their (and your) sins, weaknesses, bad habits and faults. In this way you will build a deep friendship, love and respect. Teach them to do the same with others. Build through integrity and friendship.

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